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A lifelong learner and teacher

July 9, 2012
Raina Delisle
Thara Vayali

From the yoga mat to the doctor’s office, Thara Vayali’s philosophy remains the same. As a naturopathic doctor and yoga instructor, she is dedicated to helping people become more in tune with their bodies by educating rather than dictating.

“I am motivated when I see people engaged and empowered in their own health and education,” the Royal Roads alumna says. “I know I’m doing my job when I hear back from people that they’re making changes in their life because they can tell the difference, not because I told them to.”

Vayali says the MA in Environmental Education and Communication (MEEC) program helped her discover who she was as an educator and gave her the tools to defy the archetype of doctors and teachers as dictators.

“The program was so forward-thinking compared to other schools,” she says of the collaborative, team-based approach. “I learned more about myself and what my statements are around environmental ethics. I also developed as a teacher. It gave me the right foundation to step into health care.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from the University of British Columbia and before studying at Royal Roads, Vayali created and piloted a youth nutrition program through the City of Vancouver called Fresh. She led a group of UBC nutrition students to community centes across the city, where they taught children ages three to 12 about where food comes from – now a popular topic, but one of little attention in 2004, when Fresh launched.

“I learned so much about community nutrition and how to connect nutrition to the environment,” she says. “The piece that I felt I wanted more skills in was getting to know myself as a teacher.”

Prof. Rick Kool, founder and head of the MEEC program, says self-discovery and learning while teaching are part of the program.

“We recognize, given the extraordinary diversity of backgrounds that people have, that everyone can be a teacher,” says Kool, noting that Vayali led yoga classes for her classmates during residencies. “One of the things I stress is that all adults, I feel, are teachers and we teach well or poorly depending on how aware we are that we are always teaching. We teach not just content, but we teach our lives.”

Vancouver-based Vayali believes the best doctors are effective educators and communicators and she’s dedicated to continuing to develop herself. She notes that there’s a divide between naturopathic doctors and medical doctors, but she sees a great opportunity to learn from the medical field and so she sought out to shadow a medical doctor. What was intended to be a one-time experience has become a lasting partnership and every two weeks she joins her MD mentor on the job. While she’s learning a great deal about Western medicine, the biggest thing she’s taking away from the experience is great tips on how to communicate with patients.

“I’m learning so much every day about how to bring this complex world of health care and medicine – which is so mired in our finances, our politics, our own bodies, our emotions – how to bring that and translate it to the patient sitting in front of you,” she says. “At the end of the day, none of us really know what’s right, but we have to know how to communicate what we do know.”

Vayali says communication is a cornerstone of quality health care and being an effective communicator is essential to her job as a naturopathic doctor.  She has patients of all ages and backgrounds who are seeking naturopathic care for a variety of reasons – some have tried everything through the medical route and nothing worked while others are just curious. 

“The way to communicate with each of those groups is completely different and it’s important to meet them where they are,” says Vayali, who has been working at Sage Clinic in Vancouver since January. “I wouldn’t have the awareness I have of that without the education I had at Royal Roads. I really value the education part of my profession. Without having that tool, it would be so easy for me to come up with my right answer and my explanation and stick with that the whole way through. With this tool, I am able to reach so many more people.”

“Thara is a very open and engaged person who’s found a path that really makes a lot of sense for her,” Kool says. “She’s the first student MEEC student to become a doctor and that shows the diversity of paths that people take to Royal Roads and the diversity of paths people take when they leave us.”

Learn more about Vayali’s yoga and naturopath practices my visiting her website.