This article & interview by Paula Fitzgerald was originally published in Ability Magazine, and is posted here with their permission.
The YogAbility Institute in Santa Monica, CA offers a therapeutic approach to yoga for people with disabilities and special needs.
Its founder, Bea Ammidown, is an MSIA Minister and certified yoga therapist, and former journalist who wrote for Life Magazine and the LA Times before a head-on collision in 1985 changed the course of her life.
Through four years of rehabilitation, yoga proved instrumental to her healing, so Ammidown embraced yoga therapy as her life’s work. A highly personalized approach, yoga therapy is based on an assessment of an individual’s physical, mental, emotional, and psychological states. A therapist develops an individualized plan so a student can practice yoga tailored to his or her specific needs and that, over time, alleviates pain and enhances well being.
Nearly 80 years young and nimble, Ammidown teaches classes around town and in her home studio, six days a week. A mother of three and a grandmother of six, she shows no signs of slowing down. She’s done numerous videos, including a DVD, Special Needs Yoga. Being a senior, she says, helps her relate to her students, especially those with special needs.
On a recent, warm fall day, Paula Fitzgerald of Ability Magazine chatted by phone with Bea about Bea’s mission, her approach to teaching, and where she gets her indefatigable energy.
Paula Fitzgerald: Tell me about your journey to yoga. What hooked you?
Bea Ammidown: (laughs) Well, I was born with loose joints, as they say. My physical therapist says I’m “bendy” rather than flexible. So as a little girl, being kind of double-jointed, I loved doing backbends and splits and dancing, which is what yoga is about—being connected to one’s body. That always gave me great pleasure. Then, after I’d moved to California, I found a book on yoga by Richard Hittleman. That was in 1962. I thought, “Oh, that looks good. Let me do a little something at home.” By the early ‘70s, I learned about yoga classes and good teachers. One was through UCLA Extension, so I became a student there. Many years later, I was in a very serious accident, having done yoga for years, and recuperated after surgeries and various procedures and I thought, “Well, whatever I have been able to do for myself, I’d love to share a lot of that with others with special needs, and I’d love to put together programs and classes.”
I trained at YogaWorks in Santa Monica, which involved years of study. I stopped doing journalism and started giving little classes and then more classes followed. I loved what I was experiencing personally, which also helped my writing, so I taught yoga and writing for years. I continue to do that in special classes and workshops.
Fitzgerald: And when did you start the YogAbility Institute?
Ammidown: In 1999. We are a nonprofit organization that was started on the coattails of my first nonprofit called HumoRx-Laugh Wagons, a program inspired by Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness, and our friendship. He called it psychoneuroimmunology. He showed himself funny movies and said, “Take less pain medication, because with affirmative emotions we truly assist the immune system.”
Fitzgerald: Scientists have proven that, haven’t they?
Ammidown: Oh, they certainly have. They continue to prove it with blood tests and other kinds of tests.
Fitzgerald: Is the institute primarily for people with a range of different disabilities and special needs as well as people who can do regular yoga classes?
Ammidown: Yes! I do point out that everybody has sensibilities and special needs and areas where they want more attention. That’s what a yoga therapist, who must have the right kind of training, offers. It requires thousands of hours of training. So it sounds very daunting and impressive, but I never stop learning how to approach a student, how to approach myself, and how to be present with my practice.
Fitzgerald: I watched some of your videos, and you have such a nurturing style and a lovely way of relating to students.
Ammidown: Well, thank you!
Fitzgerald: In one video, I noticed a young woman doing yoga in a wheelchair.
Ammidown: Yes, she’s been coming for almost 20 years, and she was here this morning. She’s now 35. I started working with her when she was 18. It’s amazing.
Fitzgerald: What are her particular challenges and how does yoga therapy help her?
Ammidown: She has cerebral palsy. Her mother wrote a testimonial about what she observed the experience was like for her daughter. In 2007, she wrote this:
After four and a half years of weekly YogAbility classes, my daughter has developed better balance, body positioning, awareness and concentration, confidence, community-building, interactions, social graces, and her skills are enhanced. She is so proud and delighted with her accomplishments.
And just today, I came across a 2007 issue of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and in one of the abstracts, I found this:
The delights and benefits of yoga for cerebral palsy: a case history.
Ever since she began with me, I’ve said, “Whatever you’re learning, you can share with other people. I’d like you to realize that you are in a special education yoga teachers’ training course.” So every year I give her a little exam and have her teach some part of the regular class that I give. She just loves doing this.
Fitzgerald: I bet! So tell me, how does a yoga therapy class differ from a studio yoga class?
Ammidown: Well, studio classes, the ones at gyms, for example, are usually filled with students, and the teacher usually does not ask about specifics. I always ask very specific questions. They can tell me if they have any sensibilities, any issues, and any areas of the body I should be aware of. I also always ask whether they like being adjusted or even touched.
Some people don’t want to be. I feel that’s a very important and respectful way of giving a class. In a regular yoga class, you get a set routine. There’s often music, sometimes too loud, and not pleasing to some people. One could say it’s quite impersonal. Or the very, very hot power ones where people are sweating all over the place—that cannot be very pleasant.
But then you’ve got classes led by instructors who are aware, conscious, and respectful of people. Yoga studios are on every corner, like Starbuck’s. It’s important to be very mindful of who you’re practicing and studying with and ask the people at the studio, “Tell me about the instructors.”
There is a newly-owned yoga studio where I’m now teaching called Mandala Center in Santa Monica. I teach a class there once a week for seniors and those with special needs of all ages, as well as at the YMCA, the cancer center, and in my own home studio. But at Mandala, they’re so aware and conscious of who they hire as teachers. You can click the name and read a complete résumé on each one. In my studio classes, I want to sit with someone, but not for too long, because my classes aren’t more than an hour long. At the YMCA they’re only 45 minutes, and it’s chair yoga, which I also offer at my studio.
Fitzgerald: It sounds like your classes are extremely customized.
Ammidown: Exactly! That’s what viniyoga is, in the vernacular. It means adapted for the person. If you have a bunch of people in the class, how can that be given? I could say that’s a challenge, certainly for anyone new, but, fortunately, I’ve taught for quite a few years, and I do look around and observe and then support students in doing what is appropriate and safe.
Fitzgerald: Is there a particular type of yoga that’s more suitable to someone with special needs?
Ammidown: It depends on the special needs, doesn’t it? I’ve had students with severe autism. One young man used to sometimes come with two caregivers. He wore braces and was screaming and hitting himself. And after a class with the right music and the right words, the right environment, the right support, including the caregiver and me, he was calmer. I always like to include the caregiver to see how they can take in what I’m offering and doing.
Fitzgerald: So the caregiver gets to do yoga, too?
Ammidown: A bit, yes. I depends on the caregiver. I’ve had many, many who participated.
Fitzgerald: With children who have severe autism, what kinds of changes do you see in them over time or even from just one class?
Ammidown: From one class, I couldn’t say, but for instance, one boy, who was maybe 16 or 17 when he started, was able to relax and even smile; he no longer yelled and hit. His braces were taken off. It became a very soothing, supportive time for stretching and feeling his accomplishment. We used some of the differently sized balls for him to roll around on—it was just lovely.
And there are some pictures of us together. I’ve written about him as a case history. And then there are the children with Down syndrome who I’ve just loved being with. I’ve worked with one family since their son was three years old. He wasn’t really ill, but they needed someone to help him go down a slide and different things like that. He’s now in his twenties and he’s a soccer champion.
Fitzgerald: That’s wonderful!
Ammidown: He even takes yoga classes now. So his story is a beautiful one. His parents are terrific. I would go to his home, and I would ask his siblings or a parent to participate if they were available. It became a community event.
Fitzgerald: So you make house calls, too?
Ammidown: Yes. I did then. I make fewer now.
Fitzgerald: When you teach, do you incorporate different modalities, such as music?
Ammidown: Yes. If I don’t know the people, I’ll ask if they like soft music. In private classes, I ask, and I absolutely respect and honor their wishes. But it also depends on my own mood. Sometimes I want the silence as well. And I like them to hear their own breath. That can be very effective and relaxing and a game to bring the awareness. At the YMCA, I always play some music, but it’s very soft.
Fitzgerald: Do you ever do yoga in the water?
Ammidown: Yes. I’ve taught in a friend’s pool through the years. It’s a very shallow pool and it’s warm, and to do yoga in a pool is just heaven. My other regular student who has cerebral palsy— she drives and lives with her boyfriend and has a job and everything— had me come to her pool at a gym and give her appropriate exercises to do in the pool. That was marvelous, doing yoga in a pool.
Fitzgerald: I’m curious how you tailor yoga poses for people in wheelchairs or those who have extremely limited mobility.
Ammidown: I’ve had quite a few students who are paraplegics. The bridge pose is a really good one. If their legs are down or their legs are out, there are ways of tightening the glutes and imagining you’re lifting your pelvis, that is if they have awareness in that area. Those that can, I have them hold their arms out to the side making circles using weights. I have weights of all sizes and some that go around their ankles and wrists to help build strength. And then there’s just being able to lean forward with the right kind of back support. That can be very nice. You can put five or 10-pound weights on top of the thighs or knees, or sitting down with their legs out straight, as straight as they can have them. I have bolsters of all sizes and shapes that are utilized for the right kind of support for the right kind of condition. Breathing is the most important. That’s where it begins.
Of course, we know that’s how it ends. I’ve practiced for years at different assisted living places and have had 10 to 20 men and women, and if all they’re doing is breathing and being present, they’re doing yoga.
Fitzgerald: Can you gauge healing in somebody with special needs?
Ammidown: I can’t, but they can. (laughs) It depends on what they’re healing. With broken bones or bad shoulders, that’s one thing. Mental and emotional healing, we know that’s different, but we also know yoga means “connection,” that’s how we connect our body’s talking and feeling to the mind and to the heart, to the spirit. Having been through that really serious accident in 1985, I came back to the US and had 15 different surgeries and a leg shortened. I had to learn to walk and talk again.
Fitzgerald: And your yoga practice helped you through the surgeries and recovery?
Ammidown: Yes, fortunately, I’d done yoga for years, and I had support from people. I’d decided to move forward and began swimming as often as I could in my neighbor’s pool. Someone had to carry me to and from the pool. I also worked out on a stationary bike to build my muscles, and I saw I was going to come back to my regular self. I had to have a leg shortened. I didn’t want to wear a built-up shoe anymore, because I like to dance and walk and hike, so I saw that what I could do for myself I might be able to share with others.
And then two years ago, I fell off a curb on my way to take a computer training class. I was carrying things that were too heavy, and my eyesight had been also very badly damaged in the accident. I fell off a curb, and I broke both my arms and wrists.
Fitzgerald: Oh, that’s awful!
Ammidown: It was terrible. For two months, I had both arms in a cast up to my armpits. I had to be taken care of. I had to be washed and fed. But I taught yoga probably the next day.
Fitzgerald: You’re kidding?
Ammidown: I’m not kidding.
Fitzgerald: How were you able to do that?
Ammidown: I sat in a chair. I’m telling you, when I am doing my own practice, let’s say I even had a bad cold—of course, if I had a fever I wouldn’t do it—but if I had a bad cold, and I’m not sniffling, I do my yoga, and I feel all right. And then I’ll go back to bed and be sick. Sometimes that happens.
Fitzgerald: How do you see your mission as a yoga instructor?
Ammidown: My mission is to be able to give back from the abundance and wealth that I have. It’s to be able to reach the right people at the right time to share, instruct, educate, and inspire them through my on-going training about how they can use their bodies to feel better, think better, do better, and make a difference in the world.
Fitzgerald: Do you have a favorite pose?
Ammidown: I do. It’s the shoulder stand. That was a favorite when I was pregnant with my daughter in ‘62. I just love being in this inverted position. But nowadays, because of different reasons, I use a block so I can get my legs up, and it’s just marvelous. But then, I also love down dog. I did so much of that already today. I’ve given two classes and taken one class already today.
Fitzgerald: You do yoga with such enthusiasm and joy. How do you keep your energy up?
Ammidown: I do. Of course, we know about the importance of nutrition. And I still drink coffee and have ice cream. (laughs)
Fitzgerald: That’s good. You’ve got to make time for the little joys.
Ammidown: Yeah! In addition to nutrition, it’s also a connection to spirit and to my higher power. My spiritual world and life is present. I pray to grow more effectively each day. It’s knowing how to give back and be open to receive, too.
Fitzgerald: A lot of people scale back in their 60s and 70s, but you seem revved up, ready to go.
Ammidown: Yes, I would say now more than ever. Being around the right people is really important. Not turning on the news at night. Having the right literature, the right sounds, the right silence. That’s how.