A healthy, supple spine is your best face, neck, hair and body rejuvenation treatment ever. Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s see how an Italian widow has quietly revolutionised yoga.
– and how current fascia research proves her point today!
As an ever-sceptical student of metaphysics I looooove those moments when Science finds proof for things we could only believe in before, relying on wisdom of old. Take the whole fascia buzz for instance. (Please appreciate how I spare you fascination-fascia punchlines here.) Finally something to explain the wonders of how our body system is able to communicate within and to heal itself!
And so, utterly mesmerised in partuclar by videos of human bodies moving freely, like ancient sea creatures or humanoid viper aliens, excited about the recent fascia research, I’ve reached out to Alke von Kruszynski, veteran beauty journalist, yoga teacher and a perfect no-BS-person, asking her about the benefits of the exotic yoga style called Intuitive Yoga inspired by Vanda Scaravelli and the most un-beaten path to health and happiness: the Individual one.Alke von K.: free spirit, traveller, mother, journalist, yoga teacher and student, opposed to general consumption values but not opposed to buying pretty shoes, at home in Hamburg, Germany and in Goa, India. Editor-in-chief of the Ginger online magazine (German) dedicated to all things healthy gravitating around yoga lifestyle. Alke’s personal motto is ‘only on planet Earth.’
Intuitive yoga by Vanda Scaravelli is an approach to yoga different to what we know from the studios and retreats. And it makes even more sense if you understand the fascia system. This yoga style is not about gym, achievement, not about pushing and stretching the muscles. Instead, the principles of breath and gravity allow to undo the tension in the body – astounding flexibility, clarity of movement, and the beauty expressed therein are not achieved through overstretching and pressure but through a systematic release and relaxation of the body.
Intuition Meets Science
Alke, simply because a) I’m curious and b) the next question goes the same direction, can we start at the beauty bank of the wellness river? With your impressive background in the beauty industry, what do you consider most useful and what do you consider lest useful beauty treatments?
Well, any massage, any facial, anything that helps beautify your complexion and the condition of your skin is useful – your complexion is the first message everybody gets from you.
I am very open about my personal choices. You see, ten years ago, at 45, I had injections to nasolabial folds simply because my reflection in the mirror didn’t reflect who I felt I was deep within. My body looked toned and fit, but my face did not match.
The truth about medical treatments is that we all have issues with aging. But for me, if it works, it’s useful. Useless however are celebrities who had tons of beauty jobs done but bore us with their stance ‘I drink a lot of water, I sleep a lot, and I have good genes’, sure, good genes, come on.”
Menopausal skin for example is really thin, so what works here is rejuvenating it with hyaluronic acid injections – it plumps up the skin where the facial volume has decreased. Then of course everyone have their own ideas of useful and useless and at which point in life.
To me, expensive topical treatments like serums and creams are useless. Of course, moisturised skin will always look fresher, smoother, less flawed than skin which is as dry as tree bark, but excessively expensive creams – that’s a mug’s game.”
My current favourites in terms of topical hydration are Aloe Vera Hydra Repair Gel and Aloe Vera Creme Medium by Santaverde. They don’t use water as a base for their formulas, only aloe gel.
A fitness coach told me once that to reach the maximum of your natural, innate beauty, you’ve got to have a healthy, flexible spine and neck, otherwise your face and hair will look sad and grey, no matter what green juices you drink and what serums you use. Because no nutrients, no proper natural detox would occur. Would you agree?
Absolutely! It’s also what affected me so much and what I appreciate so much about intuitive yoga: the modern knowledge about fascia.
The understanding of what it’s capable of, how it can generate self-healing processes through movement, how it can build and re-build connections. Our society of office sitters has been shaken and stirred by this knowledge explosion over the last five years.”
Quite obviously, smooth, fluid fascia is our “information channel number one” and will guide nutrients and positive vibes through our entire body.
I think we’ll also read a lot about pain research and fascia in the years to come.
So yes, speaking of fascia, this mind-blowing system of connective tissue fibres wrapped around each cell in our body means that each cell is connected to every other cell, that there is a constant communication going on. This knowledge will revolutionise modern medicine.”
If we know now that the body communication is less about the nerves but rather about a very vibrant fluid system, we understand better the importance of keeping it smooth with nutrition and movement, something we do intuitively – or rather, something we would do if, ideally, we learned to truly listen to our bodies. Movement is a primeval need of the body.
Mindfulness is also a thing these days…
Ah yes. Sadly, we can learn to ignore our body even before we are born.
If you are born into a life where you’re not wanted and not accepted, you start reacting very early to the outer things, you stop being you, stop being centred or grounded in who you are. Sooner or later we all seem to be looking rather for the response of others and react to their needs, not ours. You try to do things right to please the others, to be ok, to blend in with the others and to be accepted by them. This is a system that defines the whole of our modern society.”
The disciplinary rules of “I must not move like I want to move, I must not think what I think, I must not plan my day according to what I want to do”. Some follow the rules closer than others, but the society rewards the obedience exclusively. You can see the beginning of this process in our schools, manifesting itself in the bodies of the youth – girls overweight, boys slouching.
You were not overweight, but on your website you share that severe back pain due to a c-section gone wrong was your impulse to look into yoga in the first place. Can you tell a bit more about your path from “studio yoga” to intuitive yoga by Vanda Scaravelli?
I practiced Sivananda Yoga for seven years: three times a week and every workshop I could get my hands on. My body thanked me for this, and looked really great, but compared to Scaravelli it certainly was rather boot camp style. But back then I didn’t know better and I felt good. However, the pain in my back had not vanished!
My encounter with intuitive yoga inspired by Vanda Scaravelli was a coincidence.”
Eight years ago I was in India with a friend of mine, and we went to Vinyasa Flow sessions. And that’s a dynamic yoga style, with headstands thrown in for everybody. My friend was fed up with that, having a stiff neck, and suggested to go look for a softer class. Now, we were in Goa, with yoga teachers from all over the world right there, so there was a lot to choose from. We ended up picking a class described simply as Hatha yoga at 8 hour in the morning! Our yoga teacher was Liz Warrington and she started the class by making us… lie on our back. And during the following 90 minutes she has created something so beautiful that made my body vibrate with excitement. It was like floating towards her, feeling surprised and highly rewarded at the same time.
So this is how I discovered this particular yoga style, and I went for it and… it was deeply frustrating at first! I thought I knew how all those asanas work. But here you have to reactivate your communication with the pull of gravity and with your body’s response to it. The physical form defines the asanas – each asana looks different when executed by people with longer or shorter legs, broader or narrower shoulders and so on. Today a yoga studio ad showing 50 students standing as one does not look normal to me anymore.”
Anyway, it was all completely different from what I learned before, but everything in me kept singing “yes!”. Back in Germany I googled the teacher, organised a workshop in Hamburg, and she came to Hamburg for two or three workshops. Since then I have not gone back but made my way deep into that practice; also these days Liz hosts workshops in Germany several times a year.
I love how inspiration can struck anyone, anywhere, so I find it fascinating that – of all people – an Italian upper-class lady would develop the intuitive yoga system.
Vanda stems from an intellectual and artistic family, both her parents were involved with the Florentine music scene, and she became a concert pianist herself. Salons and musicians were her lifestyle, but she discovered yoga only quite late in life, in her early forties.
Vanda had met J. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, previously at her father’s salons. Shortly after Vanda’s husband’s untimely death, Krishnamurti and the violinist Yehudi Menhuin had invited T. Krishnamacharya to teach them yoga near Vanda’s chalet in Switzerland. However, the luminary would not travel, and so he sent his students instead: B. K. S. Iyengar and T. K. V. Desikachar. Vanda joined the lessons, and these daily private yoga lessons made her a yoga enthusiast. She became enthralled and travelled to India many times, however, after a while, decided that she had to move on from the strict and demanding yoga style of her friend B.K.S. Iyengar. Musicians have a special sensitivity to tones, to vibrations, and with vibrations we are, again, right in the fascia system. Of course back then hardly anybody besides the Rolfers talked about fascia. Instead, Vanda spoke of gravity, grounding, letting go and the response of the spine to it.
She based her yoga style on gravity – the freedom to give in to the pull of gravity. The spine can carry itself, and the skeletal body becomes more flexible.
Vanda found this information within herself, from her own awareness, from her uniqueness and intuition, and was therefore strictly denying forming standards, a school or a tradition. That’s why her yoga tradition passes on to others as ‘intuitive yoga inspired by Vanda Scaravelli’ – but sometimes it’s getting shortened and simplified to ‘Scaravelli Yoga’.”
Vanda herself taught students only one-on-one, she handpicked only about 25 students. One of her followers, Sandra Sabatini, recalled how she wanted to work with Vanda so badly, and how she was eventually allowed to attend a salon, how Vanda accepted her as a student – only to make her come up the cypress hills to the Scaravelli house once a week for whopping 1.5 years to do nothing but lie flat on the ground! Vanda was uncompromising like that.
And when I look at the reasons why I practice and teach – it’s for passing on this wisdom. Interestingly, people who are completely new to yoga, understand Vanda’s philosophy faster than more “experienced” yogis.
The latter are quite often frustrated in the beginning – they think they know what yoga is about, their bodies are already set to behave and move in a determined way and in a certain time. Whilst the Newbies have no set of yoga codes that need to be de-coded: their bodies very often understand the instructions intuitively.
Talking about the Why: each school of yoga has some kind of signature promise, Yin Yoga stands for deep relaxation, Bikram for power and detox and so on. What’s the promise here? As in: what’s in it for me?
It calms your mind and body, and generates a highly energetic vibration that resolves blocks.
It’s in the philosophy of my yoga style inspired by Vanda Scaravelli to bring the person back in touch with their body. Well, that might well be the promise of any other style too, but most are mind-driven, you strive to reach a certain goal, to force, to push your body into a certain standardised pose, just bend a bit more, and then some. A lot of students seem to ignore their body signals completely along the way – only when it screams in pain, that’s the “enough!” they understand. Why else do we have conditions like the so-called “yoga butt” (proximal hamstring attachment tears/ irreversible micro-scarring, NF), or yogis with serious joint issues and artificial hip joints?
We also understand that every experience – be it physical or emotional – is memorised by our body’s cells. That’s why many people experience a release of their traumata during yoga practice: laughing, crying, getting mad. One does not necessarily have to look further into the stories behind these experiences – just release the stored energy and let go. Become whole again – and happier.”
And it really works. During one of my very first lessons we had to stand, just stand for about fifteen minutes. Suddenly, there was an experience of opening and release that went from my right hip through all my body, and the blockage was gone. It happens again and again – provided you give kind permission, an invitation to your body in all due stillness and awareness, taking all the time you need, to start to communicate.
There is no need to go back in time, research what has traumatised you so much, forgive-forget – just let the stored energy go. Don’t cling to those “my parents have neglected me” kind of memories, just release the energy so it’s over, so there’s peace.”
That’s the reason why I like to practice Yoga Nidra at the end of my class, to guide the class through a visualisation. It’s storytelling from my own personal experience, and I let the meditative state guide my guidance, too.
I’ve heard from several yogi friends that they have a hard time learning to meditate or to leart any deep relaxation technique, though.
With all those stories stored and held in our tissues – how can people possibly relax as if by command?
Tension constantly circuits in our system. Even smallest injuries, stressful situations, little insults, accumulated over days, weeks, months, and years lead to individuals who can’t even release their shoulders when they’re lying flat on the yoga mat. They won’t let go and won’t let the ground carry them.”
Even experienced yogis are not immune to that: their bodies steeled with yoga may be fit and their muscles may be toned and strong, but often enough they’ve never learned to be really aware of their bodies. Our immanent Western claim is: more! More efficiency! More results! We are surrounded by achievement-biorobots… The irony is that you practice yoga to balance out more challenging sports and still end up “achieving”. With series of movements that cause fascia rather to block, not soften and open up freely and safe.
It takes weeks and months for some people to open up and to really enjoy receiving their body’s signals. This is my mission. Vanda’s yoga teaches you to feel the asana develop from inside out – your ideal asana for now, for today. Maybe it will look different in a year’s time.”
Open all your inner eyes and see what’s right for you, now.
This is such a fascinating process, and if you really give in to this experience, astonishingly, the results won’t be long in coming.
I love the individual approach here. After all, it’s our individual body that puzzles us as we grow, that differs us from others, and that we then judge as “too ugly” or as “problematic” according to common standards – we are never taught to elevate our individual harmonies, to balance our individual beauty…
Human bodies are never built in a completely equal manner. Each human being has an asymmetry, their own angles at which the bones are set into the joints – asanas can never look identical when executed in harmony with the given body. Even a straight back is different and unique on every single person!
But still there you have, let’s say, a Trikonasana standard, and usually, a yoga teacher will push every single person in the class to get right there. To stand in that exact position. This is the reason Vanda denied standards and methods, why she didn’t want a ‘Scaravelli Yoga’.”
Today we know more, and today we can comprehend her teachings in a new way, because they can now be proven, and not “just” felt and experienced. Everything is part of a certain evolution – Vanda’s ideas of yoga being no difference.
Speaking of evolution. I watched the incredible videos of intuitive yoginis on your website! One video shows a close-up of the back, and I watch it and go “wait, this is not human…”
Is this how our spines are supposed to be moving or is it an individual ability?
This is the natural state of our spine most of us had as a foetus. Of course, as an adult human being you’ve got to develop more muscles than a foetus, but the difference between Emily or Ursula Margarita (the ladies in the videos, NF) and an average person is that Emily’s and Margarita’s muscles don’t interfere with the movement of their spines. As a dancer, Margarita has a better body awareness than most people anyway.
And this movement is not about strength, it’s about gravity. The primary, the deep muscle tissue is what has been neglected in our perception. You can pump all the iron you want, without attention to your deep muscle, without the balance, you are in danger of a slipped disk at any time.”
That’s why intense, hard yoga styles can lead to as much body damage as any other sport.
Okay, now I’m hooked and I want a supple, strong spine too! Where do I start? What can I offer my back on a daily basis?
For starters the best thing would be to lie on your back with your knees up and your feet flat for 15 minutes daily. Create spine awareness.
1. Make sure to lie on a stable, not too cushiony a surface. Keep your feet parallel, and your neck long. If you have neck issues or a hollow back, a flat pillow should help you find a comfortable position. And then: melt into the ground.
2. Be aware of your breath, of your body, don’t go through to-do lists or even listen to an audio book! Let your breath move your belly, not forcing it, just naturally. Feel the gravitation. Feel how it holds you. Let it hold you. Personally, I like to imagine it like a Gulliver-style stage diving experience with thousands and thousands of tiny hands carrying me. It’s important to breathe into your back, to be aware of it, and to really let all tension go.
This will allow your spine to resolve tiny malpositions that have occurred during the day.
3. While this is a beautiful practice for the evenings, make sure you don’t fall asleep.
In yoga you want to find that state of body communication and openness, whether it be in sitting, standing, rotating, bending, or in balancing. It’s the same set of principles, over and over again.
Free the spine, feel the force – may it be with you.”
Thank you, Alke! xo
* * *
If you’re a yoga student or plan to become a yoga teacher, you’ll appreciate some further reading, and these are books Alke suggests you should look into:
1. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, Thomas W. Myers
2. Health for the Whole of You: A guide for transforming your health, Stephen Bracken
3. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body: The science and clinical applications in manual and movement therapy, Robert Schleip PhD MA (Alke’s tip: look for Robert’s publications in general)
4. The Original Body: Primal Movement for Yoga Teachers, John Stirk
I’ll also be reviewing Vanda’s book Awakening The Spine in this month’s instalment of Bookshelf Monthly.
Interested in finding a teacher working in the Scaravelli tradition?
Look up Diane Long (a student of Vanda’s), Liz Warrington, and the Yoga Health Mandala teachers and instructors: Helen Noakes, Steve Bracken und Rupert Johnson. A student of Diane Long, Christine Borg who you can spot in a video still above, teaches in Scotland. German readers will be pleased to learn that Alke von K. teaches in Hamburg, Germany – you can look her up over at Intuitives Yoga Hamburg.
I hope this was helpful to any of you who suffer from tensions in your necks and backs, and congrats for making it all the way up to the end! 😉
Let me hear what you think in the comments below!
P.S. If you look for a more instant remedy, check out my favourite mudras that allow to un-clench your jaws and to release tension in your lower back.