A Unique Career Path — Skillfully Woven — Spanning Massage to Mindfulness
If you have the opportunity to chat with Joanna Volkoff for awhile as I recently did, you’ll hear an intriguing story about the connections between mind, body, spirit and the emotions and how her medical and wellness practice over the years has come to incorporate a recognition of all of these elements as important measures of health.
Joanna’s official hands-on healing career was established following her graduation from Oregon School of Massage back in 2001. Prepped with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Oregon State University in 1998, some behavioral therapy work with children, and some clinical experience as a chiropractic assistant, Joanna was ready to begin her practice immediately upon graduation and Oregon LMT licensure.
Using massage as the back bone for the next 20+ years of working in health and wellness, Joanna has expanded, contracted, adjusted and complemented her massage therapy practice to accommodate her ever-changing and growing understanding of functional wellness.
With her increasing field of knowledge and experience over the years, Joanna has followed a unique path in mapping out additional specializations, interests and philosophical approaches, infusing and combining them with her core manual work.
A Love of Neuroscience and Holistic Views
According to Joanna, it all comes back to her love of neuroscience. “In my mind, it all kind of connects.” Recalling that she naturally gravitated to undergraduate work in neurosciences, she says“ I began my massage work with an eye toward neural connections and it makes perfect sense that 18 years later, I would find myself working with adults who survived traumatic and acquired brain injuries (TBI and ABI).”
Joanna tells me she was raised by parents who were both very holistic in their mindset and this was foundational to her approach with her massage work. “With my clients, I’m not just looking at the tight muscle but the whole structure — the posture, the lifestyle habits, the diet and nutrition, the activities, the emotional outlook and mental component as well,” she says.
As a massage therapist she tells me she was obviously focused on the structural frame of the body but also taking into consideration the movement and postural elements at work. With this interest, she says “I began studying everything from Pilates to yoga and core work and was fascinated by the structural and functional aspects. I got really interested in the bio-mechanical functions and was considering further training in physical therapy.”
Choosing between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Training
Additionally, collaborating with naturopaths, acupuncturists and other bodyworkers over the years, she shares “we would exchange a lot of information and I took in the views of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Five Element Theory and incorporated these holistic philosophies into my practice as well. When I began looking into physical therapy school as a next step, I just found the PT approach to be too linear for me.” In her mind, “there’s a whole lot more to people than just the muscular tightness and weaknesses.”
Not long after, a friend got injured on the job and began seeing a hand therapist. This event turned out to be the next breadcrumb on her training path that led her to the field of occupational therapy. As she did more research, Joanna found a more holistic approach to injury and rehab in the occupational therapy (OT) curriculum and embarked on that path.
In OT, she says, “you don’t just look at how their joint is moving but what the client is doing with the joint, how their mental emotional state is, how their environment is, how their social interaction takes place — you’re looking at more holistic aspects.”
It was her continuing educational specialization and licensing as an occupational therapist assistant (OTA) in 2013 that brought her to the field of TBI and ABI doing field work at Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, Legacy Hospital and later working at Progressive Rehabilitation Associates, both in the Portland, OR metropolitan area.
In rehab Joanna recounts working with an inter-disciplinary team including occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, neuropsychologists, MDs and ophthalmologists. “We were all wearing different hats but contributing to the treatment plan for the individual. The collaboration on patient focused care was a lot of fun, she says, and it felt very effective for the patient’s healing process.”
Naturally, I was curious and inquired how she was able to fit this full-time OTA job in with her long-standing massage clients and practice. “I love my clients and have known some of them for 20 years” replied Joanna, explaining “you establish relationships with clients and become an integral part of their wellness.” So, she carved out time in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate them, somehow managing to do both.
Adding to the Neuro and Manual Skills:
Next up? Joanna completed Certified Lymphedema Training (CLT), granting her a specialized skill set and an expanded understanding of working in this realm of lymphedema and oncology patient care. Enrolling with the Klose Training program (a Certified Complete Decongestive Therapy program), she was able to acquire the training in Seattle. Adding this to her manual massage skills has worked out to be an ideal combination — not only a complement but also a specialized medical skill.
With her unique set of experience and expertise, I asked her, “Where are you most in demand? How do you choose which type of clients you will see?”
“Right now, I do all of those things. I’m seeing clients for lymphatic drainage massage, or relaxation and stress management, orthopedic rehab issues or neuro-focused and sports-related injuries. To me they all cross together. The neuro aspects connect with the exercises I give people for neural reeducation and neuroplasticity. The scar tissue release and myofascial release techniques open up the fascia, neural system and the lymphatic system. And the psychological, spiritual, emotional aspects are all connected together with how they affect the physical aspect of a person” said Joanna. She describes the intertwining of blockages and releases explaining, “in my mind, it’s all tied together — interdependent, interconnected.”
Mindfulness Works for Everyone:
And then there is the mindfulness piece that is increasingly showing up in her practice. According to Joanna, “the more you study about meditation and relaxation techniques, you see how much stress levels can effect the overall health. Neuroscience studies show how a calm and relaxed mind can have very specific and advantageous effects on the body, releasing chemicals that can reduce inflammation and pain levels. Relaxation techniques can range from walking meditation, to breathing techniques to body scans to any type of mindfulness activity.”
One technique she uses is breathwork. Joanna states she finds this to be particularly effective when combining breathing techniques and body scans to get the person to shift out of the traumatized head space and into their body. “I teach it not only as a rehab tool but also as a mindfulness tool to use for life,” she adds.
Recently Joanna had been asked to join a team putting together a corporate wellness program to address the added stress workers have been experiencing working from home along with all the adjustments to home/work/life balance that have come as a result of the pandemic. She teaches stretches to address bad ergonomics (i.e. working from home at the kitchen counter) as well as breathing and meditation techniques. “I loved doing mindfulness work with patients recovering from traumatic brain injury, and want to take it to others and show how it can help them as well” she says. “It just seems there is so much frenetic energy, angst, anxiety and fear out there right now. Maybe if I can help someone slow down and breath, it will make a difference.”
We both agreed that calmness can be contagious and that this is really what we’d truly like to see going viral in the world.
Joanna Volkoff, LMT, CLT, COTA/L can be contacted at
Liz Howell writes about health, wellness, and sustainability. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.