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In Conversation With Nikhila Ambati

Nirmala Garimella

Nikhila Ambati is a resident of Ashland, MA, and a Health Coach andYoga Instructor. On the occasion of International Day of Yoga, she shared her journey towards well-being and her passion towards building a healthy society through her story


As a child who grew up in a small town in southern India, I went through the usual ups and downs of a middle-class family. I was a happy-go-lucky girl, playing outside every day in the sand, mud, and rain without worrying about getting dirty or infected. I spent my time going on impromptu hikes/rock climbing trips and picking tamarind from trees. I played badminton, throw-ball, kho-kho, and lagori with friends, and there were days when I walked a few hundred feet to fetch clean drinking water. I was lucky to have a very joyful childhood and couldn’t ask for a better one. I was also introduced to music, yoga, and spiritual discourses, but I never paid any serious attention to them at the time, nor did I understand their significance until quite later in my life. I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree in Bangalore and my Masters in Mysore, where my only focus was to achieve academic excellence. Having moved to metropolitan cities from a small town had its challenges. Never for a moment did I think about health & nutrition, nor had I ever heard anything about calories, diet, carbs, or fat never mind about superfoods. Come to think of advantages of a small-town upbringing, there weren’t any good restaurants that we could go out to dinner for, nor did it have any fast food joints from which we could grab a quick snack. It was a treat to visit the one bakery and the one chaat shop occasionally, which served a limited number of snacks.  


When my husband and I moved to the United States twenty years ago and started living a typical Indian-American lifestyle, we still hardly paid any attention to health & wellness. Both of us worked as software consultants for several years and were busy with the two kids, their activities, visiting new places, making new friends, hosting & attending parties, getting involved in community events, and balancing social, personal, and work life. We were trying to live the standard American dream, trying out all the newfound cuisines and recipes, substituting ingredients and customizing them to our taste buds. We used to get confused about using skim vs. fat-free milk and low-fat vs. full-fat yogurt. We relied on heavy cream, butter and cheese to enhance taste, mostly to keep meals interesting for the kids. One day my husband, Srini’s blood report said he was pre-diabetic, his triglycerides were through the roof, and he had to start medication. There was a family history of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The report was a wake-up call for us to start making changes to our diets and lifestyles.


Being the caretaker of the family, I thought it was all my fault for having fed the family with foods that caused Srini’s blood report to be what it was. I wondered what changes to make when I heard about substituting white rice and white sugar with brown rice and brown sugar, a new concept. I was hesitant to make the change, but I had no choice since rice was the only major grain, we, as south Indians were used to consuming two to three times a day. I went on to changing everything white in the kitchen except dairy, and it was too late for my kids to adapt to the new habits, but I did it anyway. In making these changes, I discovered new grains, new vegetables, superfoods, raw milk, and healthy protein sources. A few years later, I found myself talking a new language when it came to food. I became increasingly curious, intrigued, and obsessed about food and its relation to physical and mental health to a point where my friends and family started noticing. Some of them made fun of it, and some ignored whatever I said. With the help of online research, I thought I knew it all and had become a “self-doctor.” Despite these changes, however, Srini’s blood report said his glucose levels were okay, but his triglycerides were on the rise. My frustration grew, and so did my weight and joint pains. My vitamin B12 level dropped as well, leading to mental fog, lack of mental clarity, memory loss and so on. I now had additional issues to deal with and solve. 


A few years ago, I came across a small video clip on WhatsApp about millets and found myself watching Dr. Khadar’s videos non-stop on YouTube, which led me to Dr. B.M. Hegde, whose videos somehow led me to Sadhguru’s channel (All Hail YouTube!). Anyone who has heard Sadhguru talk will agree that he is a magnet and attracts you with his articulate and logical words. I caught myself watching his videos constantly, which got Srini hooked as well. On our next trip to India, our family ended up in Sadhguru’s Isha foundation for an Inner-Engineering camp, which he describes it to be a user manual for oneself, essentially using yoga as a tool to turn inward, be compassionate, and live a blissful life. The camp reignited my childhood hobby of practicing yoga. I enrolled myself in yoga classes and got certified as an advanced yoga teacher. As you can see, healthy food and yoga became intertwined into my life. 


As I continued my search for a solution to bring down Srini’s triglyceride levels, I went to the extent of bringing clay pots to cook and a seeds-to-oil machine, which is a cold-pressed oil extractor, unprocessed millets, and natural beauty and home-care products, all from India. I started feeling confident about improving my family’s health by eliminating most of the processed foods, using only cold-pressed oils, consuming a wide variety of nuts & seeds, buying organic, seasonal and locally grown produce, and so forth. With some of the health problems still looming over my head came another new one – Srini had developed a big fatty bump at the back of his neck, which had gone unnoticed for few years until one day when his barber pointed it out. Oh well, there went my confidence, and I thought to myself that life is complicated and that being healthy is not easy. 


At this point, I started to read and hear more about veganism and decided to give it a try without knowing any of the benefits or side effects of eliminating one major food group from the diet. Although it meant giving up some of our favorites like yogurt, coffee/tea, gheepaneer, pizza, Jamun and a whole array of foods as we realized through our journey, we thought of sticking to it for a few months to see what would happen and later adding them back to our diet, but guess what? Without realizing or anticipating it, we had found the solution. We had a Eureka moment when the blood report came out normal ! The doctor scratched his head and told Srini that he didn’t know how it happened, but to continue doing what he was doing because it was working. This was a huge win for me and since then, we have become huge proponents of a plant-based diet. Another unexpected and huge side-effect was that Srini’s big fat bump had started to dissolve. My joint pains disappeared, brain-fog and mental clarity were non issues, which could have been a result of doing yoga, a vegan diet, or a combination of all the other changes. I now know that dairy is a leading cause of many major illnesses due to all the manipulation it goes through, and that increase in cholesterol levels only happens due to the consumption of animal products, not plant-based food. 


To add to my knowledge and credibility and a desire to help as many people as possible, I decided to get certified in the field of Health & Nutrition and enrolled in a course with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and now am a certified Health Coach. This certification opened my eyes even more by teaching me that the food on your plate is important, but it isn’t the only thing that matters; many other areas in a person’s life play a primary role in keeping them healthy and happy. I am now motivated to help friends and family by sharing everything that I have learned in my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual journey. I have learned that being healthy and aging gracefully need not be stressful but requires awareness, intention, drive, discipline, and a life-long commitment. It does not mean that you have to sacrifice your favorite foods, but that you need to be open to exploring and developing new habits, all for you and your loved ones’ well-being.


“Health is a journey, not a goal.” This journey of mine, like everybody else’s, is travel in progress. Every person’s journey and destination is different but through my experience, I hope to bring health and wellness to every human being. The human body is the most sophisticated machine created by nature and bio-individual which means that one formula does not work for everyone. Knowing about yourself is vital. While a doctor is for providing sick-care, a health coach is for guiding you towards health care. A Health Coach focuses on nutrition, physical activity, relationships, career, and spirituality, among other areas of life. These elements can impact markers of health, such as stress, weight, and energy levels. Just as success doesn’t happen accidentally, well-being does not either; it needs conscious effort and awareness of what goes into your mind, body, and spirit to keep them at their highest level of activity. As Dr. Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and a Harvard Professor, himself points out, “Everybody needs a coach” as they will act as your external eyes and ears providing a more accurate picture of your reality and then helping you rebuild in a way that you think your future should look like.


DO NOT wait until you get sick, to get serious about your health.”


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