REPRESENTATION MATTERS | Encouraging the Black community in Ayurveda: an interview with Dr. Tara Collins

By Jamila Colozzi 24 May 2021

 
Kerala Ayurveda School

Ayurveda is a form of traditional medicine in India and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in the US. It has been through its own journey of colonial oppression in India, its country of origin, during which time it wasn’t allowed to be practiced during British rule. Ayurveda was around long before India became a country, an estimated 5,000 years. This oppression led to broken lineages and difficulty in transmission of traditional knowledge that India is now working to overcome. Indeed, racism and discrimination is nothing short of a disease in the universal consciousness. Awareness, education, expression and open discussions play an important role in the journey to healing and change. Kerala Ayurveda believes that it is part of our Dharma to create wellness by educating ourselves, opening space for discussion in our community and working towards diversity and inclusion to help eradicate racism.
As part of this effort, we were honored to interview Dr. Tara Collins. Dr. Tara Collins is a board-certified psychiatrist, registered Yoga teacher and certified Ayurvedic Wellness Counselor (AWC) from Kerala Ayurveda, in the process of completing her Ayurvedic Wellness Practitioner (AWP) certification. She has set up an Integrative Psychiatry Practice (www.talapsych.com) in which she incorporates a holistic approach with psychiatry, yoga, meditation and Ayurvedic principles for the best outcomes for her patients. As a trailblazer in the Black community, she spoke to us about the steps we can take to improve inclusivity and representation in Ayurveda.
Dr. Tara Collins Kerala Ayurveda Academy alumnus
Dr. Tara Collins: Kerala Ayurveda Academy alumnus and Psychiatrist, UCSF; Founder, Tala Integrative Psychiatry, Yoga Teacher, Ayurvedic Counselor

How Dr. Collins got involved with Ayurveda

DR. COLLINS: I had a friend who suggested becoming a Yoga teacher, and in the course of the 200 [training] hours, we had one session on Ayurveda. I ended up reading a book by David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda, and reading about Vata and Vata imbalances sounded like me! I decided to look into it and was so excited to do AWC [Kerala’s level I certification program]. During psychiatry residency, a friend had also said she thought I was “really Vata” and needed to eat some grounding foods! A lot of the AWC training was to improve my own health and wellbeing, but then I started an integrative Ayurveda practice in October 2020. The response has been great; I have a whole lot of patients looking for holistic health.

Dr. Collins is encouraged by the reaction to holistic and culturally competent care and has a very diverse practice. She believes there’s much scope in integrative medicine and hopes this trend will continue as many people actively seek it out. Dr. Collins has also given lectures about Ayurveda, and in time will do more community presentations and start teaching Yoga through her practice.

Medical school and encounters with racism

Dr. Collins is from Ohio and went to a historically Black college in Washington D.C. Transitioning afterwards to medical school in the South where she was a minority created a stark contrast in experience. There were 7 African Americans in the class of 110. She did experience racism, which was a huge and tough change; some of it was explicit and some in the form of microaggressions.

DR. COLLINS: My other Black classmates and I did not have any Doctors in the family, or any experience like that, so this was really brand new to us. Many of our (non-Black) classmates grew up pretty wealthy and a lot of them had physicians in their families; they had a different level of ease, comfort and knowledge that we didn’t share. We often felt like the “others,” like outsiders in a very competitive school. I connected to some of my classmates really well, but for a lot of them it felt like we were in completely different worlds. Med School involves class work for the first two years and the next two years are in hospitals and clinics where I had experiences with patients who didn’t want me working with them. It was hard, but not all doom and gloom 100% of the time; I definitely made a lot of friends and learned a lot, but there were times it was really challenging.

Dr. Collins (center, rear) with fellow students and instructor Vaidya. Sheena Sooraj during a Kerala Ayurveda cooking class

The Ayurveda study experience

Dr. Collins moved to California 15 years ago, trained at University of California and stayed there, joining the faculty.

DR. COLLINS: It is very different here in California. There still is racism – there’s racism everywhere – but it is a really different experience. It’s the same when I started with Kerala; I never felt like I did in medical school (like the Black person in the room), not at all. This is so much more diverse, open and welcoming.

Dr. Collins has travelled to India many times in the past couple of years. She’s been to S-Vyasa Yoga University and National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), visiting their Ayurveda and Yoga Units. She never felt out of place; people were enthused by her wanting to learn about these fields and were very helpful and welcoming.

Healthcare for the Black community and how holistic health can help

The American medical institution has traditionally subjected Black bodies to cruel experimentation, exploitation and abuse throughout slavery and after. They uncovered corpses for study and sterilized Black women without their knowledge. Here are some examples:

  • J Marion Sims, the ‘father of modern gynecology’ performed excruciatingly painful vesico-vaginal fistula surgeries to conduct experiments on Black women without anesthesia. 
  • There was the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which 400 poor, uneducated Black sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis over 40 years. In 1932, U.S. Public Health recruited them to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis, under the guise of treating them. They watched many die avoidable deaths over time, even after a cure was found and many wives and children were infected. 
  • Henrietta Lacks is another example; she was the source of the first line of ‘immortal’ human cells to be cloned back in the 1950s, about 20 ton cells have been grown by researchers, but the cells were harvested without her knowledge and permission and the family medical records published without consent. 

 

A doctor and patient interaction during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (National Archives Atlanta, GA – U.S. government)

DR. COLLINS: The Black community has a sense that the medical system is not for them. They are treated differently, their symptoms are not respected. It is believed they are faking matters or exaggerating to get drugs. Many patients don’t feel heard or seen and are often misdiagnosed. There is the history of the Tuskegee Experiment, HeLa cells, Sims’ atrocities, and people wonder why they should trust the medical system. There is a lot for Black health professionals to restore trust. I don’t blame patients for being leery because it’s not been a good experience at all; it feels like there are two different healthcare systems, just like it feels like there are two different countries.

When it comes to holistic practices, it can help with health inequity and prevention but a big part of it just seems to be education. Many people, Black or otherwise, just don’t know about Ayurveda. And that’s a starting point. Establishing trust and connection is the other priority: that Ayurveda genuinely is for everybody and Ayurvedic professionals are here to help them.

Dr. Collins’ job at UCSF has included an African American focus that she really appreciates, and many Black people have never had a Black psychiatrist before. It’s a completely different experience for them.

At Kerala Ayurveda, we raise the question: what can we in the Ayurvedic community do about this? As Ayurveda integrates psychology and the mind seamlessly, Ayurvedic professionals always serve as a counselor. This methodology can help us to understand the Black experience. Since there has been an issue of systemic racism, discomfort amongst clients, and a lack of Black representation in the medical community, an opportunity exists for Ayurvedic professionals to seek representation in the community, and at the very least, for non-Black practitioners to understand and heal trans-generational trauma and create a space of trust.

What we can do to encourage more Ayurveda students and Ayurvedic healthcare in the Black community

Dr. Collins was the only Black student in her class at Kerala Ayurveda and she shared many ideas about outreach and encouraging Black students to study Ayurveda. She also discussed ways to create awareness and provide access to Ayurvedic healthcare to the Black community by being sensitive to their needs as a community and meeting them where they are at.

Community outreach and education

Dr. Collins in her Blac-cinated tee

DR. COLLINS: We have to meet the Black community where they are and understand their needs. Outreach will involve a lot of creative ways: for some people it will be in person, for others online, and for yet others it will be partnering with trusted people in the community to get the message out. People who are part of the Black community need to be involved in the outreach as they can speak to the experiences of the community.

Dr. Collins suggests doing community presentations in churches or community centers and finding groups where we can reach maximum people. She also suggested setting up free healthcare fairs in Black neighborhoods, which was something they did in Medical School, to introduce people to Ayurveda and its offerings. This is difficult with COVID-19, but can be done through online events or in person when the pandemic abates. In some areas, outdoor events are already on the rise.

Creating familiarity and establishing trust with Black clients

DR. COLLINS: More people in the U.S. need to be educated about the benefits of Ayurveda, as do the Black community, and they need to trust Ayurveda is for everyone.

Dr. Collins added that seeing Ayurvedic practitioners from the Black community would help the Black community gain trust, which is part of why Kerala Ayurveda initiated this interview series. It does not have to be up to Black practitioners alone to carve out their individual visibility; we as an Ayurvedic community can support this effort.

Another way to make Ayurveda more accessible is through offering discounts to avail of services (on a sliding scale as needed). Until Ayurveda is a licensed medical profession and can generally accept insurance, making it accessible to the Black community will require bridging this financial gap. Another potential way the community can support this effort is through partnerships between diversely trained professionals, to create integrative practices with a potential license. Individuals must still operate within their scope of practice, though an integrative effort enables referrals, which ensures clients receive the best care they need.

Dr. Collins (left) showing off a perfectly wrapped bolus, used for Panchakarma skin therapies with classmates and instructor Alka Mulakaluri

Encouraging Black students to Ayurveda

DR. COLLINS: Mentoring of Black students could help…as would any other opportunities for education, outreach and connection.

Dr. Collins agreed that offering scholarships for Black students is a good idea, as is setting up an Ayurvedic group similar to the Black Yoga Teacher Alliance. Having people who are part of both communities would lend credibility and trust to such a venture, and she would love to participate in it! 

An example of this effort in progress is the National Ayurvedic Medical Association’s (NAMA) Diversity and Inclusion Committee, launched in August 2020. Committee Chair, Tesia Love told us that they are currently doing three rounds of anti-racism, diversity and inclusion training for NAMA members that will be uploaded and available for other members as well. They wish to be strategic in their approach, and once the training sessions are concluded, they will do an internal assessment and discuss plans, programs, opportunities, resources and outreach for all students.

Preventative Health education

DR. COLLINS: Preventative health suggestions from Ayurveda, and how to incorporate it with limitations and limited resources would help the Black community. People can get turned off with expensive suggestions. There are different levels of wealth that we need to be sensitive to and suggest simple things that can be done at home, for instance, how can you incorporate yoga without needing to be super flexible or go to a yoga studio, or do a self massage. Similarly, for food suggestions, if you’re in a food desert and do not have a lot of access to vegetables, coming up with ideas to operate within a budget would help. For example, frozen and canned foods can be made to work. Also, culturally, the cuisine may be different and pairing up with a Black chef in the community to provide culturally pertinent recipes that are suited to different Doshas would help.

Dr. Collins asserted that education on lifestyle factors, daily routine and seasonal modifications could help the Black community. Ayurveda provides guidelines, not rules, and there is much adaptability available to professionals for making it work no matter the client’s situation. She also explained that we need to design suggestions based on the history of disproportionate health issues, and incidence of stress and trauma in the community.

Supporting book stores have entire sections devoted to resources for allies

Education for allies to the Black community

Dr. Collins recommends that Ayurvedic organizations and schools get involved with implementing these suggestions to reach the Black community in a meaningful way.

DR. COLLINS: They could add some targeting the Black community, and to get more bang for your bucks, focus on topics that are salient to Black communities. This would help create awareness about Ayurveda as an option in holistic health.

We talked about how allies should educate themselves about the challenges that Black people face in being included and integrated in the community, and assess how to genuinely help and be proactive in providing solutions and opportunities. We also discussed supporting Black herbalists and related businesses, and highlighting successful people in the holistic health community. As mentioned earlier in this article, being able to relate to the faces of the industry can inspire newcomers to explore what Ayurveda has to offer. It also builds strength and awareness to the effort through providing education to other allies.

She also suggested that we continue to educate ourselves. Very often people ask Black people about what is happening to them, when they’re already swamped by the challenges and may not be able to hold space for a conversation. There are wonderful books and resources to get a sense of their history and experiences (read more here), uncover one’s individual blockages to work on, and find ways to make a change. Learning what to do is just as important as what not to do. This research will allow you to make yourself available to people who need support in genuine and effective ways.

What would be the most important step in taking action on diversity in Ayurveda?

After a lot of helpful dialogue and wonderful insights from our interviewee, we had to ask Dr. Collins this pivotal question.

DR. COLLINS: We need to inspire people from the Black community to study or trust Ayurveda as clients.

One challenge Dr. Collins anticipates is finding more Black practitioners in the community to form groups and facilitate mentoring. We discussed that it should be ok to ask that question of Ayurveda groups online and in schools, so that these groups can be formed, which would inspire newcomers and foster inclusion and diversity.

DR. COLLINS: I am comfortable with this conversation, as one of the few Black women in my  department at UCSF and in similar organizations, I’ve already talked a lot about my experiences, what they have been like and what can be done to bring about change.

Black Lives Matter mural in Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Dr. Collins’ advice to the Black community

Dr. Collins has weathered challenges to become a successful, integrative healing practitioner. From her experience, she has advice for her community.

DR. COLLINS: I’d like to tell the Black community: there are challenges and it’s difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it and you can’t succeed. There are a lot of people out there who want to help. It’s unfortunate that it’s not always easy to find them, but you can certainly get support for your ventures. People feel they’re struggling alone, but that’s not the case. While it’s challenging, you can get the help you seek; you can do this!

It’s our goal at Kerala Ayurveda to build a safe and welcoming space for the Black community at our Academy and Wellness Center. Talking to Dr. Collins is truly inspiring for us in the effort to change how our community approaches racism. While we know that a holistic community like Ayurveda is already heart-centered, the world needs us to take new and novel action. Stalwarts like Dr. Collins help in advancing Ayurveda and guiding many on this beautiful journey of healing. To have medical professionals include holistic health in their practice is a significant step in the direction of integrative health. We hope we can heal some of the wounds of a racist past and foster a kinder, more inclusive community with the values of Vasudev Kutumbakam (One World Family).

About Dr. Tara Collins

Dr. Collins graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in Biology from Howard University, and received her M.D. and M.P.H. at Emory University. She completed an adult psychiatry residency, where she served as Chief Resident of Intensive Services, and a forensic psychiatry fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. She is board certified in adult psychiatry and forensic psychiatry. As an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Collins is passionate about patient care, teaching, and mentoring. She has presented at local and national conferences and is published in academic journals. Dr. Collins is active in the community, partnering with local nonprofit organizations to teach emotional competence workshops and dream interpretation, and serves on the board of two nonprofit community agencies. She also teaches yoga classes at Ocean Beach Yoga and throughout the community. Visit www.talapsych.com to find out more about her practice.

Kerala Ayurveda School

Interviewed by Anuradha Gupta, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, Engineer, MBA, Content Specialist Copywriter, Kerala Ayurveda


Feedback + want to participate in our diversity series?

We welcome and appreciate your feedback so we can continue expanding our efforts to dissolve racism in a meaningful way. If you or someone you know should be interviewed on this topic, please let us know! Contact: help@keralaayurveda.us.