Okay, so that’s not really the technical term for what Kimberly Johnson does. Along with her mentor, Ellen Heed, she specializes in a combination of sexological bodywork—a hands-on healing and sex-ed modality for the genitals—and somatic experiencing trauma resolution, which helps relax the nervous system. But when I learned about Johnson from Los Angeles doula Paula Mallis, she likened her work to that of a chiropractor for the vagina. (That’s to say, she physically manipulates the vaginal tissue and cervix with her hands to restore full-body balance and promote healing.)
Naturally, I was intrigued—and I had a ton of questions. Why would someone have this done? Does it hurt, or the exact opposite? And isn’t it terribly awkward to have your bits handled so intimately by a complete stranger?
"Her work is about [helping] women develop awareness about their bodies and heal from physical, sexual, and emotional trauma."
Mallis insisted that a session with Johnson isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it sounds. Everyone can benefit from it, she told me, and the process is surprisingly peaceful. In fact, she’s such a believer that she’s enlisted the San Diego-based Johnson to practice once a month at her high-vibe, ladies-only clubhouse, WMN Space.
And Mallis isn’t the only respected women’s-health pro who’s a fan of this work. In New York City, one of Johnson’s biggest cheerleaders is Eden Fromberg, DO—but even she did a double-take when she first heard about the "vaginapractor" experience. “It initially made me feel a little uncomfortable,” admits the founder of Holistic Gynecology New York. “I had to ask Kimberly, point blank, 'Are you arousing people and bringing them to orgasm as part of this?' And she said it’s in the scope of practice [as a sexological bodyworker], but that’s not what she’s doing. Her work is much more about [helping] women develop awareness about their bodies and heal from physical, sexual, and emotional trauma.”
Armed with those votes of confidence, I figured there was only one thing left to do in my quest to learn more: meet Johnson and experience her process firsthand.
Read on to find out what my visit to the “vaginapractor” was like.
The making of a “vaginapractor”
When I met Johnson at WMN Space, my first question was how, exactly, she started doing this kind of work in the first place. (I mean, it's not something you can major in at college.) The former yoga instructor and bodyworker told me she found her calling while dealing with a serious pelvic-floor injury brought on by childbirth.
“I started researching [treatment], and all I could find were tens of thousands of entries on postpartum depression,” she recalls. “But I was like, 'Of course I’m depressed.' I was pooping in my pants, sex was impossible, my low back was killing me all the time—and I’m someone who was totally fit and healthy [before giving birth.]”
"I was like, 'Of course I’m depressed.' I was pooping in my pants, sex was impossible, my low back was killing me—and I’m someone who was totally fit and healthy."
When physical therapy didn’t work, Johnson turned to sexological bodywork. Within three sessions, she says, she noticed a profound turnaround—her abdominal separation knit back together, her incontinence went away, and her pelvic prolapse was resolved. “I was like, 'Everybody has to have this,'” she says. “I also realized there are lots of trauma components to the healing process, so I became a somatic-experiencing-trauma-resolution practitioner, which is a way of working with the nervous system while doing the touch work.”
There are many sexological bodywork practitioners globally—although, in the US, they’re solely licensed to practice in California—but Johnson claims that she and Heed are currently the only ones stateside who combine it with somatic experiencing. (They’re holding a training in 2018 to bring more practitioners into their fold.) It’s a valuable combination, says Dr. Fromberg, despite the fact that the majority of American doctors aren’t even aware it exists.
“[Johnson's work] is a matter of feeling for, and developing, a relationship with the tissue on a level that’s more than medical,” says the doctor, who is increasingly incorporating elements of this philosophy into her own practice. “It’s really about listening. There’s a [healing] intelligence in the body that'll express itself when given the opportunity, when the barriers of fear and inhibition are lowered.”
Who, exactly, does this work help?
While Johnson’s sweet spot is pre- and postpartum—helping clients “rehearse” for the birthing process and heal afterwards—she sees patients of all ages who're working through a range of issues.
“Some people come because they want to know where their g-spot is,” she says. “Some people come because they’re at a turning point of clearing out their past and they want to get rid of all the energy in [their body] that’s not theirs. There’s not really any woman who hasn’t had to defend her boundaries or had uncomfortable [sexual] situations. We don’t even have to call it abuse; this is what life is like in a female body in this culture.”
"There’s not really any woman who hasn’t had to defend her boundaries or had uncomfortable [sexual] situations."
Then, there are women who visit Johnson simply for an energetic tune-up in a region that’s not usually given a ton of attention in day-to-day life. “I personally love to get this work done because it goes to the epicenter of my human experience,” Johnson says. “It calls me home to a sense of deep groundedness and soul wisdom.” Who couldn’t get on board with that?
Going deep (literally)
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of what she does, Johnson likens her work to that of a sculptor. “The muscle tissue in the vagina is much different than other muscles in the body. It's more like the mouth and gums, quite soft and receptive to change,” she says. “I release the tight areas and redistribute the tensile forces through the connective tissue matrix, which is what is organizing the whole body.” In other words, since everything in the body is connected, the relief that Johnson bestows can often extend beyond the vagina to other body parts as well.
As for my personal experience? Well, everyone's session is different, but in my case Mallis was right—it was quite peaceful. Johnson took her time and ensured she had my permission before touching me, continuing to ask how things felt and explaining everything she was doing. (In some cases, she says, she doesn't even make physical contact during the first session, since it's all dictated by the client's comfort level.)
There was quite a bit of discomfort, but at the end, I felt a sense of lightness, openness, and connection to my body.
The whole thing took about an hour, including a fully-clothed Q&A on my goals for and questions about the session. According to Johnson, many patients end up getting results after the first visit. The best way to describe it is like a tough yoga class or deep-tissue massage. There was quite a bit of discomfort as she put pressure on certain areas of the vaginal wall and smoothed out others—even some pain at times. But Johnson encouraged me to breathe through it and at the end, I felt a sense of lightness, openness, and connection to my body. There was nothing sexual about it, but the whole thing did feel far less clinical and rushed than getting probed by the OB/GYN.
I realize it might not everyone’s cup of kombucha, but given the political climate around women's health care, doesn't your vagina need all the loving kindness it can get right now?
Originally posted May 22, 2017, updated August 10, 2018.
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