Heather Nagel, massage therapist and Ayurvedic practitioner. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
I catch sight of Heather Nagel’s red hair first, ablaze in the noontime sun as she stands on the sidewalk and waves. She leads me up the stairs of an apartment building tucked away off Center Street and into Aushadi Santa Cruz, the first non-profit Ayurvedic clinic in town.
The clinic consists of a large waiting room with a kitchenette and privacy screens and a smaller room, warmly lit by yellow walls, soft music and a mobile of plate-sized butterflies spiraling from the ceiling. In the center of the room stands a massage table.
“Our goal is to provide a service that the community is lacking,” says Nagel. “There’s a huge demographic of people in this town that want health care but can’t afford it. So the goal of this particular clinic is to meet that need.”
Nagel and her partner Talya Lutzker are fully trained Ayurvedic practitioners. A satellite office of the Aushadi Health Foundation in Sebastapol, Aushadi Santa Cruz is set to run on a sliding-scale donation system. “There is a suggested $35 donation, but patients who can’t afford that are encouraged to leave what they can afford,” says Nagel. The sliding-scale system encompasses any Ayurvedic treatments the patient may require, as well as the initial assessment.
“We’re really hoping that people get that this is a gift to the community, and that Ayurveda is a gift to all of us. There is such a huge need for it,” says Lutzker, who specializes in Ayurvedic cooking. She explains that remedies can be as simple and practical as adding cilantro or cumin to one’s daily diet, or cooking with coconut oil instead of olive oil. “These remedies can make a profound difference in people’s lives,” she says.
The remedies of Ayurveda are different for everybody, though. The 5,000-year-old system, which originated in India, is based on the idea that the mind, body and spirit, like the earth, have a natural balance, and that our bodies run just like the seasons: hot, cold, wet and dry. These characteristics are represented by three main doshas. Vata is made up of air and ether, Pitta consists of fire and water and Kapha is made of water and earth. Ayurvedic medicine rebalances the levels of Vata, Pitta and Kapha in the individual, bringing them back to the levels of our birth constitutions.
After writing down my main heath concerns—erratic sleep cycle, trouble focusing, frequent headaches—Nagel determines the ratio of Kapha, Pitta and Vata in my body by holding my wrists and listening to my “blood song.” After about a minute, she determines an imbalance of Vata on all seven levels of my pulse, which explains my cold hands and feet, among other things.
“We don’t keep a lot of stuff on hand, so that’s where the patient needs to be proactive,” says Nagel, as she gives me a six-page list of foods to favor and foods to avoid.
Nagel prescribes me fresh ginger root tea, boiled for 20 minutes and served with honey and lemon 20 minutes before meals, which she describes as an extremely potent immune booster. She also recommends an essential fatty acid like fish oil capsules for “brain juice,” and a tablespoon of aloe vera gel in the morning and at night to clean the liver and clear the lymph system.
“For optimum health, the lymph system is pretty much where it’s at. We can avoid pretty much every disease that’s out there if we keep our lymph moving,” she says. Then she dispenses the kicker: “I want you in bed by 11 every night, no matter what. And up by 7—to start.” She recommends a bedtime tincture containing valerian root (from which valium is made), skullcap and passionflower, which is about $12 at Staff of Life and has almost immediate calming effects.
I leave the clinic inspired by the prospect of improved health and head directly to Staff of Life, where I spent around $30 on my remedies. I am not sure which I am more thrilled about—taking supplements and being more mindful of my diet or finally having the opportunity to sit down face-to-face with someone who cares about my wellbeing—white coat and stethoscope or not.