Miles from beach breezes, amid the jangle of Miami traffic and office complexes, an oasis of calm beckons visitors to an experience beyond the temporary relief brought by a day stretched on white sand or inside a spa.
At Sai Ayurvedic College and Ayurvedic Wellness Center, clients enter an office on the second floor of a medical building. Inside, a hush greets them in the small lobby full of cushioned rattan sofas. Colorful Indian tapestries grace the walls, and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh greets them as they move further inside. They arrive with ailments that include everything from diabetes to arthritis to gastrointestinal disturbances. Many are seeking an alternative path to better health, sometimes following an unsatisfying trip to a regular medical practitioner and dissatisfaction with prescription drugs and their side effects.
Recommendations at Sai Ayurvedic College will more likely include detoxification procedures and massages, eye baths, the application of medicated oils and powders to the nasal passages, herbal and clinical nutritional protocols, and exercise recommendations in line with one’s personal makeup, or dosha.
“We suggest measures of recovery that promote optimal levels of health,” says William Courson, the dean of academic affairs and institutional development and one of several practitioners and teachers at the college and center.
As yoga has exploded in popularity in mainstream Western society in recent years, so, too, is its sister practice of Ayurveda rising in familiarity – helped, in part, by the writings of Deepak Chopra and features on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Dating back to India around 5,000 years or more, Ayurveda – which means “science of life” in the ancient language of Sanskrit – is a holistic preventive medicine and healing system that focuses on individuals’ mind, body and spirit.
The Sai Ayurvedic center was started in 2006 by former banker Cookie Tello after her doctors couldn’t fix her frustrating sciatic problem. The experience set her on course to take up a new profession, studying Ayurveda for two years in Seattle and a month in India before returning to South Florida, where she opened the region’s first Ayurvedic center and college. Certified by the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, it is now one of several centers throughout the state.
While practitioners don’t reject all prescription drugs and other forms of Western medicine, according to Courson, they go beyond its preoccupation with disease management and instead focus on the underlying root of a person’s lifestyle imbalances or stressors. It is those imbalances that typically manifest themselves in the body in the form of pain or illness, he adds.
“I let them do the talking,” Courson says of clients. “I get the impression very often that I’m the first health care practitioner who’s allowed them to tell their story.”
To determine his course of treatment for clients during a one-hour consultation, Courson observes them the moment they walk through the door in order to assess their dominant dosha. The three doshas of Ayurveda – vata, pitta and kapha – represent bodily humors that comprise a person’s overall constitution. While most people have elements of all three doshas, usually one is more dominant than the others, Courson explains.
People who are vata tend to be tall and thin, extremely active and erratic, averse to cold temperatures, and open to change, Courson elaborates. A balanced vata person is creative and energetic; an unbalanced vata is anxiety-ridden and may have difficulty sleeping.
The pitta dosha is strong in people who are muscular and of average height, smart and determined. In balance, a pitta is a strong leader; out of balance, a pitta is aggressive and prone to dominance. Kapha people tend to be heavier in build, with round-bodies and stable dispositions. In balance, they are calm, sweet and attuned to their five senses; out of balance, they are prone to sluggishness and weight gain.
When Courson consults with clients, he asks questions about that person and their family history before he conducts a physical assessment – “May I see your tongue, please?” – and reads the client’s pulse.
Depending upon the client’s dominant dosha, Courson will suggest a particular mix of oils for an hour-long abhyanga detox massage, as well as prescribe herbs available for sale in the office and print out a list of foods compatible with your dosha.
The abhyanga session takes place in a side massage room. The walls are lined with bamboo matting and draped tapestries hang from the ceiling. Soft music plays as licensed massage therapist Patricia Sanchez, who is trained in Ayurvedic treatment modalities, pours warm oils onto the small of the client’s bare back. For the next hour, she presses deeply into the back, shoulders, arms and legs, slathering on more oil in patterns meant to stimulate circulation and flush toxins out of the lymph system.
At the end, the client rises from the massage table, smelling mildly of peanuts, but with skin soft as pillows and muscles tingling with relaxation – every kink kneaded out of them by Sanchez’s strong hands.
Waiting in the lobby is her next client and one of the college’s students, 51-year-old Peggie Collins. A sergeant with the Miami-Dade Police Department, Collins was looking for an alternative career to pursue following her impending retirement.
“It’s time to do something different,” she says. Already a licensed massage therapist, Collins wanted to deepen her practice. She learned about the center on the Internet and talked with its founder, Cookie Tello. She came away feeling she had found an avenue that transcended her previous studies.
Collins has used some of the herbal treatments to soothe her own sore throat and muscle pain, and has applied medicated oils and massages to her father, who recently suffered a stroke.
“His balance and strength is improving,” Collins says.
At the moment, though, it’s time for some pampering. With Sanchez beckoning, Collins heads to the massage room for her massage.
“The therapist has to take care of herself,” Collins says.