As a part of my interview series with prominent medical professionals about “How To Grow Your Private Practice” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tiffany Ryan.
Dr. Ryan is the Co-Founder of Yomassage, a new modality that blends restorative yoga, mindfulness, and massage therapy. Dr. Ryan is also an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Our Lady of the Lake University and Director of the Complex Trauma Research Institute. Additionally, Dr. Ryan practices trauma-informed massage therapy and yoga.
I grew up knowing I wanted to help people. I earned my bachelors, masters, and PhD in social work, worked in various direct practice and advocacy positions, and spent many years doing both research and teaching at the university level, all with a focus on child welfare. For so long, I was focused on trying to help others and thought it was selfish to take care of myself. This, combined with having several reminders that life is short and uncertain, prompted my family (husband and 3 kiddos) and I to make the decision to live life to the fullest. We decided to sell nearly everything we owned and move onto a sail boat to travel the world — as completely novice sailors. Within 6 months of making the decision to leave, we were off on our adventure. We sailed from Nova Scotia to Grenada and then decided to leave the boat during hurricane season. We went to Costa Rica so we could continue to travel, and I could also attend massage therapy and yoga teacher training. During my time on the boat, I realized how healing both massage therapy and yoga had been for me during the most challenging times of my life, and I wanted to be able to provide that opportunity for healing to others. Wellness had become a part of our lifestyle and I was excited to blend my passions for social work, research, and health and wellness, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that was going to play out.
When we decided to come back to the states, we settled in Portland, OR. I contacted a local yoga studio and, while they didn’t have any classes for me to teach, the owner, Katherine Parker, asked if I could create a class combining yoga and massage. I thought about it and really liked the idea of combining the two mindfulness methods that I am most passionate about. I created some sequences, practiced, and refined the method. It was so popular at the studio, we decided it would be a great idea to create a training to teach others the same method — and Yomassage was born! We have incorporated a trauma-informed training into Yomassage and will be conducting research, allowing me to incorporate all of my passions. I am really excited to see where Yomassage goes and how many people it helps.
I really had never thought about creating my own modality or training. I always say that I am a social worker at heart and unfortunately was not blessed with a business mind as well. My business partner, Katherine Parker, is an entrepreneur and a very savvy business person. She is the expert on social media, branding, messaging, etc. It seems like the universe brought us together because our strengths really complement each other. Katherine had to convince me we could make this into a business, and I’m so glad she did. I had a ton of fun and personal satisfaction from being the massage therapist running the class, but I get a different kind of joy from creating, building, and talking to people about the importance of self-care, the mind-body connection, health, and wellness. It’s so satisfying seeing those we train provide so many wellness opportunities to the general population.
That’s a great question. I think inevitably when you are growing a business you have to do both for a while. It’s going to be stressful, but that won’t be the case for eternity. I had a plan in place where I saw the light at the end of the tunnel — I knew that if I adhered to the plan I would be able to get back to my balanced lifestyle. When we moved onto the boat, one of our main goals was to simplify our lives. When we moved back to the states, we wanted to maintain as much of that lifestyle as possible. After starting work on my business, I quickly realized that I had inadvertently created an insanely busy lifestyle again. This really is one of my weaknesses — I just can’t say no to a good opportunity, but the problem is that life presents so many amazing opportunities. Without a plan in place to create the lifestyle you want, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and ultimately maybe say “this is too much” and end up either unhappy or giving it all up.
I thought I would want to continue teaching my own classes forever, but once the business took off, I realized I just didn’t have the time and energy to do both. The training schedule forced my hand a bit when we had a training scheduled in a town four hours away at the same time I normally teach a class. I literally couldn’t do both at the same time. With this new realization that it wasn’t possible to do it all, combined with my new mindset of prioritizing health and wellness for myself, I realized I can’t do everything (although I really wish I could!). I decided to create a plan to let go of the reins over the next few months. Once we trained enough people to take over and I felt confident in their ability to provide the same quality class, I let direct practice work go.
Our business model is tiered, so while I started as a direct practitioner and turned into the trainer, we now have enough amazing people who have been trained as master trainers that in the future I will be letting go of a lot of the training piece to focus on health and wellness research, being the spokesperson for how our business can benefit our clients, and helping our business grow to the next level.
Oh, wow — so many failures! I was just talking about this the other day. I still get that “pit in your stomach” feeling when I experience failure, but there is something inside of me that knows I want to achieve great things. I want to help people on a large scale. Depending on the failure, I may feel like I want to quit. I might take a day or so of feeling this way before I am able to get some perspective, reflect on all of my successes, and realize that often things I consider failures are actually there to set me up for my next big success.
I am very big into manifestation and positive thinking. I know if I wallow in my failure, there is no way I’m going to achieve my goals. My PhD program really prepared me for how to bounce back from failure — there’s definitely a hazing process that happens during doctoral work!
I think my biggest hurdle was my own definition of success. I thought that I would only be successful if I completed my PhD, went to a top university and became a tenured professor. When I went on the job market, I had three small children and had to decide if I wanted to have no life and possibly live in a part of the country that didn’t appeal to me while I earned tenure at a top research university, or if I wanted to go to a less prestigious university and have more time with my family. I ultimately ended up at a small university in a non-tenure track position (gasp!) in a great little town near extended family. Because this felt like a failure to me (this was not at all what my career goal was), I ended up taking on a million and one projects to prove my worth to nobody but myself. And you know what? I ended up miserable — not only did I not achieve my goal, but I was killing myself and taking time away from own self care and family. This was a definite low point. This was part of what played into moving onto the boat. I had nothing to lose professionally. I felt like I had wasted my time earning my PhD and was never going to contribute to the profession like I had hoped. Around this time is when I had my biggest revelation — that my definition of success was flawed. My new definition of success is happiness. You never know what life has in store for you. When we returned from our adventures, I met Katherine and we started our business. I was then offered an amazing remote tenure-track position at a university that supports my research while also supporting self-care, all while allowing me to live in a part of the country I adore. I am truly happy.
There have been a few things that have been essential to the success and growth of our wellness practice.
I have worked in non-profits for most of my life and have never felt comfortable with the idea of making money in the wellness field, so this is very new to me. It’s very important to me that our business model is authentically beneficial to everyone involved — as a direct practice client, a Yomassage therapist, or as a master trainer. Our business model is all about providing an amazing quality of service at an affordable price; but with our model, as a corporation we’re also able to do well. I now realize that the better we do as a company, the more people we’re going to be able to serve and bring wellness opportunities to. We also have partnerships with non-profit organizations — I wouldn’t want to do this work if we couldn’t also serve those who need health and wellness services the most but don’t have access. I think the biggest thing for me has been moving out of the scarcity mindset to one of abundance for all involved.
Well, my answer to this lies in why I wanted to enter into the health and wellness field in the first place. I was extremely stressed out in my prior life and I would turn to massage and yoga. I absolutely love massage. When I’m feeling unfocused or overwhelmed, I either get a massage (or make my husband give me one), go to a yoga class, or if I don’t have time for either of those I will focus on my breath or use a guided meditation — which are all ways to practice mindfulness. One of the things I talk about a lot is that our breath is the only part of our autonomic nervous system that we can control with our mind and it’s directly related to your ability to enter into rest and relaxation mode. We can literally control our nervous system with our breath! During massage, when we are touched in a safe way, our minds are able to focus on the sensations we’re feeling and begin to calm down. In yoga class, I can focus on the poses my body is taking, again allowing my mind a little bit of a break from thinking about everything else.
I’ve had many mentors along the way and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Mentors are essential to making progress and finding your way. Our mentors are from various disciplines and help us with a variety of things. I don’t know that I have one mentor that has helped more than another, but I would say that the advice that has most resonated with me is from Jim Miller, our SCORE mentor, who is a retired businessman. He said to take care of the people you work with. Continually ask them what they need from you to be successful — support them fully and they will be invested and do their best work for the company. Don’t just focus on the bottom line, but instead on the goals of your business and the steps necessary to get there. I think when you start a business it’s easy to focus on financials because you don’t always make a profit at the beginning. I’ve learned it’s important to look at the big picture and the rest will fall into place.
We love looking to other companies we admire for inspiration. There isn’t anyone else who is doing what we are doing, but there are a few companies with similar business models like Zumba, Buti Yoga, CrossFit, and Bamboo Bodies. We also surround ourselves with other powerful and passionate female entrepreneurs in the wellness industry. At the very beginning, it was helpful to have access to several free resources such as Lewis and Clark College’s Small Business Legal Clinic and SCORE (provided through the Small Business Administration). The Alliance of Angels also provides amazing free mentorship to start-ups.
The worst piece of advice was ingrained in me by every system and institution I’ve experienced in my life up until the past few years, and that was to “stay in the box to achieve success.” I talked a little bit about my recent redefinition of success. I had people my whole life telling me that to be successful I should go as far as I could academically, enter into a career that would allow me to climb the ladder, buy a house, get married, and have children. I honestly didn’t realize there was another way to live. I was so far in the box, I didn’t even realize there was a box or anything outside of it. My life has improved exponentially since I had the epiphany that there is life outside of the box and that it can include success. It’s not that I think those things are inherently bad — I very much value my education and family, but I now know that there are multiple paths you can take to achieve happiness. There is no one right way and mental and physical health, wellness, self-care, adventure, and creativity are worthy of being included in my life goals.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk opened my mind to the connection between my passion to help others achieve mental wellness and my passion for bodywork. In keeping with my role in the business, it’s not a business book, but rather a book that highlights why we’re doing what we’re doing. It documents the research showing the relationship between the body and the mind in a very compelling way. This is a great book that can explain to anyone without a background in mental or physical wellness the importance of addressing the body to in turn impact mental wellness and vice versa.
For other incredible interviews, please check out our podcast: Healthcare Heroes.
A special thanks to Dr. Ryan again! The purpose of this interview series is to highlight the entrepreneurs, innovators, advocates, and providers inside Healthcare. Our hope is to inspire future healthcare providers on the incredible careers that are possible!