Susi Amendola is a powerful healing tool. Susi is National Director of Stress Management for the prestigious Dean Ornish Program for reversing heart disease. She teaches others to be healing tools, and how to heal themselves. She teaches lifestyle as treatment of disease, not just prevention, within the Ornish program. Intensive Cardiac Rehab is now prescribed as an option for patients who are experiencing heart disease. The program is modeled after Ashram living in many ways, and Susi has developed yoga-based Stress Management programs for schools, businesses, and hospitals throughout the country and has traveled and lectured extensively in the US and India.
A former resident of the Himalayan Institute, Susi is an Institute-certified teacher and holds an ERYT 500 with Yoga Alliance. Looking back over 30 years, Susi has a world of experience to inform her teaching. From 1978-82, she lived as a resident of the Himalayan Institute where she trained in Hatha and Raja Yoga, Meditation, Yoga Philosophy, Ayurveda and advanced Yogic practices. She was the Director of the Institute’s Ayurvedic Kitchen. She has studied with a number of esteemed teachers: Swami Rama of the Himalayas, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Swami Veda, Rolf Sovik, Nischala Devi, Pema Chodron and others.
Susi Founded Omaha Yoga & Bodywork Center in 1983, where she is currently the Director. She has also developed a 200 teacher training (Yoga Alliance Registered) program as a way to support teachers and students in furthering their experiences in Yoga.
In 1993-2004, she taught heart yoga as Stress Management through Immanuel Hospital’s Heart Institute in Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery. Dean Ornish is based out of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI, Sausalito, California). Susi continues to teach, study, practice, lecture and travel. She has produced a wonderful healing/relaxation CD called Embrace The Heart of Yoga – which is amazing.
Susi and I met when our daughters became good friends at school. We got along. Her vitality and contagious laugh brightens everyone’s world. I remember dressing as Morticia to Susi’s Gomez for Halloween as room mothers. Never has any school anywhere had more energetic and interesting room mothers! I’m proud to call her a friend, and proud of the great work she has done in helping sick people heal themselves throughout the world.
It’s with love that I present Susi’s answers to Five Questions.
1) How did you begin in yoga?
SA – I learned about yoga from my mom who after having five children in six years was completely overwhelmed and needed something that would help her relax. It ended up completely transforming her life and mine.
How old were you at the time?
I was about thirteen when I first remember seeing my mom standing on her head in the living room. At first I thought she was crazy but as I watched the profound impact it had on her, yoga became more interesting to me.
What was the draw for you to that world?
I may never have practiced yoga at all if it hadn’t been for the sudden anxiety attacks I started having around the age of fifteen. Of course back then, panic attacks were hardly heard of and medicine for them was not really an option. It was then that I started going to yoga classes with my mom to get some relief. I was drawn in not only by the techniques that helped ease my anxiety, but by the deep spiritual connection I felt when I practiced.
When you began, was it as popular as it is now?
Yoga was clearly not as popular as it is now but there was a dawning of consciousness that had carried over from the 60s and people were open to meditation and spiritual teachers in ways that we don’t even see now.
I ended up moving to a yoga ashram (community) to study and live for five years. It was there that I really immersed myself in the teachings and practices of yoga under the guidance of a Guru (teacher), Swami Rama of the Himalayas who started the Himalayan Institute in Pennsylvania.
2) Speak about your work with the Ornish program, please. How did you become involved?
SA – After living in the yoga ashram, my husband, daughter and I made our way back to Nebraska to be near his family. I opened a yoga center in Dundee and later moved it to Benson where I continued teaching and training yoga teachers. One day I received a call from one of Dr. Ornish’s colleagues letting me know there was a research study starting up at one of the local hospitals with funding from Mutual of Omaha. It was a study to look at the effects of lifestyle changes on cardiovascular disease. They wanted to know if I would be interested in teaching yoga in the hospital as part of an integrative team. My first reaction was a resounding “NO”!!. I couldn’t imagine working in a hospital or being part of mainstream medicine, but after reading Dr. Ornish’s book “Reversing Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery” I was ALL in. The program took off around the country with several research sites in the Midwest. The outcomes were astonishing. We would watch participants, who were on the heart transplant list, come off in just a few weeks. People who couldn’t even walk across the room with out chest pain were able to live pain free. It was so impressive. The lifestyle changes that they practiced were so simple and yet so profound. That ate a low fat vegetarian diet, exercised moderately for 3 hours a week, talked about their feelings in group and practiced an hour of yoga a day (which included, postures, breathing, relaxation, meditation, and imagery). Until Dr. Ornish’s program nothing including drugs or surgery had ever been shown to stop the progression or even reverse the disease. At best those interventions may slow the progression of the disease. Dr. Ornish’s program proved that with lifestyle intervention, you could stop and even reverse the disease.
I ended up teaching in that program in Omaha for about 12 years and when it ended here, I began working for them nationally. In 2011, the program was granted Medicare coverage. Dr. Ornish’s program has become its own track for cardiac rehab called “intensive cardiac rehab.” In hospitals that have our program, Medicare pays for it.
I have recently been involved in the newest incarnation of that program where we have joined hands with Healthways a health solutions company to bring the program into hospitals all over the country. I travel to San Francisco each month as part of an integrative team to train health care professionals to offer this program in hospitals. We have sites in Cleveland Clinic, Beth Israel New York, UCLA , West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Jersey with more joining each month. I am also involved in writing a weekly article on Yoga and Stress Management for the Ornish Living Magazine http://ornishspectrum.com/ornish-living/. In addition I continue to work as a moderator for our on line community called Feel The Love at The Ornish Spectrum where those who are trying to make lifestyle changes can go for daily support and encouragement.
What has been the most rewarding part of that work?
This work is so incredible. Participants in the program show dramatic changes, but most impressive to me are the stories of transformation. People’s lives are touched so deeply and personally that I can’t imagine doing any other work that is more meaningful. Watching someone who couldn’t even walk across the street without chest pain be able to hike and enjoy life again is more than rewarding.
3) You are known for your peaceful teaching method, and your sweet personality. What does teaching bring to your life?
SA – Teaching brings me the opportunity to learn in ways that being a student can’t. Holding space for the stories of others is a great privilege and joy. It calls me to be my highest self and allows me to be present with others. It’s through this presence that I have learned compassion and understanding, a gift bigger than anything I could give.
Have your students made you proud? Any stories or shout outs?
I am so touched and inspired by students each and every day I walk into a classroom. What courage it takes to be real with your self. What courage it takes to look deeply and really see yourself in ways that you never have. I am humbled by this courage and love.
The shout out is to all the students who dare to step on this path. I am proud to walk this path by your side.
4) Regarding your personal journey, how has your yogic life informed your everyday life?
SA – Anymore it’s hard to say where one stops and the other begins. There is a bridge between the two that has gotten stronger with each passing year. At its core yoga has a set of guidance’s called the Yamas and Niyamas that help the practitioner observe themselves and their relationship to others. They are a constant reminder for me to treat others and myself with great care.
You’re known as a fabulous vegetarian chef. How did you begin cooking?
I learned to cook first from my mother who is a great vegetarian chef and second when I lived in community at the ashram, I worked in the yogic kitchen where I had the good fortune to study with Indian women who were trained in Ayurvedic cooking. It was fascinating watching them create without cookbooks and with such love and devotion. The food always felt so healing and sacred to me.
5) What goals and aspirations do you have regarding your business?
SA – I try to live my goals moment to moment so I don’t have regrets.
The Omaha Yoga & Bodywork Center has been in existence for over 30 years. We moved to Benson way back in the late 80’s and held classes in the upstairs of the old building we still reside in. I remember there was a music store that rented below us and we would hear banjo music coming up through the floor during our classes. It was kind of amazing and not always easy to meditate to banjo. Over time we moved into the downstairs and I bought the building so we could make Benson our home. My vision has always been to create community where people who share the same interest in yoga have a place to come to learn and practice.
Over the years my vision has expanded to include training yoga teachers. Our yoga teacher certification program has been in operation for almost 28 years now and I’m forever grateful to Omaha for opening its arms and hearts to us. Training teachers and students has been a big presence in my life for so many years. I still hold that same goal in hopes that growing older only makes me wiser, stronger and more able to share with others in an ongoing way.
Last year I had the great honor to be an invited presenter at the Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research in Austin Texas
I presented with some of my favorite yoga researchers and teachers from around the world. It was a high point for me and I hope to continue to make contributions in the yoga therapy world going forward.
Your personal life?
I have such a full life. I have three lovely daughters and a granddaughter. The two oldest girls and granddaughter live in Los Angeles, so I try to visit as often as possible. My partner Josh, a nutritional psychologist, and I share so many interests in the world of health and healing so our conversations and life are always lively. His daughter Daisy, twelve, lives part time with us so there is never a dull moment at our house. We laugh all the time. Balancing the ongoing travel, work and fun seem to be at the top of my list of goals for this year.
In addition to that there might be a book that wants to come out sometime in the future.
How can people take classes from you and your staff?
The Omaha Yoga and Bodywork center in Benson has a wide variety of offerings from yoga to tai chi to massage therapy and psychotherapy. Our yoga classes are suitable to all levels. We cater to those who want to do yoga with an inner focus, and mindful awareness. Anyone can register on line through our website at www.doyoganow.com or just drop in. I personally offer three classes a week and run the yoga certification programs. All of our teachers are highly skilled and dedicated. My hope is that anyone who feels called by yoga or the hope for transformation will give it a try.
I hope to see you on the mat.