Walking into one of Ambyr D’Amato’s yoga classes, you can hear a communal sigh of relief. That joyful and calm feeling only increases as the class goes on…as does giggling, release, healing and, of course, stretching. And that’s just as the Omaha, NE, native wants it.
With a warm and easy vibe earned through her own trials and hard work, the playful former opera singer wants everyone to enjoy yoga as a safe space to process, heal and strengthen heart and body. D'Amato's packed classes in NYC and Miami prove that her approach works. SBS chatted with her to hear all about her style of yoga.
SBS: How did you find yoga?
Ambyr D’Amato: Well, it’s actually a long story! My freshman year of college, I went to school in DC. Right around September 11th, my very close childhood friend committed suicide. Afterward was a very dark, sad time in my life. I went overboard with partying and was also going through that time in life that is hard for a lot of people in our early 20s. I was in a competitive opera voice program, but I stopped caring about that. I was wondering: What’s the point of living? My friend is gone. It was an identity crisis.
I ended up going back to Nebraska to ground myself, and then re-auditioned for the NYC school I had originally wanted to go to, American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I got in, moved to NYC and did what I wanted. But, I still wasn’t doing well, even though I was seeing a grief counselor and on anti-depressants.
In my third semester, my acting teacher made us do yoga as part of our physical warm-up. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even touch my toes. I couldn’t do a push up. I couldn’t do anything. I was always a little chubby growing up. I was a theater kid. But even though this acting teacher was tough, I respected him. I wanted to show him I could do yoga. So, I found a yoga studio where I could answer the phones in exchange for classes.
SBS: What was it like when you took that first real yoga class?
ADA: The minute I took that first yoga class, I was hooked. I felt all the rewards. I couldn’t touch my toes, but it was ok! I had no idea it would heal me in the way it did, emotionally. I would sob in pigeon pose. When people set aside an hour out of their day to be with themselves, whether they need a workout or an hour away from the phone or kids, that’s important. Sometimes that hour is considered selfish, but it’s not. If you can take that time, it has a ripple effect.
I started feeling better. I would cry in class, and I realized I was actually starting to fully grieve and process. I had been in such a dark place and so out of tune, I didn’t even start fully processing until that. It was almost like I got even more in touch with what had happened so I could process and grieve. I kept working at the yoga studio and started going every day. I worked my whole schedule around yoga. I wanted to be at the studio all the time.
SBS: How did you decide to attend a training?
ADA: One day I was at the studio answering phones, and the teacher didn’t show up. The owner of my studio called a studio close by and asked them to send a teacher. Instead, their owner showed up! He came dressed in a beautiful outfit, and after class he looked me in the eye and asked why I didn’t teach the class. I told him I couldn’t even touch my toes! He said: ‘You’ll teach one day.’ Then, the two studios ended up combining and he invited me to do the teacher training for free—even though I had no desire to be a teacher. He promised me he’d teach me how to do a crow, step by step, in one month.
SBS: How was that experience?
ADA: Well, he put me in a training with eight other dancer girls. Hysterical!
But all those several months, I had started taking less meds and feeling better. By the end of training I had transformed myself to be not only how I was before my friend died, but I had also become Ambyr 2.0. I was so bright, loving and joyful. I had never experienced that. I had never felt comfortable in my body, but now I could do crazy poses and fly around room. I think that swag and confidence came from being in a training when I was a beginner: I had been doing yoga for 4 or 5 months, which seems crazy now!
SBS: What was it like to then start teaching after not practicing for very long?
ADA: Well, I thought: I have to teach! I have to show people they don’t have to feel sad either. They can feel better too. I had no desire to teach: I had thought you can’t teach yoga if you’re a total beginner, but I had to!
Now I teach at Crunch, the Loom in Bushwick, and I do privates for Sony and Random House among others. I also consult for the Standard Spa in Miami, and I taught their first yoga teacher training. I travel back and forth to Miami.
SBS: How would you describe your unique appeal: Your classes are packed!
ADA: I try not to play up body positivity because I don’t want to use a gimmick. But it’s not a gimmick for me. I do feel women feel more comfortable in my class because I’m softer and curvy. They feel like, oh this person looks a little different than a traditional ‘yogi.’ And then they might realize, we’re all yogis. There’s no ‘look’ of a traditional yogi.
SBS: How would you describe your approach to yoga and teaching?
ADA: Personally I’m into the yoga of devotion, but I don’t teach that in my class. In my own healing journey I had space to be with myself to process whatever I needed to. So when I teach, I like to keep it open for people to have their own journey. I also teach a playground style open class, so you can choose from a million options. I think it’s nice to know all the options, and then you can make your own decisions.
We are all built differently, so we need to know it’s ok if your knees aren’t smashed together.
I’m also a huge anatomy buff, and I teach that now. So I do think there are a few things to be careful with. But I think that the ‘right way’ is really suggesting the right thing for each person’s body. Being able to listen to your body and know when something is too much is important. I do think there is something nice about lineage that’s passed down. Yoga is good by itself and as it is!
SBS: What are those few things you mentioned above?
ADA: Hypermobility is important to address. There are people who are really bendy. Sometimes they just go and teachers don’t reign them in. But the issue is how that can wreak havoc on your joints. Being able to study with teachers who know how to offer you muscular action is key. For example, in a low lunge back with your knee on the floor, you drop the knee down to stretch your hip flexors. But if you squeeze your butt on that side of the hip flexors creating opposition, that support of squeezing your butt will give more openness in hip flexors—and be much safer. That offers so much more support and is kinder to the body. Work toward strength and flexibility at the same time.
SBS: What are common mistakes you see in an open class?
ADA: Inversions are very advanced. Sometimes I see people in open classes throw themselves into them. There’s nothing wrong with trying, but it’s good to work with a teacher to learn smart ways to get started. Even if you don’t do the whole thing, you’ve been shown the right way to get there. For example, I’d love it if everyone learned headstands with blocks! You decompress the spine and still get full benefits of being upside down. Do that first.
Also remember, everyone is working on things. It took me three years to learn how to do the headstand! I show my students I can’t do a certain pose on one side. I love to show people that I’m crap at this pose! We are all built differently and human.
SBS: How can newcomers engage safely and enjoyably in open level classes?
ADA: Intersperse open level classes with actual beginner classes. You’ll get inspired to keep going in open level classes, and you’ll get technique in beginner classes that will make you stronger and flexible because you’re ‘doing it right.’
Also remember, a beginner class doesn’t mean it’s easier. If you do a pose like pyramid properly, you’ll get your full hamstring open. But if you don’t know better, you’re just stretching inner thigh mostly. Learn the ins and outs!
And, have fun! That’s why I like teaching a playground-style class. I want people of all levels to be together, be inspired and also know the progression of poses.
SBS: What are your tips for teachers new to teaching open level classes?
ADA: Offer people three different variations in as many poses as possible. Even if you aren’t cueing beginner, intermediate and advanced (you can stay, step 1 is here, step 2 is here and so on), have that in mind.
Personally, I teach for proportions of people’s body more often. I have really long upper arm bones: Binds are easy. But for other bodies, it’s not. So, instead of doing a bind, I’d rather have someone put their top arm in the air and bend at the elbow to open the chest. What are more options for the same goal? How can I offer modifications for different bodies?
SBS: What are the biggest misconceptions about yoga?
ADA: Women often think they can’t do arm balances, and I love to show them that they can. And, people often feel like it will hurt their wrists or back. But if you are working with a teacher who can help you work well and leads you through a progression, you won’t get hurt. For example, if you properly open your hip flexors during class, when you do wheel you won’t feel your back! The misconceptions are changing. 12 years ago it was just starting to be cool. Now my 70-year-old mom does yoga.
SBS: How do you think philosophy and spirituality should play into a yoga practice?
ADA: Sometimes people think you have to be religious or spiritual to practice. My personal preference for devotional yoga is my own, but I don’t have to bring that into class to my students. I want people to find and experience the idea that they have time for themselves. In yoga, they have time to work on the body or any healing they want to in their heart or body. Get some nice fresh circulation! It can simply be a time to ease the stress of NYC. There are so many different styles of practices and teachers. If you don’t like this one, no problem, go try another one. If your thing is playing guitar and biking, I support that too.
Ambyr’s NYC Favorite:
Healthy Restaurant: by Chloe
Splurge Restaurant: Candle 79
Nightlife Spot: The Standard East Village
Fun Activity: Driving my Vespa up the FDR along the water!
Fitness Studio/Activity: Kangoo and Bungee classes at Crunch
Additional Yoga Studio: Yogamaya
Yoga Wear: Athleta
Athletic Shoes: Shoes? Birkenstocks only!
Calming Activity: Reiki or acupuncture session
Online Resources: Bandha Yoga for anatomy (www.bandhayoga.com)
Books: The Journey Home and The Journey Within by Radhanath Swami
Ambyr’s SBS Mantra: Be Bright! What a great way to walk through the world. Shine bright!
What’s the best, zaniest part of being Ambyr? I'm a huge Tony Robbins fan. I'm also a singer and multi-instrumentalist. I play more than 10 instruments.