Offers a therapeutic approach to yoga for people with disabilities and special needs.
Its founder, Bea Ammidown, is a 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
- Psychological state.
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.
“I’m very pleased to say how old I am, which sounds younger every year.”
On a recent, warm fall day, we chatted by phone about her 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
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’dlike 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
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
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.
Yoga Therapy in Practice IAYT – Yoga at the end of Life Ability Magazine – The YogAbility story LA Yoga Magazine – DVD Review Yoga4Everybody – A Diary of Yoga for Special Needs LA Yoga Magazine – Teacher Profile on Bea Ammidown Yoga Therapy in Practice IAYT – The delights and benefits of Yoga for Cerebral palsy Santa Monica Mirror – Yoga even for the disabled The Huffington Post – Yoga even for the disabled *****************************************************************************************************
Yoga Therapy in Practice www.iayt.org September 2005 Volume 1, Issue 1 Publication of the International Association of Yoga Therapists Teaching Reflections: Yoga at the End of Life……………………By Bea Ammidown
A few years ago, Kay, a 52-year-old registered nurse and former Broadway dancer, arrived at our Yoga studio with a cane and a brace on one leg. Kay was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in the form of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that eventually leads to paralysis. Kay wanted to participate in the small restorative group classes and the Yoga community spirit. She also began to take one-on-one Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions with me. Kay’s Sessions Kay is lifted out of her wheelchair and placed in a recliner chair for our three- times-a-week sessions at her home. Classical music, opera, or a basketball game might be on as I arrive. I prepare by placing bolsters and rolled up towels for additional support. “Oh, I feel normal!” this valiant lady exclaims and then laughs. Our sessions focus on supported asanas. To avoid the serious cramping that occurs with ALS, maintaining long poses has shifted to continuous and slow movements. Keeping ego out of the way and watching her breathe, I look for any change of expression as I begin to move her body. A sample 90-minute practice follows: 1. Begin with centering and prayer. 2. Head rotations and extensions, with a massage of the neck, arms, hands, wrists, and fingers. 3. Passive stretches: I extend and pull her legs carefully to create a welcome traction. I then raise one leg at a time. I continue by bending her knees and pushing them to her chest, as I lift her feet to face the ceiling. I notice Kay smiling and breathing more fully. “Dead Bug!” I say. Kay says, “Bea, not Dead Bug, its the Dancing Bug- let’s do it again, please.” 4. Yogic bicycle movements (continuous circular movements of her legs, as if she were pedaling a bike). 5. A rocking baddha konasana (bound angle) – with her knees bent and soles of feet touching, I rock her slowly side to side. 6. A specially designed for her body “lying down twist” in a recliner chair. In this pose, I am able to push, pull, and support her very tender and increasingly stiffening body. 7. Bent knee rotations and ankle circles bring this dancer’s body alive. Kay welcomes jojoba oil smoothed onto her face, and sweet scented sun- flower lotion massaged onto her hands and feet. There are times when I must stop and breathe more audibly so Kay might follow suit. It often works. Her lungs need the attention, and I suggest the Lion Breath. Kay knows that the muscles all around the throat can be exercised without pain, so she willingly opens her mouth very wide. She extends her tongue far out with a sigh and deep exhale as she contracts her abdominal muscles. Once more Kay says, “Thank you Bea, I feel normal at these times. Imagine if you cannot move at all and have feeling. Then,” she continued, “then imagine being moved. It is simply divine!” After a serious auto accident years ago, and many major orthopedic surgeries, I have gone through rehabilitation to learn how to walk and talk again. My experiences helped me understand Kay’s energy and character. There is no pity present between us. There is, instead, appreciation and a deep acknowledgement that arises naturally as I watch Kay engage devotedly with the adapted Yoga poses. Kay’s Final Yoga Session Two months ago, Kay said, “My lungs are operating less than 50%. Don’t ask me to breathe any more, Bea.” I changed the words of guidance to “See the light expanding all through your body, filling it, protecting it, and touching every cell with healing and love.” Fewer parts of Kay’s body could be moved without pain. Her hands and shoulders not at all. I saw how bloated her chest and abdomen had become, and I knew she barely ate. Toes and fingers were swollen, but she wanted a soft massage with a new lotion. She was preparing to leave. I felt it, and so did her housekeeper, Mila. Flowers abounded inside and outside. Kay had just redecorated her whole house. Today when I arrived at 5PM, the TV news was on in the den. Kay was waiting in her recliner chair, her husband was seated in an armchair, and her daughter was home from school, lying on the thick rug with her dog. “Shall I put on classical music or would you like silence today?” I asked. “No, Bea, leave it on.” The disturbing news continued as I cautiously moved her legs, knees, and ankles. Then Kay said, “See if John is asleep, and then you can turn it off.” I looked and said yes, he was asleep. John barely slept nights. Instead, he stayed by Kay in the hospital bed they had brought into their beautiful bedroom, overlooking their lush garden and pool. This was her choice: no nurse in the bedroom, no hospital, and no respirator. For the 4th of July last week, Kay’s manicurist had varnished each toenail alternatively with red, white and blue sparkly polish. I admired them, but noticed how a few of the nails were in grown and might be painful. No, she said, they weren’t. But then, for the first time in my presence, she asked for a morphine tablet. I had brought her a gift of a rough crystal. I mentioned that crystals have healing powers. I placed it on her solar plexus under her limp hands. “Where shall I put it now?” I asked. “No Bea, take it with you, you keep it,” she simply said. This was her way of saying goodbye. Outside, after the Yoga practice, I held both the nurse’s and the house keeper’s hands and said to them, “Kay is leaving us.” “Yes, we know.” My stomach was cramping as I drove home. I was sensing what was happening. I knew this might be our last time together, and what made this possible for me, as a facilitator, was the inspirational strength of truth that Kay emanated. The power through grace that guided her to ask, receive, and give us her generous awareness- there was no self-pity. Only once I saw her cry into her husband’s arms, as they looked through a photo album. The next morning, July 12 at 9 AM, the nurse who was attending Kay called. “Bea, Kay died in the night. I wanted you to know.” Kay was where she wanted to be, in her delightful, newly decorated home, in her bed- room with her husband by her side. Warm, familiar surroundings, loving people. Thank you, Kay, for trusting and showing me how to keep on dancing, no matter what. Bea Ammidown is the founder of the non-profit YogAbility Institute. Bea began her practice prior to the birth of her daughters. She offers heartfelt Yoga adapted for children to seniors with special needs or disabilities, and their caregivers. Back to top
The name of “YogAbiliity” was inspired by ABILITY Magazine. Several years ago, a friend gave he author and founder of YogAbility, Bea Miller Ammidown, an issue of Annette Funicello on the cover. Ms. Ammidown was inspired by ABILITY’s focus on the ability of persons with disabilities. The following conversation between Ms. Ammidown and the editor describes the benefits of the YogAbility programe which Ms. Ammidown created:
Q.Bea, what is important about your organization –The YogAbility Institute that the readers of Ability need to know?
A.That all people, infants to seniors no matter what their condition is have the ability to advance, enhance and improve.
Q.Then, how do you respond to the saying “If things are good- why fix them and make them better?”
A. Maybe it is not about fixing to make better, which could insinuate something was wrong or bad, but just that theremight be another place to go to that would empower the person more. Enlighten too.
Q. Tell me more about empowerment?
A. Wouldn’t you like to discover a new ability? A new talent? Such as cooking a fabulous new dish? Discovering a great hardware store, a resort to have a blissful holiday in, or a better vitamin. All those actions, which can be achievements, can empower.
Q. Yes but how does this relate to yoga and exercise for people with disabilities?
A. we all have limitations and special needs. For instance, I am dangerously hyper-flexible and my left foot and ankle are dysfunctional due to a head on auto collision I had, so I have had to seek alternative ways of moving, teaching and practicing.
Q. What if a person cannot move such as your student Kay with ALS -Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A. In the beginning, Kay (former Broadway dancer then a RN) drove every week with her cane and leg brace for a small group class. The next year I went to her home where she lay on a recliner chair and could only move her left hand slightly. We developed poses that let her feel she was dancing again.
Q.What kind of yoga is that? Are you saying that anyone can do yoga or have it done for them?
A. If you are breathing you are doing yoga. It is first a question of awareness- of being present and noticing your b breath, just noticing. And yes- yoga is for everyone- for every ability and with professional, conscious guidance anyone who would like to can receive- I emphasize receive and be supported into yoga. The word meaning union primarily.
Q. This sounds very simple, do people have difficulty with this?
A. Some do. YogAbility is a conglomerate of disciplines that include the magic of music and sounds; sensitive encouraging words of acceptance and praise; listening and letting the ego be out of the way and also enjoying playful moments while going in and out of poses with animal names –that children and adults alike can enjoy. But it is mainly offering endless wisdom that the body-mind-heart and spirit when connected through yoga can communicate. It is how can we listen to this inner guidance and use it always for our highest good.
Q.Why are you doing this now as a grandmother?
A. Some things are too good to keep inside. “You only get to keep what you give away.” I have heard.. like a smile. And I feel that the Institute with the funding we are getting continues to be able to offer scholarships to those in need for instruction and also to be producing more educational YogAbility DVDs. These are for all ages and addressing specific conditions. I personally feel healthier and more interested in life and the possibilities we have available as each day passes. The blessings already are.
Laughing from her hospital bed, at the yoga pose’s nickname_”dead bug”an adapted knees to chest position, Anne, 42, with muscular dystrophy wants more. ”Like yoga bicycles please? And by the way let’s call that other pose “dancing bug” –not “dead bug.” Polly, who uses a wheelchair,is supported into a spinal twist while a flute concerto plays at the retirement home. At 95 years old Polly crosses her arms and holds onto her elbows. She extends and leaning on her yoga teacher who carefully stretches her upper body forward and opens her arms out. This sequence expands the lungs and chest through the use of guided breathing. Jesse a 30 year old man who is developmentally delayed has been practicing YogAbility for almost a year He assumes a valiant warrior pose then gets to his mat on all fours to begin the cat pose. Arching and rounding his back to African drums he proceeds to his favorite- the lion. Jesse opens his mouth wide and extends his tongue out as far as he can. He knows this is good to keep sore throats away. Marta, a toddler with Down syndrome shows a new sense of pride as she is supported into the cobra, a safe arching pose. Her mother is encouraged to attend classes on her own in order to understand and utilize the benefits of yoga. These are all people with special needs. They possess the ability to seek beyond their limitations with compassionate assistance. These are also people engaged in YogAbility. Thirty-five years ago,the seeds of YogAbility were planted when pregnant with her second child, Bea Miller found Richard Hittleman’s illustrated book on yoga .The poses were a fun experiment. Bea felt so exhilarated after doing some of the poses especially an inverted one called a shoulder-stand. Her worries seemed to disappear up and out through her feet……amazing! Many years later, her legs in traction in the hospital from an auto accident, this same woman would watch agreat ballerina on TV, visualizing herself dancing. After one of her legs was shortened to match the other irreparable one, more serious yoga studies began. Years of volunteering followed in communities and hospitals where yoga enhanced health became the theme of her life. And yes, this woman walked and danced again. There was a strong desire to share what she had learned in her own recovery process. She now teaches YogAbility. Six visually impaired students hold onto the waist-high railing with both hands in the studio. “Place yourselves at arm’s length,” says ”the YogAbility instructor,” Hold them straight, and begin to lean forward so your back is level with the floor. Relax your head, your neck, even your jaws, teeth too! Laugh if you feel the urge and feel the stretch; breathe softness into those spots that are talking back to you.” The men and women reach back with their hips and little by little put themselves into this spinal column and muscle-elongating pose. “ Hold on to this railing now for a few more deeps breaths, relax, and feel supported as you get to know your body a bit more and make friends with it,” the teacher encourages. At the Santa Monica, California Step Up on Second, a socialization center for adults in recovery from mental illness, a group of veterans remove their heavy leather boots, belts, and caps to sit on chairs in a circle. Today the music playing is Native- American. “Who has ever had a bad back?” Bea asks. Every one nods. “ O.K. please sit at the very edge of your chairs and uncross your legs. Place your feet hip distance apart and lean forward resting your elbows on your knees, hands relaxed and down. Easy? Too easy? Yes, this is yoga.” No one is ever obliged to do a posture but is encouraged to just breathe and observe. “Next we are going to slowly reach for our ankles as we look down- relaxing our necks. You don’t have to reach them but you might and you could get to the floor- which is a fine goal. Go for it! Breathe slowly fully and deeply. Just relax into this upside -down pose. This lets us see the world from another perspective. While good energy and blood flow up into the brain.” Kay, 54 with ALS, (Lou Gehrigs disease) in a newly upholstered recliner chair, closes her eyes and some days listens to the basketball on TV with her comforting husband close by. To begin the three times a week practice, passive leg and arm are stretches begin where the limbs are lifted and extended ever so gently to produce a soothing welcomed traction. This is followed by ankle and foot rotations. There is usually a lying down twist pose- where with just enough pushes and pulls -Kay’s very tender and increasingly stiffening body is supported. Pillows and bolsters of different sizes are put into needed places for balance and comfort. Bent knee rotations- for her hips and wide arm circles for the shoulders would bring this former Broadway dancer’s body alive. In order to avoid the serious cramping that occurs with ALS, holding poses for a long time, which she once could do, shifted to continuous slow movements. A body-mind dialogue is often part of the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which can be integrated into a YogAbility session, and silence was an option. At the end of a class, Bea helps to Kay create an affirmation with guidance from her higher power. Two of her inspiring ones were “I am demanding and I give a lot.” And “My humanity is my strength.” Back to top
The deep love and joy that Bea has for people with special needs can be felt instantly when viewing this video. It shows the beauty of yoga that is created when a connection is made between a student and teacher filled with love. In Special Needs Yoga Ammidown works with two of her students, a 25-year-old woman with cerebral palsy and an 82-year-old man who has survived a stroke. Ammidown leads the two of them through a seated sequence, then a floor sequence with the young woman and a standing sequence with the gentleman. Conversations with caregivers and interviews with medical professionals are also included. Special Needs Yoga is inspiring to watch if you want to observe a beautiful student/teacher dynamic. Ammidown provides ideas and instruction on how caregivers and yoga teachers can creatively instruct students who are in wheelchairs or have very limited mobility. This is more useful as an informative watch than to follow along with for a home practice. Since the audibility of Ammidown’s voice fluctuates, it is helpful to have the remote nearby. The strengths of Special Needs Yoga are in the experience and heart Ammidown brings to this most important work of making yoga accessible to all, and finding the healing power in the practice for those with special needs and their often worn-out caregivers. Carrie Searles E-RYT 500, MA, is a certified Ayurvedic consultant and is also certified in Structural Yoga Therapy under the teachings of Mukunda Stiles. She is currently living in Littleton, Colorado and is getting an MBA at the University of Denver Back to top
Bea Ammidown meets me at the door to her Santa Monica apartment in her bare feet. The midday sun outlines her petite figure, illuminating her golden curls form an expanse of windows behind her. Cedar incense perfumes her living room, a cozy crème-carpet sanctuary that doubles as The YogAbility Institute. Here she delivers a healing blend of yoga therapy and meditation to people with special needs and disabilities. This grandmother, journalist and Yoga Alliance member greets me with a sincere, unbroken gaze. We shake hands and she audibly breathes me in. Bea relaxes me before I’m even inside. I get the feeling she connects as quickly and seamlessly with her students, regardless of their individual abilities and limitations.
Today Bea invites me to shadow her session with Jason, a tall, lanky 19-year-old born with severe autism. He arrives in an orange long sleeve shirt and khaki shorts with two caregivers. Bea tenderly embraces him, nearly touching her nose to him. Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that makes it difficult of a person to communicate, verbally and non-verbally, to relate to others and to adapt to changes in their environment and daily routine. Children with autism often don’t develop attachments, engage in obsessive, repetitive behavior and withdraw from the outside. Jason begins his once-a-week practice seated in a metal folding chair. Bea softly kneads his shoulders and neck, and his rigid body softens. He slinks forward, and then folds at the waist. “You just have to follow him (and ) what he wants to do,” Bea says, gently coaxing him into Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) by placing one hand at the nape of his neck and the other on his clenched, fidgety hands. She draws Jason’s fists to the floor to complete the pose. “You cannot force him,” Bay says. Jason hums and shrieks, seeming to relish his contact with Bea. Perhaps he’s responding to the stretch in his spine. Legs and pelvis’ he’s unable speak, so it’s hard to know. Without warning Jason springs off the chair and plunks onto the floor into his version off a Reclining Twist (Jathara Parivartanasana or Crocodile Twist). “I guess you’re ready for some floor time, Jay,” Bea says. Jathara Parivartanasana eases digestion, something especially good for Jason, whose gastrointestinal problem leave him incontinent and prone to abdominal pain. Bea gently rotates Jason’s left arm in circles while he holds the twist. “Let’s get this arm to be a magic wand,” she says. “Great, Jay. Good.” With each asana, Bea is Jason’s guide, his total support. Using her body as a prop, she pushes and pulls his rigid limbs in and out of postures. Partner yoga comes to minds as I watch their bodies combine, pause and unfurl. She indulges whichever pose Jason likes and for however long he wishes, free from the time constraints of faster paced studio classes. With a mother’s care, Bea wipes away the moisture that constantly flows form his mouth. Bea described Jason as a little boy while waiting for him to arrive for his session. “He feels and senses so much when he comes here,” she said, seated in Lotus Post (Padmasana). “He knows me now and waits for a kiss. He’s very sweet and loving.” When Jason first come to YogAbility two years ago, he had frequent tantrums, screamed more frequently and wore a protective helmet. Wendy Guzman, Jason’s caregiver, sees a remarkable difference in her client since he began yoga therapy. “Jason’s just grown tremendously – the way he communicates, the way he interacts with everyone,” she says. “He’s more grounded. She’s amazed that he’s doing Dead Bug Pose and Child’s Pose (Balasana) on his own at home, possibly on his own at home, possibly to relieve pressure in his stomach and colon. Jason’s mother, Danise , a psychotherapist, feels yoga has opened her son to new ways of coping with his feeling. “I think (yoga therapy) Lends itself to some children with autism because of the sensory motor aspect of it that has been shown to be helpful for children that are hypersensitive, hyperactive and tactilely defensive,” she says. “But it’s not just for children with autism…but just another positive activity to fill a child’s days.” Jason stretches out on his belly for supported Locust Pose (Salabhasana), a backbend posture Bea playfully calls “flying seagulls” She lifts his thin legs upward and swings them from side to side. He’s not as stiff as he was when he arrived some 30 minutes ago, but relaxed enough to make fluid, pendulum-like movements with his lower body. Bea squats above Jason’s downward facing body and pulls his shoulders upward into Sphinx Pose (an elbows-down variation of Cobra Pose or Bhujangasana). He purrs with delight. From this heart-opening pose she leads him into Dead Bug, and eventually into her trademark “yoga bicycle,” alternating his legs in revolving knee-to-chest movement. Bea then rolls Jason into full Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) while breathing sweeping Ujai breaths for him. Next, she molds his body into Plow Post (Halasana) and finally into modified Fish Pose (Matsyasana). He clambers to get up but instead reclines into a stack of sofa pillow. “With Jay it depends,? Bea says. “Sometimes (he) leaps up and goes to his shoes, and that tells us it’s time to go. We’re lucky to get this far today. Savasana arrives with the peaceful lilt of flutes sounding from Bea’s CD players. She thanks Jason for allowing her into his world, then smoothes her palms over his belly and chest for the rest of final relaxation. Jason reaches for a hug before heading out the door. Bea’s Beginnings YogAbility, operated by Bea alone since 1999, was inspired in part by her own experiences using yoga to recover from a head-on car crash. The collision left her with leg shorter than the other, cracked ribs, a broken hip, knee, hand and nose. Although she couldn’t walk or speak for months, Bea squeezed modified yoga into her physical therapy whenever she could. Four eye surgeries and half a dozen orthopedic surgeries later, she emerged with a renewed spirit ready to delve deeper into her blossoming yoga practice. Bea discovered yoga while pregnant with the second of three daughters some 20 years before the accident. She extends her legs upward in Shoulderstand, her favorite pose, and tells me she was born double, and loose, jointed. As an adult she searched out ways to control her body’s “dangerous hyper-flexibility.” She picked up a copy of Richard Hittleman’s Introduction to Yoga and decided to try some of the poses. Since then, she has practiced with yoga masters Indra Devi, Rod Stryker and Erich Schiffmann, and has also completed a rigorous Yoga for the Special Child training program. She claims Yogability’s therapeutic approach increases motor skills, builds muscular strength and flexibility, all while promoting self-esteem. “YogAbility is proof that all people, from infants to seniors, no matter what their condition, have the ability to move and enjoy their bodies beyond the limitations of their so-called disabilities,” says Bea. Barbara and Robert Robert, 59, lowers his lean, long-limbed frame out of his wheelchair and onto the carpet. He scoots on his behind over to his wife’s wheelchair, steadies himself on his knees and carefully draws her upper body into his arms. Barbara, 65, who has a far more debilitating form of cerebral palsy than her husband, rarely moves her legs on her own. They cling to each other, shaking but strong bound in a familiar, yet still arduous effort. Bea squats to adjust the volume on Barbara’s hearing aid, which was accidentally bumped up to blasting during the transfer. Barbara giggles as she arrives at the floor, and at the beginning of asana. The husband and wife of 33 years abandon their usual seated positions and lay resting in opposite directions, toe-to-toe on the floor. Cerebral palsy is a group of chronic conditions characterized by muscle tightness and spasticity, impaired speech and the inability to control body movement. The disorder is caused by the poor development of (or damage to) the motor area of the brain and usually occurs before or during birth, or within the first three years of life. Both Barbara and Robert were born with cerebral palsy. Barbara was two months premature and Robert, born almost a month late and strangled by his umbilical cord, was resuscitated at birth. “Bob is an experienced yogi who knows all the poses on his own,” Bea remarks proudly as Robert gracefully unwinds from Half Lord of the Fished Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana). “After coming here for two years, he really does his own practice now.” Bea continues to coach Robert, helping him fine-tune asanas, like Cow-Faced Pose (Gomukasana), that he tries from the July 2004 issue of Yoga 4 EveryBody, but spends most of session being a human prop for Barbara. Using pillows to cushion her back and neck, Barbara begins in supported Fish Pose (Matsyasana). Bea kneels behind her and holds Barbara’s suntanned arms at the writ, drawing her shoulders toward her crimson-haired head. “The achievement is to get this right arm straight,” Bea coaches Barbara. Later in the session, Barbara suffers a long muscle spasm in the same arm. Bea uses a pillowcase filled with 10 pounds of rice to hold Barbara’s arm still while massaging the contracting muscles. When the spasm ends. Bea turns Barbara onto her stomach for modified Cobra Post (Bhujangasana). Barbara’s tightened jaw juts outward while she waves her head back and forth as if motioning “no” or “no more.” She mumbles something, but her words are too slurred to understand. Bea lowers her out of the backbend for a break. But Barbara pushes back and holds pose until she’s exhausted. Meanwhile, Robert crawls to Bea’s front door, inches his sitting bones forward and moves into Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani). He appears determined to relax into the passive inversion, undeterred by the hoarse chest coughs that incessantly cut his Ujai breath short. I asked Robert and Barbara in an email if they feel that yoga therapy reduces their cerebral palsy-induced muscle tension and pain. Robert, whose condition makes it difficult to type more than a few words at a time or speak clearly, simply responded, “Yes, but I can’t explain it.” Half a dozen restorative poses later, Robert and Barbara again recline in opposite directions on wool blankets. Their toes touch in a subtle gesture of intimacy. Savasana begins with the calming voice of Shiva Rea backed by mellow Kirtan chanting. The Vinyasa guru quotes a guided mediation soft and low: “Living in bondage.. I have set myself free. U gave attained the unattainable and my heart is colored with the color of love.” Beat clinks Tibetan tingshaw bells together three times, signaling the end of final relaxation. Robert and Barbara open their eyes. With soothed muscles and refreshed spirits, they are ready to return to their lives outside Bea’s door. The fitting words of Shiva Rea playback in my mind as Robert, Bea and the couple’s aide begin the labor of lifting Barbara into her wheelchair using a bulky hand crank-powered swing. Kim Lachance is a Southern California-based freelance journalist and stay-at-home mother of two (going on three at press time). She plans to earn her prenatal yoga teaching credential when the youngest of her children reaches school-age.Back to top
Bea Ammidown’s eyes sparkle as she welcomes me with a hug into her home. Once she’s seen that my shoes are removed, she dips into the kitchen to make my tulsi tea. “A mainstay during my recent studies in Ayurvedic medicine,” she says. As we talk, Bea looks me straight in the eye, almost alarmingly so, while her voluptuous breaths remind me to breathe. She looks and moves more nimbly than many people half her age. This in spite of a head-on collision in 1985 that broke her legs, several ribs and collapsed both lungs, leaving her with one leg shorter than the other and a permanent injury to her left foot. As we talk further, Bea¹s history reveals itself to be a rich one. A mother of three, including actresses Penelope Ann and Marisa Miller, Bea started studying and practicing yoga in the 1960’s while working as a journalist at some of the nation’s most respected publications: Harper’s Bazaar, Life magazine and The Los Angeles Times. But it was not until the accident–one that killed her fiancé and hospitalized Bea for three months–that she considered teaching. Bea credits pranayama and mountain pose for saving her life. ³When I couldn’t move, I could still do yoga‹pranayama. When I put my feet on the floor after three months, mountain pose helped me deal with the pain. While on a summer vacation that year, her sister-in-law asked her to teach the family some yoga. Bea obliged, showing them sun salutations, shoulder stands and pranayama. Bea¹s specialty is yoga for clients with special needs and disabilities such as cerebral palsy, paraplegia or Down syndrome. Due to the needs of her clientele and her own practices of Viniyoga and Iyengar styles of yoga, Bea¹s classes and privates are personalized, slow and gentle. The YogAbility Institute, a non-profit organization that Bea founded in 1984 is the organ of support for this work. YogAbility and the money it raises allow Bea to teach clients with low-to-no income. With the sponsorship of AARP (American Association of Retired People), Bea also leads 48-Hour Caregiver Retreats to teach yoga to caregivers of special needs patients. The caregivers, many of whom Bea says are older and heavy-set, are inspired rather than intimidated by Bea, who jokes, I think my age helps that I have a belly, I have wrinkles,it’s very real. Bea is also a yoga therapist trained in the Phoenix Rising technique. The process is a one-on-one practice that combines classic yoga techniques, body-mind psychology and non-threatening dialogue to induce self-awareness and healing. At the beginning of each therapy session, the student either sets an intension for the practice or brings in a problem, to work through during the session. Bea then selects postures to fit the intention or problem and supports the student in each posture. She then asks the student, What’s happening now?² At the end of the practice, Bea helps students review their experience and encourages them to go to their center and listen for guidance to integrate what they learn into their everyday lives. This passion for learning and teaching continues to fuel Bea. “Spreading the wealth of knowledge that I’ve learnedŠmakes yoga so special for me. Future projects include a DVD targeted specifically towards students with special needs and their caregivers. Through her commitment to her clients and healing Bea reminds us of the value of service, both to the self and for others. Through her commitment to her clients and healing Bea reminds us of the value of service, both to the self and for others.Back to top
The delights and benefits of Yoga for Cerebral palsy. Case history by Bea Ammidown E-RYT 500. The YogAbility Institute This condition manifests itself with stiffness from Spasticity in Aubrey’s extremities, lower extremities more than upper extremities and right side more than left side) and relatively low proximal trunk and oral motor tone, combined overall with fluctuating tone (athetotosis). .” A multi-level orthopedic surgery years ago which included soft tissue releases of the bilateral adductors, hamstrings and tendo Achille was performed. ”Nancy Dilger, P.T. Treatment for stretching, building strength and relaxation is based on observation of voice, facial expressions, physical responses and history: Two pounds at birth 1982, Aubrey, is 4’11”, ninety-eight pounds. She has had swimming lessons, horseback riding; snow skiing, occupational therapy and 16 years of physical therapy. Two semesters of praised yoga at Palisades High School where she was the only special needs student. “This brought a deep sense of fellowship and acceptance putting her on a par with the other students.” Her mother Claudette happily shares. “Aubrey is very social.” Yoga is her main exercise with wheeling herself and practicing for her fifth AIDS Walk LA around golf courses.“ I am willing to once again wheel 6.2 miles. Please sponsor me!” With a smile, Aubrey reaches out to exchange hugs. We met at a screening of a documentary supporting integrating classes for special needs students into the school system. After four and a half years of weekly YogAbility classes,” my daughter Aubrey,” comments Claudette,” has developed better balance, body positioning, awareness and concentration. Confidence, community building, interaction, social graces + her skills are enhanced. She is so proud and delighted with her accomplishments.” Back to top
From a room filled with cymbidiums given regularly from fellow students this warm huggable lady from Philadelphia cheerfully, puts her one foot, her only foot, actually half a foot down and tells me:“My mission is to be as independent as possible.” Since she began classes Betsy clearly states: “I am stimulated and more flexible in my body and mind, aware, new energy and having more fun out of life and feeling my heartbeat.” What creates this for Betsy? She creates it because as a friend and being a driven, Yoga therapist and a recovered disabled woman I teach Yoga therapy/Viniyoga: ancient wisdom of Classical Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda, to facilitate the continuum of self-healing. I tell her it is Yoga, but so much more. Yoga is all. It is everything, it is a process to unite and is about freedom. Physical, energetic, psycho emotional, and spiritual healing means the freedom to be simply who we truly are. Freedom is the word that sums it up. My joy is having her receive from me- a friend of many years since she took care of me over 20 years ago as a master massage therapist after I nearly died in an auto accident and had to learn to walk again and use a built up shoe. I decided to put journalism aside and research body mind therapy and became a yoga therapist. “Receiving is as necessary as giving. To consciously receive is an expression of the dignity of giving”, Deepak Chopra writes, “and Betsy knows how to receive”..A 20-minute class in her chair will include:1. Breathing smoothly and completely- the priority. 2. “Stretching me by pulling my arms with your hands and massaging my neck makes me feel so good. The touching is about friendliness, I need that. I require caring and loving. A new flexibility is happening- one of my mind as well.”Betsy is an avid committed student of spiritual psychology and her classes at the University of Santa Monica -USM is a block from her assisted living home.3. Strengthening: Utilizing a non-electric wheel chair forces the smiling very active white haired darling of center work her cardio and tones her upper body. “I make use of all. All the adapted, assisted poses bring me to life. I feel alive. I have more energy, not stagnant. I feel my heart beat.”Senses are awoken I notice more and more. Appreciating a dark chocolate bar, ok for diabetics, I bring her, then plugging in a Hawaiian floral scent diffuser sweetly transforms the shared room and the cds encourage Betsy to sway to the best rhythms when she:4. Twists her spine 5. Rolls her shoulders 6. Turns her neck 7. Presses down and does pelvic tilts to wake sleeping muscles“When I am stiff and need help for my stiff, sore back what can I do?”I instruct her to:8. Bend forward, lean and reach out to hold on to a table and breathe fully and deeply then let your headrest down. By me pushing and pulling the spine gets release and energized I tell her.9. Now I assist her to circulate her upper body, –the spine- like a spoon in a bowl – the pelvic basin-, hands holding the wheel chair arms turning in one direction a minute and then reversing. This is a noted sequence to bring circulation to the sacrum plus letting energy release and move up the spine.Twenty minutes is up and the alert, energized Betsy is ready to do her homework, or look at her favorite tennis on TV, and roll herself out to help some of the residents acclimatize … she is the president of the patient’s council using her experience of many years as a counselor to serve others. The mother of two children with disabilities, now deceased, Betsy worked for years on programs for the retarded.To close: Awareness:Slipping and sliding.“Yoga assits me when I must slip and slide into my wheel chair, toilet, and bed. Using gravity, heights and breathing.” Note Betsy’s firm comments:Some Public toilets are good i.e. railings at right angles- so she can lift herself up securely and easily and some are not Handicapped accessible. Bad ones with one railing make it impossible to wash her hands when the sink counters are too low. She cannot push her wheel chair in enough in order to reach and use the faucets, soap, and towels.I write this small case history to show how I have used the years of study for myself to ultimately help others. Teach them to fish, rather than giving them fish. Take care of yourself so you can help take care of others.With the ability to transfer herself everywhere including down to her mat for her own practice. She begins in the wheelchair, and her recollection of what she has learned is impeccably supported by the fact that she has been in a “Special Ed” Yoga teacher’s training. Neck rotations, arms simulating windmills, forward bends, a seated pigeon. Twists. On her mat, cats, down ward facing dogs, cobras and child pose. Savasana follows a twist. The supported asanas with me may include: breathing exercises, the lion. Lengthy passive stretches of her limbs. A camel, bridge and bow pose; plow and shoulder stand – her favorite asana.“Receiving is as necessary as giving. To consciously receive is an expression of the dignity of giving”, Deepak Chopra writes, “and Betsy knows how to receive”. Back to top