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The great thing about Catherine is that you can see her class evolve, and that's clearly coming from her self-practice. If you stay with her, you grow with her. Amy McFarling
Inspired by the teaching of Vanda Scaravelli, Scaravelli yoga teacher Catherine Annis
Vanda Scaravelli was born into an artistic, musical and intellectual family. Her father, Alberto Passigli was involved in creating the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino as well as the Orchestra Stabile. Her mother, Clara Corsi, was one of the first women graduates from an Italian university. Her early life was very much a musical one and many world class musicians such as Arturo Toscanini were frequent visitors to the family villa, Il Leccio.
Vanda Scaravelli was a concert standard pianist herself, and maintained her involvement in music throughout her life.
She married Luigi Scaravelli, a Professor of Philosophy, with whom she had two children. Tragically, Luigi died suddenly, shortly after World War II. It was around this time that she was introduced to BKS Iyengar by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Iyengar taught daily classes to Krishnamurti, whom Scaravelli had known earlier in life through her father. Thus she took up yoga in her late 40s.
Some years later, Krishnamurti invited Desikachar to the Scaravelli’s Chalet Tannegg in Gstaad, where he taught them about the importance of the breath (pranayama), which became one of the principle themes in Vanda Scaravelli’s teaching. After this, Vanda Scaravelli continued to study with Iyengar and Desikachar for some years as she developed her approach towards the breath, gravity and the spine.
“The pull of gravity under our feet makes it possible for us to extend the upper part of the spine, and this extension allows us also to release between the vertebrae. Gravity is like a magnet attracting us to the earth, but this attraction is not limited to pulling us down, it also allows us to stretch in the opposite direction towards the sky”.
Vanda Scaravelli spoke often of the importance of surrendering to gravity and dropping the bones towards the earth, and it can take real time (sometimes several years!) and persistence to experience this sense of softening and releasing with real clarity. As Vanda realised, the body needs patience: “to absorb the teaching requires infinite time and no ambition”.
One of Vanda Scaravelli’s great gifts to our yoga practice was freedom. She gave us permission to follow our own inner teacher, liberating yoga practice from the restriction of rules and traditions. She encouraged students to understand that, ultimately, we are our own best teachers – all we have to do is listen deeply and increase our awareness. “Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose. Do not look at your body like a stranger, but adopt a friendly approach towards it. Watch it, listen to it, observe its needs, its requests, and even have fun. To be sensitive is to be alive.“
Great friends with the philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Vanda Scaravelli shared his ideas about the dangers of organisations, concerned that creating a fixed technique would kill the spontaneity of the practice and reduce it to a series of instructions. “Be careful, very careful about organisations. Yoga cannot be organised, must not be organised.” She never wanted to develop a school of “Scaravelli inspired yoga“, rather she encouraged her students to research the work for themselves, and to develop their own individual approach to the yoga. With the blessing of her own teacher, BKS Iyengar, she adapted techniques, and altered some of the positions so that they became more helpful to her (shortening the standing positions, changing the orientation of the hands for headstand), and simply began to practice in a way that made sense to her, and that was helpful on that day, with that particular breath.
When we practice, we have to approach each moment as if it is completely new, something never previously experienced. There is a tendency to step onto the yoga mat with expectations that today will feel like yesterday, that this or that position was easy then, and so it will be today. However, a regular practice will reveal subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) differences and nuances. Each day, each breath, is fresh and new. Keeping our minds open, allowing ourselves to feel everything as if for the first time, will allow us time to deepen our awareness, to notice shifts and to find new ways of moving with ease and fluidity. It helps, too, to keep our practice alive, vital and inspiring.
“Yoga must not be practised to control the body:
it is the opposite, it must bring freedom to the body, all the freedom it needs.”
In many classes, teachers tell students what to do – where to put a hand or a foot, or when to breathe. It’s clear from Vanda’s students and her book, however, that Vanda Scaravelli’s legacy is not what to do, but how to listen to ourselves, so that we too can practice yoga in a way that makes sense personally, in our own bodies and minds. This freedom liberates us from trying to attain an ideal, and it ultimately allows us to create our own personal yoga practice, and helps us to get in touch with our own true selves.
This may sound a little trite, but the point of yoga practice has always been to help us understand ourselves, so that we can become more authentic, fulfilled and, ultimately, happier people.
“Understanding leads to independence and to freedom.”
Awakening the Spine: Yoga for Health, Vitality and Energy (Paperback)
B.K.S.Iyengar (forward), Vanda Scaravelli (Author)
A long awaited reprint of this classical work revised by Vanda’s daughter and based on extensive notes left by the author allowing the book to be published for the first time as Vanda intended. Even if you have the first edition, it’s still worth investing in this one to see how Vanda’s ideas subtly changed. Superbly illustrated with iconic pictures of Vanda as well as inspiring photographs and images to set the tone. A book to treasure.
All photos of Vanda Scaravelli are with kind permission of Pinter & Martin, publishers of
“Awakening the Spine: Yoga for Health, Vitality and Energy”