A Former Refugee, Wellness Expert Leila Cunningham Confronted Struggle and Uncertainty. Now She Wants You to Find That Strength in Yourself

Accentuate the positive.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Tanya Monaghan
  • Photographed by
    Natalie Schutt Photography

2020 has been an incredibly stressful year for everyone. We have all struggled in our own ways to deal with the enormity and tragedy of all that has transpired, as well as prepare for the uncertainty of what is to come. So it’s more important than ever to tap into mindfulness and create habits to help improve our mental and physical health.

Wellness coach Leila Cunningham has some fantastic advice and practices to help us cope—and even thrive—during these exceptionally difficult times. Leila’s practice centers on an amazing combination of a deep study of health, along with the wisdom and empathy borne from intense adversity in her own life. Although her experiences would’ve broken many weaker people, Leila has used them to stay grounded as well as to draw strength.

She was only 19 when she had to leave her parents behind in order to escape war-torn Bosnia with her twin brother. They entered the U.S. as refugees, looking for a better, peaceful life. The process of entering America was harrowing in and of itself, as she felt stripped of her identity. “I was drowning in paperwork and felt like I had just become a number.”

During the refugee process they were given food stamps to shop in Compton. She would regularly join in line with others to receive welfare. Although she had already completed a year in medical school, Leila entered remedial learning programs as a step toward getting her green card.

Despite the challenges, she was grateful and worked hard to support herself so she could go to school and continue her education. With very little encouragement or other support built into the refugee programs, she had to stay determined and block out the negativity. Leila was lucky to have relatives in Los Angeles who offered moral support and some guidance, but it was up to her to find the strength to succeed.

The first two years in a new country were the hardest. She had to start her life from scratch. When the war was over, her brother went back to Bosnia, finding the adjustment too difficult.

Leila stayed and remained focused on her goal of graduatingcollege. After two years at Marymount College, she transferred to Loyola Marymount University and graduated with a degree in international business. In 2000 she met her husband, Brent, working at the same office of a commercial real estate firm in the South Bay.

In this community, Leila found a new passion in Pilates. It took one class, and she was hooked. She became fascinated by the mind-body connection that aligns through the exercises. Within a year, she completed her training as a certified Pilates instructor, all while working a full-time job. True to her tenacious spirit, two years later she opened her very own Pilates studio in Hermosa Beach.

Leila’s family comes from a long line of doctors, so biology and anatomy intrigued her growing up. Her parents were also nature lovers and had a holistic approach to health and wellness. While practicing Pilates, Leila loved the awareness created in each movement of the body. She found that the mindfulness extended beyond the exercises into her environment and interaction s with others.

The practice became a springboard for Leila’s ongoing study of nutrition and mental health. Now, as a Certified Master Health and Wellness Coach, she has focused her considerable talents and experience into helping others.

Even if it hasn’t affected you physically, there’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on your mental health. Leila compares it to flipping off an autopilot switch, which brings a lot of uncertainty and fear. She suggests we try whatever we can to stay positive, hopeful and optimistic.

“This too shall pass, but we have to accept what is happening first,” she says. “We can handle stress better by slowing down and incorporating mindfulness in even the most basic activities. The first step is to simply become aware. Journaling can be a great way of doing that, but if that’s not your thing, then talk—talk to any trusted loved one. That will help move into the stage of acknowledgment and acceptance of what is happening. Right now we need that sense of community and support more than ever.”

It’s by focusing and connecting with both nature and the good things happening in our lives, however small, that we adjust our perspective toward positivity. “Explore nature around you, wherever it may be,” Leila encourages. “Connecting with nature is huge; it’s incredibly healing. Get your toes in the sand, watch a sunset. We now have been granted access to hiking trails and beaches, so get out and enjoy them (while being safe of course).”

Another way to stay healthy and positive is by exercising every day. “This doesn’t mean you have to do strenuous exercise, but just move your body,” she says. “Get out and go for a walk. There are so many free virtual classes available too, so choose one      sten. Sometimes we are so busy trying to teach, we forget to do that. Kids have amazing ideas and are often the best teachers. Pausing to listen to others applies so much to what is going on in the world right now. Listening shows you care.”

When it comes to nutrition, Leila believes in the tried-and-trusted mantra, “You are what you eat”—what you put in your body can help keep your immune system stay strong.

Leila says, “Number one is to keep hydrated. Drink lots of water. You can add lemon and drink some tea for variety. Carry a water bottle around and keep it visible. Drink water with food. Incorporate soups into your diet; they are easy to digest and are nutrient-rich. Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruit (organic is preferable), and try to eat nonprocessed whole food. Snack on nuts, and keep healthy snacks accessible to your children. Incorporating healthy fats and some high-quality supplements like a good probiotic is also beneficial.”

Leila will be the first to admit it is hard work to stay positive, and that’s why we also need to remember to practice self-care. She says we can only properly give to others if we care for ourselves first. We need to move our bodies and carve time for ourselves, time with our partner and time with our kids. Be present and open yourself to nature. “This time has reminded us of what’s truly important, and we are all in it together,” she says. “Our health, mindset and human connection are everything.”

“We can handle stress better by slowing down and incorporating mindfulness in even the most basic activities. The first step is to simply become aware.”


The first way to create well-being is to observe what is happening around us: our environment, people, nature. That means we need to create awareness of our bodies and our minds. We need to accept reality and stay positive. To reach out to our community and unblock our positive feeling.  A few steps to achieve that:

  • Add to your workout routine mindful or integrative movements like Pilates, yoga, tai chi, martial arts, dance.
  • Meditate. Start with five minutes a day. Clear your thoughts and slow your mind, improve your focus and reduce the stress.
  • Journaling. Start with three thoughts or feelings per day. Journaling helps you meet your goals or improve your quality of life. It can help you reach a wide range of goals and shift a negative mindset to a more positive one.
  • Accept reality. Good days and bad days. Allow the bad feelings to come and acknowledge them.
  • Find a support system to share and talk about your feelings. Your support system can be your coach, your family member, your friend and your community. Talking about it and saying it out loud and hearing yourself is one of the most important steps of changes.
  • Stay positive. Everything in life gives us opportunities. Nothing in nature is static.

“Our task now is to identify what’s happen-ing, what is already in progress, and to latch on to or lead changes that are already taking place.” — Scott Haas

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