Melina’s Winding Path
I met, Melina “Ki” Martinez, 33, almost a decade ago while they were supporting a global fellowship program. I was immediately impressed by their ability to be so fully present and supportive of the variety of people chosen as a fellow. Fast forward to today and Ki is living in Philadelphia, PA and self-employed as a host for classes with a collective called Both/And and a coach through Soma Ki and PleasureActive. They have been certified in several areas of somatic based education and deliver services as a Somatic Anti-Oppression Facilitator, Embodiment Coach, and Sexological Bodyworker.
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
I work with individuals and couples to co-create explorations of the questions they have related to their eroticism, sexual practices, desires, limits, and their bodies. I use coaching, somatic practices, and touch modalities to support folks to get to know themselves and their partners better, from an embodied standpoint. Less frequently, I teach classes, largely online, to help people discover what’s possible in these bodies we have. This is the format I lean on to teach somatics for activists.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
I was pretty convinced I wanted to be a teacher. The neat thing is, in a way, that is what I am. I am a somatic educator and a facilitator of often profound experiences of self-learning. What I couldn’t have imagined then was how embodied and deeply personal my teaching work would be.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
My mother was a single mom and all of my extended family were immigrants. Between my mother’s dedication to us and my family coming here with very little, I grew up seeing a very strong work ethic around me. Knowing more about my recent ancestors’ struggles, which include things like war and forced immigration, I believe hard work was a value passed down generationally, in service of survival. I also witnessed a lot of pride being taken in the work my family members did, no matter the role. So there's a way I learned that your work ought to be something you’re proud of and ready to put your whole self into. Most of my family worked in the service industry, but wanted more for me, and encouraged me to stay in school. It took me a long time to find work that enabled me to feel that pride and readiness to put my whole self in. I also had the privilege, provided by my family’s hard work, of having a less urgent need to fixate on survival in my decision making. So my quest became more about finding the best balance of values, interest, and strengths alignment in the work I would do, versus earning a check however possible.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
I find it hard to pick one! Every single employer and work experience I’ve had has built on the last to help me know myself better — largely to know what I’m good at, what I do and don’t really care about, and what I do and don’t want to feel like when I’m working. I went through a really challenging 15 years of on-the-job training to gain those important awarenesses.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
I think it’s fun to let people in on the fact that I was once training —and just a handful of months away from being employable—as a pastor within a large network of non-denominational Christian churches. I left that career path because of a major values clash that became too much for me to take on alone. I really did try though. I’m very determined when I believe in something deeply. Years later I found out that the church came around to what I was proposing they needed to re-evaluate in their organizational culture. That tickled me. Growth is always possible. But I’m glad I didn’t stay and sacrifice more of my well-being to their growing pains.
Why did you pivot?
Where I was directly before entering the field of Somatic Education wasn’t so different from my pastoral training in community life. I was a director and facilitator for a leadership development fellowship program. I pivoted out of that work because I got burnt out on the culture and pitfalls of the non-profit industrial complex. I enjoyed being part of efforts to support career pivoters, creatives, and social change leaders, but I didn’t feel right being in the position to decide who was ‘worthy’ of receiving supportive services and who ‘wasn't.’ I believe our systems need to move away from this kind of model, because it doesn’t create systemic change. This pivot aligned with those values.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
Being with people in their questions, walking alongside them as they explore the things that scare and also call to them, being a safe, supportive other at a critical juncture or in a time of profound vulnerability — those feel like experiences that I was able to crossover from pastoring to leadership development with social change makers and again now to somatic work and coaching.
I’ve always had a deep reverence for what people keep close to their chest and find difficult to speak openly about. My work as a social researcher alongside my pastoral training really taught me how to hold people and their secrets, their stories, with great care and honor. My previous work taught me about the power and value of practice — that what we do over and over matters a lot for how we experience this life and for how or whether we grow and change. That’s a big part of my work today. Of course, I also learned a lot about facilitating conversations, asking thoughtful questions, and helping others connect with their own sense of meaning or ability to make meaning of their experiences.
Working for the fellowship program, I helped emerging socially innovative leaders grow by creating containers for learning through immersive (learn by doing!) experiences (things like design thinking sprints, high stakes networking practices, a pitch competition, deep listening circles, identity exploration exercises, and the list goes on). Here it became evident to me that when folks dive in with a mindset of curiosity and engage in a process of trial and error with a supportive squad at their side, even if it's on a small scale, they gain a ton from it. There’s nothing like putting yourself boldly, wholly into an experience of “trying on,” experimenting, and “playing with” the stuff you most want to learn. I bring that same spirit of curiosity, exploration and learning hands-on into my somatic coaching and facilitation.
The fact is, the soma (body and mind, undivided) learns best from experience. So many people come to me with issues related to being afraid to embody what they believe or feeling their bodies don’t respond the way they would hope. And I explain to them, change comes from having new experiences. It’s the principle of neuroplasticity: modern research has shown that the brain creates new neural pathways and alters or clears out existing ones adaptively in response to, and in order to have, new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories. So our work together is to co-create the container, or identify the conditions within which their body-and-mind can have a different, more desirable experience. From there, learning, growth, and change can happen. Somatic education is experiential education. Think of a laboratory and playground for developing significant, embodied change.
What was newer to me was honing the skill of speaking very plainly and directly, about some of the toughest or most taboo topics in our society today.
Growing up with a Greek mom and grandmother certainly set me up to appreciate direct communication more than indirect, and to face things head on. Then, being a mixed race person in the professional world, and frequently the only BIPOC in any organization, meant that I had to navigate environments that were not shaped with people like me in mind. I worked very hard to teach people to see me, and to advocate for myself in the face of microaggressions, anti-immigrant sentiment, casual racism, and an often alienating white dominant culture. It was very risky to speak up about this, so I tried to share my experiences in ways that could be received more easily. It actually cost my mental health a lot to do that, to make my story and my pain smaller.
Working for myself and in roles that hinge on engaging people in very honest, open conversations was a game changer for me. I’m so grateful for how my peers over at Both/And taught me about the necessity of speaking plainly, and naming things as they are, as they come up, even when it’s scary. Certainly, practicing this necessitated learning how to mitigate the risk involved, too. Likewise, my program in somatic sexology taught me about the power of getting comfortable with calling a pussy, a pussy – essentially, to readily use whatever terms my clients use for their genitals. I’m grateful to have expanded my capacities here. Speaking plainly opens up space for authenticity. I feel lucky to get to model this for others and help them get more comfortable opening up about things that can be hard to talk about.
There’s also a depth and breadth of knowledge that came new to me about how various systems work — the erotic mind, the nervous system with trauma, systems of oppression, and their traumatic impacts on our body-mind connection. And finally, of course, in my somatic bodywork training, I got to learn in depth about the tremendous power of touch. My work is hands-on in a way that traditional talk therapists who refer their clients to me cannot offer because of their licensure agreements. In fact, I will partner with therapists to collaborate on how to best support our client. Through this work, I’ve gotten to learn about what makes touch safe and generative. As a survivor of sexual and physical abuse and assault, this has been life altering (transformational?) for me.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
Believing I could do it. Leaving behind the status quo and the “well-worn path.” Feeling safe enough — maybe that survival fixation showed up in this way — to turn down an advanced degree at an Ivy League institution in order to pursue something less established, less prestigious, and less guaranteed to offer me institutionalized job security.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
Trust your gut! But in order to get there, first learn the difference between your gut/intuition and your fear or trauma responses. Get clear on what your values are and let your values lead the way. Don’t let your or other people’s fears dictate your path. But to do that, you have to admit you have fears and learn each of their names. That’s the only way you can tell them to take a seat while you take the lead. Risks feel best when they’re calculated and consensual. Living in this world with marginalized identities means there’s more at risk for you more often than not. And that’s not the same as being powerless. The process of working through and healing from internalized oppression (often showing its face as imposter syndrome, making yourself small, and feeling stuck) is long and hard and every bit worth the energy you put into it. Finally, we are not built to do this life alone. Every single thing that’s hard about being human begs us, at some point, to approach it in connection to safe others. No matter how phenomenally self-sufficient you are, please don’t deny yourself the immeasurable gifts of being witnessed, held, and supported.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
The things above really align closely with what I would say. Our careers ought to grow along with us. If you see that things are changing for you –your interests are shifting, your passion, your energy, your desires are leading you toward other pastures, listen in and be curious about that. Notice what excites you. Notice what does not! And ask yourself what keeps you from moving on. What are you afraid of? Is that thing you fear actually the only possibility there is? Maybe there’s someone else who would really love to do the work you are feeling ready to walk away from. What if you gave up your seat to that person who might steward it with more enthusiasm and presence than you can anymore. I really believe that life is change. Look at any living thing! Always changing, growing, evolving, and recycling itself to give way to more life. If we aren’t allowing change to happen through us, we’re standing in the way of a natural and healthy evolution that’s not only possible, but also very beautiful. Change can require a lot of energy, too, and your body is bound to feel that. So, what would it look like to build up a supportive scaffolding system around this effort before you begin to build your transition?
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
I have spent a lot of my life worried about finding my place in the career world. For one, being the first in my family to go to college, there was a lot of pressure on me to succeed and achieve the American Dream, but not a ton of guidance around how to find that success. I knew how to be a student, but life after college is much more about (a) who you know and about (b) realizing and taking the risks you need (and can afford) to take.
In the winter of 2018, I was coming up on a year at what I thought was my dream job. It was a role with autonomy and influence, and a title with prestige at an organization doing awesome things. Earlier that same year, I had been accepted into grad school - a seat in Columbia University’s Master of Social Work & Social Entrepreneurship program - but had chosen to defer my admission by a year in case this job turned out to be the golden ticket I needed toward launching the social impact business I had been dreaming up for years at that point.
At the end of a year at the dream job, I was burnt out. I was depressed. I felt like a failure. My personal life was nearly non-existent. I worked so much. Both chasing an ever-moving target for success and seeking to change the world while working within broken systems is exhausting.
In my workplace, while we had a very inspiring mission, vision, and values, we were still beholden to many of the usual cultural pitfalls and systemic challenges of nonprofits. My trauma was often triggered by the way we worked – with urgency, scarcity, and a workload on each of us that was constantly more than what we could reasonably accomplish in the time allotted. It never felt like I was able to taste satisfaction, there was always more to do, and I often felt like we weren’t doing enough for those we were setting out to support.
As a director in the organization, I was working with a leadership coach during that time. My coach helped me realize that I needed to step back. I was in the wake of two significant deaths in my family and my own divorce, and this work was taking out of me whatever little aliveness was left. I parted with the organization at the start of 2019 to take a ‘sabbatical,’ a season to focus on rest, recovery, and healing. I also took the opportunity to fulfill a dream of mine to live in Mexico for a time, where my father is from and lives today. For nine months I used my time to study, travel, and volunteer. This city kid moved to a ranch in the middle of nowhere Baja Sur to care for horses and a broken heart. The context of a slower pace of life exposed the chaos I was carrying around inside. I injured myself several times riding horses and ATVs over the sandy hills of the desert that year, before it became clear that my nervous system had long been adjusted to a high baseline of stress and pressure. Much more than a quiet desert ranch life would ask of me. I realized I had an addiction to the stress chemicals that had been fueling my life before then. So, I committed at that point to change, to heal my nervous system, and to never live the same way again.
I was never taught to think about work as something that could feel good. This is how that high stress was normalized for me. But taking space to think about how I wanted my life and my impact to both look and feel helped me to see that: I probably wanted to work for myself, outside of the existing paradigms at large; I wanted to work directly confronting the impacts of trauma, and I also wanted to teach people, in non-traditional ways. I imagined myself somehow becoming a facilitator of transformative experiences.
At that point, I could think of a few avenues based on my own experiences with non-traditional learning and with trauma healing. So, I searched the internet for guidance on what those career paths looked like. Only two of the ideas I had didn’t require me to go get an advanced degree, and that appealed to me. So, I chose the path that was most intriguing to me at that point.
I first learned about somatic sexology during a separation a couple years earlier. My partner and I had struggled for years with various intimacy issues and had sought help from all the usual experts that folks would recommend – therapists, other married folks, pastors, even sex-specializing therapists. None of those actually helped us with our struggles. I learned that somatic sex coaching existed because of an article I read one day on the bus in 2017. I resonated so much with the writing that I had to find out what the author’s work was about. This led me to the Association for Somatic Sexological Bodyworkers directory and the next thing I knew I was contacting coaches in areas I might travel to. There weren’t any located in Chicago, where I lived at the time.
A few months working with a Somatic Sex Coach changed my life across several planes. I learned to ask myself the question, what do I want? And I learned some essential elements to finding the answers. I also needed to learn how consent is experienced in my body, and how detrimental it was to ignore my body’s no. Apparently, I had been doing that for years. I started to imagine a new life, where I searched for alignment in all of my choices. My coach even taught me about how critical it is for us as adults to play. Really, the list goes on. For its applications in and outside of human sexuality, there was much for me to learn and much to unlearn. It wasn’t long before I realized this approach to adult education was a passion of mine.
I found a lot of insight by talking to folks in the field of somatic sexology as well as folks in the social work world. By talking to people already active in those careers, I was able to get a clearer sense of what I was saying yes to, what I was saying no to, and even saying maybe to. The more I explored it, the more it made sense for me to enter the field of somatics at its intersection with human sexuality. I’ve always enjoyed being the person to usher in a deeper conversation. And I knew from my lived experience, and what I’d heard from friends of all ages, that people don’t have enough, or sometimes any, spaces to safely share and find support around their sex lives. I was thrilled to imagine myself offering that to others. So, I applied to the next training available. It was based in the UK, but I didn’t mind. I wanted to lean into the “Hell Yes!” I felt deep in my heart. Throughout my training, the premise and practice of somatic sexology continued to resonate for me. It still does today. This is very special and sacred work I get to do.
Along the path of deciding to do that training, I was in many ways afraid to leave behind the path that seemed to guarantee me some recognized form of success and was less taboo and more the kind of thing my mother might have wanted for me. I feared that my career might never take off. The field of somatic sexology is very much a frontier of its own and only slowly and barely reaching the awareness of the mainstream.
So, I had to let go of a sense of certainty in the future (false as that always has been) in order to choose this path for myself. And I had to tell my mom that I had done that. I had turned Columbia down, to try out something very unique. Against the survival mentality I had watched my family uphold, I was choosing the less secure thing. I was worried she would discourage me and judge my decision making. Still, I needed to make a decision that felt right for me anyway. That phone call when I told her felt like a pivotal moment in breaking a cycle of generational trauma.
What helped me most of all in getting to this point was spending significant time getting honest with myself about who I was and what I wanted and needed for myself in this one short life. I was very fortunate to have a lot of support in that self-inquiry and self-trust through a combination of my community, career coaching and life coaching. There’s something very powerful about having yourself reflected back to you by a person who listens well and asks good questions. It can elucidate or draw out the truth of what you already know and feel, but that you may be doubting or afraid of. I owe so much to my coaches and my community!
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
My entire career journey has been marked with what is commonly referred to as Imposter Syndrome — the persistent devaluation of one’s own competence, fear of failure, unrealistic expectations of oneself, and a struggle to accept your own success or skill as something you can take credit for. It’s a self-esteem and self-trust deficit created by two things in my experience. On the one hand, by the culture of hyper-individualism in our society, and on the other, by growing up in a world that taught me that people like me don’t succeed.
Individualism teaches us that everything we have and everything we accomplish (or don’t) is directly tied to our individual effort. This narrative has no room for the supportive contributions of or setbacks related to class, race, geography, community, political climate and policies of the time, etc. We learn that we are solely responsible for “making it” and that if we fail, it’s a reflection of some personal deficiency. In a culture of individualism, if we’re each going to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, alone, and the mountain ahead is big, there is no room for “a bad day,” much less a lay off, a family crisis, or a season of depression. I’ve long identified as an ambitious but depressive person – which is to say I am a go-getter, I dream big and aim high, but I have also faced clinical depression on and off since I was 14 years old. I’ve been held back a great deal by my mental health, and because of individualism, I blamed and shamed myself for what I couldn't do when I wasn’t feeling good.
When I say the world taught me that people like me don’t succeed, I mean through what I saw and experienced, the options always appeared limited for anyone like me. For example, Mexican-Americans don’t work front-of-house, much less in roles of leadership and influence. Or, people assigned female at birth shouldn't be bold and take leadership, but if they do, they will have to work twice as hard to gain the respect of others. Or, only happy, resilient, confident and charismatic people can earn the right to speak in front of a room and have authority. There’s no space for other human emotions or tenderness if you want a position of influence. Of course, I know now that in each of these cases, very old systems are at work to maintain power imbalances and keep some people in and some people out of positions of power and influence. But I didn’t know that growing up. I’m grateful to have had a course in college about social change, where I learned the term internalized oppression. I recognized it in myself, self-inflicting and perpetuating the negative messaging I’d received from society. But I didn’t have any direct support to unravel the impacts of these systems until recent years.
On top of all of this, as part of an immigrant, working-class family, the standards set for me were always incredibly high. In their respective countries of origin (Greece and Mexico), my families had a lot of respect in their communities. Having less resources available and being treated second-class here created a deep dissonance for them. As I mentioned before, they're very proud people. So my family tended to be highly critical of mistakes, and would emphasize appearing put together and perfect. I’ve spent a lot of my life striving to be the best, and beating myself up whenever I fall short. I am privileged to have finally learned, very recently, that being perfect is incompatible with being human. This is how we’ve coped in response to a world whose prejudice dismisses our dignity.
One more thing worth mentioning is that being a person of color has meant navigating trying to succeed in workplaces and organizations that I ultimately look back on and realize were not built with people like me in mind or for people like me to belong. So, some of what we talk about as imposter syndrome really is genuinely not belonging, by design. And that’s never been a deficiency on my part.
So, I’ve had to unlearn a lot of limiting beliefs that I internalized from living on this planet, in this moment of history, in this body. Honestly, I’m still wrestling with limiting beliefs. The worst thing has been the kind of self-sabotage that emerges from not believing you’re good enough for a great opportunity or an incredible role doing work you love. This still shows up sometimes, in the form of some underlying anxiety about what happens if I really put myself out there. Maybe I’ll make one small mistake that will lead me to fail miserably? Maybe they’ll realize I haven’t achieved perfection? Maybe I’m mistaken to hope for big, exciting things for myself. It’s really been a killer of motivation and confidence at times, and has stopped me from exploring several avenues throughout my career.
I think what’s helped me take this on is the amount of investment I’ve put into my mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. I have found a deep well of support in tending to my mind, body, and spirit in an ongoing way. Somatic therapy is a big element. But there’s a whole ecosystem of care I’ve invested in.
One way that I exercise this care is in the form of being intentional around my beliefs and practices. Because I’ve seen this in action in my own life and in others’ lives, I hold deep convictions around what’s possible when we show up fully to this one life, and press into what it means to be true to ourselves, at the very least with ourselves. Developing a more intimate relationship with myself through contemplative and reflective practices has carried me through a lot of change and a lot of challenges. Just one example of a way I exercise this is to pay special attention to when I feel I might be experiencing fear. I have a monthly writing practice for checking in on fear.
I believe that our fear has a lot to tell us about what we desire, and how much we care about those things. The things we want most or care about most are the very same things that can feel most at risk. So, I see fear as a guide for me. I approach the fear, get to know it a little. I recognize the facts or fallacies it hinges on, and I gain the insights it can offer me. Sometimes, we are afraid of things that are in fact very real threats to our wellbeing in this world. That is what fear is meant to protect us from. But sometimes, in a way that is less obvious, more pernicious, we are afraid of something not so much dangerous as it is painful; as in being afraid to risk caring as much as we do, for then we must confront the experience of grief and loss when we don’t get what we hoped for. What if we brought compassion to the pain beneath that fear? How might care transform that fear? These are the kinds of questions I bring to my contemplative practices, and also to my clients.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I want to continue to teach and coach more somatic sexology topics in small and large group format — Humans are built for life in community and this certainly applies to the sexual aspect of our lives. We need to be able to relate and feel accompanied, and learn from each other. I am reminded of this every single time I tell someone what I do for a living – even in the most casual of settings, if I share what I do, people jump at the chance to share something about their questions, their struggles, their fantasies, their desires. I don’t have to ask. It’s just that people don’t get enough opportunities to connect with others over this part of life. I believe we can gain a lot from sharing the burdens and gifts of our sexual lives, desires, and questions with one another.
I’d also love to teach somatic education to younger people – to help them have the tools of self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-care much earlier than I learned them. Especially the piece around embodied consent! I’d love to teach that skillset to college students.
I have also always wanted to write a book, and I have an idea I’m currently inspired by and exploring. I want to interview people about their journeys of self-discovery as sexual beings. Who knows, maybe there’s a podcast in my future!
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
Website - embodiedki.com
Instagram - @pleasureactive