The Life Of An Yogini

Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer

Who is a Yogi or Yogini? There are many ways to answer this question, but a key defining characteristics of somebody who is on the path to yoga is the steady reduction of recrimination and regret in life coupled with a steady increase in love and forgiveness. This usually results in a life full of happiness where living is viewed as an extraordinary privilege and a joy. But make no mistake, just by doing an hour of yoga on the mat a few times a week does not necessarily mean that you are on the path of yoga. This may get you started but it may take more effort than that. On the other hand there are lives that have been lived where the person never touched the yoga mat, but nevertheless lived in an entirely yogic manner. The story of Alice Herz-Sommer illustrates. She recently passed away at the age of 110.

Alice Herze was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on Nov 25 1903. She was one of five children of a German-speaking, secular Jewish family. Her father was a wealthy businessman and her parents mingled with artistic circles. Kafka and Mahler were among the friends of the family.

Alice’s love for music started early. She began her piano lessons at 5. By the time she was in her late teens, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe. In 1931 she married a musician-businessman named Leopold Sommer who was also an amateur violinist. The couple had a son, Stepan born in 1937.

By 1939 the situation had deteriorated and Nazi invasion was imminent. Some of her family fled to Palestine. But Alice stayed back to take care of her frail widowed mother. Her husband and child also stayed back. Soon the Nazis came and their worst fears proved true. Jews were first segregated in a Ghetto called Terezin. From here they were deported to forced-labor death camps in batches. About 140,000 Jews passed through Terezin. 90,000 were sent from here to almost certain death to labor camps. Conditions were so bad in Terezin itself that 33,000 died in Terezin itself. By 1942 Alice’s mother was deported to Terezin and from there she was sent to a death camp, where she was killed.

Alice describes the day she escorted her mother to the deportation center in Prague as “The lowest point in my life”. This was also the turning point of her life. She resolved to start practicing Chopin’s Etudes. This work of Chopin, consisting of 27 solo pieces are considered to be the most technically demanding and emotionally charged, offered Alice a way of distraction during difficult times. It eventually turned into something more meaningful. It turned into spiritual sustenance that even saved her life and the life of her son.

By 1942 Alice, her son, and her husband were dispatched to Terezin. Luckily Terezin had an orchestra. Alice played on the camp’s broken out-of-tune piano and joined the orchestra that played more than 100 concerts in Terezin. “These concerts, the people are sitting there- old people, desolated and ill- and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”

Her husband was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz and Alice never saw him again. He died there of Typhus in 1945, a month before liberation.

Alice and her son were spared of this fate. One night a young Nazi officer stopped her. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.” He then added, “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay here until the war ends.”

After the war Alice returned to Prague with her son, but soon emigrated to Israel. Here she taught for many years at the Academy of Music. Then in the 80s she moved to London to be with her son, who was an eminent cellist.

In 2001 her son suddenly died of an aneurysm at age 64. Her neighbors knew that she had weathered the blow when they heard her practicing once more.

By now she had become an iconic figure, a subject of biographies and documentaries. What attracted attention to her was not just her age or the fact that she was the oldest holocaust survivor, or her musical acumen or even her devotion to music, but her sage like lack of regret or recrimination. She one said, “I am looking for the nice things in life. I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things. The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”

As advancing age immobilized one finger on each hand, she reworked her technique to play with the remaining fingers, practicing more than 3 hours per day. She continued to swim well past the age of 100 and practiced music till the very end.

On her passing, her Grandson made the following statement. “Much has been written about her, but to those of us who knew her best, she was our dear ‘Gigi’. She loved us, laughed with us, and cherished music with us. She was an inspiration and our world will be significantly poorer without her by our side.”

Her life was not just an inspiration for her immediate family members but to all of us. She showed us how to live a life joyfully inspite of all its troubles. She showed us how a yogini lives her life.

Alice Herz-Sommer: Everything Is A Present (Short You tube video)
Her Facebook Page

Credits:This has been written by Raj Shah and edited by Ketna Shah.

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Aidan Cares

Aiden Hornaday was just 8 years old when he picked up his brother’s harmonica with no idea how to play it. The next night, waiting for his mother at a restaurant, he took off his cap and started playing, and got 80 unexpected dollars in tips “just for taking his hat off.” That night, he decided to donate the $80 to fight intestinal parasites for African orphans, and has never stopped since. Now 13, Aiden has raised and donated over $60,000.

Aidan Cares Web Site

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The Harmonica Man

About 11 years before this story was filmed Andy’s fate was not looking too rosy. He had a series of health issues including serious heart complications and depression. He spent most of his time alone and in severe debilitating pain. He spent most of his money on medicine. Doctor’s did not give Andy more than a few months to live.

One day he asked himself one simple question, “If there was one thing left do do on this earth, what would I want to do?” For him the answer was easy: Give the gift of music. So he made a phone call, asking a school principal for permission to come in and teach a class of children to play the harmonica. He would provide each one of them with a harmonica too. Without giving it a second thought, he took the $750 he would have spent on medication and bought harmoncias for the kids. That fateful day changed his life and the life of so many children. After his session, the principal asked if he would do this for the rest of the school children. The program was so successful that soon Andy approached other schools in the area. Andy gave up his medication full time and started buying Harmonicas in bulk. To his surprise instead of dying he began to truly live.

Andy Mackie died a few years after the filming of this movie, but his work lives on in the gift of music he gave to tens of thousands of children.

Andie Mackie full story
Andie Mackie Foundation

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You Know How To Breathe!

Joy Lanzerotte

Joy Lanzerotte

Joy gasped for breath through a persistent cough. When the cough did not go away she visited her naturopathic doctor. She was advised to get chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Her doctor called her immediately on seeing the x-ray, “You have a collapsed lung. Go straight to ER.”

Asked not to drive and go with the expectation of spending at least the night in the hospital, she struggled to comprehend what was going on as she entered the ER and waited. For more than 10 years Joy had been practicing yoga and ate only healthy vegetarian food. “This should not be happening to me, I am not a smoker!” She thought.

Soon she was admitted to the hospital and a chest tube was inserted. The attending doctor, a surgeon, confirmed that her lung had collapsed and had been for at least two and a half months. There was a jelly covering it and her trachea had shifted. Next day the doctor informed her that a “black spot” was discovered on her lung.

The doctors were surprised and impressed. “No one walks around with a collapsed lung for two months. You sure know how to breathe!”

She was given three choices: 1. Go home with a mini chest tube, 2. Go home, take some time, and return to have chest tube reinserted, or 3. Have surgery to remove the jelly and hope lung inflates.

She opted for surgery, which was scheduled immediately.

The day following surgery the doctor visiting her informed her, “You have Valley Fever. You have had it for some time. It invades your immune system, but your knowing how to breathe has prevented you from facing an unbelievably life-threatening illness. Valley Fever can kill.”

Her body swelled up like a balloon. Soon she had medical staff visit her just to view her body and touch her skin to hear it snap, crackle, and pop like Rice Kipsies.

Days passed but nothing changed. More tests and X-rays, but nothing changed. One nurse visited her during her breaks and offered chanting and guided imagery.

Slowly Joy began to internally give up and let go. Her partner noticed this and in desperation reached out to a healer he knew. A healing ceremony was scheduled but Joy knew nothing about this.

On the day of the ceremony her room filled with people and flowers. The high priestess leaned into her space and whispered, “Is there anything you want to say, some thing or someone with whom you want to make amends? Anything you wish you had accomplished or completed in this life?”

“No,” Joy responded. “If I were meant to finish my book or dissertation I would have.”

Then she asked, “If you live, what do you want?”

“I want to go to Italy to eat and drink as much as I want.”

Then as Joy sat up in the center of her bed, surrounded by all these people, the high priestess asked everybody to chant, meditate, and pray for her, to mentally assist her in her breathing.

Silence embraced the room. When the meditation was over, one by one everybody left and she was again alone. She felt uplifted.

Next morning another chest x-ray was taken and soon the doctor rushed in and said, “You are going home, your lung is re-inflated enough to remove this tube.”

Unable to believe what she was hearing, Joy was speechless. “Was it a miracle? Did I die? Was I going to breathe without a device” She wondered.

In October 2006, many years after her discharge from hospital, a pulmonary specialist finally discharged her from treatment. He said, “Go and live! Go to Italy, fly a plane, do inversions, handstands, regain your life. You have endured the most serious Valley Fever trauma.”

It’s been almost 13 years since her lung collapsed. Joy has continued to teach and practice yoga, emphasizing breath. She believes that it was her training in breathing that was instrumental in her recovery. She is also grateful to her doctors and hospital staff for their skill in treating her. In addition she credits the high priestess and all the people who prayed for her in playing a vital role in her recovery.

Credit: This has been written based on a full account written by Joy here. Joy (Kathryn) Lanzerotte is a licensed counseling psychologist and a former university professor. She is also a yoga teacher for over 2 decades. You can find Joy on Facebook here.

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Yoga Cannot Be Organized, Must Not Be Organized

Vanda Scaravelli

Vanda Scaravelli

A wonderful story unfolded when a cultured and refined western woman met some of the greatest yogis of recent times. The story starts in Florence, Italy in 1908 when Vanda Scaravelli was born. She was born into an artistic, musical and intellectual family. Her father was involved in creating the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino as well the Orchestra Stabile. Her mother was amongst the first women graduates from an Italian university. Many world-class musicians were frequent visitors at the family villa. Her father was also a successful businessman and the family was well off. Vanda herself trained as a concert pianist and was an accomplished musician.

Her father was a friend of the eminent Indian Philosopher J. Krishnamurti and in 1929 when Vanda was a young woman she met Krishnamurti for the first time. She also happened to attend the meeting when Krishnamurti announced that “Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it through any track, religion, or any sect.” After his speech Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star that the Theosophists had founded in his honor. This had a profound impact on Vanda and she would maintain a lifelong friendship with Krishnamurti. Once a year Krishnamurti visited the family and stayed in the villa outside Florence. Nobody expected him to be a guru and he could think and write in peace.

Vanda Scaravelli was married to a professor of philosophy, Luigi Scaravelli, with whom she had two children. She led a busy active social and cultural life. But in May of 1957 Luigi died suddenly. Shortly afterwards she was introduced to the yoga guru BKS Iyengar by the famous violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. It was Yehudi Menuhin who “disovered” BKS Iyengar in 1951 and introduced him to the West. BKS Iyengar would go on to become world famous Yoga guru and Vanda had the good fortune to learn yoga from him. At this point practicing of yoga postures as done today was relatively unknown. She was almost 50, suffered from severe scoliosis, and was going through a difficult emotional period due to the death of her husband.

J. Krishnamurti would visit the Scaravelli Chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland and BKS Iyengar also visited at the same time to teach yoga to J. Krishnamurti. He also gave lessons to Vanda. Later she said in an interview, “I did not know it would help me, because I practiced it like tennis or any other game, for me it was fun. But it acted on me much more profoundly than I could understand at the time. A new life entered my body. In nature flowers bloom in spring and then again in autumn. This is what I felt was happening to me.”

A few years later she was introduced to Desikachar who opened the world of breathing to her. Desikachar was the son of the legendary T. Krishnamacharya who was also the guru of BKS Iyengar.

Vanda began practicing on her own and slowly discovered that the less she tried “to do” the postures and gave up wanting to be perfect, the more effortless and graceful her postures became. Just like she had arrived at Yoga by accident, so also she happened to come upon accidentally the idea of teaching yoga. Both she and J. Krishnamurti practiced yoga together when he visited Gstaad in summer. She noticed that he became exhausted from his yoga practice, and she taught him the techniques she had discovered so that he could do his practice effortlessly. In addition Vanda used Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “keep it simple” as a guideline throughout her practice. Krishnamurti used to say, “The mind needs to be clear and as empty as possible. Fill it with techniques and instructions and we’re back to the doing” This wisdom became the basis of her yoga teaching.

Vanda began teaching when she was 60. She had fewer than 10 students in all. She never charged money from her students. She taught because she felt compelled to do so. By now her children were adults and she was a free woman. She spent hours with her students and taught them one-on-one with an individualized practice. It was not easy to teach someone not to “do yoga” but to “discover it” on your own, to approach it fresh every time, and practice it as if doing meditation with an empty mind and with no expectations. Most of her direct students were already practicing yoga when they met her, but they saw what she was saying was deeply meaningful and they dedicated their lives to learn from her. Some of her students studied from her for 30 years.

Vanda Scaravelli’s philosophy was simple: “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.” She encouraged her students to take their time – “there is no hurry, do not rush” – to do less, feel more. She taught the importance of listening deeply to what the body suggests before moving; to unwind, release unnecessary tension, and begin to simply be. “You must only undo. The more you undo, the more you are and the more things come to you. Don’t try to become; you are.”

Vanda deeply trusted yoga to sustain and heal the body. If she was sick or when she fell and shattered her hip, her constant question was ‘how soon can I do my exercises?’ because she knew that they would heal her. Once she was hit by a car and bounced off the hood. She went home and curled up like a little animal and did her breathing. Within a week, she was fine. Vanda refused anesthesia for root canals and once for the removal of a tooth; all the dentists in the office came to watch in amazement. Vanda saw these occasions as opportunities to “play” with breathing and pain.

It was never her intention to start a “Vanda Scaravelli” style of yoga. In fact she expressly prohibited her students from doing so. She once said, “Yoga cannot be organized, must not be organized.” She was following in the footsteps of her friend and Guru Krishnamurti who advocated a “pathless path” to truth. But just as Krishnamurti eventually did became a guru with a teaching and followers, Vanda Scaravelli also became a founder of a style of yoga that is known by her name.

She continued to practice yoga well into her late 80s. She died when she was 91. Her life shows that it is possible to take the best of the east and the best of the west and turn it into something original and beautiful.

Credit: This essay has borrowed liberally from various sites. Some of the links are provided in the “related” section. This has been written by Raj Shah and edited by Ketna Shah.

Essay on Vanda Scaravelli on Relax and Release website
Vanda Scaravelli: Her Legacy
When Movement becomes Meditation: The Legacy of Vanda Scaravelli
Lesson in Freedom

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