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Finding Balance
Explore the mind-body-spirit connection

February 2017

Photo by David Szymanski

At-risk Teens Find Serenity

Joanna Brooks grew up on Milwaukee’s northwest side, in what she says was “not the best area in the city.” She had friends and classmates in difficult family situations, but she considers herself lucky. “I grew up around a lot of poverty,” she says, “but my parents protected us from seeing certain things.” 

From a young age, Brooks was the friend everyone went to for advice. “People always confided in me about their life situations,” she admits. After graduating from Rufus King High School, she enrolled at Marquette University to study psychology and English, thinking she could eventually help at-risk teens. “I’ve always been drawn to working with young people,” she says. “They aren’t necessarily responsible for their situations; we’re products of our environment. But with the right support, we can rise above that.” 

Brooks became a vital element of that support. “I’ve always found myself in positions where I mentored young people of color who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she says. From her role as a counselor at the Milwaukee Job Corps Center to her current role as multicultural program coordinator at Cardinal Stritch University, she has had a big impact on young people. “This is challenging work, but I find it to be meaningful and very rewarding,” she says.

Helping at-risk youth isn’t her only passion; yoga is another. Brooks decided to incorporate yoga into the anger management group counseling sessions she was leading. “I saw a natural connection between the relaxation and mindfulness yoga requires and the cognitive behavioral tools used in anger management,” she explains. “I started to develop my own curriculum because I realized there were reasons for the teens’ anger that weren’t being covered — namely, family issues, grief and trauma.” 

Most of Brooks’ students have little or no experience with yoga, and her own experience began by watching public TV as a child. “I watched that older lady on Channel 10, and I did the poses with her,” she says. While she focused on running in high school and dance in college, she rediscovered yoga after graduate school and became a registered yoga teacher in 2014. She hopes to tap into a specialized niche market. “Embody Yoga provides group and private yoga and fitness classes that are reflective of and influenced by African-American culture,” she explains.   

With a youthful appearance and calm energy, Brooks is able to gain students’ trust before introducing them to yoga. “I try to meet them at their level and take the time to build a relationship with them,” she says. 

She explains that yoga is in addition to traditional anger management tools. “We also use self-monitoring, tracking and noticing triggers and clues,” she says. Brooks felt opportunities were lacking in the standard curriculum for teens to deal with their anger. “Sometimes we have things in our past that have hurt us, and we need to talk about them and process them to heal and to move forward,” she says. “I created space within the program to share and process those experiences. We start or end each class with 20 to 30 minutes of yoga. It may be sitting in meditation or doing breathing exercises.” 

Antonio Dowdell, a 16-year-old junior at Washington High School on the north side, admits that he didn’t initially love the yoga idea. “I thought it was going to be boring, sitting in a room and exercising with this boring soothing music,” he says. But he was in for a surprise. “I do a lot of sports, and yoga actually helped my muscles. I have a bad knee (and yoga) helps that a lot,” he adds.

Dowdell trains as a boxer at the King Community Center and hopes to pursue a career as a boxer or music engineer. “Miss Brooks tries to make yoga fun — she’ll tell a joke every now and then,” he says. And another secret to her ability to connect with teens? “Sometimes she brings snacks,” he says.

Eighteen-year-old Candice Whitfield, a freshman at Alverno College, hopes to pursue a career in youth counseling. She attended Brooks’ anger management class through the Riverworks Center in Riverwest and quickly noticed significant improvements in the way she interacted with people. 

“Before I learned anger management, it was horrible. I would come home, something would get me irritated, and I’d go off on people. Now I come home, go to my room, do my homework and I’ll be OK,” she says. Whitfield especially enjoyed the yoga portion of Brooks’ class. “It relaxed my body and my mind,” she says. “Miss Joanna would say, ‘Close your eyes and think about a place where you feel relaxed, and it’s you by yourself.’ Then we opened our eyes and I felt very relaxed.”

Inspired by Brooks, Whitfield became a dedicated yogi. “Out of the goodness of her heart, Miss Joanna gave me a yoga mat, and I do yoga every Sunday at home,” she says.
— Joan Elovitz Kazan

Mood-Boosting Famiy Friendly Activities

It may be frigid outside, but if 10 weeks of winter has you and yours pingponging through the house or, worse yet, huddling immobilized in your respective corners, it’s time to bundle up the whole crew and head out. Luckily, when winter gets stale, greater Milwaukee gets creative with lots of feel-better family activities you can try indoors and out.

Adventure Rock climbing gym has locations in Milwaukee and Brookfield. With no age restrictions for climbers, it’s a great place for the whole family. You can pick up a day pass, learn the essentials, and get climbing on your first visit. If you fall in love, family memberships are available, and they even have youth climbing teams.

• For classic Midwestern fun, it’s gotta be bowling. Head to the south side, where JB’s on 41 is tailored for families. All lanes are set up with bumpers, and rental shoes and balls are both adult- and kid-size. After you work up an appetite, you can order classic American fare, including kids meals, at the in-house restaurant.

• To try out this treat, you might not actually need to leave your house. Mix It Up offers traveling, family-focused cooking classes. Just gather at least six of your favorite people, and Mix It Up comes to your home or community center with all the groceries and supplies you’ll need to learn to make your dish of choice. Call a week in advance to make plans with founder and registered dietitian Erica Cleven.

• Parents with kids under 8 can drop in to Kith & Kin, a “family-focused play café” in Milwaukee. Pick up a daily pass or monthly membership, and kids get to play dress-up, explore the stage, get messy with crafts, romp on play structures, and delight in a reading nook. A café offers healthy adult- and kid-friendly eats, and parents can even book an in-house massage.

Hike It Baby, an international nonprofit with active Milwaukee area chapters, encourages community members to organize neighborhood hikes that get people moving. Outdoor winter hikes are a go, but if it’s too chilly, they’ll hit the trails indoors. Children of all ages and families of all configurations are welcome, and they have a leave-no-hiker-behind policy.

• Thrill seekers can get their wintry fix at Sunburst Ski Area in Kewaskum. Of course, skiiers and snowboarders can hit the slopes, but Sunburst’s claim to fame is its 40-plus tubing lanes. Head there Feb. 18 for Sunburst Winterfest and catch snow events, plus a chili cook-off, magician and live music. 
— Kristin Sutter

Enhance Meditation With Essential Oil

Depending on how you meditate, a daily seated practice can become — well, repetitive. So why not freshen it up with essential oils?

People meditate and use essential oils for similar reasons, says Beret Isaacson, a local certified aromatherapist: to calm the mind and emotions, to lower the heart rate, and to lower the stress hormone cortisol. “When you lower cortisol and stress, that in turn helps you with focusing and healing,” she says.

“The main reason essential oils are effective is because of the way they affect the brain and the emotions,” Isaacson continues. “When you breathe in an essential oil, those scent molecules travel up the nose to the olfactory center of the brain, and they affect the amygdala and the limbic system,” which are involved in emotional responses and memories.

Essential oils can support your meditation practice by easing any uncomfortable thoughts or feelings that may surface and by providing a sense of grounding that can free the mind from distractions, Isaacson says.

Which essential oils play well with meditation? Isaacson suggests the following:

Vetiver — It’s the most grounding essential oil and great for focus. “It smells a bit like dirt in a good way. It’s a root that’s hard to dig up, so I feel like that has to do with its grounding properties,” she says.

Frankincense — An oil that has been traditionally used in meditation, it’s notable for inducing a sense of calm.

Rose — Another traditional choice, it taps into our ability to love and connect with others.

For a pleasing blend that supports your practice in multiple ways, Isaacson offers up frankincense, wild orange and rose, with optional add-ins of sandalwood and myrrh.

She adds that it’s important to dilute essential oils in a carrier oil and recommends either fractionated coconut oil, which does not turn solid in cold weather, or jojoba oil. For meditation, 10 percent essential oil is appropriate, she advises.

You can diffuse the oil or apply it on the back of your neck, pulse points or on the temples, taking care to avoid your eyes.
— Sarah C. Lange


Back to Bliss

As I pull into the parking lot at Santhigram Wellness in New Berlin, I’m looking forward to experiencing the treatments I’ve heard about through my yoga studies. Ayurveda is often called the sister science of yoga, and during a workshop I was encouraged to try Abhyanga, an Ayurvedic massage with warm herbal oil. Finally, I am.

Sunita Pandey, the vaidya (Ayurvedic doctor), guides me to a dimly lit treatment room and leaves me to settle in on the tall, wood table. After a soft knock at the door, she re-enters the room and asks me a few questions to determine my predominant Ayurvedic constitution — vata, pitta or kapha — and any possible imbalances due to the season, stress or other lifestyle factors. Considering my responses, she chooses an appropriate herbal oil and heats it.

“We’ll start at the belly, where everything begins,” Pandey says, as she massages the warm oil in a circular motion over my abdomen. While I’m surprised that Pandey begins this way — a traditional massage doesn’t address the stomach — it’s interesting that Ayurveda, a medical system that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago, tapped into something that current research seems to support through evidence of the relationship between the gut microbiota and disease.

I breathe in a strong, not unpleasant smell and ask her what the scent is. “Camphor,” she says. Then she moves to my legs, working in the oil in quick, even strokes.

With just a couple of small towels over me, I feel a lot more exposed than I do during a traditional massage, though Pandey’s calm demeanor and our conversation put me at ease.

“Abhyanga opens up the energy channels, allowing your prana or chi — your life force — to flow freely,” she says when I ask about the benefits I can expect. She tells me there are about 108 points of energy that can become blocked by poor diet, lack of sleep and all manner of stressors. Stimulating these energy points can help the body come back into balance and heal itself.

Pandey, who is originally from Rajasthan in northern India, tells me that healing is in her family: She learned a lot from her father, who is also a vaidya and makes his own herbal oils, and her brother is a doctor working in traditional medicine.

Typically, you meet first for a consultation with a vaidya, who will then suggest which Ayurvedic treatments would suit you, although you can schedule Abhyanga if you want to relieve sore, tight muscles.

After Pandey massages the oil into my arms and hands, I carefully turn over for the remainder of my massage. Then she gives me another larger towel and helps me into the sauna box. Happily, I’m not claustrophobic, because she closes the doors so only my head is outside of the box. Then she leaves me in the room alone once again for the Swedana, or steam treatment, portion of my session to sweat away toxins and clear skin.

As the minutes tick away, I can feel the occasional trail of sweat as my muscles slowly release deeply held tension, and it is here that I truly relax. Ten minutes go by, and Pandey checks in on me. I assure her I’m doing well, and I receive five more minutes of peace.

Then Pandey releases me from the sauna box, and I’m surprised to find that my skin doesn’t have an oily residue. She leaves me to get dressed and gather my things. On my way out, I smile and bid Pandey goodbye and drive home in a state of bliss.
— Sarah C. Lange

Spa Facials vs. Medical Facials

When most people think of facials, they envision white towels, clay masks and cucumber eyes. In truth, there are two very separate categories of facials — and it pays to know the difference.

What comes to mind when most people think “facial” is usually relegated to a spa experience. For example, many facials are accompanied by face or neck massages, aromatherapy and topical beauty treatments. While spa facials certainly equate to more than just a luxurious afternoon, most of the treatments are considered to be like light maintenance, rather than a skin overhaul.

Medical facials, however, include medical grade skin care products and advanced medical procedures, often conducted under the watch of a physician. While not all treatments are “aggressive,” the ultimate goal is to rejuvenate and enhance the skin, from a cellular level, says Susan Noble, an aesthetician at Refresh Aesthetic Center in Whitefish Bay.

Some of these procedures include microneedling, microdermabrasion, chemical peels and laser treatments. Yet medical facials have come a long way from their earlier depictions of a face scrubbed raw.

“The public tends to be a little intimidated by medical spas, but there is a wide range of (services) where there is little to no downtime,” Noble says. “But we can make dramatic changes to the skin, lifting pigments, shrinking vessels and helping with fine lines. You get better results.”
— Stephanie S. Beecher

Korean Beauty Lands Stateside

Hello Kitty moisturizer. Animal-shaped sheet masks. Snail extract crèmes and 10-step skin care regimens. Korean beauty trends have landed stateside and are taking the skin care world by storm. But, peel-off eyebrow tints aside, why should you tune in to the K-beauty trend? Well, for one, Korean women (and men — more about that later) take skin seriously with a capital “S.” Sure, some of its appeal lies in its quirky novelty, but as countless beauty bloggers attest, some of it just works.

“Korean beauty is the new French beauty,” explains Adrienne Hauck, an aesthetician at Neroli Salon & Spa in downtown Milwaukee. “But instead of skin care focusing on nourishing European luxury wrapped in Paris apothecary chic, Korean beauty is largely about holistic ingredients.”

Hauck says the trend began with the introduction of BB creams, which is comparable to the tinted moisturizers over here.

“The difference is that South Korean BB creams really advertised the skin care benefits and ingredients and tried to get away from just being a makeup,” Hauck says.

From there, the trend evolved to include color-correcting (CC) creams, sheet masks and lotion essences or toning waters.

Hauck says Korean beauty has a big emphasis on flawless skin, and that goes for both genders. South Korean men spend more on skin care than men in any other nation.

“The skin care regimen may include more steps, but it is really just taking extra time for skin care versus applying extra makeup to hide imperfections,” Hauck says.
— Stephanie S. Beecher

The Higher Power

The 2016 Milwaukee Running Festival
Photos courtesy of Gameface Media

I’ve always been fascinated by long-distance runners for their dedication and commitment, the perceived ease at which they run, and even their ability to carry on a conversation and socialize while doing so.

I’ve tried, time and time again, to fall in love with running. I even registered to run a half-marathon two years ago, but opted out, completing the 5K route instead. I do, however, try to fit in at least one 5K per week, and although my pace is slow but steady, I’d like to think the so-called runner’s high kicks in just before I hit mile 2, often allowing me to speed up a bit.

Well, that was until I met Chris Ponteri.

Ponteri is the executive director of the Milwaukee Running Festival, an urban marathon now in its third year. He also manages 15 other races and has completed 26 marathons. Given his credentials, I ask Ponteri about the runner’s high. Is it real? “That runner’s high is definitely real,” he says. “I am 100 percent certain there is such a thing, even though some people have claimed (otherwise).

“There is a feeling you get after a longer run that you’re on top of the world,” he continues. “If I’m training and do a 20-mile run, I’m on cloud nine for the rest of the day. Even after a shorter-distance run, I can feel my mood improve.” And then, just as I’m about to tell Ponteri how I usually experience the “high” about 2 miles in, he adds, “The casual, hobby jogger doesn’t experience that.”


To Ponteri’s credit, he’s probably right. Marathon runners are a certain breed, and I’m definitely not one of them. “It takes a certain kind of personality (to run a marathon),” Ponteri says. “I’ve found that a lot of distance runners have addictive personalities. When they get into something, they (really) get into it.”

Ponteri says he “wasn’t a runner,” but started training for his first marathon at age 22. “It was during a rough time in my life, so I think the training helped make me happier,” he adds. “Running a marathon fits my personality — go big, or don’t go at all.”

The 2016 Milwaukee Running Festival
Photos courtesy of Gameface Media

Fellow runner and Waukesha resident Mary Flaws, who Ponteri says runs an average of 30 marathons per year, shares a similar sentiment. “I got into running in 1999 at the age of 32. Basically, I wanted to see if I could run a marathon,” she says. “Two years later, I ran my first marathon in 4:37. Then I wanted to see if I could run one in under 4 hours. Three years later, I ran my first sub-four-hour marathon. And then I just kept ‘wondering if I could.’”

Flaws and her husband are the co-founders and co-owners of Running in the USA, the largest online directory of races, results and clubs. She too is familiar with runner’s high. “There is something I find satisfying about physically exhausting myself, and pushing to my physical limits,” she explains. “(In) ultras and long runs, where you just run until you can’t anymore, and then you go a few more miles. Or crossing that finish line, and knowing you just couldn’t go 10 more yards at that pace.”

So what exactly happens, physiologically speaking? German researchers were the first to explain what causes runner’s high on a scientific level. In a 2008 study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, they found that, during two-hour-long runs, subjects’ prefrontal and limbic regions spewed out endorphins — the body’s natural “feel-good” chemical. All experienced runners, the subjects reported a greater state of euphoria with each surge in endorphins.

More recently, in 2014, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona linked runner’s high to our ancestors, whose survival likely depended on literally chasing down food on foot. The body’s release of endorphins may have helped them run faster or longer, they say, acting as a natural painkiller.

And while I can’t picture myself running for two consecutive hours anytime soon, it’s good to have goals, right? To know that maybe, someday, I’ll experience an actual runner’s high, and that it won’t occur anywhere near mile 2.

But to best understand the real allure of long-distance running, perhaps Flaws says it best: “For me, running is not just a form of exercise. The exercise part is a perk. For me, it’s a continuous challenge of a new goal, a chance to clear my head, a break from work, a chance to socialize, a chance to get some fresh air, or a chance to just burn off some calories so I can eat more cake.” More cake? Sign me up.
— Jen Kent

Sweat for a Cause

Pair fitness and philanthropy at one of three events this month:

• Attend Yoga @ the Museum, presented by the Milwaukee Art Museum and omTownYogis, on Feb. 4. A $15 donation includes same-day admission to the museum. Proceeds benefit MAM and omTown

Yogis’ annual grant fund, which helps bring the practice of yoga to those with little access or exposure to guided instruction.

• On Feb. 11, participate in the 21st annual Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Club Run/Walk in Wauwatosa. The 8K competitive run and 2K walk raises money for heart disease research in memory of Milwaukee Alderman Steve Cullen, who died of a heart attack at age 40.

• Swap $5 for a pair of yellow laces at this year’s Cupid Shuffle on Feb. 12. The 10K or 5K run begins at Brookfield Central High School, and the $5 laces donation benefits Team Marissa, a local nonprofit dedicated to raising funds and awareness for childhood cancer research.

Or keep an eye out for upcoming charity-related classes at these studios:

• Bay View-based boot camp studio Wild Workouts & Wellness regularly partners with Milwaukee area organizations like the Junior League of Milwaukee to present workout-themed fundraisers.

• When the weather warms, Milwaukee Power Yoga offers donation-based yoga classes at Atwater Park in Shorewood. Proceeds are donated to a different charity each year, and class is held on a weekly basis.

• CycleBar, an indoor cycling studio opening in Mequon

Feb. 13, will give patrons the chance to work out for a cause through its CycleGiving events, which benefit nonprofits such as Susan G. Komen, the American Heart Association and The Movember Foundation.
— Jen Kent

In Good Company

Since your first awkward search for a grade-school lunch table, you’ve known it’s much better to eat up in good company. But eating with family and friends, particularly at home, has powerful, proven health benefits, according to Lisa Hanson, a clinical dietitian at Columbia St. Mary’s, part of Ascension. And it starts with parents and children.

When parents set an example of healthy eating, Hanson says, “children tend to be a healthier weight, do better in school, and experience less depression.” She says studies show that tweens and teens who sit down to three to four dinners at home each week experience “less depression, substance abuse and disordered eating.”

From a nutritional perspective, making your own meals at home is key, because you’re able to control exactly what you’re eating. Of course, going to your favorite eatery is fun, but restaurants often offer up more fats, salt and calories than is healthy. Milwaukeeans face specific challenges: a smorgasbord of amply portioned ethnic and comfort foods around nearly every corner, plus a climate that makes year-round outdoor exercise uninviting.

But nutrients and exercise are only part of the equation. “People underestimate the importance of mealtime interaction,” Hanson says. “Once bellies start to get full, the conversation can start.” Talking is critical on both physical and psychological levels. It takes 18 to 20 minutes for the stomach and brain to get the “all full” message. Hanson says conversation naturally slows eating, preventing us from filling up on much more than we should. But, she says, talking with loved ones gives us something else we need: support. When we share about our day, we may get help with problem solving or a fresh perspective on a situation. “Sometimes we just need to hear, ‘It’s OK,’” says Hanson.

So, if you’re already juggling a three-ring circus, how do you pull off family dinners three to four nights a week? Hanson suggests assigning jobs and switching them up.

Plan a weekly menu. Take turns mapping out what you’re going to eat as a family. Kids can learn to use smartphones or practice penmanship while writing a grocery list.

Pick a weekly theme night. Spread a picnic blanket out. Practice your chopstick skills with an Asian rice bowl. Or try a new ingredient.

Explore responsibility. Older kids can practice driving to the grocery store, budgeting what they’re pulling off the shelves, and counting cash at the register. During meal prep, very young kids can help set the table.

Establish digital rules. 1) Everyone checks their phone before mealtime. 2) No phones on the table at mealtime. It’s pretty simple, and Hanson is sure that you’ll survive for 20 minutes. 3) No TV. “It stunts that essential conversation,” she adds.

Make cleanup fun. Turn on the dance music (Hanson’s family likes “Get the Party Started” by Pink) and make it a super-quick group effort.

“The most important thing is to start,” says Hanson. “Start today.”
— Kristin Sutter


This story ran in the February 2017 issue of: