In the heart of Silicon Valley, known for its tech success and wealth, healthcare is a big problem. One in four women who need help can't see a doctor regularly, leading to more ongoing health problems that go untreated. Mental health issues are horrible, 30% worse than the rest of the country, but only 15% of these women get the help they need. Also, only 40% get the reproductive health care they need, which leads to more unexpected pregnancies than in nearby areas. These facts are more than just statistics; these women urgently need more support.
Dr. Prema Rao was inspired to found Akhila Health based on fundamental principles learned through education and experience. Prema has undergraduate and graduate degrees in the life sciences and experience as a Research Scientist in the biomedical device industry, with numerous publications and patents to her credit. Awareness of holistic health and its benefits led her to a doctorate program in Psychology, which catalyzed her objective to bring it to the underserved population. Dr. Rao has served in leadership roles in multiple organizations, which have been instrumental in mobilizing Akhila Health.
Sure, thank you. Well, Akhila Health is a 501c3 organization started in Silicon Valley, and it serves the underserved women in our communities. So, we started in 2015 and think about how it began. We have to connect the dots. It started with a concept that I became aware of, which was the concept of the koshas. Koshas has been explained in ancient texts and talks about the fact that we are not just the physical body. We are also the emotional, the mental, the vital energy, and the spirit. We are five layers: the physical, the body, the breath, the mind, the intellect, and the spirit, or the bliss. So these are the layers. So when I first became aware of it, I worked as a research scientist in the biomedical device industry. So, this concept did not; I needed to understand it better initially. So that quest made me read whatever I could find on this and led me to Ayurveda. And through that, I was even more motivated because this seemed more all-encompassing. So I went for a Ph.D. at that time in psychology with a focus on health studies, which in those days was called complementary and alternative medicine, and Ayurveda was part of it. So that's what started my journey. But during my PhD, that's when I became aware of stress and how it impacts all the chronic illnesses that we see. But I also learned that stress management tools and skills are there that can combat the stress. So that was a very crucial information. And at that time, I also volunteered at a free clinic, giving behavioral education. And I could see in the underserved population that chronic illness was indeed the problem there. And that was very self-evident. Also, I worked as an intern at the Institute of Health and Healing in San Francisco. When I was there, we were publishing a paper, an article, on who uses these complementary and alternative medicine modalities, or CAM. And it was made clear at that time, at least, that it was accessible to educated people, actually women in particular, and those who were affluent because they had to pay out of pocket. So that was also a revelation that these underserved people will not get it. But how did I come about knowing about underserved women or people? It's not only through that free clinic; I used to volunteer at homeless shelters. And in that shelter, we could see people in unfortunate states. Once, for Mother's Day, we had a little program where we treated the women with manicures and pedicures. We just made them feel happy for that day. And that experience was so positive that we could bring so much joy to women like that with just a little gesture. All these connecting the dots made me start Akila Health a long time ago. As you mentioned, our mission is to provide holistic health programs to these underserved populations, to empower them to gather their inner resources and create a brighter future, but also a long-lasting one. In a word, Akhila itself has meaning. Akhila means whole or complete in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Therefore, our tagline is holistic health. So if you talk about the domains we're in, it's holistic health, women, and the underserved population, those who are financially disadvantaged.
Okay. So, for me, it's a byproduct of my spiritual journey. Akhila came to me later in my life. It was really to want to give back my education and experiences. And that was the intention behind it. And it seemed like it had purpose and meaning, and there was joy to it. And I'm not the only one. Others who work on this are similar. So one of our first board members was a yoga practitioner, and she was motivated to work on this project because it served that yogic lifestyle that she was cultivating to give back and be of service. But you know, practically speaking, too, I'm a woman. Like everybody, I have gone through many stressors, especially living here in Silicon Valley as a wife, mother, you know, a career person, and managing a home at that time. We were building a home, too, so it's all compounded. But I had the tools that I could use. But it is still a balancing act for everybody. You know, this process of stress management. The population that we serve is the underserved women. Now, these women either have financial difficulties, they can even have health challenges, or they are in a phase of life; for example, they might be pregnant or they're young mothers. They don't have anywhere else to go, so they might have relationship problems, whatever it is, but you can imagine that their stress levels would be even higher than we can think of. So this is the population that we wanted to serve. And one thing I wanted to mention is, especially in the homeless population, the head of household being single mothers is much greater. So we had a lot of women leading households, and you can imagine, again, a lot of stressors there. One last motivation, which is a strong motivation, is I've seen examples of disempowered women and how their lack of awareness of how to manage it, really the quality of life was not that good for them. So those are all the reasons that motivate me to further this field.
Okay. So, our product or what we serve is through workshops. And we provide one-hour workshops through our partner organizations. So we go through shelters and such. And we provide these either virtually or in person. So, in a sense, we see sometimes they're transient populations, like in homeless situations, they're transient. We may get them only a few weeks or every other week. So I can tell you how the feeling is when we feel that we have touched somebody. So, when I do the facilitation, the other person probably has tears in their eyes because they had a moment or some realization. Or even pre-pandemic, I have to be honest with you, at the end of the class, they would come and hug. That was an understanding; there was a heart-to-heart connection there. And that was very significant. And that propels me to move forward. And facilitators are all doing the same thing. They're giving their experience and education and giving their heart, their feeling of connection to other people. But when we want to scale in this worldly world that we are in, we need to have some data. So, we also ask the clients to complete a survey after every workshop. So in that, we have quantitative and qualitative things. So, in terms of quantitative, we score 4.7 to 4.75 on a scale of five. So we're doing well there. And in terms of anecdotal information, we have many coming from the facilitators themselves or through these surveys. And I'll narrate a few. So, at a homeless shelter that we currently serve in San Jose, we've been serving there since, I think, 2016 or so, you know, off and on. So I remember having, like, in this shelter, they're not encouraged to connect with everybody. They don't trust each other. Because they're, you know, like, for example, this small thing, there'll be a common fridge, and they don't want things to be stolen that's there, things like that, the territorial things. So they're very wary of each other. But in this workshop, when we have discussions, they honestly look at the other person and say, oh, this is what your story is. I didn't know that. Let's go for a walk afterward and find out about each other. Or let me take you to my church. You're going through a difficult time. Let me take you there because there are people who can help you. So social support is being built up in our little interaction because we're coming from a very neutral position. We are not the government, the homeless shelter, or whatever they are. We are very neutral. So it's a, you know, they can be themselves with us. And in the same shelter, you know, over the summer months, I met a lady. She had come from Colombia as a refugee. She didn't speak English. And she came with, she has come recently with her daughter, I believe, and her grandchildren. In the first class, we talked about homelessness. It was a facilitator who had been a homeless person before. So you can see the impact that can have. And somebody else was translating. She was in tears throughout the whole thing because she thought somebody understood her plight. So we felt the connection there, and we were able to help at that time. Two weeks later, we went there, and this time, we had an activity, just a neutral activity as a stress management tool. And she was so happy because there was something she could do from start to finish and she was beaming with joy with that. So, even in that class, they could get that experience of joy. So that's a positive thing. We have been in other places, like, for example, you know, this joy that they experience, I think we go home afterward, so we don't know what happens afterward. But in another place where we serve, it's called Sienna House in Santa Cruz, where these pregnant women and young mothers, the director tells us that, you know, after the workshop there, the whole day, the mood's a little lighter. So we know it's lasting. Let's see, we are at cancer places, cancer resource places. There's one in Berkeley that we are serving. These women have the hardship of being diagnosed with cancer. They Google, they have done all sorts of work on them, but they appreciate our content. Because it comes from a different perspective, a holistic approach. So they appreciate that perspective. We have also been at substance abuse rehabilitation centers before. This was during the pandemic. So it was all virtual, but the impact is still there. So we provided a lot of workshops. We had gone through a lot of workshops with them. And we were focusing on one activity at that time. The activity was a vision board. So vision board, you know, we give them instructions on what to do, but what they envision for their future is the question. These people took it so seriously that they did their homework, and it was time for them to present. And I remember this woman who wanted her life to be useful. In other words, she wanted to share her life as a substance, and as a person who had gone through rehabilitation, she wanted that to be something that benefits others so that they don't take the path of the substance abuse that she had taken. So her life, she wanted it to matter, is basically what it is. And then she also, after, you know, this is a tough place because had they not been there, they would have been in jail. That was the option. So it was pretty serious. She had a business proposal of what she would do to sustain herself after she got out of this rehab clinic. The eyes lit up when she spoke about it: I want to do this, I want to do this, and so on. So it's lovely to see such optimism, enthusiasm, and the inner conviction you want to get out of it. So these are some stories I can share. Ultimately, the time we spend with them might have been the invisible population. So time is precious; we consider it essential and on par with us. Sense of belonging. Belonging and connection, exactly. They just want to speak and their voice to be heard; they want to matter. And they want to live life on their terms. They haven't had a chance to do that. So it's very inspirational to see such things or hear such things.
Okay, well, first, let's define holistic health. We talked about the koshas. I'll keep talking about it because that's the basis. So we are not just the body; we have the breath or the vital energy, the mind, intellect, and bliss. So, all of these components are important. We are multi-dimensional, right? So when we are multi-dimensional like that, and these layers are interconnected. So that's the key. I'll use an example. Let's say, somebody, if you see somebody who's angry, there might be other things going on underneath that outburst of anger.
There could be sadness, loneliness, whatever it is. And we teach all this in our workshops. So, but what happens? The breath becomes shallow and irregular when you are having an outburst. Your body suffers, too. Your heart is racing at that point. It might have started in the mind and the emotion level, so that's also disturbed. So, with all this, how is the intellect going to intervene with all this? It has no place. And forget about the bliss. It's far from it. So this is the scenario where every aspect because if the mind is perturbed, every aspect is affected. But the good part is that all can be remedied with holistic health. So, with education and awareness, a person could start with breathing, with some deep breathing, to initiate this remedy process. So what happens is that deep breathing can calm the mind at that point, leading to the body being more stable. Breath is so unique that it's a bridge between the body and the mind. It's compelling, and it's free. We have it within us. So once that happens, the body is stable. The mind is calm. The intellect, which is the, or they might remember the last time they had an outburst, the consequences rational part can interject and explore. Why is this happening? Is this worth it? Is this worth it? And it could be more attractive. So even that awareness can stop that domino effect. And if this person has gone through enough of these iterations, they may even go further deep within and say, what is the root cause? Why am I getting angry like this at this person? So that can lead to further transformation. So you see, that's why holistic health plays a role. Sure, you can have remedies. For the short term, with other things, just focus on the body, mind, or anything. But with holistic, it's a longer-term change and transformation. So that's why holistic health is essential.
Okay. Before we go to that, I want to mention men and women all experience stress, and they are equally remedied through holistic health practices. But what may be different with women is the social conditions they face or even the conditioning they have gone through in their childhood and young adulthood. So that might be the difference that we see between men and women. Now, with women, I have to tell you why I focused on women. I've mentioned some amount of it. But there was a time when I was involved in founding a women's group. And this was not the underserved. It was women in our communities. But the observations were amazing because, first of all, they were interested in self-care. They were thirsty for this knowledge of self-care, how to better themselves, etc. The second thing I noticed was they were more engaged in conversations when women were around. They could be more authentic, had their defenses down, and communicated better, which was excellent in this day and age. Maybe they were older. And the third thing is that the remarkable thing is they were feeling more empowered. In this community that I was in, we also did tasks; they were responsibilities. Traditionally, they would only have accepted those responsibilities if they would just go behind and let the men handle it. But in this, it was only women. So they had to empower themselves to do this. And that built up the leadership, and it's been going on for 20-plus years. Now you see the leadership happening within that community, people you would not think would take on those roles. So that was the observation. So, in this homeless population, again, we see that they're thirsting for knowledge for self-care. They know, they have heard of yoga, they have heard of meditation, they're thirsting for that. Also, the main component of our workshops is engagement because that's the only time they will capture and reflect on their inner wisdom. So that has to happen very freely. They can't be inhibited. So again, that's one of the things that is very important. In terms of empowerment, it comes naturally once you have more authentic dialogue to get them to think because they're in a very challenging situation. They have to get empowered to get anywhere. Otherwise, it will be a loss for them. So, that's how I view it. That's how I view it, and that's why we handle them might differ. And to tell you the truth, when we go to these shelters, they want programs; there aren't many programs like that. So they have asked us, can you include the men in this? And we have included, once, a man who just wanted to sit down in the class. And it was interesting because people didn't speak up. And then there was a situation in the virtual during the pandemic when we were there. We had no control. We were not there to monitor. Two men just wanted to hang out there. And you could see the energy changing. So, it does impact that way. And actually, there's one grief workshop that we do. And it was very well received by the women because they could hurt some bad feelings. So the homeless shelter said, we want it for the men. Want it for the men. So this young facilitator said, OK, we'll try it once because you're asking so many times. And it was a different scenario. It was very different, significantly, like they were very defensive. So it was, you know, you can't get to the inner thing. And I should not generalize, but this is what the observation was. They're incredible men who can open up and connect, and so on. But I'm talking about the group dynamics of it.
That's what we try to do in our workshops. So resilience, when you think about it, is about adapting to difficulties, difficulties, and challenges, both internal, many of it is internal and external. Right? So, the best way to do it is through resources, skills, and tools. And that's what we specialize in. And what do we mean by resources? It could be concepts, even simple talking about stress and how it affects each part of our body. That's a resource. That's becoming aware of what's going on with you. Plenty of you can imagine for each of these layers, you can go deeper and deeper and deeper. You can also use science to share. And in terms of tools and skills, again, there are plenty. And that's what we work on. So, for example, we teach about progressive relaxation or a body scan for the body. So when you're under stress, scan your body to see what's happening. Or we talk about movement is another thing. We don't usually move our bodies, and often it's stuck there; stress is struck there. So that's another valuable tool. Of course, yoga and Qigong, things like that, are very valuable at multiple layers. Then a skill for the breath is pranayama, which is alternate nostril breathing, or it could be box breathing. Many kinds of breathing exercises can; I told you about how important breathing is. We've all heard of mindfulness; that's an essential tool. Guided imagery or visualization are tools as well that we teach. And for the intellect, the discussions that we have, discussions that we have with open-ended questions, are valuable. Or affirmations, positive affirmations. And then for the bliss, you know, meditation. It is so surprising that when we take surveys, they appreciate that meditation aspect because it's something not familiar to them, they have yet to do, but they get something out of it because it's going within. That leads to the inner wisdom part. You have to go internally. What does that mean? You have to stop going externally. So, the senses are all outward-focused. So try not to get distracted by what the senses are doing or your thoughts about your surroundings, other people, or things like that. If you want to call it, it's getting away from that external focus and focusing on yourself or your inner world. And again, these also can be helped by silence. And if you cannot manage silence, the mind will be racing. You can focus on breathing to tame the mind if you want to call it or walk in nature. Nature is an excellent remedy for many things. Just focus on nature. As I mentioned, meditation-guided imagery is a tool you can use to go inward. And even if you can't do any of this, just evaluate your thoughts and feelings honestly. Just go deeper and deeper with that. That's going to lead you to that inner resource.
So, as I mentioned to you, we have workshops. These workshops can be virtual or in person. They range. For example, we have a range of workshops on the co-shares themselves. So, we evaluate each aspect: the body, the breath, the mind, the intellect, and the bliss. We have eight workshops related to emotional intelligence, which talk about recognizing emotions, regulating emotions, managing emotions, self-affirmations, and things like that. We have another series of six on mind-body medicine, different aspects of it. We have another program developed for a bio-deal on stress, so it has some allopathic elements. as well. So these are many of them, and of course, I talked about the modalities they know you can go and teach yoga every week, and that's a class. Qigong does the same thing. Or knitting and crocheting because these are stress management tools, arts and crafts, or self-massage. They have self-massage or movement and dance. So it's a wide variety of them. But I have to say with the workshops themselves, of course, every workshop has these usual components, you know, icebreaker and so on. But we introduce the concept. It's just a very little time we take to introduce the concept. It could be through stories, facts, quizzes, or whatever, but there's a self-assessment piece. So where are they in this time, in this concept? And then, we have open-ended questions to facilitate the discussion. And the critical part is the activity usually involves them going inward, as we talk about it, to find out how they feel and want to change. And there's also a life application portion where they will take and improve, you know, going on future. So it's providing information towards the transformation. So our objective is to provide the information, but they have to do the work to transform. So I think it depends on where they are, like in the cancer support community, they're very interested in finding out all the facts; they'll make the notes and everything. In the homeless shelter, they just want to be present at that time and take all that in; after they go, they don't necessarily want to do homework. So it depends on what it is. So we are now in homeless shelters, family shelters, and drop-in centers. We are at the cancer centers. We have been in transitional homes. We are at the pregnancy place. We have been in substance abuse, but there are so many more places to go. You know, the domestic violence shelters, even hospitals that serve the underserved women, or VA, or even jails. So there's a lot of scope for that
Okay, one common myth is that these holistic programs are offered everywhere. When I started, this was in 2015. It was not there, and we had anger management classes or parenting classes. Those were the two main things that they were asked to do. And over the years, it should be more prevalent. It is gaining traction, but not still. Still needs to be more abundant. So that's one myth. I think there is much more of these in the cancer support places. And different groups are providing what we provide holistically. They might do the breath or the qigong part, but we are providing all of it. So, and even adding to that, another myth might be that who needs this? Who's going to listen to it? But they do. By the surveys that we see and the interest that they have, they are looking for it. And as I mentioned to you, everybody is doing it, but who can afford it? That's the problem. So, stress exists. I keep saying stress exists, so we will always have a role because of these stress management tools.
I was reflecting on this, and I would say, you know, just this week on Tuesday, we were at the homeless shelter. We usually try to get them to talk, but we try to facilitate in between. And there was a woman who was a domestic violence survivor, a victim. And even though she had devoted her life to her children, she had lost custody of them. And it was unfortunate, a brilliant woman. She had lost custody, and she was homeless now. So she was devastated. She was trying to find meaning. Why am I doing this? What is going on? And even in stress management or stress resilience, there's a term that's used. It's called hardiness. How do you promote hardiness? And we used elements. It's very intuitive, but I'll use those terms to explain. So there, they talk about hardiness being influenced by the three C's to manage stress. And the three C's are commitment, control, and challenge. So by commitment, and this is the advice we were giving her, by kind of, you know, acknowledge that you are in this situation. This is happening. That's the first step. That is the first step. But this too shall pass. That's true. Right? And then the second thing is to have faith in yourself, and whoever you trust, you have to hang on to something. And this is the third part we were telling her: it was tough, is don't expect. Like that's the thing we all have to learn. Desires are what cause problems for all of us. But in that situation, she was saying, how can I get custody of my children? Now, you know, all that stuff. You have to do your work but don't say it will happen this way. You have to persevere. That's the other thing. Patience and perseverance are necessary. But also invest in yourself. This is a time when you can say, okay, I'll take two steps backward and let me see what I have. What do I have within that I can use to get a step up? Right. And then control. And that talks about seeking information. And that's why she was in this class. She was in our previous class too, and she found it helpful. So embrace what has been told to you. You know, really work. And then shore up your energy to activate your body and mind. This is the time not to be lethargic. It's the time to take action to get out of this thing. And finally, the third aspect was challenge, is you have to take on this challenge because life as it is, if you don't, another thing will come along to make you approach this challenge. So that's important too. And understand that this is your mission at this point. This is your mission. Make it your mission that, you know, I'm going to get out of this homeless situation, whatever it is. So this is really prepping you, you know, supporting yourself. And then finally, you know, you really are the hero of your journey. You really are the hero; take it as that. This is your mission. You are the hero. And in fact, we were telling her, because she had so many questions of what we were talking about. And she talked about her childhood and what she knew before were answers. Now it's not working. So we were telling her, you're just in the cocoon now. You're a caterpillar phase. You're going to build up, going to emerge as a beautiful butterfly that you are. So those positive affirmations are what is needed to hang on to, to get to the other side. So that's kind of the advice depending on how receptive they are. We will tell parts of it or all of it, and then we'll follow up with tools as well. Because if we say all this, they need to internalize it so we can guide them through meditation or imagery or visualization, where they internalize it even more and make it more useful.