As Mother's Day approaches, we're reminded of the many ways that self-care has arisen in Dr. Barb's Fullness of Midlife conversations. This podcast contained so much inspiration and motivation, we wanted to be sure you'd heard it, and if you listened before, you may want to replay.
Kira Hower’s educational background includes an M.Ed. from Harvard University and a Coaching and Organizational Learning Certification from the Newfield Network. Holding a B.A. in Spanish and Italian, she is a member of the International Coaching Federation, as well on the coaching faculty at the Simmons School of Management's Executive Education program specializing in Women’s Leadership. She is a Certified Sex, Love, and Relationships Coach, certified by The Tantric Institute of Integrated Sexuality, focusing on Female Sexuality and Life Transitions. Kira is also a Black Belt Nia (an international mind/body movement technique) teacher, having taught for over a decade.
Dr. Barb: One of the benefits of attending conferences is the people I meet. At the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston in December, I met Kira Hower, and we had a great chat about our shared interests in women's wellbeing. Kira is an empowerment coach who works with women from a mind-body perspective to help them create lives filled with passion, purpose, pleasure, and play. Welcome, Kira.
Kira: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Barb: I'm looking forward to hearing more about your work and how you're impacting women's lives. When we spoke briefly in Boston in the midst of those thousands and thousands of women around us and great speakers, we had a few minutes to kind of share stories about how we're passionate about the work we do with women. But we talked about the relationship between women and their bodies, and you talk about embodiment. What exactly do you mean by that?
Kira: So when I think of embodiment, I think of our relationship with our bodies. And this is something that is very complex for most women, I would say, in our culture. So I think about it being like a conscious connection with our bodies but also an awareness of how important it is to have a healthy relationship with our bodies. So that's what I think of in a nutshell of what embodiment is.
Dr. Barb: And how would you help women better understand this in relationship to their emotional health or physical health or sexual health for instance?
Kira: Yeah, well, it starts with sensation, recognizing different sensations in the body and recognizing what... You'll hear people often say, "Well, trust your gut." And that's an example—perhaps an overused one—but an example of how our body talks to us. And I think too often we ignore those signals, and we allow our thinking mind to override what our body is telling us.
Dr. Barb: So what would be another example? You said, "My gut is telling me." What would be another example of women listening to their body telling them what to do or how to move forward?
Kira: Well, one that shows up a lot in my office is women coming to me who have become very, very stagnant at work. They're completely burned out. They are exhausted. And what they don't recognize is the level of stress that they hold in their body that's so perpetual, and really recognizing how they're holding—they're holding so much tension. So when they're able to really connect with the sensations in their bodies and really allow that to inform how they make decisions, that's when I really start to see progress. So that would be another example. And I think in general, I think, fear, which often is what creates our stress cycles, can again be... We can talk ourselves out of something that we're afraid of. And often there are ways to work through fear through body techniques and body practices, and I think that that's a really important thing to do. Really closing a stress cycle is one of the most important things to do, and we really don't do it enough.
Dr. Barb: So talk a little bit more about that. When you say closing a stress cycle, I assume you mean the woman who's got a really stressful job—she, in fact, seeks different employment for instance.
Kira: Right. That would be one example. I live in Boston. You can create a stress cycle from driving down the street, frankly, right? But getting angry about something, which is often based in fear, or just having a really, really frustrating conversation with somebody where you... I have two teenage daughters. So I will say that on occasion, I have conversations with them that are incredibly frustrating. It absolutely affects my body. My heart rate goes up. My breath gets shorter. I get more tense. So being able to understand, first of all, for me to be able to say, "Okay. What is frustrating so much here?" And normally, it's some kind of fear that I have. So if I can begin to understand the fear, that's very, very helpful for me to be able to say, "What am I really afraid of here, and how can I communicate that to my daughter in a way that's healthier?" But connecting to my body, a lot of it has to do with connecting with breath and sort of bringing my nervous system into a place that's more centered.
So if you think about stress in let's say the three most common ways we think of stress, we have freeze, we have fight, and we have flight. We respond to stress usually in one of those three ways. And if we don't tell our bodies that that cycle of stress is over, then it can stay in the body. So for example, let's say you get angry about something and you get into sort of fight mode. If you don't have a way to release that tension and that adrenaline, it can really damage your body. And you know this as a doctor. So stress has such an amazingly profound and damaging impact on our bodies. So the more that we can be conscious of how to close that stress cycle, and really one of the best ways to do that, is through the body. So whether it's through movement or dance or crying or running or anything that really involves the body, it's much harder for us to talk our way out of a stress cycle than it is to move it out.
Dr. Barb: Interesting. And I find it fascinating that as you've talked about stress, you've mentioned fear a number of times. That's not a word I hear women choose. They don't share that word. But when I hear you talk about it, I think it's a common source of stress. I think I have experienced it myself in certain situations of some uncertainty looming, not a momentarily fear but sort of a situational fear of what might be out of me or how things might be resolved in some uncertainty. I guess I'm just curious as to your approach in counseling those individuals with stress and fear and anger. Do you resolve them the same is really my question?
Kira: Well, I think they're all connected. So I believe that anger is a more accessible emotion. It's kind of the emotion that shows itself most quickly. But if you dig a little bit deeper, there's almost always some level of fear underneath anger. So a therapist will talk about primary and secondary emotions. It's part of the way that we process emotions. So I do think that it's really important to find out what somebody is afraid of and what their fears are.
I was working with a woman recently, one of my executive coaching clients, and she talked about how afraid she was to speak in public, to do big public speaking. As we all know, that's a huge fear of many people. And I said, "So tell me when you get up on stage, what are you most afraid of?" And she said, "Making a mistake and not doing it perfectly." And I said, "Okay." I said, "Well, that's a pretty high bar to hold yourself to. So let's talk about some other goals that you have with these kinds of talks that you give." And she said, "Well, really I really just want everybody in the audience to learn something. Just one thing." And I said, "Okay. So let's look at what that would feel like in your body if you said, ‘My only goal here when I go out on stage is to make sure that everybody in the room learns one thing.'" And she instantly said, "Oh my God." She said, "I feel like I can breathe."
So it's really about breaking down what's at the heart of the fear and then how can we turn those expectations around. And I think that women hold themselves to such a high standard. We are plagued with perfectionism. And perfectionism—I see this in almost all of my clients—and it's a really, really big problem, I think, in terms of women also building a healthier relationship with their bodies. So we go back into that conversation about body, and we live in a culture that is very, very focused on youth and focused on pretty specific body types, which thank God that's changing now. But it's not changing fast enough, I would say. So I think that the more that we can really help women to melt away this stronghold that perfectionism has on them, the healthier we'll all be for it.
Dr. Barb: Yeah. I'm totally in your court on that. I totally see that in myself as well as others. But it's a hard obstacle.
Kira: Well, it is. It is, and I think it's important to go back and to say, when did this kick in? How did this start? Where did we begin to believe that we needed to be perfect? We certainly don't expect that of small children, do we? I don't know.
Dr. Barb: No, I think not.
Kira: And I think that it starts to kick in probably around the adolescent years, if not even earlier. I think as parents, we need to be very, very conscious about how we speak to our kids—and our girls especially—and what we're expecting of them and what we're asking of them.
Dr. Barb: So take me back to this connection to physical body in the processing of this and some suggestions or practical options for women to maybe help improve their journey by incorporating their body.
Kira: Okay. So I think the first step is noticing sensations. Some people call this the felt sense; others notice it as a physical sensation. But noticing your body. So noticing where you feel pleasure in your body. All too often we spend a lot of time focusing on where we feel pain, and so I think it's really important to also recognize what is the sensation of pleasure in my body and how can I heal through pleasure? So that might be noticing how your hips move when you walk or noticing how your wrist moves when you're turning the car door, the keys. Well, nobody does that anymore. But turning the keys in a door somewhere. So just noticing the mobility, noticing your flexibility. Things like that that can begin to create a connection with our own bodies. And I've always been a little bit uncomfortable about the distinction between mind and body. Our mind is part of our body, right?
Dr. Barb: Yeah. Interesting. Mmhm.
Kira: And our brain, quite frankly, is one of the largest sexual organs, if not the largest sexual organ we have. And I know you know all about this. You have a lot of resources about this on your website. So how we think about ourselves and our body and our sexuality matters so much in terms of how we connect with our body. So I would say it starts with sensation, it starts with pleasure, and certainly to pay attention to pain. Pain is a signal that there's something not right in your body. That there's something going on there that's not healed. And it's obviously very important to pay attention to that. But I think too often we don't pay attention to pleasure, and we don't give it enough weight in our healing process. We strive in this country to be happy and to feel like we're thriving. And yet we don't even think about where do I really feel pleasure, and what brings me pleasure in my body.
I worked with a woman yesterday who said, "I'm nature deprived. The thing that brings me the most happiness is when I'm outside in nature." So really making those connections, I think, with how a woman really feels in her body is I think really the first step. And then taking that pleasure to another level, which might be dance, it might be some kind of exercise that doesn't feel like work but that's really joyful. And then bringing it to things like self-pleasuring, which is a whole other conversation, which is so important to have. And there's far too much shame that's put on both girls and boys around self-pleasuring. And I think that's a really, really important place to make a connection with one's body.
Dr. Barb: Yes, and processing when I did your intro, talking about your focus on passion, purpose, pleasure, and play. And honestly, the pleasure and play is kind of a surprising added focus because it doesn't fit with perfection. I'm thinking the big P missing is perfection, gratefully. But it's hard when perfection is often our goal to be good at incorporating pleasure and play.
Kira: Absolutely. We as children have such a fabulously natural organic way of knowing how to play. It's not even a knowing. Unfortunately we lose that ability. We begin to take ourselves so seriously, and it probably happens and coincides with being perfectionists. And it breaks my heart when I hear people say, "I can't dance." "Oh, I don't dance." "No, no, no. I could never dance." Everybody can dance. If you're human and even if you can't walk, you can dance. I mean, it's part of being human. And dance is something that really, really affects the spirit of a person, and that is I think our spirit is what also helps us to feel happy, quite frankly, in a very simple way.
So I think that play is also about not taking ourselves so seriously. So often one of the things that I do with my highly perfectionist clients is to talk about what practice can you begin to do that might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable but it's going to be playful, and it's going to put you outside of your comfort, and it could get messy. And really starting to melt away those layers and layers of conditioned perfectionism.
Dr. Barb: Tell us about your education and training. I know it's very varied.
Kira: It is.
Dr. Barb: How did you end up where you are? Give us some background.
Kira: So I'll try to make it really brief because it is long and circuitous. And I think that's part of what makes me a really good coach for women who are in life transitions, as I've had many of them. So I started my career as an interior designer. I was a corporate interior designer for about 10 years, and that was a breeding ground for perfectionism, quite frankly. And I was offered a job to teach English in Spain. I had lived in Italy and I had loved living in Europe, so I jumped at the chance, and I went over there. And I knew nothing about teaching English other than being able to speak it. And it threw me into this very different kind of job where I was now teaching at the front of this classroom with teenagers and adults. And I couldn't be perfect. I didn't know what I was doing, and I was thrown into it, and I loved it. And it was very playful. I found a part of myself that really was very hungry in my interior design work to interact with people more and to also see the transformation that happened as a teacher with my students of them being able to communicate themselves in a language that wasn't theirs. So I pursued that for a bit. But what I really wanted to do was go back to Europe and open an international language school.
So I came back to the States, and I ended up getting a master's in education. But very fortuitously, the head of the International Education Department at Harvard, where I got my master's, left. He left and went to Stanford, and I was left there at the beginning of the year to say, "Oh boy. There is no more international education program. What do I do now?" Harvard has this fabulous master's degree in which you can do an individualized program. So I basically picked classes that were interesting to me, and I took some psychotherapy classes. I took a course called the Radical Geography of the Psyche, which was with Carol Gilligan and Bessel Vanderkolk. It was in a lot of ways—that whole program for me was life changing. But that one in particular really, really helped me connect with my passion for working with women, and gave me a much deeper understanding of the role that the body plays in our psychological makeup, and how we interact with ourselves in the world and relationships.
So I learned through that program that there was this whole world of corporate training and coaching. I ended up working for an organizational development firm that had a coaching program. So I went through that, and then I went through another coaching program, the Newfield Program, Newfield Network, which focuses on emotion, body, and language, which was a perfect fit for me at the time. So I started coaching about 15 years ago, and in the process, I had two daughters, and I also became Nia teacher. And Nia is a mind-body movement form that really focuses on connecting with the sensation of pleasure and using movement to heal. And it was the most fun I had ever had in my body. The very first time I ever took a Nia class, I found myself at the end of the class in tears. And I didn't know really what was happening to me because I thought, "How could this be? I'm in a group fitness class in tears. What's going on?" But I had this very, very clear sense that I had come home to my body, that my body was waking up, and that I was coming home.
So I knew that there was something very special in Nia. So as I was starting my coaching career, I was also being a Nia teacher. So the two careers kind of went parallel, side by side, but I didn't feel comfortable as really an executive coach, which is the kind of coaching I was doing. Bringing the body into the corporate world.
About two years ago, I discovered a program, which it was created by Layla Martin called The Sex, Love, and Relationship Certification. It's now called the Vita Coaching Methodology. And what that program was... I did the certification. So I'm now certified as a sex, love, and relationships coach. And what that did was it helped me to bridge. It gave me the tools that I needed to work with my clients and frankly just the validation and the confirmation that our bodies are such beautiful, important tools to use in coaching and in our own personal growth. So that program really helped me get into the world of female sexuality and changed the way that I work with my clients.
Dr. Barb: Fascinating. So it's—obviously you've been able to discover your gifts and your passions, and something professionally has been able to result from that. So not many women probably get that gift that you've had to be able to work your passions.
Kira: Yeah. I feel so in alignment right now, Barbara, to be honest. And it feels so good. And I think that it hasn't been without its struggles, of course. Yet, I think because I feel this great alignment right now with my own personal passions, my career passions, the work that I'm doing, I really feel so much more motivated to help other women find that too, and to really figure out what is their alignment, what do they value the most, where do they want to spend their time, how do they want to use this precious time that we have on this earth to do something that's meaningful? And so I'm really, really fired up these days.
Dr. Barb: And I feel like in my day-to-day work, I meet a lot of women who aren't in a sweet spot and are finding themselves at times of transition and trying to sort through navigating uncertainties or stresses. And I talk, being a physician, about self-care. It's sleep, it's stress, it's diet, it's exercise. But you have a term that you talk about self-compassion, which I think is of much more lovely encompassing word than self-care. I love this. Self-compassion. So how would you help women understand self-compassion or begin a journey of that?
Kira: Well, again, I always start in the body. So I would say what does it feel like to not be compassionate? What does it feel like in your body when you beat yourself up? Where do you feel that? And there's usually some ache or twinge or something, a constriction, a tightness. And then begin to say, to really look at where in the body does she feel safe. Where does she feel like she can celebrate? Where does she feel like... What part of her does she love? And if she can't find a part in her body that she loves, what does she love about herself holistically as a human being? And really beginning to tap into her love for herself somewhere. Somewhere, somehow. It's always there. We just have to find it.
So to start there and then to really begin to understand where this strong inner critic comes from. Often it's actually somebody else's voice, and when we hear it for a long time as children, we absorb it, and it becomes what we think of as our own inner critic. And we create it into our own, but the reality is it probably wasn't ours. It came from somewhere else. And sometimes that can be a repetitive conversation that comes from somebody, or it can be a one-time, really painful conversation that will land in a way, again, where the stress cycles weren't released or worked through.
So it's really about kind of the combination of connecting with their bodies in a much more gentle way. I know that you know all about negative self-talk and that inner critic, right? And a lot of the research shows that if you replace the negative self-talk with positive self-talk, then you can reduce that inner critic. Well, for every individual negative thing that we say to ourselves, we need about seven or eight positive things to say to ourselves. So it's not a one-for-one. The negative self-talk has much more damage to us, and we often won't even allow the positive in. So part of it is starting that conversation and recognizing that we need to shower ourselves with love if we don't have a strong sense of self-worth or self-esteem. There needs to be that showering.
And so often women spend so much of their energy and attention on other people, making sure that other people are okay, whether it's their children or a partner or a family or their aging parents or whoever, their friends. If they took just a fraction of the energy and attention that we put to others on themselves in the same kind of compassionate, loving way, I think that we would start to see women really begin to heal.
And I think part of it is also about recognizing our humanity and our vulnerability. Again, goes back to that perfectionism. Self-compassion is about recognizing that nobody is perfect. The state of being human is inherently imperfect.
Dr. Barb: So for those women who want to pursue this but maybe don't have a coach like you available to them, are there resources that you could suggest women might get for their information or help to move forward?
Kira: Sure. I mean, I think everybody should take a NIA class, personally.
Dr. Barb: And just to say, Nia is N-I-A.
Kira: N-I-A. Yup. It's been around for about 30 years. It's taught all over the world. It's the hidden gem in the fitness industry. So that would be the first place I would start. But Nia isn't for everybody. I think it is, but I think it could be. But sometimes that doesn't work. So I think the first thing to do is really think about the relationship that a woman has with her body. How does she bring pleasure into her body? How does she bring pleasure into her world? And to think about what made her happy when she was a child, and to go back there and to figure out when was the last time she felt really playful. And who does she want to be with that can help her feel playful? I think that that's part of it.
Connecting to that courageous, strong, and vulnerable part of herself. There are wonderful books out there. I mean, it depends on the path, the topic. Are we talking about becoming empowered in your body? I'm reading a book right now called Bodyfulness, by Christine Caldwell, which is really interesting. If we're talking about sexual pleasure, you have a bunch of resources. But I loved the book Come As You Are, which is fascinating. There's so many different resources out there.
Dr. Barb: Thank you for your commitment and your passion around helping women make themselves better.
Kira: Well, you're welcome. It's a joy and an honor. I really do feel being a coach, especially a women's empowerment coach, is a privilege. It really is. It's being able to have access to the interworking worlds of a woman's life and helping support her is so... it's like nothing else. And I think that too many women walk around feeling like they're broken. I know I did. And we're not. Nobody's broken.
Dr. Barb: Right. Right.
Kira: I really, really want to send the message that it's possible. It really is possible to feel not broken.
Dr. Barb: I've recently read the Melinda Gates book, The Moment of Lift, and I think it's just so exciting to think about the potential women hold in making changes in our culture and our world. And I think you've kind of spoken into that as well.
Kira: I think it's a very powerful time right now for women, and I hope that they will move through their fears about being seen. I think that this is an opportunity for women to become much more public, to have their voices heard, and I hope they do it. I really, really hope they do it. Here we are on the eve of the fourth Women's March, right?
Dr. Barb: Mmhmm.
Kira: And this is a really powerful time, and I hope the momentum of women speaking up for themselves for whatever they believe in is something that I really hope it continues.
Dr. Barb: So as we conclude our time together, I like to hear from individuals. Where do you find fullness at this stage of your life, and I think we have some understanding of that based on what you've shared.
Kira: Yeah. I love this question. I think part of it is building my coaching practice and getting my voice out there more to be able to help more and more women and figuring out what that means. And part of that feels very entrepreneurial and exciting. I'm very passionate about debunking myths. There are so many myths about women, about women aging and about women and sexuality. So I’m really having a lot of fun debunking myths right now.
I'm watching my daughters grow into these amazing young women. My daughters right now are 13 and 15, and it's a period of my just complete wonderment at their growth and also a time of letting go on my part, which is hard. So there's that, and I have to find the humor in all of it. I feel right now that my curiosity is quite insatiable, and I learned recently about the fact that... And I think you and I talked about this in Boston. I think it was in China, they talk about a woman's menopause, they refer to it as the second spring.
Dr. Barb: Yes.
Kira: And to me that is the most beautiful way of looking at our midlife and this second half of our lives. I'm feeling very much that I am creating my own second spring, and it feels so good. So I really, really feel strongly about helping other women do that. I don't want people thinking that they're going to become invisible. They don't need to. It doesn't need to happen. So there's lots of ways to become visible. But those are the things that I'm finding the most fullness in. And I think also the curiosity of what is my body capable of? I'm 52 years old, and my body's shifting because, guess what, our bodies shift for our entire lives. They're ever changing. So to feel into what does my body now at 52 thrive on? And what makes me feel full? And what is possible, especially around pleasure and sexuality, and what can that look like? So I'm excited. I'm curious about that too. I was very relieved to find out that women's sexuality absolutely does not need to deteriorate or disappear at all. In fact, it can get better. So that gives me a lot of hope because I think if there's no place else but up, then great.
Dr. Barb: So I think we have enough material. We could do this again sometime, Kira. So I'm going to put you on the future list again because so many areas we could've talked more about. But thank you so much for your time. I'm sure listeners are going to appreciate your insights and what you have to offer.
Kira: Well, thank you so much for having me, Barbara; it was a real pleasure.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.