Kimberly Johnson wants you to move forward—not back.
The birth doula, postpartum care advocate, single mother and healing practitioner didn’t realize how much postpartum women needed her until she had her own struggle after having a baby. She quickly discovered how little emphasis is placed on both physiological healing and a smooth transition into motherhood—a completely new feminine identity. So often women are pushed to “get back” to their old lives instead of starting anew.
Ultimately, she took her policy background from Northwestern University and her yoga and structural integration training and created private practices in Encinitas and Los Angeles, California to help women recover from birth injuries and traumas and access their “full sexual expression.” She also cofounded the Stream School for Postpartum Care, where she trains birth professionals, bodyworkers and somatic therapists to help women with pelvic floor and gynecological issues and more. She is the author of upcoming book, The Fourth Trimester: A Postpartum Guide to Healing Your Body, Balancing Your Emotions and Restoring Your Vitality.
Here, Johnson explains how the powerful period after birth can be harnessed for positive change:
Live The Process: What did your life look like before your path-inspiring injury?
Kimberly Johnson: Before I became a mother, I was a yogini nomad. I practiced yoga, taught yoga and talked about yoga. I saved all my money to take the next training or for my next trip to India. I studied Structural Integration bodywork to complement my yoga practice and learn more about the body. The Rolfers (who practice Structural Integration) were the people—other than my yoga teachers—who seemed to “get” something about what it meant to be human. I was fascinated. Before that, I was a dancer and a scholar. I wanted to change the world through public policy. I wrote my thesis on the effects of race and gender on healthcare—specifically women in prison who were HIV positive.
When I gave birth and then had such an incredibly difficult recovery, I realized that postpartum women are an underserved population. Even someone like me, who had access to resources and an embodied active life, had to hunt for years to find effective non-surgical solutions to my symptoms. The information was so sparse and incomplete, so satisfied with labeling every post-birth problem as postpartum depression, I realized that my activism had a home in serving women’s gynecological, reproductive and sexual health.
LTP: Why is it important for women to take real care of themselves post-birth?
KJ: Our culture inundates us with messages about going back: “Get your body back.” “Get your sex life back.” Our culture doesn’t offer a narrative of growth and evolution that suggests that we may have to find new ways of being after becoming mothers. Most women are becoming mothers later in life when our identities and ego structures are more formed. Having a baby shakes our identity structure. It rearranges us spiritually and physically and emotionally and mentally and sexually. In a culture that values productivity and speed, the postpartum time is a huge rhythm shift, and not always a welcome one.
There are unique physiological needs that all women share after giving birth. How we are cared for in this time will have ripple effects for the rest of our lives. If we give ourselves the time to rest, eat nourishing foods and have the emotional support we need, we set ourselves up to be more radiant and whole after the postpartum period. We also set ourselves up for a smoother transition to menopause.
This time is so powerful that, in Chinese medicine and in Ayurveda (India’s ancient healing system), the belief is that women can actually heal lifelong illnesses. Our systems are so open at this time that there is the opportunity for rewiring. Unfortunately, what we see is the opposite. Women want to get back to exercise and work as soon as possible, which predisposes them to things like anxiety, incontinence and prolapse (when your organs ends up lower than they should be.)
There is a lot to digest and assimilate after having a baby, and that requires time, space and deep care. Repair is always possible, but respecting a 30- to 40-day extended rest period postpartum is the best way to sustain and build optimal health so that we can return to doing what we love with a solid foundation, physically and mentally.
LTP: How and when did you come to launch your practices and what do you do there, exactly?
KJ: I have been helping women prepare for birth, heal from birth injuries and birth trauma and restore healthy boundaries from sexual trauma for the last eight years. Women come to me for everything from a tailbone that has never felt right since birth to an aversion to sex or outright painful sex to a concern about their orgasmic potential (why can’t they have one?) to traumatic responses after IUD insertions. I work with women from 15 to 80 (the range so far).
A sexological bodyworker is someone who has done their own radical un-shaming work and includes the genitals as part of the body in touch work. It was through scar tissue remediation, sexological bodywork, and somatic experiencing that I was able to heal myself. Somatic experiencing is a way to listen to what the body is telling us and allow the body to tell its story. Many people who come to see me have analyzed their situation from every angle. They’ve been to therapy; they’ve talked stuff out. They know why they are the way they are, but they are so frustrated because their body doesn’t seem to be on board for changing. For instance, they grew up in a religious household where sex was base and shameful. Intellectually, they don’t believe that any more, but their body seems to close up or shut down during sex, and they are fed up with it!
I can help listen to the story the body is telling and complete patterns that may be stuck in the body, and help them to move towards pain-free and shame-free sex. Often times, when trauma happens through touch, touch is required for the healing. I am able to do the nervous system tracking while I am doing bio-mechanical work (thus the “vaginapractor” nickname) and storytelling, which seems to be the magic combination.
LTP: Tell us about your upcoming book, please.
KJ: There are four books on Amazon titled, The Fourth Trimester. Three of them are about babies. Mine is about mothers. This book is the book I wish I had had when I became a mother. In one place, readers can find information on the physical, emotional, spiritual, relational and sexual changes that happen when we become mothers. The book was born out of my own unbelievably difficult postpartum time and the experience of working with new mothers for the last eight years in roles ranging from birth doula to medical translator to pelvic health specialist. I draw on the knowledge of Ayurveda and Chinese medicine that recognize the postpartum period as a special one—a huge opportunity for healing and strengthening, rather than a synonym for isolation and depression. This book offers women the tools to set themselves up for radiant health after having a baby: what to do when a birth needs healing, how to discover the mother you are and how to move again safely post-birth.
LTP: Do you have wellness rituals or obsessions that keep you feeling balanced and relaxed?
KJ: I make it to my local café, Lofty, almost every day. It’s a time when—and a place where— I feel human, like Cheers. I chat with the barristas, wave across to a neighbor and have great coffee.
I have dry skin, so I love facial oils. My current favorite is True Botanicals. I make bone broth at least once a week. I get a great nine-hour night’s sleep every night.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
KJ: Happiness is feeling at home in my own skin, feeling touched by the little things, appreciating what I have without having to lose it. Happiness is service: using my life as compost to soften the paths of others.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
KJ: “Live The Process” means yielding to the river of life. We are so accustomed to trying to control and push things; we think we know what’s good for us. This gets us in big trouble when it comes to birth because, as women, we haven’t had much practice at letting go. Living the process is listening: Listening to the whispers of our intuition and listening to what life itself is telling us. Listening inwardly and listening outwardly. Straddling the material and spiritual worlds to understand which direction our unique compass is pointing and having the courage to walk that way.