Mark knows Kimberly (@kimberly.ann.johnson) from the yoga and meditation community. She is a somatic experiencing practitioner and a sexological bodyworker. She is also the author of The Fourth Trimester: A Postpartum Guide to Healing Your Body, Balancing Your Emotions, and Restoring Your Vitality and her newest book Call of the Wild: How We Heal Trauma, Awaken Our Own Power, and Use It For Good. Today she is talking with Commander Divine about her book Call of the Wild and how aggression can be used in a healthy way.
- Taking the stigma out of trauma is part of our human responsibility
- Our thoughts show our physiology—so there are ways to repair in the present moment
- Facial expressions are just as important as speaking when trying to communicate
- The flip-side to anger is healthy aggression—power, drive, and knowing what you what
Listen to this episode to get a better understanding of the fact that we all have more power than we think.
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Hi folks. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Welcome back, if you’re a repeat offender. If you’re new, we won’t waste your time or disappoint you with today’s guest – who is an author and works with women who have had traumatic incidents in their life – to help them heal. From a somatic approach, which is something near and dear to my heart.
In fact, I can’t wait to talk to Kimberly about somatic healing, because it’s something that I have a little experience with… but I’m about ready to dive back into it. So I want to learn more about it. It’s something that’s really important for all of us to understand about how the body does keep track of pretty much everything. And it’s going to stay with you, unless we deal with it.
Before I introduce Kimberly Ann Johnson a little bit more in depth, please rate this podcast. It really does help. We have over a thousand five-star reviews at Amazon, which is one of the reasons that we’re in the top 10 in the health and wellness category.
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And if you don’t know about our Unbeatable Mind program, then I recommend you check that out too. Unbeatablemind.com. Where we take people on a journey to wholeness.
So Kimberly Ann Johnson is an author, and as I mentioned a somatic healer. A couple of really interesting synchronicities Kimberly and I were just musing about is I happened to have met Kimberly without speaking to her. But it was an intimate connection, right Kimberly?
We were breathing next to each other in an intense breathing practice session – gosh, and we’ll talk about that as part of this show and how that’s becoming an increasingly popular modality for training. Just breathing together. An incredible thing.
So we actually breathed together and when one of my best friends from Colgate’s daughter contacted me from her pr agency and said they’re representing Kimberly – there was a double synchronicity there.
So I had to talk to Kimberly, and I wanted to talk to her about both… I think you’ve written a number of books, but the two that I’m familiar with are your first book “The Fourth Trimester,” which is what happens after the child is born, which is a real challenge for a lot of women with that postpartum trauma.
And then your new book “Call of The Wild: How We Heal Trauma, Awaken Our Power, And Use It For Good.” And that last part is really, really important. As we become more socially constructive as human beings to take care of the world’s problems and not wait for someone else to solve it, right?
And I’m looking forward to hearing your perspectives on how women can be part of that solution.
Kimberly, thanks for joining me, and thanks for the work that you do.
Kimberly: Thanks, Mark. Happy to be here.
Mark: So give us a quick background on your kind of life story – like where are you from? What were your “big T” traumas that led you to this work in this life?
And then we can get into some specific ideas and recommendations for in particular the women who are listening to this podcast, who might need some support and healing.
Kimberly: I was born in northern California. I was raised in southern California. I bounced out of here when I was 17 to the east coast to go to school. Then I lived in Chicago, Colorado… then I moved to Rio de Janeiro for about eight years. And then I’m back in California now.
Kimberly: Yeah, I’ve lived in every place in the US for like a pretty significant period of time, except for the south…
As far as the big t traumas – that’s an interesting question and I guess I feel like one of the things that trauma healing does is it helps us put some puzzle pieces together. That might seem kind of like they’re scattered, and then as we start to come into wholeness, we start to understand how those pieces fit together…
Mark: I love that. Yeah. I agree.
Kimberly: I’d say some of my foundational imprints that predisposed me for some of the bigger t traumas – one of them was actually being really smart, and being put ahead in school… so, I skipped second grade and as a six-year-old I went into a mixed third/fourth grade classroom.
So, I was in a classroom with eight and nine-year-olds. And I really didn’t understand the social ways that eight and nine-year-olds behaved. And the teachers would put me in charge of class, and I would raise my hand and tell substitutes that we needed to have the test. And I was really into the rules.
Whereas, of course, the nine-year-olds are like “why are you telling the teachers about the tests?” And “why are you doing this?”
So, quickly I kind of moved away from relational interactions – because I didn’t really know how to do them – and moved into my mind. Because I was really good at school, I was really smart, and I knew how to do it.
And so that was sort of an initial rupture. And then when I went to high school – I have bright red hair for those of people who are watching – and I had freckles… and freckles are now in vogue – I’m not sure if you know that Mark – but they even have freckle filters now.
But when I was at school, freckles weren’t popular. And I even wore my headgear to school. I was just one of these kids, who just wanted to do everything perfectly and right. So I got teased a lot.
And when I went to high school, there was a group of boys that would scream at me across this lawn – and they would scream “fire crotch” when I came to school…
Mark: Oh, good lord.
Kimberly: And so it made me really afraid. And constrictive.
And for whatever reason – I think because of these earlier experiences – the word “bullying” wasn’t around then – but just feeling afraid of bigger kids and being made fun of for being so smart. And really not understanding how to do social interactions very well. I was afraid.
And then I went to college and in high school… I grew up in southern California, I have red hair, I have freckles… I don’t have a stereotypical southern California body type. I had never been asked out on a date in high school.
And in college in my first week three guys asked me out on a date. And I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t know if it was okay to say “yes” to everyone. I didn’t know what that meant about me, if I kind of liked each of them. I just had no idea how to handle it.
And I fell in love with an athlete that lived on my floor – and he actually lived next door, because it was co-ed by room… and he only wanted to have a secret relationship.
And so I got a lot of wires crossed about my desirability. And what was okay and what wasn’t okay. And I just had zero practice with it.
And that predisposed me towards a really kind of the initial very big rupture, where I feel like my world really got turned upside down – which was that I was sexually assaulted in college. And that experience was one where I really had a lot of intuition about what was happening, as it was happening…
But I was telling myself not to believe my intuition the whole time. So I was saying “well, other people like him. And he’s friends with so and so. And why are you being paranoid?”
And all of these mental, rational, social scripts were overriding my animal self – which was telling me “get out of here, get away. Move. Just ditch.”
Mark: Probably so common, right? For women who are being assaulted. I can imagine how that… and then, of course, that leads to massive shame and guilt, because part of you is like “I knew this was coming. I knew this was happening, and I didn’t do anything…”
And so you almost feel like you caused it to happen, or you allowed it to happen.
Kimberly: Yeah, there is a lot of that internalized blame. But there’s also a lot of taboo about admitting that you might have had a part in it. So it’s taken me a long time to feel like it’s okay to say that I had a part in it. Because that would also mean that I had some responsibility.
So it doesn’t mean that I deserved it, or that that’s a great dynamic… but it also means that I do have those self-defense mechanisms, it’s just that my social conditioning overrode those.
And also, what my book is about – is the physiological programming that you know so well – as being an intense athlete and all of the work that you do. Actually my system – because of those earlier experiences of confusion and disorientation – which are low-level freeze responses – that in the moment when the threat got so high, my shutdown reflex of the dorsal, vagal response of the collapse set in.
And that’s not a rational choice. My mind didn’t decide that. My body decided it.
Mark: Practiced and habituated until it became a reality, right?
Kimberly: That’s right…
Mark: And you had no control over that. I get that. That’s wild. So carry on…
Kimberly: Yeah, that was the initial one where that that experience was highly traumatizing for me. And then there was a lot of phases of healing to that. And I went to the school, because someone said “you know, this is actually not okay. And you should report this.”
And I said yeah but this happened… but this is a “he says, she says” thing. And it happened behind closed doors. And there’s a lot of social pressure then when I started telling my friends, because it took me about six months to even talk about what happened.
My personality changed… I was behaving totally differently… my friends were just like “you’re no fun anymore. You don’t want to do anything. You’re upset all the time.”
And I wasn’t able to express why that was. When I could finally talk about it, there was a lot of social pressure to file a report – so, I eventually did file a report, because I didn’t want it to happen to other people.
And then – I kind of got thrust into a situation of going through a school court situation – which was actually as traumatizing – if not more traumatizing – than the original event itself. Because it went on forever and there was there’s absolutely no rules inside of a school court.
It was very politicized for a lot of different reasons. And in my case, it ended up being a no decision. “we decide not to decide.”
So, I went through all of that to just at the end have no resolution to it.
Mark: Good lord. Wow.
Kimberly: And then I eventually left that school, which was really… I went to brown, and that was my dream school… and I worked so hard in high school to get to that school. And it just was impossible for me to be happy there. I was just constantly dodging and having flashbacks.
And so I went to India. And that’s actually when I found yoga. I said “okay, I’m gonna do the two things I’m terrified of. I’m terrified of mountain climbing…” and actually you’ll know I was down here on Sedros – there was an REI next door to north county yoga center. And so I walked into the climbing shop and said, “okay, I’m going climbing.” And I walked into the yoga studio.
And yoga’s the thing that stuck because I was terrified on that rock.
Mark: That’s terrific. So you started yoga at a studio, and then you found your way to India? Or were you just like, “I’m going to India. I’m going to go right to the source.”
Kimberly: I took a class at north county yoga center. And immediately was like, “whoa.”
Because I was a dancer – so I knew a lot about my body – but I was like “this is different.” And I was taking viniyoga – which is what some people call mini yoga…
Mark: That’s right. I’m trained in viniyoga with Gary – I’ve got 500 hours certification with Gary…
Kimberly: Oh awesome. Okay, so Trish O’Reilly was my teacher…
Mark: Sure. She’s terrific.
Mark: Viniyoga is not mini yoga, by the way. It’s the yoga of yoga…
Kimberly: It is. It’s the super set. I mean in a way, viniyoga is to yoga, what somatic experiencing is to all of the consciousness practices. It’s the meta-umbrella that opens up and shows you how all the other principles work…
Mark: Right. Well said. Awesome. And so tell us about your Indian experience and what opened up for you there. I’ve never been to India… it’s always been on my list to go over there… my stepdaughter Catherine Divine – I don’t know if you’ve ever run into her – but she’s spent a lot of time over there.
She’s also trained – we’re both trained in viniyoga with 500 hours and then we trained with Tim Miller with ashtanga yoga. He’s had some serious health problems right now, unfortunately. God bless him.
Kimberly: I was an ashtanga teacher at Richard Freeman’s studio for five years…
Mark: Oh really? Richard is incredible.
Kimberly: Yeah. So Richard was my main… but after Trish passed away, I moved from san Diego to boulder to study with Richard for five years. And teach at the studio.
So, India… okay, well… I’ve been there three times for extended periods of time…
The first trip – because my nervous system was so dysregulated, because my life had just gotten turned upside down – I was really after… and you find women do this a lot – they go to the pacific crest trail – after a rupture or an assault there’s this desire to prove to ourselves that we can protect ourselves in any situation.
So first I went to Thailand, and I volunteered at a refugee camp and I was really interested in living in a Buddhist country. And wanted to be of service because I’m like, “I’ve got to get out of this little head space that I’m in, where like all I’m thinking about all the time is how bad I feel and how bad this situation was.”
And so I knew, “okay, let me like take myself out of this situation and go actually help someone else. So I’m not just thinking about myself all the time.”
And then from there it was like, what is the scariest thing I can think of doing? I was 19. I was like, “travel in India by myself”
So I was like, “I have to do it.” So, I went there, and I did travel all over. And I got in a lot of actually dangerous situations, that at the time… some of it you could write up to just being young and naïve – and I looked really young – when I go back and look at those pictures a lot of Indians would come up to me and say, “where are your parents?”
And at the time I’m like, “my parents are in California.” But now I see pictures of myself and I understand. Like, who is this child that’s wandering around by herself in India?
I had an amazing experience in Calcutta, where I worked at the home of the destitute and the dying. I got in charge of bathing them.
I did attend a vipassana sit. I got lost in the Himalayas, up on the border between India and Nepal, for 24 hours. Thought I was just lost forever – looking for a view of Everest.
Trapped in a hotel room by a guy one time… like, just all kinds of situations, because my nervous system was emanating this fight or flight response which usually attracts the polarized response. And I didn’t have a good gauge on what was safe and what wasn’t safe. So I was kind of naively…
And luckily, good fortune was on my side and I often times ended up with some kind of an ally in the form of an animal or a person that was there to help me defend myself. I would never recommend vipassana sit in that situation. I mean, I went into vipassana – first of all I was really sick already, as sometimes happens in India – but also, I had only had like taught myself to meditate from reading “Zen Mind,” “Everyday Mind,” Suzuki Roshi… I’d never done an hour sit.
And I went and just went full-on into 14 hours a day.
Mark: That’s a little bit from zero to hero.
Work and Yoga
Mark: Tell the listeners – please if you would – just explain what vipassana is – some might know…
Kimberly: Sure. So vipassana meditation is in the tradition of… well… Goenka is the one who popularized it. And there are meditation centers that are free all over the world that you can go, and you can meditate for 10 days. And get instruction for some of it.
And it’s mostly static sitting.
Mark: And mostly in silence…
Kimberly: Yeah. Always in silence, unless you ask for special counsel.
So it’s a freeze state. It’s a healthier freeze state than being in a freeze state, if there’s an active threat. But if you’re habituated to freeze, and there’s things that are happening inside of you – those are going to come up.
Like most situations, it’s not all positive or negative. I gained a lot of spiritual insight, and not just intellectual insight, but actual capacity in the experience.
But I also drummed up a whole lot of trauma, that I had no idea what to do with. And I encouraged my addiction to intensity, which is also part of dealing with trauma – like, things feel so bad inside of me I have to do something really, really dramatic or intense.
In my case of a vipassana experience, but it could be an ayahuasca journey or any other thing – to even feel something…
Mark: There’s so much of that going on these days. People taking these wild swings between the trauma triggers, and then trying to feel alive through extreme sports and – like you said – anything that’s not that, but it’s at the wild other end of the spectrum.
And unfortunately that just perpetuates these extreme pendulum swings, I think. There’s no middle path like the Buddha recommended. Do you agree?
Kimberly: Definitely. And it’s interesting, because we were talking about Richard. Richard’s – all of his teaching is about Madhyamika, is about the middle way. And I lived saturated in that teaching. I mean hours and hours and hours and hours a day, I was in that studio either practicing or teaching.
And yet, because my system was dysregulated underneath it, until I healed trauma – and it’s not like it happens and it’s over – but there is a point where you’re under water and finally you feel you’re living above the water most of the time, instead of just peeking out every once in a while.
Until I was above the water, I didn’t even understand what spiritual practice could be. Because I was just using that intense practice as a survival skill, like as a palliative almost…
And it would bring me up, but then I would just go back down. Because my system wasn’t calibrated enough to sustain that above the water… where your senses are more attuned. And you don’t need as much to feel so much.
Mark: Right. Well and that’s the whole spiritual bypass kind of problem. People getting addicted to ayahuasca ceremonies, or micro-dosing or breath work or yoga, without doing the emotional work. I mean, it’s healthier for sure, than being addicted to pot or alcohol, but it serves the same purpose in a sense, right?
It gets us out of that traumatic state for a time period and we think “okay, I’m going to be okay.” But unless you address the underlying trauma you just snap right back into it. And then you go grasping for the next yoga session or the next whatever…
Kimberly: Yeah, and it ultimately feels really frustrating and disempowering. Kind of like how people feel when they’re just talk therapied out. Because they’re like “okay, now I’ve figured this thing out.”
Mark: (laughing) “how come I don’t feel better?”
Kimberly: Exactly. And enough spiritual practice. And okay, “so spiritually I feel this way. But psychologically, I don’t. And viscerally I don’t.”
And that can be confusing, right?
Mark: Right. I love what Gary once said in class to us he goes – I love your description of viniyoga is kind of the meta-container for allowing all the different practices of yoga to unfold and in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, if you really understand them, it’s a psycho-emotional, spiritual, developmental path. The eight limbs.
And the whole point of uncovering your samskara, is so you can work on them. And samskara is another way of understanding underlying trauma and habituated behavior.
And yet I had never heard any other yoga teacher ever talk about emotional development in the context of yoga. And how asana, breath-work, concentration and meditation… all of that is really designed to do that deep therapy.
But I love that… and people say that yoga doesn’t do therapy. And I’m like, “well, it’s just because most people don’t understand that that’s one of the highest levels of teaching with yoga.” And he told me that if you don’t do that, you could meditate for 20 years… and if you don’t address the underlying root trauma and the samskaras, you just will be a more focused jerk, right? Or a more focused broken person.
Kimberly: Yeah. And in my case what happened was I got really good at neutrality. So I became kind of a neutral jerk, because it was like I could sit with any situation.
But when you heal from trauma, you have to develop preferences. You have to decide that a certain sensation feels better than another sensation.
And I couldn’t say that. My practitioner would say “so do you like that?”
And I’d be like, “I don’t know.”
And it even seemed like a ridiculous question to me. Like, I’ve spent 10 years developing neutrality, and now I’m supposed to have a preference? Like, I thought I was developing non-preference.
Mark: I love that. That is so important. I want to unpack that just for a moment.
Because I experienced that as well. I came from a pretty traumatic childhood… a lot of abuse, a lot of anger, a lot of alcoholism… and so I grew up with very narrow emotional ranges. Which is one of the reasons I was an exceptional navy seal. Number one in my class, right? You couldn’t hurt me. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
And then when I started EMDR – as you’re probably familiar, EMDR, part of the practice is to isolate where you’re experiencing something in your body. And I’m like, “well, you know what? To be honest – I am experienced this thing kind of outside my body. I don’t feel it in my body.”
So that’s very similar to what you’re talking about, I think. I had this sense of – I love that term – neutrality. Maybe even a numbness or an unwillingness to look at certain ranges of emotions. And so I didn’t feel them inside my body.
But because of all the work I’ve done physically – even through therapy, everything… I do feel it, but it’s not… it’s hard to describe… I sense it outside of myself. I don’t know what that’s about.
I’m looking forward to doing some somatic work to see if I can connect the external with the internal, because it’s fascinating to me that I can’t feel it inside…
Kimberly: It makes sense, because to be an elite anything – athlete, first responder – you wouldn’t want to be deeply connected to what you’re sensing and feeling. Because that would make you ineffective. And it would be life-threatening.
And we do want… in our nervous systems, we want the resilience so that we could shift in and out of states. But that’s really hard if you’re training yourself only for one thing all the time.
And not only that, you get so many accolades for it, right? We get so praised for these things… we think that being highly traumatized means you’re not functional. And means like you lose your job all the time.
No. We can have a lot of trauma and be extremely functional. Because we’re reinforced positively for that.
And especially men… especially if you are a masculine man, there’s a very narrow range that’s acceptable with a nervous system response. Like, in general as a culture with a white over culture we don’t love seeing men that are feeling afraid panicked or confused and disoriented. We have some bandwidth for women for that. We’re okay with anger, but we’re not okay with that.
Mark: Even with women, that’s okay in certain environments – but not if you want to succeed… if you want to be a CEO – even of a non-profit or anything… an NGO – you just can’t show that. Unfortunately. Fascinating.
Okay so let’s continue with your exploration. How did you find some healing? Or what was next for you in your journey in healing? Because we kind of left off at the vipassana and then went off on a little tangent there…
Kimberly: Yeah. Well I would say that the next capital-t traumas – just to stencil them in and hopefully it’s not too much for the people listening – because I feel it’s important as a teacher.
Also it’s sort of like with yoga, okay? So for people who don’t know Gary Kraftsow, viniyoga – it’s therapeutic yoga. It’s an application where you understand who a person is and where their starting point is. And you know what the tool the right tools for that person would be to get them to their next step.
Because people think it’s only one thing… it’s only being on all fours and humming while you’re going back and forth.
No. Ashtanga yoga is a viniyoga. Ashtanga yoga exists within the superset of viniyoga, but the reverse is not true, for instance.
So as a teacher, I’m actually not that interested in trauma. I’m interested in human capacity, expression and artistry.
But that’s the flip side of it. So, for anyone listening, it’s normal as you listen to someone’s story for that to sort of have a domino effect inside yourself of how you’re perceiving and hearing things… but hopefully it’s helpful in putting context to why I do the work I do and how I see the world. Because our stories impact so much of how we work.
So I switched colleges, I went to another college. I went to northwestern, and I was a transfer student, so I didn’t have a chance to develop relationships with a lot of teachers. And so my strategy was “okay, I’m just gonna like stick with a couple teachers so that I really know them and their work well.”
Because I really wanted to go to grad school and study with Cornell West. I was into public policy and African-American studies, and racial equality, and education in the prison system…
So, I really got close to one professor. And the day that I graduated he called me into his office – graduated first in my class… we’re firsts, Mark. (laughing) see how excellent we are.
Mark: (laughing) we’re so good. I totally get it.
Kimberly: So basically, he said… he made a pass at me, tried to kiss me and then told me that he wouldn’t write my college recommendations unless I was willing to be sexual basically.
So at that moment I really had a reckoning of like “okay, I don’t have anyone else to ask for this. Because I’m a transfer student and I put all my eggs in this basket.”
I knew his wife. I had babysat for his child. I was appalled.
And I still had a little bit of a freeze response, because I was so surprised. Like, someone else might have hit him or stood up and yelled. Or told him to f-off. Or been like “what are you talking about?”
And I just didn’t have that in me. So I got up and left. And I just decided “okay, well that’s it. I’m not going to grad school, because I’m not making that deal. So I’d rather give that up than continue on…”
That took some time to unravel, because there’s a lot of…
Mark: That seems a pretty courageous approach, as opposed to lashing out with anger and striking him. Or of course, succumbing to him – which would have been the least courageous…
Kimberly: Well, I don’t know, Mark. I don’t think so, and that’s really, I think what differentiates and I think points out how so much trauma work comes from a male perspective. For women a fight response is actually a lot harder to access, because we’re socialized out of it.
Living in brazil, for instance, when kids fight in brazil the parents actually encourage them to physically defend themselves. They don’t say like, “use your words.”
I mean, of course, not when you’re like a teenager… but little kids are encouraged to work it out and it’s okay to work it out physically. I think that there’s a disempowerment that happens when we’re told to be polite and civil, and we disarm those protective responses.
Now I’m not saying I should have like closed fist hit him or anything… but from an animal body perspective – I can even feel it now – how hard it is for me to mobilize those powerful responses.
And because of that is why I’m someone that someone would do that to. Because most people in their animal selves, if they’re trying to use their power, they’re not choosing someone they think whose power is going to match them. In my language it’s the jaguar – which is why there’s a jaguar on the cover of the book – and that’s been my life path… like, how do I access that jaguar energy?
Because it’s the jaguar mother that teaches the cubs to hunt. We have this idea that it’s like the male that hunts, but that’s not always true. And I have an inner huntress – we all do. And for me and the thousands of women now that I’ve worked with, it’s really teaching them how to have healthy predator energy when necessary.
And not like martial arts and that kind of thing. Coming out of freeze and flight responses and being able to handle the capacity of fight energy.
Which doesn’t always make sense if we’re looking at it from a male perspective – where a lot of times it’s about containing anger, or channeling anger. But there’s a lot of men who have a lot of incomplete fight responses also, and I realized that for me that’s why people register as creepy to me sometimes. Is like men who have fight responses that have nowhere to go – which is a lot of men these days – because y’all aren’t like riding around on horses and spearing animals. And there’s not a lot of places for men to like openly express testosterone in a healthy way.
And actually it’s been completely problematized… that level of suppression and like “oh, my male arousal is dangerous.” And just your inherent… like, being a man is dangerous. Because we don’t have like a floor for that… registers as threatening, because those responses haven’t had a place to be.
Mark: Yeah, and you alluded to this. It’s not so much that you’re trying to retrain to have that response… it’s that by being more balanced, you won’t attract the opposite, right? So if you’re in touch with your fight response, you’re not going to attract… because our mind is creating our reality, and so you’re not going to attract the predator. They’re going to be at bay.
Kimberly: Yeah, but I want to differentiate it from like law of attraction or like the mind… because it’s really our nervous system… it’s the electromagnetic nervous system running through our fascia of actual nerves…
It’s not like what we’re thinking…
Mark: No, I agree. I was using my kind of Unbeatable Mind term of whole body/mind… like, where the body and the mind are really synonymous. When they’re integrated.
Mark: But most people don’t experience that at all…
Kimberly: 100%. Just not their thinking mind. In your language the Unbeatable Mind.
But when women hear that – usually what they hear is “oh well, if I just said more affirmations, or…”
And so it’s like we can do these things in little ways. So the reason that you and I were in a yoga studio breathing together, was because at a certain point I realized “wow, every part of my world is female dominant.” Because I work in pelvic floors, I work with birth and I’m not partnered.
So I have no men… and I’m heterosexual, so like I would be partnered with a man if I was in a partnership.
So I’m like, “I need male energy.” And I need to be around men. And you think that’s funny, but it’s true…
Mark: No, I get it.
Kimberly: I was just like “dude, it’s like 24/7 pussy over here. I need help.”
And so I thought, “okay, breath work.” Because here’s a consciousness practice that isn’t so gendered, right? It’s not like yoga which is – in southern California, now more gender balanced – but for a long time it was almost all women students and mostly men teachers.
Mark: Yeah, isn’t that interesting…
Kimberly: Well it kind of is, but it’s kind of not – because it’s like all professions where it’s like men are given the authority and as women, we don’t always question… I mean that’s a whole other thing, because that is like really the source of the other trauma – which is when I had a baby and I realized none of my yoga practices at all had anything to do with womanhood or healing myself from having a baby.
But just rewinding for a second – the reason I went to that breathwork is because number one – I needed to build capacity for sympathetic nervous system charge. Because all of my practices were down-regulatory, slowing the valve system – yoga, pranayama…
And breath work is something that accelerates the valve system. Or can. And it was like really clear to me “wow, this is really hard for me. It’s hard for me to breathe this way, and keep it going without yawning or without doing this.”
But I also wanted to experience being in a safe place with masculine energy where there was charge.
Mark: Yeah, it is fascinating that the intense breath practices are mostly attractive to males, initially. And Wim Hof being kind of one of the primary kind of teachers or grandfathers of bringing that intensive work.
And holotropic breathing, and even rebirthing was all created by men. And a lot of men were involved in that early on.
Kimberly: I mean I’m a rolfer and Dr Rolf was a woman.
Mark: I didn’t know that. I love Rolfing, man. What a really interesting experience that was for me.
Kimberly: Yeah. So Dr Rolf was a woman, but she taught a lot of men… but the point to me is that what about my female system has challenge with being around a male system?
And we all need each other. Every gender. We need each other.
And so this idea that we’re going to be able to like separate out and find safety – yes, we need to find safety, and we need to find a home and a restfulness around similarity. But for me, I was interested in… and which is how the jaguar work, actually – and how someone named me a jaguar – was because I was living in brazil and I realized, “okay, I’m having relationships with men. I’ve been married…”
“but there’s still something that I’m inherently afraid about. And I’m not going into a therapeutic space with a male practitioner.”
So I thought “okay, I think I should do that.” And I found someone who was the physicality of my perpetrator – a lot bigger than me – he is a martial artist and a yoga practitioner… but like a traditionally masculine energy. And I just went to him and said like, “I need to work on limits and boundaries when it comes to men.”
And I just cried for the rest of the session. And that’s all I said… I didn’t even like get into anything.
And I’d already done so much therapy and healing work, and then slowly over time he would get out a broomstick and he would chase me with a broomstick. And he would stalk me in different ways – and of course it would be paused and there would be titration – but he would help me complete some of like “okay, get away, and get away successfully.” But like, “let’s push against each other and when the realm of your trauma has been touched…”
You need touch and interaction in order to repair, it’s just not… even something like EMDR – which I did, I did developmental EMDR when I was in my 20s for a year – I’m sure all of that stuff predisposed me for the somatic work to like click in, but there was nothing that was as powerful for me as that positive transference of knowing in my brain this is someone I can trust. But actually being terrified in real time and being able to develop that confidence in my own nervous system. That I could hold my own, I could stand my ground. I could get away if I needed to, or I could engage if I needed to.
And that was a turning point for me. To see that in addition to when I was feeling really sorry for myself -because I’m a single parent and I was like saying, “it’s so hard for me – the unconditional love and the discipline at the same time.”
And he just looked at me and said, “you’re a jaguar. Look at you,” he said, “I’m from the amazon, did you know that?”
And I’m like, “no.”
He’s like, “I’m from the amazon, and you are golden, and you are spotted and it’s the mothers that teach the cubs to hunt. So go watch those videos and watch how those mothers are with their cubs. And start doing that with your daughter.”
And it’s when I realized “oh, I’m trying to rationalize with her. I’m trying to be all democratic about shit. And she needs to be dominated, because she needs to know that I’m in charge. And that’s what makes her feel safe.”
And so we started wrestling more and navigating things without so much verbal stuff. And it really changed the dynamic of me being okay being an alpha and feeling like that wasn’t exhausting or like I had to feel bad about it. And her feeling like she could be the kid, instead of being on my equal level.
Mark: That’s fascinating. How old was your daughter when you started doing this work with her?
Kimberly: She was about five.
Mark: Okay. Is there a time that’s too early to kind of engage at that level or too old or in your opinion?
Mark: Honestly, I think in this US over-culture we are so hyper-rational and this whole thing about how we work with our kids and kids consenting to everything is just super bizarre to me. I don’t understand why anyone would ask their one-year-old if they want to hug from them with words, because there’s so many ways to communicate that without words.
I think words are useful for a lot of things – I think emotional resonance – there was a lot that I worked with my daughter when she would be upset where I would just say “are you feeling hungry? Are you feeling this…?”
And she would always de-escalate when I would… it was like penny in the slot when I say “oh, are you angry because you saw your dad and I arguing?” And then she would stop crying – so I could tell.
But as far as like quote unquote discipline… we give our kids excessive choice which they’re not prepared for – “do you want to eat this? Do you want to eat that? Do you want to eat this?”
No. That’s too much choices – I mean their brains don’t even fully develop for so long, but we’re putting our own unprocessed nervous system angst onto our children by deciding… for instance, one of my students said the other day what should she do if someone tells her daughter who’s 18 months old “hi, pretty girl.”
And I’m like “that’s a level of associations and assumptions that you’re making. You need to perceive the person’s nervous system who’s saying that to you. And you need to relate to the underlying nervous system.”
“So yeah, if someone’s saying it and they’re creepy and they’ve got an underlying thing, well then you need to create a boundary. But if someone’s saying that because they’re being relational and friendly. And trying to create rapport, then I would relate to the rapport. And I wouldn’t correct them by saying ‘she’s also creative and this and that.’”
Because why is beauty any less valuable than any of those other things? As long as it’s appreciation and not objectification.
Kimberly: We have all these overlaid associations – like porn’s a good example – where if we have a partner that’s addicted to porn, then it becomes not a relationship to addiction, it becomes a moral thing about who this person must be. And they must not respect women.
And does that mean they don’t respect me? And then are they actually a closet predator or creep, rather than just dealing with what that exact thing is, which is actually a hormonal addiction that requires escalation to receive the same amount of hormonal input.
Mark: Right, right. This brings up a point that I want to make and then I want to talk more about your book and some of the recommendations you have – is you distinguish between those big-t traumas which you address the ones you had in your life and everyone certainly has their share of those.
But then the little-t traumas I think the little-t traumas really come because our society is so far out of balance. And parents – all of our parents and parents today are doing it – are transferring their trauma into their kids at a nervous system level, right?
And so trauma does not discriminate, right? So anyone listening who thinks they don’t have some trauma to over-ride in their life, then stand by, right? How’s that going for you?
And ignorance might be bliss, but if you ignore it for too long then you’re going to have some breakdowns or sub-optimal health. Or you’re just not going to find the peace of mind, and the balance and the contentment that you deserve.
What do you say to that? Do you agree with me? I think trauma is basically… it can be also epigenetic, passed down – but that’s really just saying the behaviors of our parents are causing the trauma in our kids or in us.
Kimberly: I definitely agree. And we’re also a society that’s living out of balance with what is optimal for nervous system health. So everything is happening so fast, there’s so much urgency, we’re inundated with bad news. And all of those things are going to compress us to bring trauma responses closer to the surface.
But I absolutely agree – one of my goals for the book is to demystify and also take the stigma out of the word “trauma” so that it’s not something that we either cling to like, “oh my god, I’m such a traumatized person.” Or “I don’t have any trauma at all.”
But it’s actually just part of being human. Very much like you mentioned samskaras in sort of other language and that’s one of the one of the translation of samskara’s impression, but it could also be an imprint. Is those things that are overlaid on us over our essence over time, or our soul expression – which I think is an electrochemical expression.
And it’s kind of part of our human responsibility here on this incarnate earth – incarnate is one of my favorite words… I feel like it’s a process… I feel like I’m still incarnating and inhabiting every part of myself.
And as we do that process of really inhabiting each of ourselves and perceiving that from a felt sense level, then we automatically harmonize and resonate with other people. The only thing that we brought up earlier about the yoga sutras as sort of a psycho-spiritual path is the problem with most spiritual frameworks is that there isn’t the interpersonal relational component…
Mark: Right, it’s a solo journey – the way they taught it. That’s right.
Kimberly: Yeah, and so we don’t have practice at being with each other in the difficulty. And that’s a path that I’m still on, because for years as a rolfer I was just… when people talked on my table, I thought they were just kind of distracting… I didn’t pay attention to the kinds of things that they were saying…
Because on the one level, we’re trying to get beyond the level of our thoughts…
But on the other level, the thoughts that we have also show our physiology. So if we have a repetitive thought, it’s showing where we’re at in our physiological cascade of nervous system responses. And as an attuned practitioner, that’s really helpful. And there’s ways to repair in the present moment.
And that’s really… we started off kind of talking about walking people through my capital-t traumas, but what I love about nervous system work and somatic experiencing is you can go back to those past experiences and sometimes that’s necessary…
But in this present moment, there is everything that we need to do the repair. And so we can create positive reparative experiences. For me having a talk… my first book, I didn’t talk to any men, because it’s a book about mothering essentially. But mothering – it shouldn’t just be a female conversation, but it becomes one.
But this is a reparative experience because you and I are representing two very opposite sides of nervous system construction, right? You have really collagenous connective tissue. You are trained to be quick to a fight response.
And I have very elastinous connective tissue. And I was trained into having a very universal, open awareness, orientation towards life and so…
Mark: Extreme yang and extreme yin coming together…
Mark: Fascinating. And we can resonate because we’re open to growth and to healing and so I love that. And I agree more of these discussions will help heal.
And “Call of The Wild.” Can you give us like the framework for the process of recovery or healing or balancing the nervous system that you offer? In the general sense?
Kimberly: In the book, I really take people through a process of having the tools to sort out how the world arrives to us, and through us. An ability to move from our inner world to our outer world and back.
So that’s another thing that gets a little lost in spiritual practice, I found. We still are just like psychology it’s about me, me, me and let me sort through my experience, and I’m going to keep excavating. And we forget to notice the outer world and that predisposes us towards intensity.
So I lay the foundation of sort of like the basic tools of communicating with yourself, but also communicating with someone else. And then I take people through the practice of being with freeze responses, being with flight responses, and activating healthy fight responses.
Mark: Trying to find their personalized triggers?
Kimberly: I offer then experience in the fifth chapter to go into their personal experience. And how they might do that.
I mean, I did record the book on audio, so that someone could be guided through that vocally. I teach online courses which is part of the way… I really developed this process through my work one-on-one in real time, in person…
I had an experience where a woman came to me for session and she was wearing… we live in southern California, it’s pretty much warm almost all the time… she was wearing like three layers of clothing. She was wearing glasses and a hat, and she looked like she was incognito. And she joked that her friends would tell her like “you look like you’re walking around incognito all the time.”
And she was coming to me, because after she had her third child, she was feeling extremely exposed and sensitive to the world. So it was even making her do that sort of moving inward more.
When she came in, she sort of told me a few experiences that I would put in the rabbit category and because I’m a somatic practitioner I was like, “okay, we’re going to be the wolf and the rabbit.” I assumed she would want to be the wolf, because why would you want to be the rabbit if you’re always the rabbit?
But what I realized is the minute I said that her system started to cower, and she actually got down and on the floor into a submissive position and said I don’t know what’s happening, but I can’t move right now. And I said “okay, you’re in a freeze response.”
And it took us about an hour of different kinds of relating and me changing where my body was in relationship to hers, for her to just come out of that freeze response. And after that first session she came back the next time, and she came back without a hat and sunglasses on. And said she was able to go for a run on the coast, without stopping for homeless people that were trying to talk to her – which is one of the things… when you’re in an extreme parasympathetic state, you don’t have very good boundaries and you also want to help everyone. And it’s like you don’t have a good level of containment for yourself, to prioritize your own survival.
And so with her I went through this six-stage process – it ended up being six sessions of helping her become the wolf. Because I realized, “oh, it’s not that she doesn’t want to be the wolf, it’s that she actually can’t be the wolf. Her system doesn’t know how to do it.”
So teaching her how to stalk. Teaching her how to claim that flexor power. And I found that once I started teaching in groups that we were able to do repair in groups. And so it’s that process that I take people through in the book.
And then the last chapter of the book is called “More Freedom and Sex.” And it’s talking about how we use all of these nervous system principles to create the intimacy and sexual relationships that we want to have.
Mark: Can you describe how you set up some of the movement that leads one of your clients or a reader to begin to embody that wolf in them? Because I’m envisioning in my mind that you’ve got someone assuming the posture of the wolf and breathing like a wolf. And snarling.
I mean, what do you actually do though?
Kimberly: We do that. We do that. But we build up to it, so it doesn’t so much feel like theater. It feels like something that’s emergent out of oneself.
So there’s a certain aspect of it that’s novelty. The nervous system loves novelty, and so there’s a lot of repair that can happen in novelty.
But the other part of it is, for instance, facial expressions. So we register a lot of believability through coherence in our system. So somebody can say like don’t fuck with me, but if their head’s tilted to the side and their voice goes up at the end – someone’s still going to do it to them.
Or you can say to your child a million times “no, don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that” – but if your whole system isn’t conveying “don’t do that,” then the world’s going to keep giving you this thing. And you’re confused, because you’re like “well, I said it. And I did this.”
But you’re actually not coherent in your body language, your vocal tone, the content of what you’re saying and your facial expressions.
So that’s what I’m really teaching people is that level of coherency. But, just as a little example, snarling – like a Billy Idol snarl …
Mark: I’m not sure if I can do that.
Kimberly: (laughing) oh, you better practice, Mark. You’re kind of scary, anyway, though. You don’t need to practice the threat gestures.
So, if you bear a tooth at a dog, they’ll bow down, right?
Kimberly: So some of the mothers that I’ve taught, they learn to do that and their child their toddler will just stop what they’re doing. But there’s no words exchanged, it’s just a show of authority.
So as women, we’re really discouraged… and sometimes even botoxing and paralyzing facial muscles, but we’re very discouraged and also any kind of worry, or concern, or deep thought, or anger is construed as your likability goes down. So all women political candidates are trained into how to look agreeable, so that people will listen to them.
In my class, I’m actually teaching people how to make threat gestures with their face.
Mark: (laughing) how to look disagreeable…
Kimberly: Yep. How to permit yourself to convey anger in every way. Because even spirituality tells us “anger is not a good thing. Don’t be angry, be neutral. Take the high road…” whatever.
But when you need to be angry, you better be angry. And you better be showing that anger. Because the flip side to anger is healthy aggression. And in general – at least in our white culture – we treat women to behave more like lap dogs.
Or maybe we teach them to be fierce, but it’s a hyper-aggressive, like alpha-female stereotype, rather than just power that comes from your center. That’s 100% trustworthy and reliable that just says like, “this is the space I occupy.”
Mark: I love that. The flipside of anger is healthy aggression – and healthy aggression is expressed as assertiveness with boundaries, right? And this is so difficult for people to be assertive, because they’re so accustomed to being passive aggressive, or aggressive. Or just plain old passive.
Kimberly: And even the word assertive is charged for a lot of people. Ambition is charged. I’ve been working a lot with that word, because people are telling me I’m ambitious. And it’s like, “well, am I ambitious? And is that okay to be ambitious? And what does that mean?”
And there’s all of these overtones of what is okay and not okay. Like being aggressive is an insult or something, and it’s like well healthy aggression also means drive, and it means power, and it means knowing what you want. And staying with it and going to it, right?
If that’s not how you’re wired, and you’re wired to be in the social nervous system – which is part of polyvagal theory and part of what has come to the surface in the last 25 years – which teaches us how important relationality is, and how it’s almost impossible to heal trauma without relationality. Disproportionately impacts women, because estrogen is a bonding hormone and the social nervous system evolved for the dyad bond.
So we’re hypersensitive to whether we’re fitting in and how we’re being perceived, and that’s a superpower in some ways, because that’s how we keep our young alive.
But it flips on us when it comes to this expression of power. And we live in a culture that power has been defined by colonialism, and imperialism, and conquering. And so we don’t even know what healthy power looks like. We’re just all scrambling around trying to figure it out.
But in the meantime, we all have more power than we think we do. And we can wake it up inside of us so that we can use it for good, and we can use it to listen to one another. And to show up in the hard conversations.
And to be able to say like, “I’m afraid. Your presence makes me afraid. I know it’s not you, it’s about me, but I have old stuff with this.” And to be able to say how that impacts us in real time.
And for me, yes, I’ve done trauma work on my birth experience, and the sexual assault, and those things. But it’s these real time things of coming into a space with a lot of men that are breathing heavily and fully in their like testosterone expression. And like being able to track what’s happening in my nervous system, and be like, “okay, this feels strange, but I’m okay now.”
Mark: I love that. Yeah, power shouldn’t be mistaken with force. We all have all the power we decide to take on. I mean, that’s the unlimited nature of the human body-mind-spirit. We get to choose, but we don’t get to choose if we block ourselves off from our wholeness through trauma. Or through unaddressed trauma…
Kimberly: Yes. One of the things that’s so hard for women in healing is that if they have been in the prey role more of the time – which is usually the case – that there’s an ambivalence about power, because they would never want to be associated with someone who would hurt someone else. Because they have been so hurt.
And so that’s why this book about trauma is different than the other ones that are out there because I’m really centering the female experience. Because I know the specific obstacles.
Because, of course, you don’t want to be a predator. But here’s the thing – wild and feral are different, Mark. We can trust our wildness, it’s the wildness that approximates domestication that’s untrustworthy. It’s only a wolf that destroys a hen house that’s been near domestic farming – wild wolves just kill what they need. They don’t go on killing sprees.
So we can trust our own ferocity. It might take time, and it might upend what we learned from our religion, what we learned from our parents. It might be so different than my grandmother or my grandparents.
But it’s there, and it’s what the world is asking from us right now. Because we can’t wait for the people who have the power to give it to us. It’s not happening. We can take all the people out of power that are misusing it – we could try.
But then it doesn’t even matter what your identity is, because if those structures stay the same – it’s just going to be somebody with a new a new appearance, but the same dynamic. So to me – the only way I know to do it – because people say “well, why don’t you make men take responsibility for this?”
Because in almost 100% of the cases of the women that I’ve worked with, once they re-establish their healthy aggression and their voice – they make the movements they couldn’t make earlier, they say the things they think they can’t say or couldn’t say – their partners are almost always willing to go on that journey with them. It’s very few of the partners that are not willing to do it…
They’re just filling the void of the imbalance, right?
Kimberly: Yeah, and they’re confused because they’re like, “well, I’m waiting for you to tell me. Because I don’t want to be the jerk that’s asking for sex all the time.” Or “I don’t want to be the stereotype of this… I don’t know if I should open the door, or not open the door. I’m trying to like move with this here, but I need orientation.”
So that’s been my experience – I know that’s not everyone’s experience – and people say “well, why don’t you teach a course called ‘activate your inner rabbit.’” maybe you should teach that, Mark. (laughing) because maybe your people need to activate the rabbit.
I personally never need to activate my inner rabbit. I teach activate your inner jaguar. But I do really feel that this is a moment where we are ready to understand that we’ve privileged our mind, and psychology, and figuring it out in technology.
And we’ve left behind the earth and our bodies. And that’s what’s asking to be attended to.
Mark: Yeah, it’s crying out to end the separation and come back to wholeness and heal. And I agree with you 100%, Kimberly. It has to be done one person at a time, one couple at a time, one family at a time… we can’t rely on any government, or institution, or any old power structure that’s rooted in these imbalances.
This is very fascinating work you’re doing. Thanks so much for doing it.
So your book “Call of the Wild,” is this recently published? Or about to be published?
Kimberly: It comes out April 13th.
Mark: Great. Congratulations. So it comes out April 13th, and do you have a website with any kind of pre-order information?
Kimberly: Definitely. You can get the first chapter right now, if you go to kimberlyannjohnson.com/chapter. The first chapter is really where the major groundwork for the book is laid. It’s where all the graphics are.
Our friend Rhys made the graphics. Mutual friend. And some people who’ve read it already… from physical personal trainers have read it and some therapists read it… that it’s the clearest explanation, the most easy to understand of the whole polyvagal theory applied.
And I also include connective tissue. And how our native connective tissue density plays into our nervous system predispositions.
And then I have a podcast called “Sex, Birth, Trauma,” where I also talk about a lot of the things we’ve been talking about.
Mark: Awesome. And how do people follow you on social media, if they want to.
Kimberly: At this very moment – which is March 24th – I’m trying to change my name. So in my past incarnation I was called “magamamas” – because in Portuguese “maga” means sorceress. And of all the words in every language in the world… maga became my moniker.
And then “maga” now means something totally different. So I mean you’ll either find me on magamamas or if they’ll ever liberate me from that – then you’ll find me as kimberlyannjohnson on Instagram. Where I do a lot of teaching and yeah…
Mark: That’s funny.
Kimberly: I know. It’s insane.
Mark: It is insane. Thanks so much for your time today Kimberly.
Fascinating conversation. I look forward to reading your book, and I really encourage everyone listening to share this and listen to it with your spouse or significant others. This is not just for women, obviously. This is for everybody.
And I look forward to seeing you on the mat.
Kimberly: All right. Let’s do it.
Mark: When we can breathe together again.
Mark: All right, thanks again and appreciate you very much. All right, folks. Check out Kimberly’s work “Call of the Wild” coming out April 13th. Go to her website kimberlyannjohnson.com. (laughing) And you can find her at magamama at Instagram. Actually, look for her name first.
Okay, and stay focused everyone. Remember in order to wake up, and grow up, and show up… we’ve got to do the emotional work. And I’m going to keep beating that drumbeat. Because the world needs us to be whole.
See you next time.