Vanda Scaravelli (1908-1999) was a humble yogi who was a living testament to dedication to the practice for its physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
She firmly believed that mastering yoga required “infinite time and no ambition”, and taught core tenets of surrendering to gravity, rhythmic movement, listening to your body, and breath awareness.
Yoga for Scaravelli was about awakening the harmony of the body in an egoless and conscious way. Practitioners of Scaravelli-inspired yoga today say that the style gives personal freedom to explore yoga in an non-performative, private way.
This is because the Scaravelli style is about using your own body as your teacher, having breath follow suit of movement, and not following a prescriptive yoga instruction or tradition.
She believed that teaching yoga couldn’t be boiled down to a single method or style, and the most effective way to share her personal experience with yoga was through individualized, hands-on instruction.
In some sense, much like how yoga was taught in ancient guru-to-disciple formats.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- Her Life
- Her Introduction To Yoga
- Her Yoga Style
- Her Yoga Philosophy
Life And Introduction To Yoga
Born into a family that cherished art, music, and intellect, Vanda Scaravelli was immersed in an environment of creativity and achievement from an early age.
Her father, Alberto Passigli, played a pivotal role in establishing both the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Orchestra Stabile, while her mother, Clara Corsi, was one of the first Italian women to earn a university degree.
Growing up, Vanda Scaravelli was surrounded by music, with Il Leccio, her family’s villa, serving as a gathering place for renowned musicians. So, where does yoga come in? Amazingly, Scaravelli only started practicing yoga in her 40s!
Introduction To Yoga
WIth her husband a philosophy professor and herself a concert-level pianist, Vanda Scaravelli was no stranger to hanging out with creative and intellectual types.
One of their friends was an Indian philosopher named Krishnamurti, who dropped by the Scaravelli villa every year.
After her husband passed away suddenly after World War II, Scaravelli regularly spent time in their chalet in Switzerland for the summers. While there, she played host to Krishnamurti when he gave lectures in the area.
The famous yogi B.K.S. Iyengar would visit Krishnamurti, teaching him yoga. By extension, Scaravelli started receiving teaching from the master.
It was through Iyengar’s guidance that Scaravelli found a new way of living in her body, thus starting her continuous exploration of “allegrezza,” which she defined as “the intelligent heart.”
Iyengar, who is widely regarded as one of the most prominent yogis of the 20th century, is known for popularizing Iyengar Yoga worldwide.
Introduction To Pranayama
Krishnamurti also invited Desikachar to the Scaravelli chalet where he taught them about the significance of pranayama or breath awareness and regulation techniques. This became one of the central themes in Vanda Scaravelli’s teaching.
Pranayama is a collection of ancient techniques prescribed in Vedic literature and is also a foundational aspect of the Yoga Sutras.
Developing Her Own Approach
Vanda Scaravelli pursued her studies in breath awareness with Desikachar and asana practice with Iyengar for several years as she developed her own approach to yoga.
Her idea of effortless yoga was shaped by the teachings of two of the most prominent yoga luminaries of her generation.
After beginning her yoga journey in her late 40s, Scaravelli personalized her practice by creating a method that aligned with nature and was focused on rest, continual exploration, and clear awareness.
She later devised her approach to yoga, which emphasized both intelligence and happiness, and began instructing others.
Scaravelli’s yoga instruction is about applying focus toward the breath, gravity and the spine. Her book, Awakening the Spine, is widely regarded as a classic in the field.
Scaravelli stayed fit and active until she passed away at 91, even after fully recovering from a shattered hip injury in her late 80s. Since her death in 1999, many instructors, especially Esther Myers, have continued her teachings.
Yoga Style And Teaching
Although Vanda did not directly expound the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, her yoga is aligned with what the Yoga Sutra describes: a means of calming the fluctuations of the mind.
And ultimately, Vanda’s approach to yoga is aimed at liberating ourselves from habitual patterns and limiting beliefs, which we’ll outline below.
Scaravelli Inspired Yoga
Yoga must not be practiced to control the body: it is the opposite, it must bring freedom to the body, all the freedom it needs.– Vanda Scaravelli
There isn’t a great deal of documented and prescribed practical instruction available from Vanda Scaravelli, as she believed that formalizing her approach and developing her own school would hinder individuals’ discovery of yoga.
Therefore, nowadays there is a popularized practice known as Scaravelli Inspired yoga, which is generally a form of Hatha yoga, curated with the set of qualities that Scaravelli instilled in her own practice.
Surrendering To Gravity And Movement
Vanda Scaravelli created a distinctive method of freeing the spine by blending the anatomical precision of Iyengar Yoga with Desikachar’s emphasis on breath and ease.
Scaravelli emphasized the significance of surrendering to gravity and allowing the bones to drop toward the ground. However, she was aware that this takes time to master, and that it’s important to focus on the process with clarity rather than the goal.
In her teachings, she simplified movement into a handful of essential principles, one of which involved surrendering the lower body to gravity to achieve a sense of lightness that frees the upper body.
According to Scaravelli, the alignment of the spine wasn’t something the practitioner actively pursues but rather a natural outcome of the body coming together in a state of harmony and completeness, facilitated by grounding oneself deeply into the earth.
To summarize, the aim of asana practice is to let gravity do its work and bring the body into a state of rest, which then enables the suppleness of the spine to activate.
The distinctive feature of Scaravelli-inspired yoga, when it comes to surrendering to gravity and feeling movement, is that there are no “methods”. Rather, Scaravelli’s approach emphasizes engaging with personal sensations and being fully attentive to them.
This approach creates an opportunity for natural, harmonious movement to arise spontaneously during the practice of postures or breath awareness.
Body Awareness Foremost
“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.”– Vanda Scaravelli
Scaravelli’s philosophy was rooted in the idea of following our own inner teacher, and her goal was to free yoga practice from the constraints of rigid rules and regulations.
She prompted her students to recognize that, in the end, we ourselves are the best guides for our own practice – all we need to do is listen, and heighten our awareness.
With the endorsement of her own teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, she made adaptations to the techniques and altered some of the positions to suit her own bodily needs (such as shortening the standing poses and changing the hand placement for headstand).
She began to practice in a way that felt appropriate to her and beneficial on a given day. Much like yogi Paul Grilley, she recognized the uniqueness and importance of individual anatomy.
“Yoga is an effortless dance with breath and gravity.”– Vanda Scaravelli
Vanda’s approach to breathing starts with cultivating an awareness of the breath as it is and releasing any unnecessary effort, rather than imposing formal exercises on top of existing patterns of tension.
As tension is reduced, the breath can deepen and grow stronger, allowing the spine to lengthen with each exhalation.
Her core idea is that the breath should spontaneously harmonize with the movement of the body in postures, and this should be a point of awareness.
Not Following A Fixed Technique Or Organization
Her intention was never to establish a distinct “Scaravelli-inspired yoga” tradition; instead, she encouraged her students to explore the practice on their own and cultivate their own unique approach to yoga.
Vanda Scaravelli also expressed reservations about the drawbacks of yoga organizations, believing that imposing a fixed technique would stifle the natural spontaneity of the practice and reduce it to a set of instructions.
She notably warned against the organization of yoga, stating that it should and ‘must not be organized.
The essence of Scaravelli’s yoga style is to cultivate an attitude of doing less, listening to your own body, and feeling more. Her approach has had a profound impact on contemporary yoga, drawing attention to its meditative and healing qualities.
You can get a taste of the kind of yoga she taught and practiced on YouTube, such as this practice, as well as more information about her by searching for ‘Scaravelli-inspired yoga’.
If you’d like to learn more about other yogis, why not check out our other articles: