“It is healing for the whole person. The idea that each of us is an important partner in our own health care. There is an emphasis on prevention, education and our natural ability to heal,” according to Jean Ellis-Sankari, founder of the Holistic Health and Healing Arts program at the University of New Mexico (UNM)–Taos. She says, “Taos has a rich tradition of healing. This program combines traditional approaches with the most recent developments in Western medicine and provides a safe place for healing and learning.”
The program was established by Ellis-Sankari and others in 1999. Ellis-Sankari says the program began at about the same time Western medicine began to take notice of the effectiveness of traditional and Eastern methods. Because approaches such as massage, meditation and using herbs can work together with Western medicine, they are sometimes referred to as complementary or integrative. Ellis-Sankari says that with the aging of the baby-boomer population, there has been a trend for people to explore other means of healing, beyond working only with their medical doctor.
Ellis-Sankari teaches the introduction class that gives an overview of holistic healing techniques and focuses on philosophy, ethics and evidence-based approaches. She also teaches yoga and Reiki, along with heath psychology.
One of the early teachers in the program, Pearl Huang brought her knowledge of Eastern movement such as Chi Gong and Tai Chi. Her focus was on the body, mind and spirit. She says, “The whole thing begins with the breath; we have to learn to breathe.” Among the proven benefits of movement such as Chi Gong are reduced blood pressure, improved ability to deal with stress, better focus on goals and feeling more energetic.
As the program developed, new two certificates were added. The first was the Integrative Massage Therapy program. Dr. Kirstie Segarra was hired to teach introduction to massage in 2006. Within the next two years, she had developed a massage therapy curriculum and taken it through the approval process at the state licensing board and through UNM-Albuquerque. Segarra is the chair of Integrative Health and Medical Massage.
She was also the co-founder of the Yoga Teacher Training Program in 2010. The program was recognized as the top yoga teacher training program in the country by College Magazine in 2015. Since its inception, 55 yoga instructors have earned their yoga teacher certificates through the training. People come from all over the world — as far away as Belgium — as well as the U.S., including New Mexico, in order to work toward earning all three certificates.
Another focus of the holistic health program is on good nutrition and developing a healthy lifestyle. Instructor Alana Grier teaches Integrative Health Coaching and a class called 16 Weeks to Wellness, which is also offered as a dual credit course for high school students. The dual credit program is a way for high school students to earn college credit. Grier says, “This program supports students in developing a capacity to examine lifestyle choices and their impact on health. The primary focus is on self-care and learning that supports self-healing, promotes longevity and optimal health.” With a background in dance and Eastern Medicine, Grier came to UNM–Taos to attend the Yoga Teacher Training Program in 2011, and soon after became an instructor in the program.
Core requirements for the Holistic Health and Healing Arts program include the introduction class, nutrition, one movement class such as yoga or Tai Chi, and a class titled Meditation, Consciousness and Self-healing. This class is taught by Sean Murphy, who has been practicing meditation for 30 years and teaching at UNM-Taos for almost 20 years, including classes in creative writing and literature.
Murphy says that the most common benefit reported by students is that their family lives improve. “Typically within a month, even new meditators start to report benefits. The first thing they notice is that they are less reactive at home and work. The benefits radiate out.”
In this class, students find help in dealing with stress, personal loss, trauma and also assistance in overcoming addition, usually in conjunction with other support. “What meditation really offers is insight into the human condition and strategies for having a better life now,” says Murphy.
These benefits also can be seen in the community, as those with meditation backgrounds continue their practice and share their knowledge with others. Some students go on to join regular meditation classes at Heart of the Sacred, which is free and open to the public. Others take the meditation teacher training program at Sage Institute; itself a program that began as part of UNM-Taos and now operates as a non-profit organization.
Student Christopher Heron says he has been able to explore a number of different areas over the past five years because he has been taking classes in the program. Using the techniques he learned in Murphy’s class has helped him meditate with his 11 year old. He says, “The program is a wealth of resources and has provided me with some really valuable tools for life.”
Evelyn Martinez, a Native woman, says that the real benefits are learning about yourself. She says that her education, which included getting a bachelor’s degree, was part of a healing process for her. “The program made me the person I am today. It opened my eyes to lots of things that I didn’t see clearly before. It teaches you how to reach inside and find happiness and love for self.”
Some students began their studies in the holistic health program and used it as a springboard for further education in counseling, social work and other fields. Nicole Renee Peters will graduate this spring with her Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Integrative Health and Wellness Education. Peters is a personal trainer and fitness instructor. She wanted to offer her clients more than just physical improvement. The holistic health program turned out to be the perfect way to incorporate tools that allow people to move toward optimal health and vitality. She says, “This program is unique to Taos. We have a community treasure right here in our beautiful town.”
The whole community experiences the benefits of the programs as students graduate and go on to become health workers and massage therapists in the community. Not only have they gained new skills, but also they are able to work in professions that pay well and allow them to support their families.
Tuition is affordable, making the program accessible for in-state students. Financial aid is available and some students receive scholarships to travel abroad as part of their course of study. Free open houses for the community are offered periodically, and students of all ages and backgrounds are invited to explore all the options offered by the program.