Recently a student came to me concerned about her yoga practice. It was at the end of my annual retreat, during which I’d focused on teaching the gentle, gradual unfolding yoga inspired by the work of Vanda Scaravelli. My student confided that the experience had made her rethink her approach to yoga. She’d increasingly found her regular (strong, dynamic) practice a struggle: “My body just doesn’t like working that hard. I used to think that I just needed to practice more to improve, but I already practice 6 days a week, and now I’m beginning to wonder whether I just need to slow down and change the way I’m working altogether”.
Scaravelli inspired yoga, as she had discovered, is not about quantity of work, it’s about the quality. When we do less, we learn to feel more, and our bodies reap the benefits as they soften and yield, becoming more supple and elastic. In a typical class, we work in simple positions, examining each one deeply, carefully observing how it affects us. As we slow down and take our time, the body gradually lets go and releases, inviting us to move more deeply in the pose, unfolding until the movement becomes light, spacious and ultimately, easy.
The key to Scaravelli’s style is in understanding that we cannot force a release; we can only invite it. As Vanda herself explained in her book, Awakening the Spine: “You have to learn how to listen to your body, going with it and not against it, avoiding all effort or strain. You will be amazed to discover that, if you are kind to your body, it will respond in an incredible way.” More people are beginning to gravitate towards this approach, as they realise the benefits of slowing down, and giving the body time to respond. With less effort, there is less strain (and therefore fewer opportunities for injury) and the body becomes more resilient and responsive.
Whilst this approach encourages sensitivity and is gentle on the joints and structures of the body, it shouldn’t be considered the easy option. We still work, and the practice is extremely demanding on many levels. Typically, we spend more time than is usual working and sensing in each pose – students more familiar with faster, apparently more physically demanding forms of yoga, are often surprised and intrigued to notice how hard they’ve worked at the end of class.
Sometimes we may spend a whole session focusing on just one area of the body. Working with the feet, we look at how the heel stretches away from the mid foot, creating lift and space through the arches and domes. Then, when we come into one of the balancing poses, (like Tree, for instance) we discover new connections between the sole of the foot, the toes, and the floor. Our legs wake up, we notice how the muscles of the feet and legs stretch all the way up into the pelvis, into the diaphragm, along the length of the spine, eventually opening out through the shoulders and arms.
Many students have found the attention to detail and focus on alignment has helped them enormously when recovering from injuries. Vanda pioneered a change in the standing poses to make them more accessible to the Western anatomy. With the blessing of BKS Iyengar, her first teacher, she began to work in a shorter and wider stance in Trikonasana, with parallel feet, which protects the sacrum and encourages a focus on the lengthening and rotation in the spine. Those who previously suffered with sacro-iliac joint (SIJ) issues poses are routinely amazed to find that they find a new ease and pleasure in these poses once they adopt her approach.
As we begin to take joy in the delicate unwinding of long held tensions, and become more sensitive, we naturally become more interested in the process, rather than the end result. As another student remarks: “I’ve found that the less ‘exciting’ poses bring me to a deeper understanding of what is actually good for my body. I no longer feel I have to perfect everything or ‘do all the poses in the book’ to be a teacher. It has definitely been a case of less is more for me”.
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