A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

She’s Banking On India’s Ancient Cures

Three years ago, Cookie Tello, a Miami banker, had a sciatic condition that stumped her doctors. A friend told her about Ayurvedic medicine, India’s 5,000-year-old art of healing. After some research, she decided to try it.

”The problem is that when I checked, there wasn’t a single Ayurveda center in South Florida,” she said.

No more. Tello recently opened Sai Ayurvedic College in Kendall, the culmination of a two-year quest in which Tello quit her banking career, earned a degree from a Seattle school and spent a month in India studying Ayurvedic’s holistic practices.

Hidden on the second floor of an industrial park-styled office building, the center is filled with Indian tapestries, bamboo clusters and soothing fountains.

Ayurveda, a combination of the Sanskit words ayur (life) and vedai (science or knowledge) uses herbs, massages, oils and specialized diets to detox the body.

”Most of our patients come to us after they have already exhausted every Western option, seen many doctors, and tried all types of pills and fixes,” says Aparna Bapat, one of the clinic’s two Ayurvedic specialists. “In Ayurveda, we believe that everything relates to our food, and we work through a mind-and-body connection so patients can make themselves healthier.”

Many people come in with anxiety or depression. ”By changes in the foods they eat, detoxifying their bodies and using herbs, I have seen people’s lives change significantly for the better,” says Bapat.

Not everyone is as convinced, however. The Aug. 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 21 percent of 193 Indian and U.S.-made Ayurvedic herbal supplements bought online contained lead, mercury or arsenic. Earlier studies have raised similar concerns.

The National Ayurvedic Medical Association, a trade group, offered a dual defense. It says the levels in those supplements were not as high as some other FDA-approved products, and that many of the products tested were traditional Ayurvedic herbs that intentionally contained those very metals.

Tello said Sai Ayurvedic avoids herbs that intentionally contain toxic metals, and uses only those that are NAMA-approved. (The FDA does not regulate herbs and supplements.)

And, in any case, herbs make up only a small portion of Sai Ayurvedic’s practice. The more than a dozen therapies offered revolve instead around massage and oils, ranging from a 15-minute herbally medicated steam treatment to remove impurities ($20) to a 21-day detox and cleansing regimen ($1,200). Unfortunately, insurance does not cover the costs.

I had two treatments. The first was the one-hour Abhayanga ($80), a deep massage meant to stimulate circulation and remove waste from the body. That was followed with Kati Basta, a 45-minute, $60 treatment, in which warm medicated oils are poured into a flour dough-ring that was literally built up on my lower back.

During both sessions, there was soft Indian music meant to balance my ”karmic” state. The dripping hot oil, while a strange sensation, did relieve the intensity of my own nagging sciatica problem.

At the end I was thoroughly relaxed. It only took a rush-hour drive home on I-95 to lose most of the benefit. But for a few hours, it was wonderful.

When I called a friend in New York and told her about Sai Ayurvedic, she seemed blasé. Evidently, there are dozens of listings in the Manhattan yellow pages offering Ayurvedic services.

So South Florida might be a little behind when it comes to this ancient Indian healing art, but for those of us who are proactive in taking charge of our health, we now have one more local alternative. About time.