GGS Spotlight: Ashley-Drake Estes


Name: Ashley-Drake Estes
Age: 31
Location: Portland, OR

What does being a Girl Gone Strong mean to you?
It means exuding strength in my overall being: mind, body, soul, and spirit. It means having the courage and grace to rise above any difficult situation, and reflect, learn, and grow from the experience.

It means nurturing the notion of sisterhood. It means not censoring myself or apologizing out of fear of how others might perceive me. It is the freedom to speak up and defend, fight for what’s right, and empower others in the process.

How long have you been strength training, and how did you get started?
I first began in the fall of 2012. I was so intimidated the first time I walked up to a squat rack at the gym at my graduate school in New York (where I’m originally from). I didn’t see any women using the weights — the weights were dominated by men. I remember looking around and seeing women occupying the elliptical machines.

Fortunately, there was one guy there, who worked at the gym, who took me under his wing and taught me some basics, following a Rippetoe protocol. Despite receiving unsolicited advice from some of the guys, and some unfortunate bullying, I kept coming back. I was amazed that my body was far stronger than I ever realized. From there, I was hooked. I mostly dabbled in deadlifts, squats, and bench presses.

In the summer of 2013, I flew out to Portland for the summer to train at a gym owned by a coach I worked with. I spent the entire summer training seriously. While I really didn’t lean out (which was one of my goals at the time), I gained 13 pounds of muscle and felt like a total beast in the best way possible! When I returned home to New York and started my semester, I noticed that I felt exhausted all the time, and was rapidly gaining weight despite following a Paleo/Primal template.

After a very frustrating year of feeling sick and run into the ground, my functional medicine doctor, Dr. Christa Whiteman, diagnosed me with Phase 3 Adrenal Fatigue (HPA-Axis Dysregulation) from overtraining and being in a constant state of Ketosis, and PCOS. Finally I had an answer as to why I was gaining weight, and feeling constantly tired, depressed, and unmotivated. This was also very hard mentally and emotionally for me to accept.

To top it off, a couple months after being diagnosed, I broke my spine in three places from a horseback riding accident at my job. There was so much stress on my body, and trauma, that I hit a low. Because of my diagnoses and spinal fractures, I was under strict orders to stop working out and heal, because it would have been completely counterproductive to my health and fitness goals. I really had to stop and rehabilitate. Again, this was very hard and it took a lot of interpersonal work to accept this process and allow my body to do its thing.

Fast forward to January 2017. I finally healed my adrenals enough and felt ready to start lifting again. But, I had spent a couple years out of the game, and I was scared to start back. I was nervous that I might injure myself, or scared that I might feel too intimidated to start over. I was worried about how others at a gym might judge my now bigger size. Dr. Whiteman heard about a wonderful strength and conditioning gym near me in Portland. After doing some research, she told me that this gym seemed like the perfect spot for me to get back into lifting. That’s when I joined POINT Gym & Kitchen.

I was immediately greeted with open arms and welcomed into their community. I really connected with the members and the wonderful owners and coaches, Kimberly and Melissa. They are total strong badass women who motivate, encourage, and accept me as I am. They also modify elements of the class so that I feel successful in my workouts as I transition back into this lifestyle. As a fairly new transplant to Portland, being a member at POINT has also helped me integrate into my community here and meet like-minded individuals who are passionate about health and wellness.

Due to a demanding work schedule, I’ve had to take a break from POINT, but hope to return soon. For the last several months, I have been in charge of my own programming, mixing in elements of Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, and Jen Sinkler’s Lift Weights Faster. It’s nice to feel confident again in the gym that I can piece together my own program based on how I’m feeling that day or depending on what my goals are. When I can fit in a workout, I also focus on what feels good and fun in the moment. I’m enjoying finding ways to incorporate movement into my daily life, even in the workplace.

What does your typical workout look like?
A mixture of heavy compound lifts, accessory work, and metabolic conditioning thrown in. I love challenging my mind and body and seeing how I can overcome my own barriers.

I cannot tell you how many times I have said “I didn’t think I could do that!” at the end of a workout.

But here I am, consistently surprised by my strength, drive, and newfound abilities.

Favorite lift:
My favorite lift is definitely the deadlift. There’s just something really empowering about picking something really, really, really heavy up off the ground!

Most memorable PR:
This happened at the 2017 Women’s Strength & Empowerment Weekend y’all hosted in Seattle. I was having my photo taken by the photographer and posed with the bar doing 65-pound deadlifts. But then, I decided to try a clean and press with that weight. Typically at my gym, I’d done this lift with 45 pounds, but I figured, why not give it a go? Before I knew it, I had the bar locked in place above my head. It was effortless and I couldn’t believe it. I was smiling ear-to-ear and felt so proud of myself!

There were some women present cheering me on and this really made me feel supported in that moment. I was happy I was able to share this with others. When I returned to my gym a couple of days later, I told my coaches about my victory but conveyed that I thought it might have been a fluke. To my surprise, the workout for that day included clean and presses. By the end of the workout, I not only was able to replicate my 65-pound PR from Seattle, but I successfully performed the lift 25 times! I guess it’s no longer my one rep max!

Top 6 songs on your training playlist:

  • Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart by Against Me!
  • Chandelier by Sia
  • Winter Sound by Of Monsters and Men
  • Funeral by Band of Horses
  • Emergency by Paramore, and one bonus track:
  • Music Box by Thrice

Top 3 things you must have at the gym or in your gym bag:
Headphones, an RxBar, and water.

Do you prefer to train alone or with others? Why?
I definitely prefer to train with others because I love the social, communal aspect of it. Humans are designed to be social creatures and while we can obviously do just about anything on our own, being part of a community working together, and sharing in activities benefits our overall health in invaluable ways! I like being part of a tribe.

Most embarrassing gym moment:
About ten years ago, back in New York, I used to work out at one of those 24-hour gyms at odd hours of the night (because I was probably taking Hydroxycut and couldn’t ever get my heart rate low enough to sleep…Oh, Ashley!) John Basedow, the guy behind “Fitness Made Simple” and the eight-pack abs commercials would always workout at the same time as me. One time, while on the elliptical, I faked a sneeze hoping that he would respond and we could strike up a conversation, because I figured, if we are the only two people working out at 2 a.m., we might as well be friends! Well, after maybe ten fake sneezes, not only did he not talk to me, but he moved away from me onto a different cardio machine, as well. I guess it just wasn’t in the cards for us to be friends!

What do you do?
I am a board-certified and licensed Neurologic Music Therapist. I work at a private practice in Portland called Earthtones Northwest, where I provide music therapy for adults with various developmental and neurological disabilities. I also am the CEO and Cofounder of Sing Out! International, a music therapy nonprofit organization committed to serving communities around the world that have been affected by trauma. Last year, I spent a couple of months living and working in northern Uganda at a secondary school and vocational center for former child soldiers, abductees, and orphans of the Lord’s Resistance Army, called Hope North.

I implemented a six-week music therapy program that addressed the following goals: to increase self-expression, to provide positive coping skills, to decrease stress response, and to foster connectedness to the community and surrounding villages. These goals were obtained through different music therapy groups I co-facilitated, such as Group Drumming, Group Singing, Improvisation, Songwriting, and Music & Relaxation. This work is very dear to my heart.

Not only was it Sing Out! International’s first project, but my life has forever been changed since meeting my students. Their stories are awe-inspiring and they are my family. I speak to my students on a daily basis, thanks to social media, and they keep me updated about how the music therapy program is going now that I am back in the states.  I truly love hearing from them and I miss them very much. Within the field of music therapy, I also present my clinical work at conferences on the national and global scale, and am working on my first publication, as well. I love what I do.

I know this is why I was put on Earth: to use my gifts of music to help others heal.

Most memorable compliment you’ve received lately:
Chad Draizin, owner of Fifty Licks, the best ice cream in Portland, is a friend of mine and a huge supporter of Sing Out! International and my work in Uganda. I saw him last week at the grand opening of his second shop and before I could congratulate him, he said, “You’re doing such amazing things and I want to support you. I want to donate more money to your organization.” This was really meaningful to me because not only do I have the support of Chad, but I also feel as though I am gaining support in my new community in Portland.

Sometimes I get discouraged or feel overwhelmed because fundraising and running a nonprofit is really hard work. And while I am so in love with the work I’m doing, it can be seem daunting at times. But whenever I feel that way, these strong reminders pop into my life in the form of supportive compliments from colleagues, friends, or neighbors, and that ignites the fire within me and propels me forward with a renewed energy towards my work.

Most recent compliment you gave someone else:
I was going to Target, you know, to buy one thing, which obviously didn’t end up happening and I came home with two bags of things. Anyway, as I was walking through the door, I saw a couple in their early 20s in front of me. The woman was curvy and plus-sized, and I tapped her on the shoulder to say, “I just have to tell you, your shape is really beautiful and strong. I hope you always feel proud of your body.” Her affect shifted, and her smile was so bright. Her eyes completely lit up — so did her boyfriend’s. She thanked me but I simply told her that I was being honest with her, and shared the hope that more women would use their words to lift each other up, than tear one another down.

Favorite meal:
A grass-fed New York Strip steak, broccoli smothered in Kerrygold butter, and sweet potatoes seasoned with sea salt and cumin. Absolutely my favorite meal, hands down!

Favorite way to treat yourself:
How to answer this question without referencing Parks and Rec? Well, I’m a huge proponent of self-care and I indulge in it on a daily basis as part of my practice. Within the last year, I started going to an outdoor soaking pool that is open to the public in Portland. The space is really lovely and I find it to be a nurturing, all-inclusive place (like most of Portland!) Clothing in the soaking pool is optional, and at my first visit, on my 30th birthday, I decided I would go naked. I would fully embrace my body and just be myself. I decided that I didn’t care if others looked at me, or judged my body, because I knew I was there for myself, and nobody else.

I cannot begin to tell you what a freeing experience this was for me. I never thought I would be able to show up and take space in this capacity. I felt validated and accepted (even though I know I didn’t need anyone’s validation or acceptance). What’s even more interesting is as I walked from where I hung my towel up to the stairs of the pool, I felt confident, beautiful, strong, and proud to openly display my body without censoring any part of me, or trying to concede to anyone’s standards of what my body should look like. I’ve gone quite a few times now, and every time I go, I’m not only honoring my body’s physical needs to soak and feel good, but I am receiving tons of positive energy back by embracing my true self.

Favorite quote:
I was trying to narrow this down to just one, but there was a three-way tie, so here they are:

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. — Kurt Vonnegut

Life is a series of calluses, this is just another layer. So build ‘em up, tough it out, yeah, that’s your skin, don’t let anyone under there. — The Goodlife

You’re already home where you feel love. — The Head and the Heart

The last two are lyrics to songs. I can’t help it; I’m a music therapist! I think in music, mostly.

Favorite book:
I have to choose just one? I would say my all time favorite is the Odyssey, but I haven’t read it in 16 years. I should revisit this book! I recently read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which was amazing. I really enjoy his writing. He is teaching me to be unapologetic when it comes to my values and moxie. Right now, I’m reading Wired to Eat, by my dear friend Robb Wolf. His work is tremendous and so very important. But most of all, I love his heart and passion for helping people live their best lives through health and vitality.

I really love everything written by Glennon Doyle (Carry On, Warrior, and Love Warrior). Reading her work makes me feel validated in every experience I have in this life. She is truly amazing. Of course anything written by Brené Brown, as well. I’m also reading Braving the Wilderness. Miranda July is another favorite… It’s typical of me to be reading 94839 books at once.

What inspires and motivates you?
I feel inspired and motivated through the testimonies of others who have overcome similar challenges as me, whether they be health-related or not. Because I can relate so deeply, it is as if they are sharing their story directly with me. For example, at the Women’s Strength & Empowerment Weekend, I found myself constantly nodding along to every word Neghar Fonooni spoke during her presentation. Seriously, everything she said rang a bell with me. Being surrounded by women in all different walks of life, sporting different body sizes, strengths, colors, styles, is all eye opening and empowering.

I am very inspired by individuals who perhaps live in marginalized communities or areas of the world, who have fought for social justice, and continue to do so.

I recognize my own privilege and I want to stand up and join the fight for equality, the Earth and its preservation, clean drinking water for all, refugees seeking a safe haven, and ending discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and gender expression.

What else do you do?
I like to explore the Pacific Northwest and find exciting and beautiful places to hike to. I enjoy reading in coffee shops and seeking out which one has the best homemade nut milk (spoiler alert: it’s Heart Roasters on Burnside, and it’s an walnut-cashew blend). I like activities such as indoor rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, and swimming. I also really love riding my bike. In fact, almost two years ago, I went on my first bike tour and rode 107 miles to the Oregon Coast (something I did without any training, too!). I also play on an indoor soccer league but have had to sit out the last few games due to some muscle weakness in my hip area. I’ll be back, though.

I love getting lost in a bookstore and spending every last penny I have on a new book. I love writing music, playing guitar and piano, and sharing my music at open mic nights (which I need to do more of, honestly). Karaoke will never fail to be a fun way to spend a Saturday night. Perhaps my favorite thing to do is sit around a bonfire with friends and stay up late talking about love, life, and everything in between.

Describe a typical day in your life:
Coffee, work, think about my next career move, home-cooked meal with friends and my partner, talk to my cat, sleep.

Your next training goal:
I have so many! By the end of 2018, I would like to:

  • Do a pushup without any modifications
  • Do 10 double-unders in a row (I’m at 4 now)
  • Deadlift 200 pounds as a 5 rep max (I’m at 165 pounds now)
  • Do a handstand
  • Do a cartwheel
  • Clean and press 100 pounds as a 1 rep max
  • And by the end of eternity, I would like to be able to do an unassisted pull-up

For what are you most grateful?
Oh, this one is easy. My parents. They have guided and supported me each day I have been on this Earth. They love me so hard, so deeply, and so selflessly. They have never wasted an opportunity to make sure I know that I am cared for, that I am capable and intelligent, and that I am stronger than anything that may present itself as a means to derail my success. Oh! And I’m also seriously grateful for a perfectly functioning central nervous system. I can’t express how much gratitude I hold in my heart that when I broke my spine, I did not become paralyzed, and did not have any permanent damage or any lasting deficits while rehabilitating. I feel as if it never happened and I am beyond lucky for that.

Of what life accomplishment do you feel most proud?
I am lucky that I can think of many accomplishments I am proud of, but I don’t think any of them would have been possible if I had not taken control of my health. I made the switch to a Paleo lifestyle back in 2011, thanks to my good friend Dain, and Sarah Fragoso of Everyday Paleo. Prior to this though, I was chronically sick. I was diagnosed with Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) a couple years earlier, and had other issues like eczema  I just always felt sick. Not to mention, I overexerted myself at the gym on a daily basis and spent hours on cardio machines praying for results while I starved myself eating processed foods that came with points attached to them. I was always starving and felt really messed up regarding food, too. After visiting Dain in Chico, California, he turned me onto Paleo and I decided to give it a shot, and dive in headfirst.

After one year, I visited my Rheumatologist and he told me that I had reversed RA and that Lupus was in remission. Since then, I have yet to experience a flare up of any kind, and I don’t take medication whatsoever! Aside from that, my eczema disappeared, my mood stabilized, and best of all? I have a healthy, sustainable relationship with REAL food. I’ve learned what my body likes and tolerates, and what doesn’t promote health. I’ve noticed that I look, feel, and perform better following this template. I make adjustments here and there depending on my goals, and I do not treat the way I eat like any dogmatic regimen out there.

Because I gained control of my health, this freed up time and energy to accomplish other goals, such as graduating with a Master’s Degree and a 4.0 GPA, starting a nonprofit, lifting heavy things, going on a bike tour, traveling to Africa and immersing myself in the culture; you know, all the things I couldn’t do while I was sick and obsessed with changing my aesthetics based on the societal constructs portrayed heavily by the media.

Which three words best describe you?
Resilient. Independent. Funny.

What’s a risk you’ve taken recently, and how did it turn out? 
Well, almost two years ago, I sold most of my belongings, packed up my car, and drove cross-country from New York to Portland. I moved here because I loved spending time in Portland, and I found it very important (for me) to live in a place that aligned with my values and worldview. Portland was that place (plus, I really like living where I can walk into a store and find Paleo mayonnaise and grain-free tortillas without having to order them online. I’m not even kidding!) Despite having spent a summer here, I really didn’t make any connections or friends. I was basically starting from scratch. I don’t think I thought about how hard the transition would be, and how lonely I would become.

Slowly but surely, Portland began to feel like home and I found myself meeting like-minded individuals and connecting with my community, and getting involved in local projects and such. The nostalgia for New York diminished as I embraced my new home. I also found myself becoming more comfortable doing things alone, and exploring hidden gems Oregon has to offer. I decided to completely own this experience. It isn’t always smooth sailing, and I’ve hit a couple of huge bumps in the road, but it is all part of my story. I plan to take it one-day-at-a-time and make the best of what’s around.

What’s the coolest “side effect” you’ve experienced from strength training?
Other than carrying all my bags from the car in a single trip without struggling? I would say an increase in energy throughout my day and I really enjoy watching my muscles get bigger and stronger!

How has lifting weights changed your life?
Lifting weights has provided me with more confidence inside and out. I feel as though I can tackle tough elements in my life with the same force I use to lift weights. It all carries over.

I feel as though I have played it safe in areas of my life, mostly out of fear of failure or judgment. Not anymore.

I no longer let these hold me back. I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought I was, I’m more capable than I thought I was, and I am worthy beyond all else. Worthy of health, success, community, love, safety, rights, and a promising, fulfilled future.  In essence, lifting weights has taught me how to give myself permission to live and show up how I want to in this world.

What do you want to say to other women who might be nervous or hesitant about strength training?
Just start. You can do more than you think. You aren’t going to get bulky, unless of course that is one of your goals (in which case, that is more than fine! Go for it!) I feel as though many women are afraid to lift weights, or lift anything above a five-pound dumbbell out of fear of “looking manly” or “bulky” — this way of thinking needs to stop.

Being strong should not be synonymous with one gender.

I hope that lifting becomes more mainstream and normalized, since we are genetically designed to lift heavy things, play outside, climb, jump, squat, walk forever. Another piece of advice: always listen to your body. When you need to rest, do it. Resting does not mean you are weak, or that you gave up. It means you’re in tune with your body’s needs, and that is a beautiful relationship worth savoring.

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

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About the author:  GGS

GGS is an organization dedicated to empowering women. We do this by creating world-leading resources, and educational materials that help women, and health & fitness professionals who work with women, take their skills and knowledge to the next level.

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