“Yoga to me means being able to move your body & breath in a coordinated way to make your body strong and supple, to regulate your nervous system, and to become aware of the way we live our lives. Instead of reacting to life automatically, we become fully conscious.”
Founder of YAMA Foundation
Founder of Hersha Yoga School of Teacher Training
Student of Yoga Master Sri Swami Satchidananda
Certified Yoga Therapist and Integral Yoga Instructor
Authorized Teacher Trainer
Adaptive Yoga Specialist
Hersha Harilela Chellaram is Director of Hersha Yoga (Evantis Wellness), which is a school of yoga teacher training emphasising inclusive and accessible yoga. Certified in the system of Integral Yoga since 2002, Hersha provides training programs, online courses, and professional development in the field of yoga for people with disabilities, special needs or vulnerabilities.
Together with her husband, she has founded the YAMA Foundation: a charity that brings free or subsidised Yoga, Arts & Meditation programmes to Hong Kong’s underserved and needy communities, including those with special needs, disabilities , chronic illness, prisons, refugees, hospices and other charities. She supports a number of foundations and charitable organizations by designing and implementing targeted Yoga programs for children with special needs.
In addition, is a freelance writer on yoga and health and has been a contributor for Hong Kong’s Yoga magazine: Namaskar, and the Yoga writer for Global Health & Travel Magazine. Specialties: yoga and health, ayurveda, meditation, stress management, writing, training and development, corporate wellness, retreats, seminars, private classes, yoga teacher training, special needs, yoga for disabled populations
“My father was my first yoga teacher, but he never taught commercially because if you look at the 60s and the 70s, yoga was taught at temples, at spiritual centers, at community centers.”
Since Hersha was a child, she had the chance to learn one-on-one from yoga guru Sri Swami Satchidananda, one of the great Yoga masters who brought the classical Yoga tradition to the West in the 1960s.
In 2016, Hersha founded a non-profit yoga organization, YAMA Foundation, which aims to teach children and adults with various physical mobilities and illnesses who might otherwise not have the chance to practice it.
How was the experience of learning from Yoga Master Swami Satchidananda?
I was very lucky because from early on in my childhood, I remember traveling to Sri Swami Satchidananda’s Ashram. Although it was my summer holidays, I actually spent a lot of time at the school in the ashram. Also, I would say I was very lucky to have some one-on-one time with Swami Satchidananda as I grew up.
The experience of learning from Swami Satchidananda was, I would say, very unique. I was really lucky to have a lot of one-on-one time with a master. And he had hundreds and thousands of followers from all around the world.
To really have that was something very special, and I hold on to all the teachings very close to my heart. I’m very lucky that the Integral Yoga organization has a lot of his teachings online so that anytime I feel like I need to get inspired, I watch a video or read his books. I also have some past journal entries of when he gave me some valuable life advice and I’m following that to this day. It’s really something very special.
Swami Satchidananda was born in South India in Tamil Nadu. His whole foundation of yoga came from the Shaiva Tantra and Siddha Yoga traditions. There are a lot of different schools of yoga and philosophy. It can get very complicated to trace it back. From what I know, Swami Satchidananda traveled around looking for a guru.
“He spent a lot of time in South India studying with great yoga masters like Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, and the monks of the Siddha Boganathar lineage. He finally stayed with Master Sivananda. In his two-year tenure with Master Sivananda, he became ordained as a Swami or monk. That’s where he started to serve.”
Swami Satchidananda was serving in Sri Lanka when an American actor came to film a movie and invited him to go to the US to teach and talk about yoga. He stayed in the US because there was a high demand for his service. He took very traditional Indian teachings of yoga and simplified them in a way that could work with a more westernized culture.
“While still keeping true to the tradition, he taught them all the yoga techniques and practices, and Integral Yoga was born as a culmination of everything that he had learned from all the different masters that he had studied with.”
It’s a beautiful system. It’s unique because it’s so universal. And it works with so many different people. The system of Integral Yoga works for any stage of life – whether you are a child or whether you are 83 years old.
“Integral Yoga is a universal practice where it doesn’t really matter whether you touch your toes or not. It’s about finding optimal health and peace of mind. With this approach, it doesn’t really matter if you can stick your leg behind your head. Practicing yoga means you’re working to tone and condition your physical body, but with the ultimate goal to have less distraction in the physical body, so you can work with your mind, and live a good life.”
What is the meaning of yoga to you?
Yoga to me means being able to move your body and breath in a coordinated way to make your body strong and supple, to regulate your nervous system, and to become aware of the way we live our lives. Instead of reacting to life automatically, we become fully conscious.
Yoga is an integrated way of life, cultivating good physical health and strength in your body, creating a very strong mind, and having a pathway to understand your own psychology, and shifting your mindset.
The meaning of life is not something that you find, the meaning of life is something that you consciously create.
If I were to sum it up, this is the motto of Integral Yoga is to develop “an easefull body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life.” To me, that’s what yoga is about. I’ve adapted the Integral Yoga motto to YAMA Foundation’s vision, which is, everybody has the right to feel good in their body, be peaceful in their mind, live a colorful and rewarding life, and be part of a caring community. To me, that’s what yoga is all about.
What inspired you to found YAMA Foundation?
I have been a yoga teacher for 20 years. When I started my yoga teaching journey, one thing I learned very quickly is real-life students don’t look like what you see in magazines.
I obviously started teaching before social media and before the iPhone was created. It was mainly magazines such as the Yoga Journal that you would see yoga being represented.
It was always a very specific type of person, image and body type practicing yoga, and usually the poses were very impressive and very complicated. In real life, this was not the person that was coming to me for a yoga class.
The people who came to me for yoga classes couldn’t touch their toes. Some had an immense amount of stress. My teaching actually evolved to make sure that the person in front of me could still access a complete experience of yoga – both physical, as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual. It was the very framework in my foundation for my teaching career.
But two very specific events happened to make me kind of think, “Okay, something more is needed.”
As soon as I qualified as a yoga teacher, I was living in New York. I was substituting in a yoga class at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City, and in walked a woman with a wooden leg. Of course, as a brand new teacher, I panicked. I went up to her before the class and I said, “I just graduated from my teacher training and I don’t know if I have the skills to help you in the class.”
She laughed and she said, “Oh, relax, honey. I’ve been coming to yoga for years. You watch me, and I’ll teach you something.”
As I was guiding a whole class, she was right. I was watching her and the way she knew how to accommodate her unique body was fascinating.
I learned so much from that one class watching her. The way I teach yoga was changed forever.
The second event happened when I was living in Europe, and my niece was born.
My husband’s side of the family all lived in Spain, they’re all yoga teachers, and they embraced this child with special needs with so much love and acceptance. As a family, they decided to use the spiritual side of yoga, as well as very gentle physical practices to help her.
We heard the doctors saying, “This baby might not make it to her first birthday. So just love her and make her comfortable.”
This child is now 14 years old and thriving. Yoga, creativity, music, dance – all were a part of her upbringing, all were a part of her life and the doctors would say, “The results from her blood tells a very different story to the child standing in front of me, whatever it is you’re doing, keep doing.”
I left Spain to move to Hong Kong in 2009. I thought, if yoga has helped my niece in such a significant way, I’m certain that there are children in Hong Kong that could be benefited the same way. So I started to study how to work with children who had rare diseases and special needs. I studied a system called Yoga for the Special Child, which is a technique called the Sonia Sumar Method.
I studied with Sonia Sumar, learning to work with children with special needs. I also worked alongside physiotherapists who worked with kids who had disabilities. I even volunteered at a special education needs school in Hong Kong to learn about educating, communicating, and working with kids with different needs. That volunteering gig turned into an educational assistant teaching position at the school, which I did for about a year.
Only then, I started to teach yoga to kids with special needs. I was doing this privately and for profit. I realized very quickly that the families who needed this service couldn’t afford to pay for a private yoga therapist. It wasn’t just children who needed the service, adults, the elderly, and many other types of people who actually needed yoga as rehabilitation or as a therapy – were struggling to pay for a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist.
The more I worked with this demographic, the more I realized the bigger social issues at hand. That’s where I thought about starting a charity. The purpose would be for the charity to raise money to support the families who can’t afford it. The yoga teachers and therapists aren’t pressured to always volunteer or take a pay cut either so that the yoga community could earn a living and the people who needed it most could receive the services. YAMA’s service is really about bridging that gap. That’s how the YAMA Foundation was born.
Can you tell me more about Integral yoga?
Integral Yoga is a combination of six different areas of practice. Each of those areas covers the physical, energetic or vital, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of your being.
The most well-known is Hatha Yoga, which is the physical practice of yoga and deals with movement, postures, diet, lifestyle, and cleansing techniques.
The next one is Karma Yoga – the yoga of action. This practice is about examining the actions that you take and making more conscious choices. It’s a journey towards self-realization. You start by examining your selfish motives, how your actions affect those around you and shifting your actions to benefit more than just yourself. t can be in the form of community service or volunteering, but you can apply these principles in your job and in your family life.
The third one is called Bhakti Yoga – the yoga of devotion. This is an emotional and creative expression of yoga – cultivating spiritual values and being renewed as a result. So for people who are religiously inclined, this is a way to express it. For those who are not, creative expression or being immersed in nature is another way to express it.
So one of my students decided, after studying yoga, that she wanted to get re-baptized, and she’s now more involved with her church. So that’s where it actually blends. If you have a religion, it kind of merges with it where it says okay, go deep into your religion, and find the value system there and express it.
But for people who don’t have a religion, the yoga of devotion can be through creative expression or devotion to Mother Earth and looking after nature. There’s so much room for personalization.
The fourth branch is Jnana Yoga, the yoga of self-inquiry and self-analysis. Here you use your intellect to understand how your mind works. Practices include journaling, using your analytical mind to really try and understand your psyche.
The fifth one is Japa Yoga, which is the yoga of mantra repetition or positive affirmation. Here, you’re literally using an affirmation to rewire your brain and actively cultivate new thought patterns. It’s kind of like practicing positive thinking, but without being falsely positive. You can still allow healthy negativity to come in, and then you analyze it using Jnana Yoga, but then you use Japa yoga to work on rewiring and shifting negative thought patterns.
The final one is Raja Yoga. It is kind of the umbrella that holds them all together, but it focuses on meditation and mindfulness.
So those are the six practices of Integral Yoga. Imagine looking at a pie with six slices, but the pieces are not equal in size. For some, the meditation slice will be bigger than the Hatha slice. Or for others, most of their pie is only physical practice and very little of the other practices. It’s very personalized, which is why it works with any type of personality and lifestyle because you find what works for you.
How do babies practice yoga?
With babies, a lot of the practice is singing and breathing, and getting them to laugh. When you laugh, you’re working on activating the diaphragm, the same way you would do a Bellow’s Breath. Activating the same physiological parts of the body, you get the same nervous system response and create a hormonal and immunological response.
Babies just practice yoga through very gentle massage and gentle movements, and you obviously have to use the movements for babies that match their natural development. A baby’s body proportions are very different from an adult’s body proportions. Their head is so big and their body is so small, their arms are so short. Maybe their arms don’t even go beyond their head.
When you see kids like young babies do a down dog, their heads are on the floor because their arms don’t reach.
When teaching yoga to different body types and ages, it’s important to study anatomy, to understand how to work with different body types. Even for people who have a chronic illness, you need to understand the pathology of those chronic illnesses, the physical symptoms, and the psychological symptoms, to be able to work with the person.
Any tips for people who have limited mobility when they practice yoga?
If somebody with limited mobility wants to start yoga I would like to say always focus on what you can do. Don’t even waste your mental space on what you can’t. It’s about moving your body by moving your joints to create circulation, and then bending your spine backward, forward, sideways, and rotating it, in whatever way feels good and works with your body’s ability. That’s all you need in physical practice.
“In a mental practice, start with regulating your breath. Slow breathing calms the mind. Then allow yourself some time and space to understand what’s going on in your head.”
What is the benefit of working on spinal movement?
Along your spine, you’ve got your spinal column. And from there, all the nerves start to come out of that major spinal column, and those nerves attach to muscles, organs, and organ systems. So let’s say you’re standing sideways, the nerves on one side get compressed. And when you release the stretch, it sends that stimulation, that electrical signal all the way down through the body. If that attaches, let’s say to your liver, then your liver is going to get some stimulation.
In the same way, if I bend forwards and I’m compressing my belly, I’m pushing stuff in. So if there’s any wind or gas in your digestive system, and you press it, and then you open up and you stretch it, that gas is going to move and it’s either going to come out one way or the other.
The purpose of doing all these poses is so your body doesn’t become a distraction, and then you can sit and meditate without being worried about whether your back hurts or your body is uncomfortable.
Without the body’s distractions, you can start to really see what’s going on in your mind. So many times when we sit to meditate, the body becomes the biggest distraction.
Can you share a story that comes to mind where you have helped someone to improve their condition?
There’re so many stories. Okay, let me think.
It’s one of the teenage students that I was teaching who was diagnosed with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. She cannot move at all independently and really needs two people to help her come in and out of her chair, get changed, and shower.
The student herself didn’t have any physical body awareness. Over six years of working, twice a week, suddenly that student developed a very significant mind-body connection to the point where I said, “Let’s work on your right leg.” While I knew she didn’t have the capacity to hold her right leg fully by herself, I put my hand on her right leg and I said, “Okay, you initiate and I’ll guide it.” She was able to make a movement very specifically for her right leg.
I remember thinking, “That’s amazing!” When we stopped, we took a break to see if it was a coincidence. When we tried it again, it was there. We tried again and again. She could really feel that she had a connection with her leg. That’s magical.
Another story is about a young boy with Down Syndrome. We were told he was non-verbal. Again, he’d been seeing us every week for about three years. One day we were guiding a deep relaxation. We always like to play a song that the kids like. Suddenly, he started to sing the song at the top of his voice. Everyone was caught by surprise. We thought, “Wait a second, we were told this child could not speak, and here he is singing!”
Hersha’s Favorite Wellness Resources & Tips
IIf there was one routine or habit you would recommend to people to incorporate into their daily routine, what would it be?
Just pause, take some time to close your eyes and do a self check in. Ask yourself:
How am I really doing? I have a bit of backache. Okay. All right.
I’m feeling really rotten about this. That’s okay.
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
You’re giving yourself the love, care and attention that we usually drown out simply because we’re so busy.
I meditate every morning as soon as I wake up. I try meditating before I go to sleep, but by the end of the day, I’m exhausted. So I try to get up before six o’clock and meditate before I start the day.
I do very basic stretches and breathing on a daily basis… really basic. But then three times a week I go for long walks; and three times a week I do a longer self-practice at home. I used to go to yoga studios, but I prefer a home practice. I still like to drop in classes from time to time because they’re fun and it’s good to see how yoga is being taught in different places.
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa
“When I see people stand fully in their truth, or when I see someone fall down, get back up and say, ‘Damn. That really hurt, but this is important to me and I’m going in again’ – my gut reaction is, ‘what a badass.'” – Brené Brown
“By meeting people where they are at and treating them as human beings and not trying to change them actually opens up the possibility of transformation for them.” Dr. Gabor Maté
2. Sangeetha Vegetarian
3. Lucciola – The Hari Hong Kong
- Accessible Yoga Podcast Channel
2. Yoga is Dead Podcast Channel
- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translation & Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
2. When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Maté
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Favorite music playlists
- Anything by Maroon 5 or Apple’s Charts Playlist
2. Donna de Lory
4. Krishna Das
- Insight Timer
2. Asana Rebel
- Sonia Sumar, the author of Yoga for the Special Child
- Nalanie Chellaram, the author of Raja Yoga: Science of the Mind
- Dr. Mala Cunningham, Founder & Director of Cardiac Medical Yoga
- Jivana Heyman, author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body