Holistic health specialist, Allison Browning, talks about her person-centered approach to inner peace, health, and beauty.
When you meet someone for the first time and they ask what you do, how do you respond?
I always find the ‘what do you do’ question difficult because most people tend to be asking about what I do for work and I’ve never had one easy, neat job title that fits into one or two words. And what we do is also so much more than the paid work we do.
I might talk about my paid work in mental health as a counsellor and as a skin and body therapist but I also try to talk about what I do in my life that’s not paid work too, like surfing, writing, volunteering, getting into nature when I can and hanging out with my cat.
When I ask others about themselves I try to avoid asking ‘What do you do?’. Instead, I try to open it up a bit and I might say something like ‘How do you spend your time?’ I find this questioning opens the door for a more authentic connection.
How did you come to have a multi-faceted professional life? How do all your “hats” fit together and support one another?
My history is colourful and I didn’t follow one typical path towards one traditional career. My parents put me into beauty school at the age of seventeen to learn a ‘reliable trade’. I felt like I didn’t fit in there at all, but I completed my studies and went out to work in the apricot coloured clinics of the nineties!
In my early teens I was fascinated by my friend’s mother who could see and speak with spirit — it was just a normal part of her life, no big deal. I’d always known that I wanted to be like that too, so I began to study more holistic modalities including energy work, and I started working with my first spiritual teacher. It was in this work that I felt at home.
Back then, I wasn’t confident and the idea of attending university scared me. I had an irrational fear I’d get lost on campus, but despite this, I eventually braved auditioning for theatre school, which I’d always dreamed of. I was accepted and continued to run my own small therapeutic practice while I studied. Compared to beauty school I felt more at ease in a place where you’d be sitting on the loo while listening to the person in the next cubicle practice a musical theatre number!
I moved to Melbourne after graduating from theatre school and, after some, um... Oscar-worthy appearances in a few TV commercials, I followed the urge to study writing where I found my creative stride. After that it was onward to a Master of Social Work. By then I was a long way from the girl who was scared of university. I gathered up degrees and grew more into my skin.
While I’ve worked within my private practice I’ve always either volunteered in the mental health realm or worked a number of hours within not-for-profit organizations to give back to the community and to be exposed to different client groups. I’ve worked in complex mental health counselling, taught mindfulness within a drug and alcohol rehab, and in LGBTIQ+ counselling.
My own private practice has been a constant in my life though, which incorporates many of my skills and areas of expertise in an unconventional way that come together to work well. I will reassure you though, that I don’t recite Shakespeare at work — that’s one skill that isn’t on the treatment list! My vocal training has been supportive of the meditation audio practices I offer though.
In a nutshell my practice incorporates a holistic approach to science-based skin treatments and I offer counselling with a very trauma informed approach. I also offer body massage and energy work. Back in the day when I was more beauty focused The Age newspaper touted me as ‘Melbourne’s Eyebrow Queen’ so I do still offer brow services in the very unusual mix of things — always with a very person-centred, holistic approach. I’ve found that often brow clients end up as counselling clients because they get a sense of how I practice as we chat over brows.
Tell us more about your own business. How do your services differ to a traditional day spa?
The link between our bodies and our mental health underpins all of my services and the way I engage with clients. I work in a really in-depth way with both physical and mental health. When I consult with someone about skin issues, I take a history of their health. I’ve seen skins change radically due to grief, emotional triggers, autoimmune disorders and big life changes — so it’s all important.
All treatments take into consideration body, mind and soul in a way that is meaningful and backed up by an evidence-base. When I’m seeing counselling clients I work with a somatic awareness of how we hold emotions and trauma in the body. As a qualified massage therapist I’m able to help clients both mentally and physically to support what’s happening in the body.
The practice is proudly vegan because I am of the firm belief that our wellbeing should not harm other beings. I’m fanatical about ethical skin care that makes a visible difference. Each product in the clinic and online store is carefully curated where I scrutinise the ingredients and brand claims.
Because I’m fussy about both ingredients and ethics I rarely stock every single product offered by each brand I have available. I want to ensure products don’t contain unnecessary ingredients like sulphates, parabens and animal by-products. It’s a minefield out there and brands commonly make claims that, upon closer inspection, simply don’t hold up. It’s important to me that my own ethics come into every choice I make in the practice and it means my clients know that they can purchase products knowing I’ve got their back.
2020 has thrown us a lot of curve balls. What has been the biggest challenge for you during this time?
It’s been challenging having to shut the physical doors to my practice and to work only virtually when a significant part of my work relies on touch. Covid-19 has made us get creative through more flexible ways of working and I’ve been doing virtual skin consultations and online counselling.
On a personal level, I’ve been missing my family, both blood and chosen ones. Some of my dearest ones are in Perth and outside of Melbourne. I’ve missed the hugs and being able to travel to see them. But it’s meant we’ve been really good at video calls and messages and sending photos, more than we usually would. Plus I’ve had some excellent conversations with my little nephew about how I should simply dig my way to South Australia and then upward to Perth to cross the border to see them. I’m still considering it.
What has been your biggest lesson?
My biggest lesson is maintaining my faith despite circumstances. Having so much uncertainty has tested the boundaries of my faith — it’s been brutal but so needed.
Our minds love certainty and we live with this illusion that we’re in control and yet we’re not. I could not have dreamed up the lessons that have come with this period of time and I’ve had gains that I otherwise would not have had — personal and emotional gains that have come from moving through resistance and fear. I didn’t initially trust that would be the case.
Our minds tell us a story that we don’t have enough, that we need to resist circumstances and that we have to ‘battle it out’. I’ve now stopped metaphorically kicking and screaming about the change Covid-19 brought, but at first I was like the toddler in the supermarket aisle having a tantrum.
I’m now grateful to have had the time to spend on the practice, which I didn't manage to do previously when I’d been working so much in it. I’m also grateful for the time spent working on my writing. I was recently granted a fellowship, which might not have happened had I not given it my full attention.
As someone who regularly holds space for others, how do you maintain your energy reserves?
I hang out with my rescue cat, who is my sidekick and who many of my clients know well. I surf and spend time when possible in salt water and in nature. I love road trips and long drives and I’ve travelled solo in the outback a bit. The non-built world is always a quick fix for me in balancing my energy — but it’s not always possible to click my fingers and go bush, so I rely on walks by the creek or swimming at the local pool. I also meditate daily, which allows me to see and feel more clearly.
I know that writing is one of your creative outlets. How do you make time for this? Do you need to be in the right headspace to write, and if so how do you get there?
I wish I had some magic dust that would allow the process to be easy. To be honest with you, I feel like I’m still learning my writing process after all these years. Fear has held me back around my writing. Laying words down feels like a constant risk. It can feel exposing and the process taps into the part of me that feels like I might fail.
There’s a very small Allison who is learning to be braver though writing. What I have learned is that it’s okay to write ‘rubbish’— that it is essential to give yourself permission to write what the brain believes is ‘crap’. You can edit crap but you can’t edit a blank page. And it feels worse to not do what you know you crave simply because you feel you’ll mess it up. I still hold back way too much due to fear and I’m working on that.
There have been times where I’ve sat myself down and said, ‘You have to just keep writing whatever comes and it’s okay if it's utter shite’. Later I might still think it’s rubbish, but then I’ll strip it back and varnish it up. Like any old piece of furniture you can make it come good with attention. I’ll draft and re-draft and have trusted ones scrutinise it to pick up things I’m missing.
Funnily enough, each time a piece is published I look at it and remember how I thought it was so unworthy and crap at one point and I remind myself of how important it is to just do the work and allow it to be messy at first.
Tell us about your daily rituals…
I’m all for flexibility over rigidity when it comes to taking care of myself but I also know that being accountable to certain things keeps me in a healthy headspace. I believe social media can promote certain ideas of what it means to take care and we can get hung up on what works for others over trusting that sense of what we really need.
I aim to meditate daily and that usually happens in the morning. My mental health is better and my perspective is clearer when I take that time.
I currently swim laps at my local pool to stabilize and to clear my head. I’m water obsessed and water is my safe space and a place to feel silly and playful too. I’m the dork at the pool peering up at the world from underwater like a kid between my laps. I currently have a foot injury so I can’t walk around the neighbourhood looking at the local gardens and cats as much as usual.
My sense of smell is anchoring for me so I burn incense before work for my own sake and also for clients to enjoy.
For night time, I have a meditation oil blend I dab on that helps me to feel dreamy and I do love a bath before bed (but that doesn’t always happen) along with some novel reading time. I’m guilty of an evening Netflix dose but I’m trying not to overdo it. I discovered Offspring recently and it’s been lovely to have a giggle and a cry during some sofa downtime.
How can people work with you?
My website is a good place to read more about the skin, brow, body and counselling sessions available. I have some really comprehensive information there as well as blog posts that aim to be supportive around mental health and skin health.
I am Melbourne based however I also offer online counselling and phone support, which means for mental health support and skin consultations I’m accessible Australia-wide. For those that might not want to work directly with me but are curious about mindfulness and mental health resources I have a section of the website called the Mindfulness Library that people can explore.