• Jessica Whelan

Why don’t we practice self-care?

A woman dances on a pier under a sunset sky
What's stopping us from giving ourselves what we need?

Second in our Phoenix feature series, I'd like to introduce you to my dear friend Sonja. She and her family were early supporters of Phoenix, and she was such a pleasure to create for because of the clear vision of style and colour she had for me to build around.

Since Sonja and I first became neighbours, I've been in awe of the way she moves through life. Our friendship formed in fits and starts. because every time I saw her she was hopping on her bike, heading out to run along the seawall, or loading the car with gear for a multi-day rock climbing trip (to places like Squamish, Yosemite, etc.). As we became closer friends, I was also blown away by her ability to nourish herself with healthy foods and close social bonds.

These days, Sonja starts the morning walking the family dog Rocky (a 1-year old Jack Russell x Aussie Shepherd). They usually go out into the forest trails on crown land behind their cohousing community in Nelson, BC. She's pretty vigilant since she's aware that there are lots of animals in the area: bear, moose, wolf, coyote, and cougar. In the past, she got active outdoors often, but not in places that felt so wild. Even the beach nearby their former home in Nelson (where I was once taken on a fitness adventure that involved running across sand, throwing the biggest rocks I could pick up, and jumping over/balancing on logs between bike rides in the snow) was still easily accessible by road.

Back in Vancouver, she often went biking in the city to work and to activities with her daughter Grace (visit friends, go to Neighbourhood House nearby), frequently jogged up the Grouse Grind (once calmly taking a phone call without slowing down, while her husband Rik was gasping as he tried to keep up with her). She also worked at the rock climbing gym so spent a fair amount of time climbing indoors too.

After moving back to Nelson and starting full-time work again, she chose to commute by bike, meet people via paddleboard across the lake, or drive home but stop to hike up to the Pulpit en route. Somehow she has always found ways to prioritize movement, because for her being sedentary comes with a feeling of unease in body and mind.

In this conversation, we dove into the deeper motivations behind her commitment to self-care, in particular the way she's able to prioritize making time to move her body daily.

How have you been able to maintain this ability to focus on your well-being despite being a full-time mom and all of the work you've done outside the home? Why are you able to follow through on the advice all of us get but find so difficult to put into practice?

I saw my mother develop a chronic health condition through her 50s, and coming to exercise in her 40s didn't really help enough to prevent a decline in her health. Seeing a loved one struggle was a huge motivator to decide to keep my heart strong throughout life.

Back before that, in my early teens, I made a close friend who was super active, and we did everything together: rollerblading in the half pipe, sailing, climbing, and snowboarding. Over time, my body became even stronger and my muscles were growing.

That's interesting. I, too, started getting a little ripped in high school when I got into lifting weights at my mom's gym. But I was disappointed that I didn't get ballerina toned and felt that my physique was getting too masculine (which, combined with my more assertive personality, felt like it was too much for people).

Not once did I see my strong body as anything but a huge source of pride and a means to enjoy life. But some family members did make negative comments about my body (masculine muscles, weight gain, even height) that ended up being damaging. I was studying kinesiology and I think it was when we had a project and kept a food diary that I began a phase of disordered eating, restriction and purging. I had also overheard athletic girls back in high school talk about throwing up after binging candy at Halloween, so that may have been in the back of my mind too.

My feelings were akin to a spiritual experience: all this guilt from overeating comfort foods, and then absolution or relief from that, but shame along with it. This went on for about 7 years, until the habit was broken by an ayahuasca experience which changed the way I saw myself. After a bout of binging, I looked at myself in the mirror and felt a sense of profound love, as if I was looking at my own child. My thoughts changed to a strong sense that I can't hurt this person, I need to care for this person properly. Now I feel a sense of trust in myself and when I do something like eat a little too much pizza and feel bloated, I know that I'll start fresh and balance things out the next day. I just trust that I'll be ok if I fall because I can always get back up and try again.

A dark-haired woman smiles at herself in a mirror while sitting in a sunny field of tall grass
See yourself as someone who needs and deserves YOUR love.

With everything you do, it's kind of amazing that you haven't suffered injuries that keep you away from being active. What do you credit that to?

Aside from time being active, I've recently come to respect the need for rest more. I'm no stranger to going to bed at 9 pm with my daughter and waking up at 6 to have time for myself before it's time to launch into work in my role as wife/mom/manager. But I also give myself permission to rest and don't plan things to do on weekend mornings so that sleep can last as long as it needs to. I do a fair amount of foam rolling/active recovery too.

At times I've had a routine in which I nourish myself with time alone (e.g. an early morning ceremony of lighting candle/incense to write or meditate), and I've been able to maintain social connection here in Nelson, especially now that we're part of a cohousing community (and also through my involvement with the dance community).

Speaking of the inimitable Nelson dance community, I've danced with you in a few different contexts that have been mind-blowing, and to me it's been fascinating to discover people who dance at such a high level without much formal training and way outside of the performance world. What's the story with dance in your life?

Dance has been there since my early childhood doing Ukrainian dance in the church basement. I moved on to jazz at age 7-10, mostly because I was inspired by Michael and Janet Jackson and there were no hip hop classes back in those days. Along with that I did some rhythmic gymnastics, but left it post-injury, at the time that coaches began to weigh us gymnasts kind of obsessively.

My parents had a huge music collection and on top of that they'd gift pop albums to me so I had unusual access to all the hits I loved, back when most of us were stuck with radio. I'd spend time moving the furniture and lifting the needle on the record player to repeat songs while I made up choreography.

As a young teen, I tried dance class at a well-respected Toronto school, but felt lost while everyone else kept up with the choreography. That's when I decided not to spend time doing things to feel awful and moved on to other things for a while. I came back to dance in university when other students went out to drink but for me it was about having an opportunity to go dancing.

I think the secret to being active for this long was to dabble in many things so I never became too specialized or competitive, so mostly avoided injury (although I have had some time off due to snowboarding and climbing mishaps). I just kept having fun, and following my curiosity.

As someone who has done so much to build movement and wellness into your daily life, how do you navigate those things as you guide your daughter through her youth? Are there places you find yourself trying to get her to follow your example, or just wait and see what grabs her interest?

As a parent, I've been careful not to push hard in terms of diet and nutrition. I do stress the need to eat veggies but that doesn't go beyond having a small serving at most meals. I find it helps to keep things light, as in it's important to do something outdoors/active, but it doesn't matter what.

Grace has played team sports: recreational soccer in the past, and cross-country skiing now. I see that she needs to go at her pace, and since the week is so busy it's ok to sit and read a lot on the weekends.

I've made sure to refrain from pushing rock climbing in particular, but the hope is that she'll embrace it so it becomes a family activity. Recently has started to show a huge interest and asks to go to the gym even more often than mom and dad suggest it!

The main thing is that I put trust in her the same way I do for myself, and just model a way to care for herself out of love.

Two little girls in sunglasses hold hands as they eat ice cream
Trust them to love and care for themselves too.


Sonja was born in Mississauga, studied at McMaster, and then moved to Nelson, BC where she met her husband Rik ( via climbing) and they welcomed their daughter Grace to the world. The family then lived in Thailand while she was a baby, but came back to Canada and lived in Vancouver where we were neighbours for a year or two. Sonja currently lives in Nelson where she's deeply involved in the dance community and manages a one-of-a-kind co-working space called the Jam Factory.

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