Practice mindfulness. The pandemic and the stress it caused all of us has pushed mindfulness into the forefront, and that is a good thing. When your mind is wandering, you are unhappy. Practicing mindfulness helps us recognize when our mind is wandering and bring ourselves back. Soma Health and Wellness Coaching Instructor Robin Ross explains that one way to practice mindfulness is by focusing on your breath, because your breath is always in the present moment. It’s a great tool to help us calm down when our central nervous system thinks we’re under attack.
As a part of our series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Hannant.
Joan is Founder and CEO of The Soma Institute, the only school in the U.S. offering a diploma in Clinical Massage Therapy. The school also offers a Health and Wellness Coaching Certificate Program that takes place entirely online. Joan has been in the health and wellness industry for more than two decades, and she is dedicated to helping students succeed both in the classroom and after graduation.
Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Throughout my professional life, I’ve been passionate about helping students achieve independence and financial freedom through a rewarding career. Following my tenure as a professor of economics and political science at York University in Toronto, I followed my passion to downtown Chicago where I founded The Soma Institute in 1998.
My main goal was to provide students an education that served as a vehicle to a better future. It’s important to me that Soma is welcoming for people who are coming from a place where they felt stuck in a job or unfulfilled by their career. I saw a great opportunity for careers in the wellness industry, and right now those jobs are in demand. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to do all I can to support these students, and it guides and gives me purpose every single day.
My entrepreneurial spirit and passion for teaching has also led to some incredible opportunities in addition to my work with Soma. I’m a founding member and board chair of the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute at DePaul University, where I regularly teach classes giving entrepreneurs advice and mentor startup founders.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic was an incredibly unique challenge that I’m not sure any of us in education or the health and wellness field were fully prepared for. But the process did teach me an interesting lesson. We pivoted as the pandemic began taking hold and decided to launch our new Health and Wellness Coaching Certificate Program as a class taken entirely online. I was immediately thrilled with the interest we received from students all over the country who enrolled. I’d always been a bit old-fashioned in feeling that education needed to take place face-to-face to promote the best results. Our incredible instructors and students have taught me otherwise. While the program is virtual, we do have live classes that offer real-time feedback and the ability for students to get immediate answers to questions. It’s allowed classmates and instructors to make profound connections and it has taught me that education can work online.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake I made when launching The Soma Institute was not understanding the importance of cash flow. I had a great idea for a school, and I was really passionate about it. We were the only school in the U.S. offering a diploma in clinical massage therapy, and I thought that would be an automatic draw and students would come flocking to us. I was wrong. It took time to establish ourselves. I was lucky to get some assistance in those early stages from experts who taught me important lessons about managing cash flow. Thankfully, that help came before it was too late. We turned a profitable first quarter and have been profitable ever since. We’re currently planning an expansion to Louisville, Kentucky, and we’re being very cautious from a cash flow perspective. The health and wellness industry is full of well-meaning people with great ideas, but it’s so important to understand the business side of things in order to make a positive impact on the most amount of people.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Shortly after launching Soma, I had a lot of moments where I felt alone. Historically, business networking and mentorship events were geared towards men, and I had a hard time establishing those relationships. That’s why I’m so incredibly grateful for C200. It’s a group including some of the most successful women in business. We work to strengthen and inspire each other and to advance women’s leadership in business. Joining this group helped me to learn from other leaders, and I’m honored to now be able to help teach others through my own experiences. The group really helped me plug into the business community, and so many women in this group have helped me to get where I am today that it is impossible to name just a few. C200 led me to be introduced to people at DePaul University and join their board, which led to me starting the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute at DePaul. Joining C200 is a gift that keeps on giving.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
Nelson Mandela said it best, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Health and wellness is important, and more and more people in the world are making it a priority. Our graduates are filling a huge need for both clinical massage therapists and health and wellness coaches. Every day our team is hearing from employers who are desperate to hire well-trained candidates. It’s very rewarding to look at the national scope of our Health and Wellness Coaching Certificate Program and to know The Soma Institute has a ripple effect that is improving lives in our community and beyond.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
1) Start a massage routine — I’ve seen and felt the benefits of massage firsthand. Our Program Director, Mike Hovi, recommends getting a massage from a licensed massage therapist once every month. Massage, in general, is great for cutting down stress. When a person is stressed, cortisol is released into the body, and it wears your body down. Massage reduces the release of cortisol. The higher the stress in your life or job, the more often you should get a massage.
2) Practice mindfulness — The pandemic and the stress it caused all of us has pushed mindfulness into the forefront, and that is a good thing. When your mind is wandering, you are unhappy. Practicing mindfulness helps us recognize when our mind is wandering and bring ourselves back. Soma Health and Wellness Coaching Instructor Robin Ross explains that one way to practice mindfulness is by focusing on your breath, because your breath is always in the present moment. It’s a great tool to help us calm down when our central nervous system thinks we’re under attack.
3) Make simple healthy eating choices — What we put into our bodies has a massive impact on our overall wellbeing. Instructor Monique Costello tells our health and wellness students at Soma to think about simple ways to help their clients. So many times, when people make the choice to improve their health, they want to go to extremes like a strict diet. That can be overwhelming. Making simple choices, one at a time, can change your life. For example, buy bagged or frozen vegetables. Then, the idea of having to spend time chopping up frozen vegetables won’t overwhelm you, and it will be easier to make that healthy eating choice.
4) Establish a morning routine — Stop waking up and looking at your work emails or scrolling through social media. It puts you in a stressed state before you get out of bed! Our health and wellness coaching instructors teach students that it begins with self-care. Try waking up 30 minutes earlier than you’re used to, perhaps before your kids, and give yourself some quiet time. Use it to exercise, journal or sit in silence. It gives you the chance to begin the day positively, instead of the fight-or-flight mode that’s induced by waking up and grabbing your cell phone or rushing to respond to the requests of your kids.
5) Drink water — This sounds so simple, but it’s so important. Our instructor Dr. Luis Ramirez likes to point out the increased risk of injury any time you begin to get dehydrated. Drinking enough water helps our muscles work optimally. Sometimes, the best time to drink is when you are not thirsty so you stay hydrated. Anyone who has had muscle issues or cramps knows how unpleasant they can be. Staying hydrated will help you avoid this.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would start a movement that results in a wider acceptance of preventative health care. All of our wellness would improve if there was more of a focus on wellbeing than disease. We need to get better at helping people before there is a problem. Wellness takes a community, and in this community, we want to take care of each other. Things like health and wellness coaching and massage therapy provide big benefits, and they are just two parts of what we can all be supporting when it comes to preventative health care.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1) Know your customer — I came into the market with a concept, but no customer analysis. I learned quickly how important it was to pay attention to what our students really need because they are our customers. Soma is so much better at serving students when we understand the challenges they face or what their motivation is for enrolling in one of our programs. Our entire team at Soma has gotten really good at understanding our students and figuring out how we can best help them.
2) The industry will grow — I wish I’d have known how quickly the health and wellness industry would grow. When starting The Soma Institute in 1998, there were some tough times and moments of doubt. I knew deep inside how important this school was because of the impact we could make on our students and our community, but had I known back then how much demand there would be for massage therapists and health and wellness coaches, it would have been easier to power through some of those tough times.
3) What it means to be a leader — Often, entrepreneurs do everything, and we think we know better than everyone. It’s natural when starting a business, because resources are limited so we have to do a little bit of everything. But that attitude hinders growth as a leader. Being a real leader means trusting your team to come up with solutions and allowing them to make important decisions. It’s something I grew into, but I wish I’d have been more aware of what a real leader is so I could have made changes sooner.
4) Cash flow is key — This is another lesson I learned quickly, but I’d have saved myself a lot of trouble if someone had taught me this before I got started. Having a great idea and a differentiator is important, but it’s tough to get anywhere and make an impact if you don’t keep a close eye on cash flow on a daily basis. My lack of understanding in this area almost stopped Soma before we really got started. Thankfully, I had some great teachers to show me the ropes.
5) Find other female leaders — Traditional networking environments can be difficult for women. Things like golfing or meeting at bars aren’t always comfortable. Finding groups of female leaders and joining those communities has been a game changer for me personally and for Soma as a school. The female leadership community is a powerful and helpful one. The people I’ve met through various organizations have made a life-changing impact on me.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
All of these are important topics, but if I must pick one, it’s mental health. In fact, the word “mental” should be dropped from the phrase. It’s just health. Mental health shouldn’t be an add on, and we need to stop stigmatizing it as a society. When you look at health and wellness, the mental and physical aspects are inextricably connected. Mainstream medicine is not spending enough time on this, and insurance should more thoroughly cover it. Until we’re just saying health, and considering all aspects of it, we have work to do.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights!
It was my pleasure! Thank you for shining an important spotlight on wellness.