Karla Dascal had the courage to risk $10 million and nine years of her life to create The Sacred Space Miami — a gallery and garden retreat for yoga, meditation, healing, dancing, wellness events, and a plant-based culinary school and restaurant. I caught up with Karla in the restaurant, Plant Food and Wine (a collaboration with Matthew Kenney) on the launch day of The Sacred Space, which coincided with the first ever Modern Life Mindfulness Festival.

WJ: Tell me about the path that led you to where we are today.

KD: I went into a 12-step program early in life and was riddled with anxiety and depression into my 20s. In my late 20s I was diagnosed with diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure — [a result of my] lifestyle — of my thinking, drinking, and excess. In 2005 I had a gastric bypass. I lost the weight but still suffered from anxiety. And I worked with high-profile, ego-driven people. The surgery didn’t change my mindset. But one day, I walked into a yoga class and my teacher was drinking something called E3Live. I asked him, “Do you think that could help me reach my own health goals?”

He said yes. I started drinking the E3live and my brain became immediately alert. Simultaneously, I was calming down and could wean myself off of the antidepressants. My teacher suggested a 30-day raw vegan cleanse. I cut out alcohol, antidepressants, and all kinds of processed foods. My skin was getting clearer, my eyes whiter, my whole body energized. It was an awakening.

I was no longer diabetic. I was no longer eating at McDonald’s or taking Tylenol for the tiniest ache — but more importantly, I was learning why those changes mattered.

WJ: Was this hard for you, or were you so eager to change your life that it didn’t seem daunting?

KD: Both. It was hard work. But I started this project in 2008 during the recession, during which time my event business came to a screeching halt. It gave me a chance to travel up and down the East and West Coasts and to India to educate myself. And at some point I decided I was going to bring everything I learned back to Miami. I wanted to dedicate my life to healing myself so I could help heal others.

I was inspired to create a place where people felt comfortable enough to get educated. At that point, the options were going to the Himalayas or a back room at some depersonalized health food store.

I paired up with Matthew Kenney, who was just starting to craft the future of food. He brings an educational component to his work, [so he was the ideal partner] in designing this space for education in holistic living. Then we have Flow, a boutique that carries all the different tools that helped me get well: elixirs, supplements, crystals — only the best.

WJ: Can you give me an example of how you’ve seen spirituality transform people?

KD: I’ve been building a community of people who want to be healthy, whole, and happy for nine years, and people are getting onboard with that. We are affiliated with Seed food and wine vegan food festival. We did our first vegan dinner here seven years ago, and I had a hard time selling all the tickets. Now, it’s easy. I envisioned the space being full of teachers and students, and it is.

If eating well, sleeping better, and lowering your anxiety is of interest to you, you can do that here. You can find a great yoga studio around here but not one where you can eat whole food, take cooking classes, have spiritual events, and meet other seekers.

WJ: Do you believe that materialism and luxury are toxic for happiness?

KD: You don’t have to give up luxury. One of my teachers here is Sikh, a Kundalini teacher. He told me, “You could be on a yacht or you could be in deep prayer and meditation. There is no difference.” When you’re attached to that handbag or car — when it’s an escape — then it can be toxic. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I had everything at my disposal, and it never made me happy. When I started meditating and taking care of myself, that’s when I started getting glimpses of what it was to be happy. Peace of mind is the truest luxury.

WJ: How has creating this space made you personally happier?

KD: What makes me the happiest is when somebody calls me and says, “Karla, if it wasn’t for this space, for things that you said to me, for the honesty you had when sharing your life story, I don’t know what would have become of me.” It’s gratitude for gratitude. Gratitude is one of the strongest, most powerful things you can learn.

WJ: This is a $10 million project. That must have been scary. How did you cope with your fears?

KD: Vigilant awareness of fear. Tonight, it’s my turn to speak. I’m terrified. I don’t like to speak in public, but I’m going to do it. What am I going to do? Breathe. I’m going to overcome it. I’m aware of what happens in me. I’ve got the fears trained. I still have the fight-or-flight response, but now I can manage it.

When these fears come up, you have an opportunity — but you have to see it. Your body will tell you everything. All of the modalities we offer help you see what you’re really dealing with and then deal with it.

WJ: Many of us have amazing and wonderful ideas, but few of us actually have the courage to act on those ideas. How did you?

KD: Perseverance. There are three things I mean by that — stamina, determination, and persistence. I live by those things in everything I do. It’s in my veins. Then there’s courage. Do you know what chutzpah is? To do whatever against all odds. I call it perseverance. You see wealthy people. Why are they wealthy? Because they have their mind on the money all day. Whatever you decide to do, that’s how it flows.

WJ: So how did you stay on track when things were difficult?

KD: I would get a taste of what it was I was supposed to be doing, or I would get a phone call saying, “Karla, you helped so much today,” and then I would continue. If you ask me if you can change my life, I’ll say yes. But you have to want to be happy and at peace more than anything in this world.

WJ: So, what is the first step to changing your life?

KD: The awareness to say, “Something’s not right. I am not getting to where I want to be.” Then decide to put one foot in front of the other. Every person here today is here because they want to change their lives. They want healing and wellness in their lives. One of my friends here lost her mother on 9/11. She has committed her life to wellness and written a book. Grave heartbreak made her change her life. She used to live a life of luxury and think that’s all there was. Life gives you the opportunity to wake up.

WJ: There’s a picture on your website with the words “Love is everything,” Have you found love along the way?

KD: Primarily self-love — that’s what pushed the fear out of my head. I was on an extreme hike in Vancouver and my guide kept telling me to put “one foot in front of the other,” and I said to myself, “if I can’t do this hike, I can’t do anything.” That’s when I started really understanding self-love — it’s how you talk to yourself, how you talk to others.

Sometimes you are in toxic situations or around toxic people. If you say, “No, I’m letting this go because it’s not good for me,” that’s self-love. Every time you do that, it’s like a weight falls off your shoulders. Every time you love yourself, it’s a surrender. Breathe in and let go.

At this point in our meal, a zucchini lasagna and cacio e pepe (kelp noodles with peppery greens, olive puree, and sun-dried olives) arrived.

WJ: Is this lasagna completely raw?

KD: Yes it’s completely raw, macadamia ricotta, sun-dried tomato marinara, zucchini, and basil pesto.

Note: This was the most flavorful lasagna I’ve eaten. It’s impossible to tell that the thin layers of zucchini are raw, sandwiched between a perfect balance of ricotta, pesto, and marinara.

WJ: Is all the food here raw?

KD: The kelp noodles in the cacio e pepe are lightly boiled, and we have some lentils lightly simmered. Really what we are meant to eat is fruit. I believe that with holistic healing — a three-pronged approach to mind, body, and spirit — that every cell in my body can be healed. I healed myself from obesity and diabetes with plant-based food. People are eating foods [their] digestive systems aren’t meant to process. It’s important to be mindful about what you eat. Jon Kabat-Zinn came up with a wonderful mindfulness exercise that uses grapes and raisins.

WJ: After spending time here, do you think people will realize that alcohol does the opposite of make you conscious?

KD: Five years ago, I met a teacher called Te-devan. He said to me, “Karla, you are trying to get conscious. Alcohol puts a wall up around your consciousness.” I wanted to wake up clear. I couldn’t teach when I was drinking. I couldn’t get conscious.

WJ: What has been the most rewarding moment or realization to you on this journey?

KD: Right now. When you really decide you’re going to do it for yourself — that is the turning point. My father was a visionary. He said, “Karla, people are going to come here in crowds.” Here are the crowds. Wellness is really taking off, but if you don’t work hard and live it, it’s not going to work. For the first time in 46 years, I can tell you that I’m happy.

As my interview with Karla wrapped up, I was treated to a flawless strawberry hibiscus cheesecake with lime curd vanilla shortbread, pistachio, and sorrel.

After our meal, I opened the guidebook app to browse the Modern Life Mindfulness Festival schedule.

I found a lucid dreaming workshop in the West Gallery and used my hands as dream tools. I passed a yoga class in the East Garden before sampling the Jugofresh elixir bar. Then I went back inside for a talk on managing mindfulness before culinary school, where I learned to make banana, chocolate, and pistachio ice cream.

Back at the West Gallery, I joined 200 others for a session on sex and intimacy with Jared Weiss. It turned into a heated discussion on radical transparency including open relationships and group sex. Then, I cooled off at the Neuromore meditation lounge.

Feeling centered, I met a familiar face from the New York meditation circuit — Biet Simkin, who was here to lead the Center of the Cyclone meditation. In the live-streamed session, Biet incorporated her regular left(soul)-eye gazing — think Marina Abramovic meets meditation — before treating us to a live performance of one of her songs.

Left-eye gazing involves turning to the person on your left and staring into their left eye (as they do the same to you) while visualizing yourself from above. I see a range of emotions flooding the face of the person whose eye I gaze into, from the initial discomfort of trying not to laugh, to warmth, to deep sadness, to joy. If I had to describe the experience in one word, it would be soulful.

Originally published at www.mindbodygreen.com on December 11, 2016.