Awakening the spine with Scaravelli yoga

A focus on spinal alignment and being kind to the body defines the gentle, grounding practice of Scaravelli yoga

Scaravelli-inspired yoga

Vanda Scaravelli was in her forties when she first tried yoga. She came to it the way many of us do – a friend suggested that she might enjoy it. Unlike most though, it was BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar, widely considered to be two of the greatest Indian masters of yoga, who gave her an introduction to the practice.

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Under their tuition, yoga became an integral part of her everyday life, and when Iyengar and Desikachar left Europe, she started to develop her own style, practicing yoga until her death at the grand age of 91. Her style of yoga went on to be known all over the world, and is widely popular today.

What is Scaravelli yoga or Scaravelli-inspired yoga?

Vanda was never comfortable in having a style named after her – so the term ‘Scaravelli-inspired’ was given instead by followers of her approach. The main theme of this style of yoga is listening to and working with the body; moving in a way that is free of pulling, pushing and forcing. There are three key principles: the movement and alignment of the spine; a natural, gravitational pull to ground; and maintaining calm, natural breathing.

Vanda’s approach centred on the spine, particularly what she described as its ‘two way lengthening’ – from the waist down to the feet, grounding us, and from the waist up to the top of the head, creating a sense of lightness and freedom. She firmly believed that practicing this elongation on the mat helped movements in everyday life. “When walking in the streets, one can see people heavily following their bodies. Their heads lean forwards, pulled by their necks, on insecure legs, their feet scarcely touching the ground. Quadrupeds elongate their spine with each step. We should do the same while walking or standing,” she writes in her book, Awakening the Spine. “Yoga consists of breaking bad habits and re-educating the spine as to bring back its original suppleness.”

Visualisations of the slow, organic movement of nature are often used within the practice, encouraging students to tune into their natural rhythms. “The roots of a tree are pulled deeply down towards the centre of the earth, while the trunk grows vertically towards the sky, elongating and spreading. This natural process is also present in human beings,” writes Vanda. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means the style is easy, though: the micro-movements and repetition involved can be challenging for the whole body.

One of the best things about this way of moving is that it’s accessible to anyone, as you work within the boundaries of your own body. “It’s a practice without rigid goals and without competition, a world where the body can start to function naturally and happily again. There is no age limit,” says Vanda. It also offers physical benefits to many of us, from those who feel a bit stiff after spending all day sat at a desk to anyone who has mobility issues. “With regular practice, our way of standing is steady and poised, our legs are firmer, and our toes and feet spread out, giving us more stability. Our chest expands, the muscles of the abdomen start to work and the head is lighter on the neck,” Vanda explains.

This offers mental benefits, too: “People feel elated, and it gives them comfort and encouragement to discover that it is possible for them to control and modify their bodies.” Far from a prescriptive set of postures and sequences, Scaravelli-inspired yoga is a framework for regaining familiarity with our own bodies.

For Scaravelli-inspired yoga teacher Helen Noakes, it’s the freedom this style offers which makes it so beneficial. “It has given me permission to explore my own body,” she says. This makes it the perfect foundation for further personalisation, as Helen explains: “I like to add my own interpretations, with mobilisation exercises and strength-building movements.” Read on to find a Scaravelli-inspired yoga exercise to try at home.

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Try this simple Scaravelli-inspired yoga practice at home

This simple Scaravelli-inspired home practice will help you to find a moment of stillness even on the busiest of days.

One of the principles of this style of yoga is finding comfort and joy in stillness. This makes the often-overlooked tadasana (mountain pose) a perfect way to connect with the true spirit of Scaravelli-inspired yoga. Although it may look like you’re simply standing still, there’s actually quite a lot going on here. The pose should feel easy and comfortable for you to hold for some time, yet strong and stable. Vanda suggests that practising this pose can help to correct and ease some spinal problems such as scoliosis, arthritis and lordosis.

  1. Stand with your feet as wide as the outside of your pelvis, keeping them parallel, with your toes pointing straight forward.
  2. Allow the arms to gently settle and relax by your sides. Visualise your arms dropping from deep within your spine.
  3. Visualise grounding by ‘growing’ roots down through your feet, but avoiding collapsing through the spine, keeping your knees soft.
  4. Visualise a thread passing through the centre of your body from the ground up through the crown of your head. Let the thread create lightness in your upper body; a gentle elongation from the waist up.
  5. Feel all the subtle movements emerging; for example, a gentle lengthening at the back of the neck.
  6. Relax into a rhythm of calm breathing; notice and accept any physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that arise, allowing them to simply ‘be’.
  7. Remain in this pose for at least 10 steady breaths.

Vanda Scaravelli on yoga

Here are some of our favourite quotes from Vanda about Scaravelli-inspired yoga:

  • “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.”
  • “Yoga is an effortless dance with breath and gravity.”
  • “Movement is the song of the body.”
  • “To relax is not to collapse, but simply to undo tension.”
  • “Yoga does not just transform the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.”
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Featured image by Unsplash/Madison Lavern.

This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 24. Discover our latest subscription offers or order a back issue.