Today’s self-care dialogue is with Tonya Papanikolov, holistic nutritionist, plant-based chef, and creator of The Well Woman. Tonya is a true renaissance woman, well-versed in all things wellness, mindfulness, and natural healing. We are constantly inspired by her otherworldly plant cheese plates and other whole food creations, as well as her radiance and spirit.
In this interview, Tonya tells us about her approach to exercise and stress, the protocol she’s been implementing for skin integrity and gut healing, her favorite facial massage tool, her path to holistic nutrition, and much more.
— Is routine important to you or do you like things to be more open and free?
I honestly really need both! Routine is so important in keeping me aligned, on track and grounded however too much of it interferes with my natural creative process. I like routine for certain things like: waking up in the morning, meditation, yoga, bowel movements, meals. However, I’m a very spontaneous person and I absolutely need the freedom to throw everything up in the air to do something unpredictable. I’m distracted quite easily, which means I may go on a walk and begin to inspect the sap coming out of a cedar tree which derails my routine for dinner time, hypothetically speaking ;)
Those are moments I happily take freedom over routine. But it’s all a fine balance. There can’t be too much regimentation and there can’t be too much freedom. The pendulum is always somewhere along the spectrum being balanced and fine-tuned.
Right now in my life, based on various situations and work, I have very little routine and it is actually something I’ll be working on in the fall! Calling in some solid routine.
— What do your mornings look like? If they differ from day to day, describe your ideal morning.
Mornings do differ from day to day. It just depends on what I have going on. My ideal morning would be waking around 6:30-7am and having a big glass of lemon water before a 30-minute meditation, followed by a return to bed for a cuddle and hug. Next I would have a quick cold shower and head to the kitchen to make a morning elixir. This might be a coffee with nut milk and herbs or matcha, pearl, collagen or whatever else I feel like throwing in my blender that day based on how I’m feeling! But definitely a warm beverage and some reading material. I would then begin to prioritize my day and make a list of everything I want to accomplish. I really like to save some time in the mornings to respond to emails, it’s been a goal of mine this year to get better at responding to emails in a timely manner.
But if we had to strip everything down to the bare essentials: the absolute perfect morning is any morning that I have prioritized my meditation before everything else. This is absolute self-care time and if I do nothing else but this, I am ready for my day.
— Do you have any bedtime rituals that help you sleep well?
Not specifically at this time. I feel very lucky to be a great sleeper.
Bedtime is funny because on the one hand I know I should be going to bed earlier but on the other I’m never tired in the evening and am extremely productive during these hours. It is the time of the day I love to work the most! I am the clearest, calmest, there are so few distractions for me and I never feel my energy dip at night (for better or worse). I rarely feel tired at any point in the day so I will happily stay working until 11pm. I do try to limit computer time at night and if I can’t then I always have f.lux on my screen to cast off the blue light.
I’m really working on this! I’d like to begin shutting down work by 10pm latest but when you are working for yourself, it’s not always possible!
I feel quite blessed that I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow and that I wake with ease as well.
— Describe your typical or ideal meal for each of these:
Breakfast – a big green smoothie, a green juice, a warm elixir in the winter time, often with cacao. I will usually add a plant-based, raw, fermented protein to my smoothie or elixir. Sometimes I’ll have a piece of sourdough toast from a local organic bakery with nut butter or some avocado and lemon.
Lunch – a salad with raw seasonal vegetables or some cooked vegetables like broccoli, squash, sweet potato. Or steamed greens with sauerkraut, hummus and sprouts.
Snack – some of my plant-based cheeses with chia/flax crackers
Dinner – Soup, dahl, kitchari
I love making elaborate meals for dinner gatherings and special evenings but when I’m cooking for myself I like to aim for simple, healthy and balanced.
— Do you partake in caffeine and in what form? If not, what is your drink of choice in the morning?
I do! But I’m not that religious about it. I have one drink in the morning that is caffeinated which will alternate between a high-quality coffee or a matcha.
— Do you have a sweet tooth? If so, how do you keep it in check?
I can’t say I do. I don’t consume any processed sugar so this helps keep everything in check. When I do bake or use a sweetener I go for maple syrup, honey or dates. I don’t feel fiendish about sweet stuff or have cravings for it. I feel lucky for this.
— Are there any particular supplements, herbs, or tinctures/tonics that you take regularly and find to be helpful with your energy level and general wellness?
I am just getting through a protocol for strengthening skin integrity and gut healing. I was using a potent antioxidant Quercetin, vitamin C, collagen, an EFA supplement and a general clean diet free of the major allergens. My skin issue cleared up very quickly once I begun this protocol. I also got a good dose of salt water and vitamin D from the sun which played a huge role and were the missing pieces. But in terms of everyday stuff I take a vegan probiotic and ashwagandha. I rotate other things in and out like maca, he shou wu, schisandra. I also drink a nettle and astragalus tea.
I’d like to say I get everything I need from a healthful diet and clean water but I’m a very sensitive being and have a long history of gut trouble like IBS (it’s really good now!) but this means that I do take extra care with supplementation and herbs when I’m feeling sensitive or stressed.
— Do you exercise and do you have a particular exercise routine that you repeat weekly?
My day to day is extremely active and yoga is my main form of routine movement. I also dance a lot. I find it to be a wonderful way to start the day. I’m usually on my bike for over an hour a day as well and this definitely gets my heart rate up. I go on the occasional run or to a spin class but as we move into Fall I’m going to be looking for a new form of movement and exercise – something a bit more strenuous. This is part of the routine I’ll be looking to form for fall.
— Do you find exercise to be pleasurable, torturous or perhaps a little of both? How do you put yourself in the right mindset in order to keep up with it?
I do find it pleasurable. I don’t think I’d ever describe the process as torturous (ha!) but I definitely think the hardest part is just getting to the class. Having the motivation to go every day or every other. Once I’m there I feel good instantly. The moving and stretching make me feel stronger as the class gets more intense. And of course afterwards, the feeling is the best. Endorphins, detoxing, cooling the body down. Sign me up!
— What is your idea of beauty – external, internal or both?
I like to think of beauty from an energetic, magnetism point of view. When I feel my most beautiful it’s generally an energetic state I’m in where I exude magnetism. And I’m not talking about a physical beauty magnetism but more of an energetic allure for life, a curiosity. I think other people notice that. I definitely notice that in other people.
I find food and nature to have so much physical beauty and that definitely effects the final dishes/plates I make. I’m an aesthete through and through. My eyes see such beauty in ordinary everyday life moments: the colour of someone’s eyes, their laugh, the way they move their hands, little unnoticed smirks, hair blowing in the wind, a cluster of sunflowers growing toward the sun, the sound of leaves in the wind. This is all so beautiful to me.
— What is your skincare approach – face and body?
I’m big on my skincare regime! If I had it my way I’d go for natural facials every month but it usually turns out to be once a season. I use natural products from Pure and Simple in Toronto, Naturopathica and Living Libations which is a Canadian company. Nadine makes incredible skincare products from Haliburton Ontario, you can read her interview on The Well Woman. I only use natural products on my skin which should come as no surprise! My regime is the usual: cleanser, toner, serum and cream. I also have a jade facial gua sha tool that I massage my face with after serum. Best Skin Ever is a pretty remarkable product, it’s an oil based serum. I try to stay on top of a weekly exfoliation and mask. If you notice your skin getting dull the best way to correct it is with some weekly exfoliation. I use a fig enzyme peel and a clay mask. I try to do this once a week.
— Are there any foods, herbs or supplements you find to be helpful to your skin/hair/general glow?
Water! The easiest way to get beautiful, hydrated and glowing skin is from drinking 2L + water a day. Other things that help are drinking bone broth, colonics or coffee enemas always make my skin and eyes glow because they are so beneficial to our gut health. Getting good sleep is key and meditation is always elevating and leaves me with a glow.
A plant-based diet with lots of veggies, greens and fermented foods is also key.
— Do you have any beauty tips/tricks you’ve found to be especially useful throughout the years? Family heirlooms are very much welcome.
— Do you practice any consistent routines in order to avoid stress?
Meditation, yoga, breath-work, moving my body, laughing at myself, dancing. I use ashwagandha daily too.
— If stress cannot be avoided, what are your ways of dealing with it?
All of the above! I also will talk it out with friends and my sister, family, my therapist. My therapist uses an amazing method that she has been teaching me called the Sedona Method (it’s an amazing book that I highly suggest). She’s not your usual therapist who you just talk to. She makes me release on all feelings and this has been an incredible tool for releasing stress, fear or any negative emotion.
— What measures do you take when you sense a cold/general feeling of being under the weather coming on?
Oil of oregano, lots of water, a tea with ginger, turmeric and raw honey, minimal food (so that the body can send all of its energy into fighting off the bug instead of to digestion) and LOTS of sleep!
— Do you strive to maintain a healthy work/life balance or do those things overlap for you? What is your approach?
There is such overlap for me! Life and work are very intertwined, one in the same. And although I love it that way I’m trying to implement some more boundaries and turn-off time. But the fact is that I love what I do so much so working doesn’t come with a burden.
— Describe the actions you take or mindset you try to tap into in order to stay on track with your self-care practice and being nice to yourself?
Some of the tools have become engrained at this point. I have a morning gratefulness practice of putting my hands toward the ceiling and going over everything I am grateful for in that moment. It’s really just about making new habits and setting them as priorities. I try to take 20 minutes a day for stillness in the form of meditation and breath work. I journal regularly as well.
— What do you consider to be the single most important change you’ve made to your routine or lifestyle in terms of wellness?
Eating a plant-based diet that consists of mostly vegetables, lots of green smoothies and healthy fats. Diet has been number one, followed by yoga and meditation.
— A book/movie/class that influenced your view of self-nourishment or self-care.
Many books along the way. Siddhartha. The Great Work of Your Life (which not-so coincidentally appeared on my door step one day). All the books I read while studying at The Institute of Holistic Nutrition.
— Have you always been interested in the connection between wellness and sustenance? What was your path to studying Holistic Nutrition?
My interest started quite young. I ate really healthy as a kid, my favourite food growing up were carrots (?!). The trend continued as a teenager but I definitely had a lot to learn. I knew I wanted to get into nutrition in high school and chose a university school and program accordingly. I studied nutritional science for four years at the University of Guelph and thought I would become a naturopathic doctor but decided to switch directions after school. I got into a totally different line of work in fashion, where I worked for a Canadian retailer doing fashion direction! It was a really fun job but after a substantial amount of stress and awakening, I decided to pivot back into health, wellness and food. I went back to school, to the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto.
— You make your own plant cheeses and even developed a plant cheese plate for the Toronto restaurant Nota Bene! How did you come across the plant cheese-making practice and develop your own recipes? What’s your favorite cheese that you make?
I learned the process to make the plant-based cheeses while studying at Matthew Kenney Culinary in California, from there it’s just been experimenting and playing with new flavor and consistency combinations! That’s a tough question, I really love the truffle and charcoal flavor and the freshness of the dill and chive!
— You cook plant-based dinners for groups of people, often centering the food around beautiful themes, like your Spring Equinox dinner. Can you tell us a bit more about the dinners and your approach?
It’s really just about getting a group together to share in a healthy meal and to show people how versatile, delicious and vibrant a plant-based meal can be. The themes often come from inspiration around the seasons, a book, or an artist. I love the idea of working with a theme for dinners to tie everything together.
Fun and Inspiration
— What do you do to unwind or treat yourself?
Ultimate unwinding is a weekend getaway to a cabin on a lake! Unwinding in nature is always my preference. I treat myself with a facial or going for acupuncture, reiki or to a restorative yoga class. Unwinding can be as simple as a walk. But the classic Tonya move is a back-scratch before bed. My! Favourite!
— A book/song/movie/piece of art to feed the soul:
Song/Album – This song that I wake up to each and every morning: Ik Ardas Wahe Guru by White Sun
Movie – The Scent of Green Papaya by director Tran Anh Hung
Piece of Art – Ronan Bouroullec drawings
— What are some of your favorite places to eat in Toronto?
— We are captivated by Joan Didion’s compact travel packing list. What are some essential objects that would be in yours?
I love this! Here are some of mine:
- Oil of oregano
- 2L of water
- A book
- My recipe/poetry notebook
- A good pen
- A homemade trail mix
- My favourite copper spoon
- My Jesse Kamm’s – they’re comfortable and I love wearing them travelling
— Is there anyone you would like to hear from next in this interview series?
Photos by Nathan Legiehn, Kelly Brown and Tonya Papanikolov.