Mike Wolnick, MBA LMT CA-CMT #27641
Mike Wolnick is a husband, father, bodyworker, teacher, and entrepreneur who has devoted his life to empowering individual health & wellness.
As a clinical massage therapist for 23 years (and counting), Mike’s coached thousands of people in their healing journeys – both in providing a literal helping hand as well as the self-empowerment to achieve lasting wellness on their own. As a teacher and massage therapy program director for over a decade, Mike has trained hundreds of health & bodywork professionals.
Over the decades, Mike grew increasingly alarmed at distressing trends in health, wellness, and education. Despite a booming “knowledge” economy, people are as frustrated as ever in finding an effective plan for what they should do to thrive and be & feel their best in life. He’s heard thousands of patient’s stories of the long, frustrating, and expensive quests for answers to their pains.
Mike saw the need for expert guidance, easily accessible, that trained people in how to solve their own health problems (and know when they did need professional help).
Mike is the founder and creator of Stresstoration and its suite of DIY Health & Wellness Programs. These programs break the barriers to professional body therapy expertise and transform healthcare from an expensive, pay-as-you-go service into a buy-once-benefit-forever investment.
Why I Do What I Do
(The Stresstoration Story)
“Blah-blah-blah, me-me-blah! Blah-blah, blah-blah, me-me-me!”
-School of Fish, Finding Nemo
While I’m not the hero here (you are), how I came to this point is 100% relevant to what these programs are all about. The why is as important as the what.
So every hero has an origin story. And again, while I’m not claiming to be a hero, I really do believe that Stresstoration and these DIY programs are the heroic culmination of my life’s work and the culmination of decades of development.
Now, I’ve already told you that I started Stresstoration to address a specific health & wellness gap by empowering you with the knowledge, skills, & abilities to self-treat some common problems.
But this is the story about how I found that gap through experience after discovery after experience and what drives me to help you take a shortcut to decades of expertise.
An Appreciation for Recovery
All it took was one bad slide tackle.
17 years old and a torn ACL.
Ouch! Yes, the knee dislocation was painful, but do you know what I really remember about that moment?
It wasn’t the pain. It was the sinking feeling in my stomach that I was never going to be the same again.
And I was right.
I thought at the time it meant that I would never play soccer again, maybe even never walk again (I did and I would). But in truth, it was something that changed the trajectory of my life and career.
It was my first real encounter with significant injury and recovery.
I was told it was a partial tear and I was too young anyway for them to operate – they were worried about stunting growth in that leg. So they put me in rehab.
I was fortunate that my high school was next to (We Are!…) Penn State – giant university in a small town – and that meant a bunch of students needing internship sites. Translation? My high school had a large, well-equipped athletic training department and I ended up with a personal athletic trainer intern to help me with rehab for 3 months.
Although the rehab process is never fun, I experienced how much effective therapy helps with recovering from disaster and an appreciation for therapy.
I rehabbed that knee and even played soccer again in my senior year. After high school I got into martial arts and at some point I must’ve torn the ACL the rest of the way because when I was 21, it was bothersome again. When I got it checked out, sure enough, no ligament.
And that is when I became acquainted with the miseries of surgical recovery.
After the surgery, my knee swelled up to the size a volleyball and it was excruciating to lower it even just to get up and go to the bathroom. Bed-ridden for 2 weeks and then a long recovery.
I wish I knew then what I know now!
- Recovery from major injury/surgery is miserable and people will do whatever they can to make it easier and go faster
- Recovery takes work – healing doesn’t always go right on its own and needs active participation
- Excellent coaching and guidance can make all the difference
- Injuries stick with you and sometimes you can’t go back
A New Philosophy - Learning Mastery
When I finished high school, I wasn’t a dedicated enough athlete to make the Penn State teams for soccer or swimming, but wanted to stay active.
Martial arts had an appeal to me an I ended up starting classes at a local academy in Jeet Kun Do (JKD) – the revolutionary style of Kung Fu pioneered by Bruce Lee.
Like the ACL tear I’d suffered, I had no idea how much Bruce Lee & JKD would resonate and shape my future outlook.
Most people think of Kung Fu movies when they think of Bruce Lee, but don’t realize that he was first and foremost a philosopher!
His martial arts prowess was fueled by deep philosophical principles that honestly translate into all aspects of life.
Concepts such as “absorb what is useful, reject what is not”, “be like water” and “the formless form” in adapting to the situation, and “stop hits” to both attack and defend with the same technique (efficiency) are just a few examples of how JKD principles revolutionized martial arts.
They resonated with me profoundly and spoke to many truths that I’d already felt, but hadn’t yet raised to conscious awareness.
JKD, and my mentor Bill Gebhardt’s (R.I.P. Sifu!) coaching, was fluid, almost scientifically intuitive, in how if it worked, we would use it and incorporate it, and if it didn’t, we’d kick it to the curb.
I loved it.
Each of the fighters there had strengths and weaknesses and we’d adapt the techniques individually to suit us.
One of the most impactful memories I have was at a Muay Thai seminar, taught by this renowned instructor. There were probably 80 of us, but somehow he managed to give us all some individual attention throughout the day.
When we were doing this one particular knee technique, he came by and made a minor adjustment to the turn of my hips and said I’d get a lot more power that way. Then he stopped me and said (imagine a thick Thai accent):
“I show you, you do it one time. Is mine.
I show you, you do it hundred times. Still mine.
I show you, you do it ten thousand times. Then yours.”
That commentary on mastering the nuances of any skill was etched into my brain that day – to truly own knowledge, you have to perform it enough times to have experienced virtually every variation and subtle change that can happen. Then you can own it and adapt it to any situation.
Bruce Lee’s JKD philosophy is a major influence on my work. It’s so universal that it’s easy to apply the principles beyond martial arts.
I learned a few powerful things about myself back then:
- I found joy in mastery. I was a wonderful technician and could grasp techniques readily, incorporate them into my own style
- While forms can be a learning tool, mastery involves breaking form and personalizing skill, absorbing what is useful and adapting to context
- I found a calling as a teacher and how rewarding it is to empower others
- Theory has to be tested in the real world to see if it works or not
- I learned I just didn’t have the heart of a fighter – I loved the skill and the competition, but the handful of amateur fights I had quickly taught me that you have to want to hurt the other guy to win… and I simply didn’t.
Martial arts led directly into the next big chapter of my life – massage therapy.
As an athlete, I was already intimately familiar with the aches and pains of training and competition. I received a gift certificate for a massage and it changed my life (thanks Doris Rogalla!).
I thought it was so great, I immediately started rubbing other people’s muscles. I was told I had a natural talent and should go to massage school, something I’d never even considered before.
At the time, I was in my 4th year at PSU (We are… Penn State!) and was pretty disillusioned.
I went there because my Dad worked there and tuition was super-cheap at a good school – and let’s be honest, I grew up bleeding blue and white.
My high school had had an amazing CAD lab and I’d done architecture courses there (I love good design), but eventually learned I just liked creating stuff on computers rather than architecture. I’d wanted to get into computer animation – it was the late 90’s, Pixar was just barely even starting to be a thing, but I enjoyed it.
But… PSU didn’t have a program in it so I was doing a lot of independent study.
In one “class” I remember playing around trying out different things on a single computer model for a whole semester and got an A without completing a single thing – A for attendance (yay?).
What I was really learning after 4 years was that I hadn’t really found my passion yet. I was ripe for a change.
And that is when I got that massage.
In late July 1998 it was still early internet days, so school websites were really just addresses and I ordered program brochures from over 300 schools in the mail.
That’s right, over 300! You can’t say I’m not thorough in my research (something I continue to this day)!
I learned a lot from those packages, and almost went to Boulder (ironic I ended up in Colorado later), but chose the National Holistic Institute in Emeryville, CA.
Then, with only $800 in my pocket, a bike and a hockey bag of clothes, I dropped out of college and hopped on a train to CA without a place to stay on the other end – all within 30 days from first massage to getting to CA!
I’ve had many people over the years say that took courage. I don’t know about that. To me, when you know something is right, you just know. When you are called, you either respond or you don’t.
From there I launched a career.
I’ve worked in spas, clinical offices, hotels, corporate offices, private practice. I even opened and ran a boutique spa in a hotel in Palo Alto. I rode the Dotcom boom, the 9/11 crash, the housing crash of 2008, went bankrupt, taught, got laid off, got called back and then faced program closure.
What a ride!
- An independent spirit – I’d chosen a profession that is as much art as science, that expressed craft and rewarded mastery
- I was a healer at heart – as opposed to martial arts, I was meant to build others up in body and spirit, not break them down
- I learned how to build value through the expression of my style and creativity. Bodywork taught me to problem-solve and adapt, as well as to see both universal commonalities and individual differences in the people I worked with
- Perseverance pays off – an overnight success really is 10-15 years in the making
I got my first taste of teaching in martial arts, when I worked teaching classes in exchange for my academy membership as a teen.
I loved it.
It was so gratifying to coach others along and see their improvement as a result. While at first I thought it was just a job, I soon realized that teaching was a calling.
What is it they say? A calling is what you’d continue to do whether you got paid for it or not? Something like that. But that’s what teaching is to me.
In massage school, I was trained in one-one-one coaching through minor problems. As an MT, I would always try to help people figure out what the root of their problem was and help them come up with a way to address it.
And then at Spa Solace, I had to train up our employees as well. When we walked away from the partnership with the hotel due to conflicting business goals, it was only natural that I turn to teaching.
In 2004 I started as a part-time instructor in a massage program At Silicon Valley College.
Within a year, they’d become Western Career College and I’d become the Massage Therapy Program Director – I still got to teach every day, but also teach the teachers and was part of the Educational Management Team, curriculum development, and program improvement (I have to say I enjoyed being a “professor”, but they just don’t pay teachers enough!).
While teaching, I would find problems I could solve.
One was the ridiculous amount of time spent grading homework and tests. Almost a third of my time was spent grading! It took me almost a year to implement, but I developed a hybrid online program (early Moodle LMS days) to automate that for me and got all those hours back.
I found lots of ways to do things like that and was given the freedom to do so. Intrepreneurship!
WCC was still small enough, but soon they became part of the DeVry Group (as Carrington College) and I was now a cog in a behemoth of a company.
Let’s just say that as the college got bigger, there were more and more layers of bureaucracy.
To be fair, DeVry was absolutely anal about compliance and everything had to be by the numbers and in triplicate. But that also meant standardization and now I was one of 14 campuses that had to teach exactly the same thing. To me, it seemed I had to dumb things down to the level of other campuses.
Away went my online system, I was back to paper tests, and having to write reports on the reports on the reports that I wrote. Many of my innovations went out the window. My worst nightmare.
DeVry was a giant organization and conservative, and therefore was incredibly slow to change. I could see all these ways to do things better, but was unable to get anyone to budge. It was stifling.
You know that angry frustration when you have something important to say but people won’t let you say it? (hello Wood Element) Yeah, that.
On the upside, their requirements made me go back to school so that I could “qualify” to teach the same program I’d been teaching for years.
I needed to have an AS, but once I got started, I continued on to a BS and then to an MBA without even stopping.
I was a much better student this time around now that I had purpose! I’ve always had a head for business and leadership, so focused in entrepreneurship, organizational design, consumer behavior, and marketing.
It helped with tools to enact what I’ve always believed about business – it’s a vehicle for change and bettering the world through relentless pursuit of value to your customers.
But, in 2011, in the midst of the economic downturn, I was offered to either go part-time (losing benefits) or take a severance.
I think it honestly surprised them that I walked.
But I was excited to leave. I started my own practice (with my lovely wife Dee), Turning Point Wellness, and was able to implement a whole new level of bodywork – advanced stuff that I’d been learning and refining for years.
Time to start doing what I’d been teaching (and wanting to teach, but couldn’t)!
In the end, it all worked out.
I got to train and coach in my practice – oh, it was good to be an entrepreneur again!
Ironically, less than 18 months later, I got a call from the college again.
They program had run into some problems and they needed me to come back and set the ship right again. It felt good to come back with a little bargaining power. When they finally phased out the program a few years later, my new baby, Turning Point Wellness, was in full swing.
- Teaching is fun, but teaching the same curriculum every day, over and over, ad nauseum is not my cup of tea
- I can only work for an organization that prizes innovation and entrepreneurial spirit – I am starting to think I’m unhirable now!
- Outcomes matter more than process (although how it’s done matters too). Process for the sake of process is pointless. Cutting costs is admirable, cutting corners is not.
- Being beholden to someone else’s vision (or shareholders) is stifling when you’re creative and they’re not. There’s something to that tech motto of “move fast and break things”! It is frustrating to see things others don’t and not be allowed to act on it
It’s All Coming Together Now
Now I was finally starting to feel like things were firing on all cylinders.
Our first go at a business, Spa Solace, back in 2001-04 was a marginal success.
We were good, but to be honest the business only survived because we were good. We had a captive audience at the hotel, but when we wanted to grow, we quickly learned that the hotel held all the cards.
We’d spent 3 years building a business we couldn’t sell and evaporated overnight when the hotel changed their mind. Ouch!
But we learned some lessons from that experience. The hallmark of good DIYers.
Fast forward 8 years…
We were now very leery about the partners we worked with (and still made a mistake here), but we knew what we wanted it to be and had a much clearer picture of how to get there.
We started off in a wellness center run by some chiropractors – who it turned out were great chiropractors, but a very poor match for us as business partners. They really needed employees for their business, not partners, and their business model clashed with ours.
We ended up walking away after 4 months.
We set up our own shop and got to work.
Things took off pretty well from the get-go. We grew the business organically, by word of mouth and reputation. Yelp helped a lot because people showed us a lot of love there. Any new business starts a bit lean, so when the college called me back for a time, the work helped us over the hump.
We’d found our niche.
We integrated advanced skills in innovative ways and put together a bodywork system that built a raving fan-base.
It was truly a unique approach that drew people from around the area.
We didn’t have to advertise, people found us because they had a deep need and sought the best. I’d just smile when clients would say “I’ve tried to find someone like you guys near me, but I can’t find anything like it.” Our reputation grew.
I kept learning and integrating new things into our system – we were cupping and kinesiotaping long before they hit the mainstream.
I got busier and busier. The money was good. The people were wonderful. We were finding success in helping people with problems that they (or even their doctors) thought were hopeless.
“I’ve tried to find someone like you guys near me, but I can’t find anything like it.”
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I mean, what is?
We wanted this business to grow. We’d set out to start something that wasn’t based on just us this time. We wanted to train up a team of epic therapists to leverage our vision and extend our work…
…but it wasn’t working out.
We hired MTs, but there were always problems. We could give great training, but there wasn’t a substitute for experience – we just couldn’t translate our 15+ years of experience to a rookie and have them see what we saw.
And the MTs that had experience often had questionable training and knowledge (I was appalled at some of the interviews) – or they were good but had a completely different vision of what they wanted to do – or they had an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – or whatever.
The one therapist that worked with us for 6 years (love you, Mae!) took years longer than we expected to get up to where we wanted.
We couldn’t, for the life of us, clone ourselves and extend our work. Training the trainer had failed.
As time went on we found that as much as we’d tried, the business was still entirely about us.
It was our reputation, our skill, our personalities, and our work that was the essence of the business.
My wife had played along and supported my dream, but she was wanting out to go do something else with her life. So it was starting to be just about me.
And the busier we were in the business, the less time I had to work on the business. (Other entrepreneurs know what I’m talking about)
A full schedule of clients was preventing me from innovating and developing the systems I had in mind for the future. And I was only able to help 20-25 people per week.
I realized I’d created a job for myself, ourselves, not a business.
I was on the hamster wheel of constantly trading my hours for dollars and I couldn’t stop if we wanted to eat. I was facing burnout. I was also getting a little disillusioned again – this time about the fact that much of my work didn’t seem to last.
Don’t get me wrong, we had amazing success in fixing problems and often people would go a year or two before needing to come back in, but the work felt ephemeral to me – I was aiming at a moving target.
I was often fond of joking “if you see me 1 hour a week, that gives you 167 hours to undo all my work”, but more and more that rang true.
As much as I would rail against the evils of just treating symptoms and actually addressing the root of the problem, I found that the better we got, the more people would seek us out for corrective work.
Talk about irony!
I was feeling the overwhelming need to make my work more lasting and transformational than fleeting and transactional.
I did notice that there was a certain kind of client who was really having success at achieving what I was truly working towards… thriving wellness.
They asked the questions, sought out the expert advice, received the treatments, but most importantly… they put in the work.
We’d always give lifestyle tips – exercises, stretches, postural adjustments, habit-forming activities – to target specific obstacles to clients’ wellness, but it was the people who actually did them that got better. Who’d have thought, right?
I helped people make connections they’d missed or couldn’t see, doled out knowledge targeted to their problem, and helped formulate plans to get better.
It was the people who were engaged in their own healing that succeeded.
They took the knowhow and ran with it, then they would only need to come see me for tuneups or for problems that were beyond their abilities or for new things they hadn’t learned yet.
And I was finding those sessions the most enjoyable.
The sessions where a person came in and just wanted “fixing” without doing or changing anything on their own were the sessions I came to dread. The sessions where I partnered and guided and provided insights were the most rewarding.
I asked clients what they most needed and they’d say it was my knowledge more than my bodywork (although they didn’t want to give that up).
But I was repeating myself a lot.
I was finding these universal themes and providing individual applications, but there was a lot of redundancy and that violates my sense of efficiency. I’d show the same things to 5 different people in a week. I’d put on a class and only 2 people would be able to make it when I had 20 clients who needed it. I’d show someone something and they’d forget and have to see it again.
I knew there had to be a better way.
- Be really good at what you do and it will attract the right people to work with
- Pursue the ideal combination of enjoyable/rewarding and helping achieve their greatest success
- Some systems can be cloned or trained, others are too unique
A Pain in the Neck
In late 2017, my body decided to teach me a lesson – with a vengeance.
I’d been rear-ended twice within 3 months in 2011 and ended up with a flattened cervical curve that after 6 years had decided it’d had enough. I’d sledgehammered some concrete in the backyard and exactly 35 hours later the pain started. I remember because it woke me up at 4am screaming at me (or was I screaming at it?).
I didn’t know what it was at first, it felt like a massive spasm in my right shoulder blade (my rhomboid/trapezius if you want to be technical).
The weird thing was that it didn’t respond to any of the normal approaches – ice/heat, massage, cupping, taping, exercise, anti-inflammatories… I was throwing everything at it. I went to the doctor and even tried muscle relaxers and heavier pain killers. Vicodin dulled the pain a bit, but nothing fixed it.
That’s when it started spreading.
First to the shoulder. Then the tricep. Then my forearm started feeling like a hot iron was being crushed down on it and my thumb, index, and middle fingers were pins & needles fiery painful.
I couldn’t maintain an upright position for more than 2-3 minutes without the pain building up to torturous levels. I’d pinched a nerve and I don’t wish nerve pain on anybody. If you’ve never experienced it, I don’t recommend it.
I was desperate.
Desperate in the way only someone in excruciating pain could be desperate.
I found that the only position that gave me any relief was with my chin pulled tight down to my chest. Straightening my head was an instant recipe for searing pain. That made getting the MRI of my neck one of the most tortuous experiences of my life – trying to hold my head straight and still for 15 minutes.
I’m sweating again just typing this.
The MRI showed a bulged disc between C5 & C6.
That was a rough 3 months.
In desperation, I ended up getting 2 cortisone injections and was taking 9 (yes, 9) Gabapentin a day – none of which would I recommend, but I sympathize with the desperation induced by severe, unrelenting pain.
And to make matters worse, I was only able to take a week off of work (hours for dollars, remember?) and had to massage with my head tucked down.
I knew then that I couldn’t rely on being a massage therapist for much longer.
It was frustrating to have all of the knowledge and mastery I’d built be at the whims of accident and injury.
If my body were to break down, my income would vanish. And just to double down on the risk, my wife was also having some recurrent health issues and missed some work too. Our livelihood was dependent on us not getting hurt or sick… ever! It was like standing at the edge of a cliff.
And our clients were also counting on us to never get hurt or sick too – if we couldn’t work, they were out of luck as well – remember me talking about how the business was all about us? I believe in win-win, not lose-lose!
Always, in the back of my mind was the nagging fear that all of the expertise that I’d worked so hard and long to achieve would simply vanish if I quit.
I hadn’t been able to train other therapists to “be me”, so the great results I was getting for my patients was at risk for evaporating just like our old spa. I’d found a solution that couldn’t be found anywhere else and what was going to happen to it when I retired or couldn’t practice it anymore?
There just had to be a better way!
Luckily, my mental gears had been at work through all this time and the seeds had already been planted for the next phase of my life & career – Stresstoration and a host of DIY self-care programs.
I knew that if I could draw on universal principles, extract the essence of my treatment method, devise a systematic way to individualize those tools into custom wellness treatments & plans, then I’d really have something. I personally could continue to coach clients in need, my way, with my insight in a permanent form as videos, courses, tools, and books.
Stresstoration and my DIY program series was born.
- They say those that can’t do teach (in not a nice way)… but for those who are afraid they can’t do for much longer, training others to carry on their work becomes a necessity or the knowledge gets lost
- How can I reach more people and leave my acquired expertise as a legacy…?
What I’m All About (the TL;DR)
I know it’s been a long and winding story, but if you’ve read this far thank you and congratulations! Here’s your payoff.
All those formative experiences led to this moment in time, the culmination of a life’s work – for you.
Stresstoration is my calling.
It’s the synergy of my passion for health & wellness, my calling to teach & empower others, and my quest for efficient & effective solutions.
It was my answer to:
- Empower health & wellness through self-care, DIY training that’s more efficient & as/more effective than relying on professional services alone
- Reduce pain & suffering by simplifying advanced tools & integrating knowledge across disciplines into easy-to-use systems
- Create transformational wellness programs to make expert knowledge & skill available & accessible anytime, anywhere, forever – systems that apply universal themes to empower customized wellness plans. Teach directly to individuals, not one-to-one, but one-to-many
- Amplify impact by putting those programs online to reach millions more people than I can meet one-on-one
- Teach natural, DIY tools that provide options beyond drugs and surgery for people to experience both relief and a vastly better quality of life
- Restore balance and perspective to lives under constant bombardment with distractions & stress