Ayurveda in Santa Fe is the proverbial Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Once I saw it, it seemed like it was everywhere—in my spa treatments, my food, my jewelry. The ancient health system has roots in the Vedic culture of India, predating modern medicine, and not surprisingly, it has flourished in Santa Fe, an oasis of sorts for alternative health practices that eschew pharmacopoeia and embrace homeopathic remedies.
"New Mexico has a long history of hands-on, nature-based healing in the curandera tradition. This may make us more open to another healing tradition like Ayurveda, which works with food and herbs and movement and touch. … Santa Fe has been a home for leading teachers in Ayurveda since the early '80s," observes Amadea Morningstar, a member of the core faculty at the Ayurveda Polarity Therapy and Yoga Institute in Eldorado.
The institute offers public workshops in Ayurvedic nutrition, meditation and yoga—all promising the payoff of mind-body balance and good health. That certainly sounds enticing. However, for many newbies, such as myself, rewards are distant and the road to reach them winding.
The first step in any Ayurvedic lesson, whether at the institute or outside it, is to determine your dosha, or mind-body constitution. In simplified terms, physical (body type, for example) and mental (whether you are flighty or grounded, for example) characteristics determine a person's dosha. To an outsider or newbie, these doshas can seem at once intuitive ("Yes, I have light eyes.") and foreign ("Why does that mean I shouldn't eat rice cakes?").
In a workshop a couple years ago, I took a dosha quiz that determined my dosha was vata, which is associated with the element of air. But the 20-something practitioner at the free workshop took one look at me and decided that was incorrect. Although she was still so new at the practice that she was giving away services as part of the requirements of getting certified, she read my pulse and found my dosha to be kapha, the element of earth. (For those keeping track, that's exactly the opposite of the dosha I'd identified with my quiz.)
What was the cause of the mixed result? Well, first, as I learned, doshas are never definitive or singular—a person could be primarily kapha and secondarily vata, or some combination of those with the third dosha, pitta (fire). Second, a person could show qualities of another dosha if there's an imbalance (as was the diagnosis in my case).
Searching for how to practice Ayurveda online has a similar feeling as a hypochondriactic binge on WebMD: You come away with more questions than answers and convinced your cough is a sign of cancer—or through the lens of Ayurveda, a complete body imbalance. Ayurveda seems too abstruse for DIY. So turning to (read: paying) a practitioner seems a requirement to navigate the next steps. Practitioners can make prescriptions about everything from when to wake up to what to eat—though in my recommendations, I've never quite understood if I should follow the suggestions to support my dosha, try to counteract my imbalance or somehow do both.
There are two Ayurvedic practices many people will joyfully adopt: eating good food and having dessert first. In Ayurvedic medicine, healing comes from harmony in the digestive track—and often a vegetarian diet. The go-to spot for Ayurvedic food in the City Different is Annapurna World Vegetarian Café (1620 St. Michael's Drive, 988-9688), which serves tasty vegetarian, often vegan dishes. For my money, Annapurna serves great food, even if you're not in the market for Ayurvedic cuisine. Because Ayurveda says to eat sweets first, start with cardamom cookies, made with spelt and butter. The menu announces which dishes are right for which dosha or for pacifying dosha imbalances. The "Ayurveda for Dummies" dishes are tri-doshic, meaning no matter your dosha, you can partake of masala dosa and kitchari, the "ultimate Ayurvedic dish," which is made with basmati rice, yellow split mung beans, vegetables, greens and spices. Most dishes contain hing (aka asafetida), a spice that delivers a flavor much like leeks and is an Ayurvedic digestive aid.
At Rasa (815 Early St., 989-1288), the healthy menu aligns with the central tenets of the Ayurvedic diet. "The entire concept of producing a plant-based, organic and locally sourced menu aligns with the core dietary concepts in Ayurveda: eat high quality food, seasonally specific and, when possible, from your own environment," owner and Ayurvedic practitioner Wendy Borger explains. With many Santa Feans eating organically, seasonally and locally already, food becomes the most seamless and approachable (read: least obtrusive) way to incorporate Ayurveda. (Though, with different foods recommended for different doshas, I always still wonder if I'm doing Ayurveda "right." According to my practitioner, eating a healthy salad that has airy, crunchy qualities could exacerbate my imbalance.) Utilizing herbal remedies, including herbs and essential oils, is another rung on the ladder to the wellness promised land.
Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe has also hitched onto the Ayurveda train, offering Abhyanga, a detoxifying massage with essential oils, a Bindi herbal body treatment aimed at balancing the recipient's doshas through a body mask and scrub, and a rigorous massage using warm oil, which could have deeper effects or be as soothing as any spa treatment. For the tidy sum of $300, the Abhyanga massage can also be paired with an Ayurvedic attunement that according to the spa menu's description, "opens the energetic doorways between the physical body and the more subtle layers of the being." Although I haven't experienced the treatment myself, I wonder just how subtle—if intelligible—the effects are.
At the far—and high—end of the Ayurvedic spectrum, even among enthusiasts, is the wearing of "prescription" stones in jewelry. Marc Howard Custom Jewelry Design Studio (328 S Guadalupe St., Ste. E, 820-1080) specializes in creating custom designs for any purpose and has received client request for "Vedic" designs for the entire 25 years the store has been in business. "Their primary requirement is that the gemstone touch the skin, so in a ring or pendant, that means the back of the gem setting is left open and the stone is set low enough in the jewelry to touch the skin. Sometimes they want the stone set at a certain time or on a certain date, and we do our best to accommodate them," Howard says via email. An Ayurvedic astrologer prescribes the stone. Howard's clients often request sapphires for the stones, some Ayurvedic customers require unheated/untreated stones, which are more expensive. Do these stones work? Would they support my dosha—or correct my imbalance?
Morningstar advises, "If you're thinking about trying it, it's helpful to be open to the possibility that healing and balance can happen, and that it's going to happen through you and what you do, your choices."
As with any practice, mindset is powerful — as is the placebo effect.