Three Healthy and Wise Women We Love
Heat and sweat: two facts of life that are unavoidable in late May in Koh Samui, Thailand. This was pretty obvious to Tammy Stokes as the tiny beads of perspiration rolled down her forehead, and she stepped into the infrared sauna at the Kamalaya luxury spa resort for the first time.
She’d spent the morning in the jungle heat doing yoga and sipping on hot “cleansing” soup, so spending 30 minutes in the wooden sauna felt like a monumental challenge, but the owner of Atlanta’s West Coast Workout (WCW) was on a 14-day mind, body and spiritual detox to celebrate her 50th birthday. She wasn’t going to let a little heat deter her
The groundwork for what would become Stokes’ dedication to a healthy lifestyle was laid during childhood with her father and stepmother in Los Angeles, Calif.
“My stepmom always encouraged us to be involved with food preparation and selection. I loved going to the farmer’s markets and then cooking a fresh, farm-to-plate meal,” said Stokes, who has gained the support of health and wellness experts ranging from Dr. Oz to Dr. Mark Hyman. “And of course, we walked or rode our bikes to the markets. It always made me feel good, even as a young child, to eat healthy, exercise and be outdoors.”
So, when Stokes had an opportunity to complete a college internship in Southern California with a woman who owned spas (she was majoring in physical education with a minor in nutrition from Western Illinois University), she jumped at the chance.
“Eventually, this woman invited me to be a part of her transformation team — a group of nutritionists, trainers and stylists who work with celebrity clients to get them prepared for their next big audition, movie role or red carpet [event],” Stokes said.
For four years, Stokes lived a fast-paced lifestyle working with Hollywood A-listers including John Travolta, Jamie Lee Curtis and the cast of “General Hospital.”
At the age of 25, Stokes learned she was pregnant with her first child. Her father suggested she move to Atlanta, where real estate was more affordable than in California.
“It was such a demanding and physical job; I just wasn’t able to keep up anymore,” Stokes said. “So, I decided to make the move.”
Going from LA to Atlanta was a culture shock, especially in the 1990s. Stokes described the transition as going “from Earth to Mars.”
“I started to accept that this was just the way things were and resigned myself to this way of life.”
Stokes found herself driving everywhere and eating less healthy than she once did. What really started to eat away at her was the loss of her long and lean body shape.
“The options for exercise were so different out here. For example, most people were working out in gyms on machines verses in smaller studios and outdoors,” Stokes said.
To break her new cycle, Stokes needed a break from Atlanta.
“I didn’t really know what the solution was, but I knew that returning to California for a few weeks was the only way I might find one,” she added.
Stokes spent the days and evenings in southern California biking, enjoying fresh juices and vegetables and catching up with her friends and colleagues from the transformation team.
“My catch phrase during these conversations was ‘Well, we don’t have that in Atlanta,’” Stokes said until a friend pointed out that what she was saying was an excuse. “That was a wake-up call for me. I decided that if I couldn’t find what I needed, I’d create it.”
On her plane ride home, Stokes wrote her business plan and WCW was born.
RECIPE FOR HEALTH AND HAPPINESS
Stokes’ first WCW location in Sandy Springs is celebrating nearly a decade since opening, and was followed by a Buckhead studio three years later.
“I started the studios with one workout — a class that used a medicine ball and really kicked your behind,” she said. “I watched the bodies transform like magic.”
Ten different class formats, ranging from barre to cardio yoga, are all unique to WCW and are based on Stokes’ 30 years in the industry.
“The method at the heart of all of the formats is full-body training without muscle isolation, which helps create that long, lean shape,” she said. “By the end of the workout, you will have had 55 minutes of cardio infused with resistance training moves. It’s a real eye opener to the value of your time and dollar.”
Stokes also started offering private training sessions to members of the Atlanta community and various celebrities (many of their photos decorate the walls of the WCW studios), but the ambitious entrepreneur had bigger plans to expand her business, building upon the philosophy that the exercise component of wellness is only a fraction of being healthy.
In 2010, Stokes wrote “Live Your Healthiest Life: A West Coast Approach To Balanced Living” a book with advice to take beyond the studio, from recipes for healthy meals to strategies for battling stress.
She also started sharing her recipes at wellness retreats held at luxe destinations from Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm to the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta. Stokes takes groups of four to eight people to LA (people create their own groups and suggest dates) for her Live Your Healthiest Life Immersion Retreat.
She didn’t stop there. Her latest business venture, a freestanding café on West Paces Ferry Road called Cafe West Express, continues to spread Stokes’ mantra – “do what matters, live healthy, be happy” – in a delicious way.
This endeavor started in Stokes’ kitchen where, since that life-changing trip to California, she’s been making infused waters, fresh juices and healing soups. The café offers pick-up options as well as the option of having your selections shipped.
“If I can’t workout with everyone, I hope to feed them the foods that have enriched my life and provided me the energy to live my dreams,” she said. “Sharing this gift is what my life is about.”
Juggling as many acts as she does makes it challenging to practice what she preaches.
“I do the best I can to balance the personal with the professional,” Stokes said.
It helps that Stokes and her family have made Buckhead their home base, making it easy to run back and forth between the studios. It’s her family — John, her husband of 21 years, son Matt, daughter Alex (who gave birth to Stokes’ first grandchild last year), and her doodle, Dodger, that are at the heart of what makes her happy. She also draws inspiration from her 94-year-old grandmother who still lives independently.
And then there was the 22-hour solo trip to Thailand that Stokes took in June 2015 to celebrate her half-century milestone.
“I am over silly experiences that don’t matter. I want the things that I take time to do to have meaning,” she said.
Stokes picked Kamalaya so she could tailor her days to her needs, whether that meant practicing tai chi or yoga, being treated to Thai spa therapies, or spending time listening to monks chant. Thanks to determination and a little meditation, she completed her first 30-minute heat detox, too.
Afterwards, she sipped an electrolyte- infused tonic and took in the lush landscaping surrounding her. Stokes’ health and wellness journey had taken her from coast to coast and halfway around the world. We’ll be following along to find out where it might take her next.
A purple sticker with the image of Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu deity known as the remover of obstacles, adorns Lisa Browning’s paddleboard. The wellness guru’s goal this year is to race that paddleboard in the ChattaJack, a 31-mile race through the Tennessee River Gorge. Anyone that has tried standing on a paddleboard only to immediately fall into the water can appreciate the testament to core body strength that a feat of this magnitude requires. Yet, perhaps more impressive is Browning’s deeper love for and study of overcoming physical challenges, a passion she has channeled into business success for almost as many years as miles she’ll attempt in Chattanooga. While she may find extra inspiration from a glance at Ganesha, many Atlantans look to her for motivation to reach their own fitness goals, big or small.
Located in a historic brick building along the railroad tracks in Acworth, Core Bodyworks holds classes for yoga, Pilates and tai chi as well as massage therapy, private training sessions, a variety of workshops and yoga teacher training.
Browning and her husband bought the building in 2004 after searching for just the right space, but Browning’s introduction to the fitness industry began at a young age, and flourished in the mid ’80s through massage therapy.
“I had a really strong following, and I will say that massage wasn’t as widespread back then,” said Browning, who found her niche working with regional, national and world-class athletes as owner of Sports Massage Therapy Associates – one of the city’s first of its kind – in the Virginia-Highland area. Different than a spa, Browning’s neuromuscular approach focused on healing chronic pain: how it hurt, why it hurt and what could relieve it.
After 11 years, Browning was ready to expand. She knew she wanted to move north of the city, and she knew she wanted to include Pilates and yoga classes. A certified instructor for both, Browning realized that by teaching people how to move and incorporate physical training, she would be more equipped to assist people in their health and fitness goals – and preemptively, before any painful damage was done. Twelve years later, Core Bodyworks, and the woman behind it, are arguably stronger than ever.
“When I get people moving, I can see the imbalances and what muscles aren’t firing,” Browning said. “You start to develop a knack, an eye for the body if you’re living and breathing it all day, which is kind of what I’ve done.”
Browning’s level of commitment and breadth of experience aren’t the only aspects making her studio stand out from the crowd. She and the talented team of instructors she has assembled hold the mind-body connection in high-esteem as a leading principle of their practices. All disciplines are based in breath and challenge the body to strengthen and lengthen by requiring focus and balance. Improving memory and controlling stress are just a couple of benefits, but to ensure these and more are reached, Core Bodyworks chooses to keep classes intimate in size.
“Our classes are definitely smaller,” Browning said. “If we have five people in class, that’s a good, thorough class that night.”
The schedule includes a variety of offerings for all levels, from beginners to seniors, and private training sessions are available by appointment. Overall, the studio is designed to be a perfect place to learn and grow.
“Core Bodyworks was formed to explore the relationship with our physical body, to understand its function and use, the implications of the chemical and emotional systems on the physical body and to explore its vast potential,” Browning said.
Yoga has perhaps become her favorite aspect for the latter.
“All of the philosophies are so enjoyable to learn and to share with people,” Browning said. In addition to the studio space, the front of Core Bodyworks has a shop that sells the MantraSpot stickers of Ganesha and more wordy flashes of motivation –start here, heart wide open, commit, still the mind, let it go.
“I love the broader study of it,” she added. “When I do yoga at this point, at my age, I don’t go for the fast and hard anymore because I do my sweating elsewhere. We still have a teacher that offers those classes, but my personal practice is a little slower.”
Browning is also particularly proud of the studio’s unique tai chi offerings, led by Jocelyn Simpson in the style of the Dr. Paul Lam.
“Our Tai Chi for Health programs range from the slow, healing, meditative Tai Chi for Rehabilitation (designed to help overcome setbacks in life, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual) to the energetic Tai Chi for Energy to long forms, including Sun 73 and Moving Stillness Fan form for those who desire extra challenge,” Simpson wrote in an email.
Their admission that they “have something for everyone” would sound cliché if I hadn’t seen the mix of students arrive, unafraid of the intimidating work-out equipment, and heard Browning’s stories – of everything from her paddleboard plans to her sessions with a baseball player who suffered a head injury.
In this sacred space she’s created, you may feel the murmur of an inner notion, even just for a moment, that you too can prevail any obstacles in your way, on or off the mat.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Walking into a group fitness class for the first time can be a lot like the first day of high school. Even though you thought really hard about what to wear and how to carry your books, everyone else is doing it differently and in a much cooler way. While that experience often finds you counting down the minutes until it’s time to go home, my first Vibe class felt more like hanging out with old friends who appreciate being silly together.
In fact, Allyson “Ally” Ponte, founder/CEO of Vibe Fitness and creator/ master trainer for Club Vibe and the Vibe Fitness formats, addressed my fear from the moment she turned on her microphone.
“Raise your hand if you care that the person in front of you isn’t doing the steps correctly!” she screamed with an impossibly big smile and infectious giggle. “We are going to have so much fun today, so if you’re worried about getting these moves right, just remember that if you think you look good, you totally do!”
A few minutes of logistics and a quirky pep talk later, we were body rolls deep into a playlist of top 40 dance tunes. The Vibe Infusion class uses popular songs to alternate between choreographed cardio routines, weight lifting and stretching for something everyone can sweat to (and laugh about) without that hour-long trudge on the treadmill.
Ponte’s story started several years ago, when her part-time fitness instructor job and degree in fine arts birthed an idea for a really good workout. Ponte danced at Life Time Fitness, where she taught Zumba and started fleshing out the idea for something with a different … well, vibe.
“I am a fan of all dance fitness formats — they all serve a purpose,” Ponte said. “But Club Vibe takes interval training in a different direction. We eliminate the separation of dance classes and boot camps.”
The tagline “dance with a purpose that delivers results” guarantees a serious workout — one that leaves you breathing hard and wanting more (whether you nailed every step or not).
“We’ve tried to create a class that’s positive, uplifting, inspiring and motivating,” Ponte said. “Dance is subjective. Fitness is not. But our class is very multi-level and it’s athletic, so it really doesn’t matter if you’re a good dancer.”
This year, Ponte will surpass training 100 instructors to teach Vibe Fitness classes. To each, she passes on the notion that the first step in every class is to foster a sense of community. They are motivators, first, with a positive attitude. They have to be welcoming and fun, humble, sincere and ignite that feeling that Vibe is a no-judgment zone. “People feed off of that,” Ponte said. “[As an instructor], you’re a role model, whether you want to be or not. When you’re passionate about what you’re doing, that creates the sense of community.”
AN INSPIRING PERFORMANCE
“Fifteen minutes into Ally’s class for the first time, I knew that my life was about to change,” said Ponte’s friend and Vibe Chief Operations Officer, Kelly Schur. “She almost instantly re-ignited my love of dance.”
The two became fast friends bonding over a mutual love for gardening, art, Justin Timberlake and – of course – dance. Ponte encouraged her to become a dance fi tness instructor and the two started working on the Vibe Fitness formats together.
Many Ponte fans agree that her greatest strength is not measured by fitness standards. Yes, they’re worth noting — Club Vibe leads men and women in classes across eight states and will make its European debut this year in Germany — but the reason people have jumped on board so passionately is because of the person doing the choreography.
“People really love Ally,” Schur said. “Her abundant passion for life, her genuine care and love of people and her devotion to health and wellness is completely authentic and unwavering.”
Between teaching classes, conventions and master class tours, Vibe Fitness has reached more than 1,000 participants. Free guest passes are available to any class currently on her schedule at Life Time Fitness locations in Alpharetta and Johns Creek.
“She has inspired North Fulton residents to make healthy lifestyle choices and changes through exercise. She has created, led and participated in countless fundraisers and community events including the family-friendly ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ National Dance Day, hosted at Avalon on July 23 this year and is always willing to help others in need,” Schur said. “She truly leads by example and is a dynamic force seeking change in her community.”
While I may not feel any closer to dancing back up for Beyoncé, Vibe left me adequately sore, enriched and searching for downloadable Timberlake tunes for my next run. That kind of workout is as good for muscles as it is for the soul.