The Friends Like These series features people I know from different eras of my life who are doing great things in sustainable and holistic ways.
Sri Narayan works the high wire somewhere between the cutting edge and a future trend. An idea so fresh in his mind, drawing on his heritage and business background, led him to go all-in as a proprietor of medicinal textiles a couple years ago. He founded Vastra after plenty of soul searching about how he wants to impact the world best. Using traditional dyeing techniques, Vastra’s artisans infuse organic cloth with medicinal herbs so that the energetics can be absorbed through the skin and surround the body. It’s an idea ahead of its time, perhaps, so his path has not been easy. He perseveres trying to find the right combination of inspiration and marketability. We discussed his journey thus far.
Last week, you met Imani Mamalution and I discussed how her juice bar played a role in awakening me to a healthier lifestyle. Within a year of my first meal there, I determined that my life would be dedicated to the holistic wellness world in some way. While still living in Connecticut in 2007, I signed up for the weekend program at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City as a stepping stone into this realm. Early in the program, Sri and I wound up sitting next to each other and hitting it off. A fast friendship grew and bloomed more when I moved to the D.C. area, where he lives. At the time, he was working in business analysis and searching for his place within the wellness universe. His first step was as a health counselor.
“I really loved connecting with people one-on-one and helping them see food and their approach to food in a different way. Seeing personal transformations was very fulfilling. It also took thinking creatively to help people make positive changes to their diet and lifestyle,” Sri wrote me recently. I know Sri to be an inventive cook and have watched him throw together different top-of-his-head recipes at dinner gatherings many times. He is skilled and fast. “I saw myself come alive when teaching health-supportive cooking classes and talking about health in general in front of an audience,” he said. “I guess what drew me to it were the connected interests that I had in cooking and entertaining.”
To visit family, Sri has taken many trips back to Kerala, India, a place he left to attend graduate school in the U.S. and expand his horizons. This state, with a name that means “Land of Coconuts,” borders the Arabian Sea and has become a draw for followers of the Indian art of Ayurveda, a branch of traditional medicine that unites mind-body-spirit, assesses people based on their inherent constitutions, and heals people via natural means. “During one of my trips to India,” he noted, “I had this strong lingering feeling that I was meant to be a messenger for something from the East – a concept related to healing and wellness. I had no idea what it could be and I was not looking or searching, either.” A good friend filled in that feeling with an idea.
This friend emailed Sri about a community of weavers who were gaining fame near his hometown of Trivandrum for dyeing clothes with plants and herbs: “As soon as I saw this email, I knew this was what it was that was calling me into action. Within a few minutes, I had this visualization – a lot of how Vastra came into being – the people I’d be connecting with and the many possibilities that are being pursued currently.” The vision was easy. Enacting it has challenged him.
As an herbalist, I know that many people don’t really have a firm grasp about how I go about my business or what herbalism actually is. Yet many people are aware of supplements or teas even if only as a surface understanding that skirts by the underlying art to this science. So, herbal clothing, sheets, and yoga apparel have not been the easiest sell at this point. Said Sri, “Bringing any new concept to the market is very challenging, especially when you don’t have the marketing and advertising resources. The biggest challenge is people’s perception itself. Although there is a lot of awareness and acceptance of organic clothing, it’s not a priority for most people. On top of that, seeing clothing as a vehicle for wellness is not something that easily penetrates the awareness of the even the progressive-thinking health-conscious folks.”
Within the wellness community, Vastra has turned some heads. The Washington D.C. and Kerala based company has received endorsements of Ayurvedic luminary Dr. Vasant Lad and natural wellness guru David Wolfe. In videos posted on the Vastra website, Dr. Lad explains how the ancient science of Ayurveda often applies healing plants transdermally or via the skin. “Herbal medication, herbal oil, herbal paste, herbal cream, and herbal poultice – herbal balm, they can be penetrating and they can balance inner harmony… through the skin,” Dr. Lad told Sri. When asked if this concept applied to herbal clothing as well, the doctor replied unequivocally, “Absolutely.”
Here in the United States, we love meticulousness if it goes into creating beer. Any beer commercial that wants to attract customers shows a Midwesterner putting his hands through a deep barrel of hops or barley, holding a glass into the light, and finishing with the perfect pour. Vastra does the same with textiles – tradition is honored and the ingredients are painstakingly selected: “In the case of hand loom products like the Yoga mat, the yarn is first dyed and then it is woven into the finished product. In the case of machine-woven fabric, like our current bedsheets or tee-shirts, the fabric is dyed and then finished in a separate facility in [Kerala] into the final product. So there are many moving parts– procuring high quality plants and herbs, organic fabric or yarn, the dyeing process- which is quite elaborate by itself, and then the weaving or finishing of the product. It’s a highly collaborative effort that involves the dedication of different communities and many committed individuals.”
Cue David Wolfe. “We’ve had so many chemicals that bombarded us over the years – 75,000 artificial chemicals that have been injected into our ecosystem since 1940,” Wolfe noted in another Vastra video. Furthermore, he told Sri that nearly 40% of the chemicals sprayed on non-organic cotton clothing during a growing season can be absorbed into the body through the skin. Taking advantage of our largest and porous organ – the skin – Vastra has chosen to envelop the body in medicines like holy basil, neem, and turmeric instead of pesticides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers. During a stressful time as I finished up graduate school, I threw on my holy basil tee-shirt just to see what it was like. I felt a sense of calm and mental clarity similar to when taking a cup of tulsi tea. That day I joyously told Sri that his clothing worked!
Sri allows tradition and science to meet, “In ancient India, people lived in harmony with nature and it was common to use clothing dyed with medicinal plants and herbs as part of a health-promoting lifestyle. This concept also finds mention in the Ayurvedic texts as a protocol: to surround a patient in a healing environment that includes material and clothing dyed with medicinal plants and herbs. Also, two studies were done under a grant from the Government of Kerala on the efficacy of using such clothing for various disorders in the body.”
Despite these positive outcomes, breaking into the world of American retail has been difficult. Working without deep pockets, Sri has modified his vision in search of a niche. Vastra has attempted to engage in direct retail and wholesale, but is now in talks to form strategic product partnerships with established companies.
Sri has put in the hard work. A little luck is more than welcome. Through it all he has found his community to be supportive. He wrote that family and friends have been supportive and helpful, with very few people expressing disdain: “Surprisingly, not many people have been dismissive of the idea – even friends who have a tradition of opposing anything that is outside of their paradigm. I’ve received plenty of encouragement from strangers also, including successful businesses in the ‘conscious consumer’ space.”
Despite hard knocks, the dream continues. To make ends meet on a personal level, Sri is reigniting his health coaching practice. As our awareness about how our bodies silently interact with the air, land, water, and (of course) the plants continues to evolve, Vastra is poised to meet our needs. It’s a concept waiting for its chance in the mainstream limelight. Having a friend like Sri has me rooting for its success.