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Book Review: Awakening The Spine by Vanda Scaravelli

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I had three reasons for placing an order for ‘Awakening The Spine’ by Vanda Scaravelli. Firstly, the little I already knew about Vanda Scaravelli fascinated me and I was keen to find out more. Secondly, I’d met some really interesting yoga teachers like Charlotte Preston and Marc Acquaviva who were big Scaravelli enthusiasts. Finally, I’ve become increasingly aware of lower back issues and the title ‘Awakening The Spine’ seemed to promise some much-needed release and relief.

I have to admit that the front and back covers could have put me off making my purchase. They just seem a little dated and don’t grab my attention. I can understand why though. These images of Vanda Scaravelli herself are dated by today’s standards, as she died aged 91 in 1999. Published in 1991, this is not a modern yoga text, but it is one of yoga’s all-time classics.

Vanda Scaravelli was a remarkable woman. Although she came to yoga later in life, her practice (over 50 years!) and teaching have made a profound impact on Hatha yoga. Born the daughter of artistic Italian parents, Vanda Scaravelli was accustomed throughout her life to meeting creative artists and intellectuals. She got to know the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti when he stayed annually at the Scaravellis’ villa and when her husband died suddenly, she hosted Krishnamurti during his lectures at her chalet in Switzerland.  He introduced Scaravelli, then in her 40s, to his yoga teacher BKS Iyengar. She learned breath awareness from TKV Desikachar and went on to formulate her own approach to yoga, which is still practised today.

What a life!

Vanda Scaravelli developed her own style of yoga inspired by her renowned teachers and guided by her own innate sense of the body’s natural rhythms and patterns of movement. It’s a gentle practice that suits all bodies, particularly popular with those coming to yoga later in life. Scaravelli-inspired yoga focuses on working with gravity, dropping the bones towards the earth and extending the spine upwards. It takes much patience and persistent practise and a Scaravelli-inspired yoga teacher will encourage you to take your time, often giving only a few poses in a session. It’s all about exploring the experience for yourself, taking responsibility for your own body and freeing the body, particularly the spine, to be light and flexible.

Vanda Scaravelli liked to use vivid metaphors and visualisations to capture the imagination of her students. ‘Awakening the Spine’ is packed with many of these beautiful word pictures, supported by visual images from around the world. ‘Awakening the Spine’ is Scaravelli’s only work and is therefore an invaluable record of her teaching and approach. In his Forward to this work, BKS Iyengar describes Vanda Scaravelli as ‘a versatile personality, rare to find in this world’ and her book as ‘an interesting basic treatise on the spine.’

If the functions of the spinal column are maintained in a sound state of motion and action through yogic discipline, the ambrosia of life’s energy flows like a vibrant river in the body, stirring one to lead a worthy and honourable life.  BKS Iyengar, India, 2011

It seems as if Vanda Scaravelli was really on to something and I couldn’t wait to find out more!

This second edition, published in 2011, reflects Vanda Scaravelli’s own evolution, as her daughter Paola Scaravelli Cohen has added in all the amendments and improvements Scaravelli made to the book from the time it was first published to the time of her death. Vanda’s thoughts on yoga and its practice never remained static.

As I dive in to this beautiful work, I soon lose myself in the content. Scaravelli’s easy style makes it seem as if she is speaking directly to me, and the truths that she reveals resound with authenticity. The photos and images support the text in each short section perfectly and I read on and on, unable to put the book down. There’s a natural, humbling, inspirational beauty that I find compelling.

Just listen to these words from THE SONG OF THE BODY, illustrated by Vanda Scaravelli in an awesome backbend, mirrored by the breaking of a wave….

There is a way of doing yoga poses (asanas) without the slightest effort. Movement is the song of the body….We sing when we are happy and the body goes with it like waves in the sea.  from ‘Awakening the Spine’, page 26 

In Part 1, THE STORY OF STORIES, Vanda Scaravelli draws inspiration from the natural world and from the experiences and traditions of different tribes and cultures. In Part 2, THE ASANAS, she takes a few of yoga’s many poses, using them to illustrate ‘the underlying principle of the movement of the spine’. In Part 3, BREATHING, she introduces breathing exercises. Whilst this section is short and at the end of the book, it is not to be overlooked, for as Scaravelli herself asserts, ‘Breathing is the essence of yoga.’

I have a feeling that I will be dipping into this book again and again for a very long time. Whenever I lose sight of the beauty of the breath and the practice, I know where to look for inspiration. As for awakening my spine, well I imagine that that will be a journey, a process, but I’m grateful to Vanda Scaravelli for giving me a glimpse of the transformation that is possible.

Breathing is like the constant lapping of waves onto the shore. The wave comes inhaling. The wave goes exhaling…

The sea in its immensity remains untouched by the pulsating of its waves. You are. Let nothing disturb this incommensurable quietness.  from ‘Awakening the Spine’, page 180

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