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Meet Tanya Pergola of The Pergola Method, Terrawatu, The Healing Safari in Coconut Grove

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tanya Pergola.

Tanya, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve always been intrigued by, what can I say… what we call the mind-body-spirit connection. I trained as a gymnast first, then fell in love with sociology and social psychology – how culture and societies influence our identities and sense of self, and how, in turn, we can change society. Running under the surface of it all, throughout, was this awareness of a life force, something bigger than myself that kept me moving, and still provides me with a spark that keeps my light on and the lights of the world on around me.

I ended up pursuing the passion for ideas inside the academic arena and received a Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle. My focal points were on changes in our natural environment, traditional cultures, and social movements. Throughout my graduate career, working on developing my mind, I continued to move my body with dance, pilates, and yoga. Once a gymnast, always a gymnast, I think.

By the time I completed the doctorate, in 1999, I felt I had over-worked the mind, had lost my father who I was very close with, took a job at a thinktank exploring American’s rising interest in ‘alternative medicine’, and was burning myself out and feeling frustrated at the same time. I wanted to make real changes in the world, not just talk and write about them.

My father was quite critical of many trends happening in American society, especially when it came to health care, the industry in which he had worked. Upon his passing, it was as if he passed the baton to me, to run the next leg of the race in helping people improve their health and wellbeing.

I never would have guessed that my next move would be to Africa. I actually went to Tanzania first as a tourist. To climb Mt Kilimanjaro and go on a wildlife safari. That first visit stirred something inside me, as I was wearing the ‘lenses’ of a trained sociologist and specialist in mind-body medicine techniques. I went to visit the indigenous peoples there, the Maasai, and spoke with them (through a translator). I realized immediately that I could learn as much, or more, from them as they could learn from me. I returned to Seattle after that first trip but found an amazing opportunity to return to Tanzania within two years. I tell a lot of this story and what happened in the subsequent decade in my book Time is Cows: Timeless Wisdom of the Maasai.

After living and working in Tanzania for almost ten years full time, then in South Africa and Botswana, I started to sense that it was time for me to spend more time in my country of birth, the United States. This was confirmed to me by one of my best teachers and soul-brothers, a Maasai elder, Ole Sululu. He explained that his people were getting increasingly alarmed by the news they were getting from the States – gun violence, suicides, mental unwellness, and a general sense that people were angry, stressed-out, and burning out. He suggested that it was time for me to return to the USA and do what I can to help my people. With everything I had been taught in Africa, it was now time to return and give back.

I was a bit nervous. I hadn’t lived in the States for over 12 years. Fortunately, I had sold my house in Seattle and didn’t have to go back to the cool, rainy climate there. I was used to sunshine! I had re-invested in a condo in Coconut Grove a few years back which I had been renting out. So, I had a lovely home to return to in a climate identical to Zanzibar, with the same tropical fruits I was used to, and an international community of people that made me feel like I could continue my life as a global citizen quite easily. I think if I had returned to another city than Miami back in 2012, I would not have lasted this long back in the States. The transition was challenging but doable.

Within a year, my book was published and I was on my way to sharing the wisdom I had gained in Africa with ‘my’ people. I completed my training as a Vedic educator with Deepak Chopra’s center in California and started teaching yoga, meditation and healthy lifestyle techniques at wellness centers, yoga studios and spas in Miami. I continue to fundraise and manage the projects of my humanitarian organization in Tanzania and have been speaking at conferences and events around the world. I learned a long time ago to build bridges and not to burn them, so I am blessed to have longtime good friends at universities, family foundations, and other organizations who have helped me continue my work. And, I get to return to my homes in Africa once or twice a year to visit friends and family, check on my projects and lead people on safaris and yoga retreats. It is a dream come true.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The road less traveled is filled with challenges, always.

As you can imagine, I have many stories about dropping down in a less developed nation armed with academic theories about what people need. Then, after spending time with locals over a cup of tea or a beer and learning what they really need, you see the big divergence there. While I always knew that deep down, humans are the same all over the world, living and working in a place so different from where I was raised, truly reinforced this for me.

Over the years, I have thought about how my life would be different if I had pursued a more traditional academic career, teaching as a professor at a university. There is a structure in place for that, job listings to apply for, payment packages, school year calendars, already-made audiences (the students and colleagues at conferences), etc. It has been a heck of a lot harder to fundraise, write grants, a not-too-academic book that would appeal to a wide audience, and to find clients and speaking engagements away from ‘the ivory tower.’

In hindsight, I have always been a pioneer, and going through these challenges didn’t seem to be obstacles at the time, I was simply following my passions, what I believed in, and still do. If I could figure out how to live my own life with one foot outside of existing institutions, and succeed, then I could help others do the same. If enough people start to do this, then we will have a significant movement of people living their lives more directly from the heart, being kinder to the environment, serving others, and generally living with more joy. I sense this is happening, in pockets now, as I am receiving more messages from people asking me for guidance. This warms my heart. We are getting there!

Please tell us about The Pergola Method, Terrawatu, The Healing Safari.
I actually have three businesses, all registered in the State of Florida. Two of them are also registered in Tanzania. While they are distinct in a legal sense, they are linked in that they are all about serving others, inspiring and helping different populations.

Terrawatu – This is the humanitarian organization I co-founded almost 20 years ago in Tanzania. I am so proud of the work we have done there. We put in the first computer lab in a school in northern Tanzania, we have helped women’s groups reforest their communities and start small businesses, we created complementary medicine clinics, and have educated, empowered and improved the lives of thousands of children and families in the region where we work. And, we are still going strong! expanding our reach to neighboring villages.

People-to-People Safaris – This company, which I also co-founded, has been operating since 2004, specializing in educational and healing safaris in Africa. We bring groups of all ages ‘off the beaten tourist path’ to explore indigenous communities and groups making a difference in the world. These trips are truly inspirational and life-changing. We just brought a group of African-Americans to Tanzania for a unique journey that included various rituals for African’s from the Diaspora. I am very proud of our Healing Safaris, which I curate and co-lead with a Maasai elder. The journey marries a wellness retreat with a traditional wildlife safari. It is always hard for me to find words to describe the Healing Safari, they are so profound. We are the only ones doing this and people get to experience first-hand, ancient wisdom ‘from the horse’s mouth’. Really awesome.

The Pergola Method™ – This method combines Maasai and Ayurvedic ancient wisdom traditions – the two main systems I have specialized in. Both systems hold the belief that wellbeing is rooted in our understanding of our own mind and body as a whole. Clients engage me to guide them in: meditation and yoga therapy, improving nutrition and diet, social-psychological counseling, relationship issues, conscious leadership, and stress management. I work with both individuals and corporate groups, in Miami and at retreats and wellness centers around the world: at Rancho La Puerta in Mexico, the South of France, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zanzibar. Fortunately, I have always loved to travel so I feel blessed to be able to visit such amazing places and speak, present, consult and see clients doing work that I love so much it does not feel like work.

Some of the most rewarding engagements are with clients who are ready to make major shifts in their lives and bring me on to lead them through Initiations – traditional African rites of passage updated with the latest scientific research in psychology and neuroscience.

Any predictions for the industry over the next few years?
Humanitarian work has changed since I have been in it over the last 20 years. I’m reading Melinda Gates’ book right now and her stories really echo my own. This is very reaffirming. It is good to know development work has changed: people working for foundations and aid agencies are listening more to the stories of the people we are working with, especially to the women, and are taking more seriously the cultures people are living in. This leads to financial assistance being given in smarter ways, therefore having more effective impacts in the long run. While we at Terrawatu have operated in this manner from day one, I have always said we need an army of humanitarian workers to operate with this type of philosophy. And I feel it building now. In the next 5-10 years, I hope this movement continues.

Wellness Travel – According to industry reports, people traveling specifically to improve their wellbeing are booking trips at record levels. All over the world, especially in urban areas, people are stressed out, burnt out, even depressed. In the next 5-10 years, I expect more people choosing to travel for healing experiences, to feed their souls, and to make meaningful connections with people in real-time, rather than on-line. It is also trending right now to book a retreat to catch up on sleep, relax, recover and re-discover what it feels like to live with lower stress levels.

The business of Yoga, Healthy Lifestyles, Coaching, Self-Improvement, Wellness – This has also been changing. So much of it has gone on-line, which I have mixed feelings about. I totally understand the ease of watching a video of a class, or Skyping with your coach, rather than battling traffic, and parking, but at the same time, loneliness is at record levels in the States. There is still something about being together with like-minded people in the same physical space that will never change. I hope the trend in the coming years is to sort out some combination for people – to engage part of the time online for health and wellness needs and part of the time offline, with people who feed your heart and soul.

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Image Credit:

Jennifer Gerardi, Life Steps Photo

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