For nearly 40 years, Julia Theisen has walked the path of wellness and healthy living — a path that has led her to a profound sense of spirituality and peace of mind, the love of her life and a thriving local business through Body & Soul Wellness Center and Spa, now celebrating its 16th year in Dubuque’s Fountain Park.
“The journey has been amazing,” Julia said, taking in the sunshine on a cool summer day from the comfort of her backyard — abundant flowers, a trickling waterfall and sculptures of Buddha in meditation creating a tranquil outdoor oasis.
Julia’s signature knowing smile creeps across her face.
“I can’t believe it has been 16 years,” she continued, her faint British accent peeking through. “But you know, it never occurred to me that Body & Soul wouldn’t work. From the onset, I always thought, ‘Of course people in Dubuque will be receptive to it. How could it not work?’”
That attitude has proven fruitful.
But while Julia and husband Scott have continued to grow the branches of their thriving wellness empire, from offering yoga to salon and spa services, a yoga festival and more, the path has once again led Julia somewhere unexpected.
Just before COVID-19 took hold, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Days later on March 20, Body & Soul was forced to temporarily close its doors due to the pandemic.
But ever steadfast to her faith and the tools she has cultivated throughout the years, Julia sees it as “divine timing,” rather than a burden to bear. The business closing enabled her to begin chemotherapy treatments and, as Julia said, hold some space for a brief time.
“I’ve been really intentional about what I’ve chosen to share with others,” she said. “So often, when we share a diagnosis, others conjure stories about what that means to them. To me, it’s not about the type (of cancer), the diagnosis or the prognosis. I’ve chosen to see my breast cancer journey as a pilgrimage rather than something I am enduring. It has been important for me to contain that energy. And it has been so helpful having a spiritual practice — yoga, meditation, going for walks. That has anchored me. I don’t have space for negative energy in my life right now.”
An early calling
In many ways, Julia’s journey has come full circle.
Recognizing a call to health care and an interest in fitness from an early age, she began her career in nursing in 1980 at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in her native England. In the two decades that followed, nearly half of Julia’s time was spent caring for children with cancer and leukemia in their homes.
“I was with many of them as they transitioned,” she said. “I celebrated many remissions with them during that time as well.”
As is the case for many, Julia said it was a seismic shift in her life that drove her to her yoga mat.
“For me, it was divorce,” she said. “It just catapulted me to the next level. I benefited from yoga and meditation so much that, eventually, it became my lifestyle.”
By 2001, complementary health and wellness care rooted in ancient Eastern practices and the ways it could accompany Western medicine already had begun piquing Julia’s interest. This included everything from yoga to meditation, supplements, essential oils and homeopathic remedies.
This further prompted her to pursue her Master’s degree research on how meditation might affect parents caring for sick children.
“The benefits were very clear,” Julia said.
Inspired and intrigued, she dove further.
Julia’s continuing studies led her to California for a five-day training session with renowned practitioner Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, a professor emeritus of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
It was during her studies in California that Julia said her life’s purpose became apparent. It’s also where she met Scott, a counselor on a similar quest.
The two like minds embarked upon what would turn into an 18-month long-distance courtship before Julia was granted U.S. citizenship. They relocated to Dubuque in August 2002. A month later, the couple wed.
“It was the second marriage for both of us,” said Julia of her and Scott, whom she fondly refers to as her “beloved.” “We had said that in our next relationships, it was very important for both of us to connect with someone who was on a similar path in life. We set it as an intention early on, perhaps because that kind of support wasn’t there in our previous relationships.”
However, even before tying the knot, Julia and Scott had begun dreaming about what eventually would manifest as Body & Soul.
Western medicine meets Eastern philosophy
Body & Soul opened its doors in June 2004 as a culmination of Julia and Scott’s combined skill sets, merging their backgrounds in nursing and counseling, respectively, with holistic health.
The idea, Julia said, was to provide an option locally for alternative therapies that have frequently been shown to complement more traditional health care and focused on helping get to the root of the cause, rather than only treat the effect.
In 2014, Body & Soul added a salon in downtown Dubuque’s Roshek Building that has since been relocated to Fountain Park, alongside the rest of Body & Soul’s offerings. And in 2015, Julia and Scott debuted what has taken flight as the Midwest Yoga and Oneness Festival, a three-day event that has drawn yogis of all skill levels and internationally renown holistic leaders to its annual offering.
“Body & Soul has exceeded every expectation we had,” Julia said. “I’m blown away.”
Through its yoga teacher training, it also can claim certifying several of the area’s yoga practitioners, helping to build the foundation of what has emerged as a vibrant wellness community in Dubuque.
“I like to say that I get to stand on the shoulders of the work of Julia,” said Molly M. Anderson Schreiber, who founded Challenge to Change in Dubuque, which brings yoga and mindfulness practices into area schools. “I strongly believe that she has paved the way for the work I am now doing. Without her, mindfulness and yoga in our schools would not happen at the level it is. She is the mother of yoga in Dubuque.”
Additionally, Julia and Scott recently took over Inspire Cafe in Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District, where the couple hosts the Inspiring People Series, featuring a roster of speakers who share their stories, and a Sunday afternoon tea.
The journey ahead
As Body & Soul has reopened, so has the insight Julia has toward her journey. She is continuing her cancer treatments, traveling between Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is consulting with trusted mentors and, most importantly, is holding fast to her sense of empowerment.
“Beginning treatments, it’s easy to be driven by fear and anxiety,” Julia said. “But it also was imperative to me that I combine allopathic medicine and complementary therapies that I have studied and practiced over the years. One without the other would not feel right for me. This is a very personal decision, and I sought a lot of advice from different mentors and friends to get clarity. I am thriving on this. I feel like I was able to reclaim my power this way.”
In addition to traditional treatments, she has taken advantage of supplements, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, yoga therapy, daily yoga, meditation, diet and exercise.
“The biggest thing I have learned is to listen to and trust the intelligence of my body,” Julia said. “I have cut processed sugar. I have been vegan or vegetarian on and off. But when my iron levels are low from my treatments, I’ll have a steak.”
She’s rejected wearing a wig, citing an ancient ritual in which the guru presents his or herself to the student with a clean-shaven head.
“I can’t imagine having hair again,” Julia said.
The woman who has made a career of granting serenity and comfort to others also has taken solace in community support, as well as the premonition she received from her spiritual guides: That she will go through this journey and emerge victorious. Julia also envisions that what she’s dubbed as her “powerful healing journey” will transpire in finding new offerings at Body & Soul and Inspire Cafe geared toward preventative cancer care, as well as for those in all places of their treatment and recovery journey.
“These are exceptional times,” Julia said. “As we are going through this pandemic and I am going through my own journey, I have come to know the healing power of prayer. I have felt it from this community. It has moved me to tears and to this awakening. It’s unbelievable, and it speaks to the sense of community that exists in Dubuque. People just want to help and do anything you need. And that is a gift from God.”
Megan Gloss is the Features Editor of the Telegraph Herald.