Thursday, September 18, 2014

Amy Hillman Siracusa

Wellness Coach and Holistic Nutritionist
San Leandro, California

I feel grateful to live in a place that connects me so closely to agriculture, food and community. It makes it extremely easy to write this blog. Amy Hillman Siracusa is part of my yoga kula at Kaya Yoga in Davis, California. She is listed with the few people I first met when I was transplanted from San Francisco to the Central Valley over eight years ago. There were many nights and weekends that I spent alone without a friend to call on in town. From the beginning I always felt at home at the yoga studio and would frequent Amy's Friday night classes with a handful of other yogis. Returning home alone those nights, I felt more engaged and connected despite the fact that I had not talked to anyone throughout the practice.

Amy is a calm, quiet and connected individual. She is also from Maine and we share many nostalgic northern stories of childhood. Aside from working as a yoga teacher she is a wellness coach for a hospital and an independent holistic nutritionist, Ladle and Lotus. I personally love that even large HMOs are beginning to acknowledge that food, personal health and happiness have strong impacts on our lives beyond daily totals of nutrients, fat, and calories. Health is not stagnant and it is influenced by so many ever changing factors in our busy lives.

I threatened Amy before we met at her home in San Leandro to make her show off cool yoga poses while six months pregnant but I was distracted by her delicious display of cheeses, Mediterranean spreads, and olives. Her kitchen is full of beautiful quietly fermenting vegetables that my photography skills are not up to capturing in an appealing way but her breezy style, charming husband Reza, dog Maya and calming spirit showed up perfectly.

How did you end up in this area of healthcare?

My journey into healthcare started over 10 years ago when I was in India studying comparative religion. In particular, I was fascinated with spirituality and healing. My studies there included yoga philosophy, and tribal & folk healing, all of which are heavily influenced by Ayurveda (India's traditional system of medicine). Although I had long been interested in health & healing arts, nothing had every grabbed me quite like Ayurveda did. It is very conceptual and can be applied to every aspect of life. It is one comprehensive system that takes into account how our environment, the seasons, community, and lifestyle all play a role in our wellness. 

For the next few years as I worked and traveled through Asia as an English teacher I continued to study Ayurveda and yoga as opportunities arose. It became clear to me that holistic health was one of my passions and I wanted to pursue a career in that field. Upon returning to the States in the Fall of 2006, I enrolled in massage therapy school to test the waters. I loved everything I was learning, and in 2007 took it a step further by enrolling in a yoga teacher training. By early 2008 I had a steady massage therapy practice and was starting to teach yoga. I loved my work! 

However, I was also hitting up against some hurdles. Massage was tough on me physically, and I finished my sessions with clients feeling like I wanted to take things further, but wondered if that would be out of my scope. An additional piece was that I knew many of the topics I wanted to explore with clients really tapped into their lifestyle and core beliefs. It's not so simple as "Eat this, don't eat that." There is a huge education component, and it's also about facilitating behavior change so that new patterns are established. I began to look into Master's programs and decided on one in holistic health education with a specialization in holistic nutrition, since this would allow me to hone in on food as a healing modality, and learn how to facilitate lasting changes that are sustainable based on the individual.  

In 2011 I graduated and began working with clients as a holistic nutritionist and wellness coach, all the while still teaching yoga. Although I do spend a lot of time talking with clients about therapeutic diets and what might be most healing for them, a large piece of my time is spent discussing their relationship with food and how that's impacted by their communities, interpersonal relationships, and their own relationship with themselves.  

Do you have a mentor?

Two stand out. One has known me my whole life, as well as known my parents, dear friends, exs, etc. She can see clearly my patterns, struggles, and areas of growth. Another is a very close friend and fellow yogini who I've known close to a decade. I turn to her for a balanced perspective when I'm in the midst of challenges, and lose touch with inner grace and grounding. She always seems to know just what to say in order for me to gain some perspective and move forward. 

Describe your cooking style?

Light, anti-inflammatory, and whole foods based. I love the Ayurvedic concept that a satisfying meal has all of the rasas (tastes) represented: sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, pungent, & sour. Accordingly, in my most well thought out meals I aim to incorporate all of these. I'm heavily influenced by therapeutic diets based on type (bio-chemical individuality, genetics, dosha, etc), and strive to eat/cook in accordance with what serves me and those I cook for given the season, climate, and occasion.

Peeling back the layers of my cooking style a little further brings me to a core belief of mine, which is that cooking is an act of caring and love. This is how I grew up; it was part of my family culture. Today, with my yoga lens I feel that cooking has the potential to be a form of karma yoga (selfless action as a tool for spiritual growth). When I cook for my family and friends, it's a reflection of my deep affection for them. 

Earliest food memory?

Eating molasses ginger cookies. First the cookie dough, then the baked product. I was probably around 4 years old. This is still my favorite type of cookie, and I always have to try the dough before baking.  

Where do you find inspiration in cooking and in life?

In relationships. Not just the romantic ones.

 Favorite spot in the house?

Depends on the time and day and the lighting. The wonderful thing is that there's not a single place in the house that I don't like. It all has such good energy and flow. I do really love sitting on the stairs that go from the living room to the kitchen space. Of course, the bathtub is always lovely, too.

Describe your decorative style?

Eclectic. Global. Grounded, and by that I mean: a) a plethora of plants; b) Reza and I strive to have the majority of our belongings sourced from natural materials and fibers; c) as few as electronics and gadgets as is possible given that our jobs require a certain degree of being plugged in.

You are from Maine, how do you think that influences the way you live?

I don't think I'll every fully know how each of the places I've lived has influenced me. Was it the place? The people? The experiences? Tucked away in plain view I keep shells, bark, and branches from places where I've felt particularly connected to nature. Maybe I came to love and feel at home in nature from summers in Maine as a kid.

How has pregnancy changed your relationship with food and personal health?

I know that there's been a lot of letting go and embracing all at once. A lot of deep listening, too. It's felt important to take more of a witness role and lean in to what I observe. It's a different type of active participation than I expected. Prior to being pregnant I thought there'd be a lot more "doing." Doing this or that to stay healthy. Instead I find that I'm often having to take a step back, listen, and yield to what unfolds. I realize this is a pretty vague answer. Perhaps I'll be better able to answer this in a year, when I have the advantage of some distance from my experience. Right now, at 6 months pregnant, I'm right in the thick of it. 


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