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[This article originally appeared on the Yoga Chicago web site, July 2001.]

The Teachings of the Late Vanda Scaravelli: A Workshop with Diane Long

By Sharon Steffensen

Diane Long was watching a t'ai chi demonstration in Florence, Italy, when a woman came up to her and said, "I want you to come see me. My name is Vanda." diane longThis was in 1976. Diane went to see her and became her student until Vanda died two years ago at the age of 91. Vanda Scaravelli, author of Awakening the Spine, had studied yoga for many years with B.K.S. Iyengar, starting yoga at the age of 50, and then developed her own gentle way of working with gravity and the breath to maintain health and a supple spine. Diane, who has a dance and martial arts background, had taken Iyengar-style yoga classes with Dona Holleman in Italy for four years. She became an assistant, traveling with her, and meeting other senior Iyengar teachers. When she met Vanda, she started her yoga education over from the beginning. At first, it was hard for Diane to orient herself to Vanda's approach. Vanda's style was completely different from the strict, alignment-oriented Iyengar style she was used to practicing. Diane says she took the bus to Vanda's for private classes, and then walked home through the olive trees so she could cry out her frustrations. Eventually she overcame her difficulty and continued her work with Vanda for 23 years. At Vanda's urging, Diane began teaching first in Italy, then in Toronto and London. Since Vanda's death, Diane is teaching more and bringing Vanda's style of yoga to the U.S. Now based in North Carolina, Diane came to Chicago for the first time May 4-6 and gave a workshop at N.U. Yoga Center.

Diane begins the weekend workshop asking what we'd like to start with. Backbends? she suggests. Instead she introduces us to her way of practice by demonstrating a sun salutation, exaggerating her movements so we can see what she is doing. In a standing position, she lifts her arms over her head and begins cat-like movements with her spine, shifting her weight, lifting one leg and then the other, circling them around. Her feet are active as she finds the ground beneath her feet and takes the tension out of the body, she explains later. Her movements call to mind Angela Farmer, another former Iyengar-style teacher, who developed her own free-style system of moving from within. We then follow Diane, but we're not sure what we're supposed to do.

Diane doesn't teach techniques. Instead, she emphasizes concepts such as openness in the chest, softness in the belly, width in the waist and hips, aliveness in the hands, feeling the ground beneath our feet (or hips or hands). These aren't new ideas, but as Diane leads us, they feel new.

In standing forward bend, there is width in the knees and in the thighs, and space between them. "Forward into the hands," says Diane. "Wide through the knees. Let everything release through the hands into the earth....In standing, the foot takes the ground and there is an aliveness there. The ground comes up to you."

In downward facing dog, the elbows are bent and pressed inward toward the core. The movement comes from the spine and hips--not the arms. The shoulders drop down and the chest is wide. Rather than bringing the chest down toward the thighs, we create space. We feel the ground under our feet and under our hands. We press our heels down and feel aliveness in our hips.

In janu sirsasana, we feel the ground under our hips and stretch forward. "It's not about how far you can go," says Diane. "It's about how alive are the hips and how much ground is under the hips. Free the shoulders, free the head. Arms are empty. Cultivate the quality of your attention."

For Diane, yoga is not a challenge. She guides us into setting up our bodies so that the breath can take us into the pose. Whether we actually go fully into the pose is irrelevant. But when we do, it feels effortless. It's not the muscles, says Diane. If it were the muscles, the strongest muscles (buttocks, thighs) will do all the work. Instead, we free the hips, waist and shoulders, getting a sense of the spine and the ankles.

Diane explains that yoga is not about the pose, but how you refine your body. It has to do with space, the earth, the breath and allowing the pose to unfold. "It's a different attitude you have when you do your practice....Yoga is a meditation, it's a state of total beginning."

We hold postures (or approach them) for only a few seconds and then we stop and start over again. "Treat the body as if it were a precious musical instrument," says Diane. "Treat the body in a rhythmic way and then rest. Be strong and clear, and then let go."

She avoids yoga buzzwords such as energy or roots. She hates them. Yoga must be experiential. Roots? "Roots are tendrils that don't penetrate the ground. Then there is this aliveness and then something happens. It's about roots, but it has to remake itself all the time. It is more poetic and rhythmic. ... You have to be in a place of discovery."

Diane guides us through shoulderstand: "Out through the feet, out through the arms," she repeats several times. "Wider through the shoulders, connected through the elbows, spine goes down. More connected from the head and elbows--they come closer together. Hips are free, arms are free, lots of room in the shoulders so the spine can be free, so the spine can go down....The spine goes down into the ground."

Diane explains, "I don't go up. I go wide and down, and when I breathe and relax, I go up. I am more in touch with space. More in a state of being. The moment I think 'I am going up,' I am already working against myself. It's very limited. But if my going up is 'how far can I go wide, and down,' like a tree, it doesn't try to get taller than another tree. Your attention has to be more where your base is."

"Don't wiggle into the shoulderstand. It's terrible, it's horrible," she says. "Don't press the shoulders together. Let it be about gravity and the spine and let breath bring you into the pose....The body starts resting in the pose. It's working into a state of being. Your body relaxes into the pose.

"Before something can be alive, it has to be relaxed. Work with a lot of strength and then relax again. So you renew this relationship with the ground. The awareness and aliveness starts with the foot and then it comes up. It doesn't start with the brain. The body is more like a tree. It isn't mechanical and willful and effortful moving. It's refining the quality of intention. That's what yoga is."