THE WISDOMSHARE JOURNAL

IN CONVERSATION WITH | TONYA PAPANIKOLOV OF THE WELL WOMAN

Tonya is a bright light. She works to bring life and dynamic energy to the way we approach and eat food through The Well Woman. Tonya is constantly seeking to reimagine our societal norms around food and self care, and boldly steps outside of tradition to carefully and sustainably care for our bodies and the planet. Her vegan cheese platters (*see below) are only the tip of this iceberg. Her degrees and certifications - which (casually) include a degree from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition and a  Bachelors of Nutrition and Nutraceutal Science - provide an incredible foundation upon which The Well Woman's insightful posts, beautiful photographs, and incredible dinner parties have grown. 

Tonya welcomed us into her charming Toronto home on a chilly winter day last month. Opening the door, she was beaming in a flowing flower jump suit - a peaceful protest to the chilly world outside. We warmed up with hot cups of hibiscus tea and talked about defiant color palettes, living outside of food traditions and making money as a woman in wellness. 

How has your relationship with plants and food changed over the last year?

Oh wow, it's changed so much. I was in school for the past year at The Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto. I fully immersed myself in nutrition, food and herbs. I have been filling up with knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. So now, working closely with food feels like a partnership. There’s this mutual respect I feel with food. It’s like we’re in a relationship, holding hands along this exciting journey. 

I have never been in a healthier place than when I am working in partnership with herbs, listening to my body, and figuring out what foods just make me feel really good. More than anything, my studies and work with The Well Woman, have developed in me an ability to tune into my body - understanding how to listen deeply to it’s subtle signals.

I have learned to really tune in because I don’t want to recommend anything that I haven't tried myself! I have gone through different phases of rigorous protocols. I did a liver gallbladder protocol for three months in a row. Seeing those changes transformed me in a big way! I had such a fierce commitment to that while I was in school. Honestly, I was kind of crazy about it all. 

There’s this mutual respect I feel with food. It’s like we’re in a relationship, holding hands along this exciting journey. 

Now, after having worked with clients I see how challenging it can be for people to stick to so many limitations. The drive in a lot of people is not always there. And, that makes sense. Now, having taken a few steps back from it and being done school, I’m in a place where I take a much more balanced approach.

I don’t believe in nutrition as setting a bunch of limitations. But, with any holistic approach you have got to be ready for the long haul. It could take a year of consistency. It’s a complete shift! But, such a rewarding shift because you are getting to the root of the issue, not just scratching the surface! It’s important to listen and obey the signals your body is showing, you just can’t get too too nutty about it. That’s the key!

Any advice to someone building a business in wellness? How did you monetize doing what you love?

In creative industries in general, money can be an issue. Especially in wellness, so many people give their time for free. It can seem like you’re ‘selling out’ by asking for a live-able rate. But if you think about it, each protocol I create for my clients can take over 20 hours. So it’s important for me to value that, and value my time. Because, you know, I love what I do. To be honest, I would do it for free! Recently I have been practicing the power of saying no. When you start in a new field there is such a temptation to say yes to everything that comes your way! You can spread yourself so thin. I have started saying no to things, and simply standing up for what I want. It feels good. 

You work with our natural world all the time! Do you connect with plants beyond their nourishing qualities? I mean, you must have some secrets.  Do these plants speak to you in any way? And if so, what are they saying?

I talk to my plants all the time, mostly just for fun! For me, there is more energy and connection in touch. I love to touch plants. I bow down to them, and their beauty, and everything that they provide us. When I'm really in an element where I can feel the closeness of nature, I love to sit, listen, look, and be still with them. That’s when I feel a strong connection to the plant world. It’s something I would love to develop even more. 

It’s nature! It’s about the unexpected, surprising people, and getting people to ask questions.

I had a crazy experience in the summer. I began working with an herbalist - I took a tincture that was super super potent and immediately erupted in crazy hives. It was bonkers! I was a raging emotional machine. I made it through that experience - with the help of a kind neighbor, and her light therapy machine (naturally). But the moral of the story is! I received a powerful message from this plant. This green medicine is very strong. We need to truly truly respect what we're working with. It is so insane what plants have the power to do to us.

It can be very trendy now to pick up different nutritional practices - herbs, supplements, various regimes. If I'm choosing to work with an herb, a protocol, I ask myself - okay, why am I doing this? If I choose to add one new element to my self care routine, I make a point to really get to know it. I write down any changes and observations so I can stay in touch with the way my body is responding. 

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You work with color and food in such a beautiful, harmonious way. What is your process for dreaming up these beautiful color palettes? 

I have always loved color. My nickname was actually rainbow girl as a kid! I was so obsessed with rainbows, I taught my whole entire class about them…and honestly, I remember being pretty strict about it!

Nature is endless, endless, endless inspiration for me. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with plants…because plant based food and color dynamics really go hand in hand.  I often let the food lead the way when I make my dishes. Right now I’m using lots of root vegetables. I have been juicing beets, making pink powder and using that with plant based cheeses. So, I am making pink cheeses! Even blue algae cheeses. 

This green medicine is very strong. We need to truly respect what we’re working with. It is so insane what plants have the power to do to us.

It’s so exciting because it’s just natural! There’s absolutely no artificial coloring in it, and yet, we're getting these insane pigments from food - from our natural world! That's what’s so beautiful, and surprising.

You know, one of the guys I work with at the kitchen said recently after I presented a bright blue algae cheese… “but Tonya, no foods are that blue, this doesn’t look appetizing”  But whatever! It’s nature! It’s about the unexpected, surprising people, and getting people to ask questions. I think it tells a really beautiful story. Things don’t need to be done in a traditional way. And as I take the next steps with The Well Woman, that’s what I think about. How can I step outside of the box, and reimagine food, tradition and nutrition?

Where do your ideas come from? What does your creative process look like?

It totally depends on what I am working on. It’s often really very free. Seasons, natural and bright colors that occur in nature. That’s where the ideas come from. I let the power of curiosity be my driving force. I trust that it will take me down the right road. When I am inspired to create something new, it is a very personal, slow, meditative process. I just love to be alone in the kitchen...working in secret.

Sometimes new ideas come from just one incredible ingredient that I have never connected with before. And I think ‘Oh my gosh, what can we do with this!’

Can you share rituals or self care practices for these turbulent times?

I think it’s about starting with realistic goals. It could be going to bed a bit earlier, or having a bath one night a week with lavender or tea tree essential oils. Those small little things can make a really big difference. You don’t have to devote your entire Sunday to this self care ritual. It’s about small steps. That can be really really helpful. 

I feel like I want to scream everything from a rooftop. I don’t want to shy away from anything anymore. My arms are open, I just want to embrace it all. 

We are all moving at a crazy velocity and pace. Sometimes it can feel easier to go with that big wave, go with that flow - rather than resist it. Sometimes I just start riding this wave, and all of a sudden I realize that it doesn’t feel like my own! That’s when I turn to writing and reflection. Asking myself questions about where I am, and where I want to go. Allowing myself to move into a clearer headspace so I can see where I am clearly, and decide whether it is in line with my deepest intentions 

What does being a strong and powerful woman mean to you. Where do you find your strength?

I am always looking at how I can feel ‘stronger’ as a woman. There is a confidence that comes with age and gaining the ability to ‘know oneself’ and to feel firm about what I want, what I know, what I stand for. There is a refinement of that feeling I think that comes through your 20’s.

I have never felt stronger than I do now. Having spent so much of my 20’s being unsure, and being in jobs where I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, I felt like I was hiding myself. Over the past two years I have stripped away all of those layers.  And under all of that is a confidence and comfort. Now I feel like I want to scream everything from the rooftop. I don’t want to shy away from anything anymore. My arms are open, I just want to embrace it all. 

I think finding a community of women, and practicing self reflection is a huge resource in finding your own voice and stepping into your power.

I find consistent strength in self reflection. Asking myself the questions that I don’t always want to ask myself. Why are you doing this? What is your motive? It’s a great way to peel back the layers that can stand in our way.

Finding a community of women is also so important - Goddess Camp was so incredible. To be able to come together, connect, and learn from one another. It is the ultimate feeling of happiness to positively impact each others live's.

Photos courtesy of Kelly Brown


The Aerie Collective is hosting Goddess Camp from August 31st - September 4th. Goddess Camp exists to inspire, educate and connect the leaders of tomorrow. Early Bird tickets available until April 31st!