Fitness and women’s health: what does it take for a woman to feel safe and secure?


So many articles talk about fitness. How important it is to our well-being. To our overall mental, physical and even spiritual health.

When you dive into it, there are sometimes obstacles to women becoming more fit. For example, in the martial arts, women face a lack of female role models as instructors, environments where they don’t have a private or separate changing room, and occasionally the predatory aspect of a sexual advance from a teacher or student in an environment where they may already be feeling outside of their comfort zone. While none of these obstacles is insurmountable, the combination can feel weighty. Difficult. And on those nights when we don’t have motivation, or for those women who aren’t sure they are ready, these challenges can be the end of it.

I want to discuss something more fundamental, though. Something beyond motivation, or specific situations at a gym or martial arts studio. I want to talk about personal safety. I was chatting with a colleague yesterday, a kind and intelligent woman. I knew she was working out each morning and was so happy with it. I always saw her as a role model for my own personal fitness goals. But when I saw her yesterday she seemed tired and frustrated. I asked her how the workouts were going.

There was a change at her gym and she could no longer get there at the right time to be able to enter and exit during daylight hours. She times her schedule (work, two kids, other family obligations) such that she never exits her car at home at night because walking from her car to the door isn’t always safe. She tried to get the gym owner to adjust the hours. But they live in a rural area and that wasn’t possible. She was maybe going to get her own key or code, because the gym owner wished to be accommodating. But there was a nervousness about this.

We live in a world where women are always prey. It doesn’t matter how confident we are, how much we train, or what our personal attitude is. No matter what we do as individual women, we are sustaining our lives inside a dangerous system where predators are everywhere. If we look at it too closely, we would never even leave the house at all.

When we go to the grocery for milk at night. When we face down a guy at the gas station who may be friendly, or may be about to abduct us. When we see our sisters, mothers, and friends faces in missing person ads, in newspaper columns about domestic violence, or in the uneasy story of a maintenance man who comes in with his own key and doesn’t knock – is he safe? Can we relax?

What will it take for women to feel safe and secure? For certain, it is a problem beyond any one woman’s ability to solve. To place the onus of the solution on personal action or responsibility is to deny a true and real change. Because it will take every one of us to shift this. To make this world safer. To truly offer fitness and martial arts as a way to better health, we must address women’s safety and remove the “prey” stamp off of each woman’s forehead.

Take heart. It’s daunting, yet in clearing away the illusions we cut to the source of the problem and can begin to solve it. In the words of Neil Young, “Don’t let it bring you down. It’s only castles burning. Find someone who’s turning, and you will come around.”

Together I do believe that we can do this. Who around you can you find – someone who is turning – making this better? Could you be this person?  Can I?

To simply be in a conversation where you listen and make a gesture of connection. Or offer a friendly pat on the back. A text saying “After everything you have overcome, you can surely handle this.” An invitation to join in. A ride to the gym for a woman who might be scared to go alone. A place where women can change clothes privately, knowing that many of us have experienced sexual assault and must overcome that fear to train. Learning to read a woman’s level of comfort and resolving to not push her any faster than she is willing to go.

A commitment to seeing women not as prey and instead as allies, friends and sisters.

-Laurel Isbister



Stay in the game: Getting over “hot yoga” and “super-bad MMA” delusions


You know the feeling. You tell someone you train in jiu jitsu, and they get this faraway gleam in their eye. Like they are seeing themselves in a super hero costume in a ring surrounded by applauding fans. “I’ve really been thinking about trying that,” they say, “where is it you train again?” You know they will never leave the comfort of their comfy sofa and illusions of what being trained could be. They will never feel the sting of sweat in their eyes as they try for one more round of practicing a technique, knowing that after this night there will be dozens more before it really begins to sink in.

Both yoga and jiu jitsu are undergoing sea changes in American and global culture today. And guess what, it ain’t all good. Big surprise, American propensity for instant gratification and commercialization of experience is pushing both of these traditional arts towards more intensity, more surface-level drama, easy wins, and less deepening of awareness and disciplined dedication to making one’s entire life better, as well as the lives of those around them. Now we want yoga and jiu jitsu to make our egos better. To make us feel like we are more special than the other guy. To make us seem powerful, when really we hardly know ourselves. Nah. This ain’t right and I’m not having it.

A friend said to me recently, “it’s only a matter of time until hot yoga hits Jackson,” with a tone of doom in her voice. Here’s my response to that: NO. Those of us who get the benefits of the deep practice of these art forms MUST hold the line. We must educate others, continue to cultivate strong practice, give all effort towards self-improvement in the context of making everyone else in that class better as well, and for sure we must stay in the game. No quitting. No leaving the spoils to the victors. This is but a moment in time and this too shall pass.



Thanks, Guys! How “Not Today, Motherf$%^&er!” inspired me and my male jiu jitsu classmate

I’ve been taking Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes for just over a year now and I’ve tried a couple of times to write a blog remarking on my experiences. I like writing the blog and it seemed since I wrote about yoga that I might also write about this experience. None of my drafts about jiu jitsu so far have felt right – the angles were too inauthentic – or, to put it more kindly, too shallow.

The depth of impact of this martial art on my life is almost unbelievable. In a year, I went down four sizes in clothing and became bizarrely able to hang in an hour-long intense kickboxing session that leaves me uplifted and bouncingly energetic. Sometimes I wonder to myself, who the heck is this person that I’ve become? I will say there was a time in my life when I was much more athletic, around the time I was 14. Sometime shortly after that I drifted away from it.

And really, it’s taken a year just to allow myself to accept the goodness and blessings that have come my way from consistently and patiently keeping after this. To accept that the blessings are here, and then to want to share them with others. I’m writing now to offer my profound joy and sense of wholeness from training with men who are deeply committed to empowering women to life without violence. It’s truly amazing. I was skeptical and scared at first. I didn’t trust any of these guys – I didn’t know them, and, they are mostly pretty strong and/or fit. Trusting strange men seemed way too scary! And yet, I wanted very much to learn jiu jitsu.

In my life, I have been the victim of the following crimes, all committed by men: armed robbery, physical assault robbery, peeping Tom pressing against the door of my home, date rape, sexual harassment, and cyber stalking. I have also suffered the consequences of lowered energy from countless fear-based decisions: to not walk at night, to not wear a skirt to draw attention to my legs, to be wary of men no matter what.  I promise, I try hard to be optimistic to guys and give them the benefit of the doubt. But after all this life experience, can you blame me for the skepticism and, the fear?

A year later I’m in the thick of it – this contented space of training, improving, getting to know my classmates, laughing with them and also getting on each other’s nerves, and best of all, learning how to power through my own mental resistance. As yoga has been, this place of jiu jitsu training has become a stable and a reliable way for me to improve my life both on and off the mat. A buddy from class told me he saw the story about the “not today mother%^^&er” photo on Instagram and how amazing it was. You may have seen this – the woman who was jogging and stopped to use a public restroom where she was assaulted.

My classmate and I talked about how the woman had been pulled down, but, like we learn in our art form of Jiu Jitsu, was able to persevere and regain the advantage. She had recently taken a self-defense class. We talked about how we wished all women could do that.  Not only that, we were both super impressed with the look in her eyes on her Instagram picture. Not one speck of shame even with her black eye and swollen lip. She wasn’t concerned with not looking pretty. There was only survivor’s thrill and radiant pride in being powerful and alive.  My buddy told me how it inspired him to show up on a night when he’d been wanting to skip class. His joy and his truth in appreciation for her courage and her success really meant something to me. We could both share in her triumph and be inspired.

This is a difficult year for women in America. No matter how you voted in the presidential election, it is genuinely impossible to argue that the new administration is a loyal friend to American women. Sometimes these changes are too upsetting for me to really talk about without sputtering in a rage unfit for civil discourse. I will say the women’s marches creating a new record in American history helped. I still feel fear and yet also determination to handle myself and my own emotions & channel them towards a positive outcome.

So rather than complain or share anger today, I want to offer this – an ode to men who care. Who are comfortable being inspired by a strong woman. Who dedicate time and mental energy to making women’s lives free from violence. Who give girls chances to try martial arts. Who help me on the mat on my good days and my bad ones. THANKS, GUYS! It really means the world to me.

See you on the mat!





A clear and steady climb: emerging from a temporary disability


When I was staring my graduate program at UCLA I had a very difficult year because I was taken down with a temporary disability. Due to tendonitis/carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands and wrists, I found myself unable to write, or play guitar, or even really use my hands much at all. I could not chop vegetables. I could barely brush my teeth. It scared me deeply. I was at a very competitive graduate program with tons of high-quality people and a lot on the line including a big scholarship.

When I got diagnosed I hit this weird place. Traditional medicine first offered me a rolling office chair and ice packs. That didn’t help. Their next offer was surgery on both hands. That seemed an extreme option.  I had a hard time knowing what to do because they were the experts, but, something in my gut was telling me not to go that route. I prayed about it for some time and one night I was filled with the knowledge of what was ahead. I’m not sure how, but I simply knew.  I understood that I had two pathways ahead of me –  either get the surgery, and become worse and need more surgery, or, handle myself. Make some real changes in my day to day life and commit to that. Be willing to change at a fundamental level. Be willing to stop the train I had been on – just – stop. Let go of it.

The second option was the path I took – to make a real change. It scared me because it immediately made me different from all the other people I was competing with. I took advantage of every bit of assistance at school that was offered (like a note taker for my classes when I could not write my own notes). And I reached into the realm of alternative medicine. Some of it was just not for me at all. There are definitely a lot of quacks and clueless people out there.  But I found a few things that fit very well.  Yoga therapeutics was one. Stress management another. Ayurveda medicine had some good remedies for nerve damage. Introspection and prayer became my regular start to the day. And I walked a lot, taking time to really look around me and not be so focused on competing or proving myself.

The hardest part was not being able to play my guitar for about 9 months. I was terrified that I would possibly never play it again. For me that would have been a hard life because my guitar is my outlet. I was also scared that I might not be able to work a job because my hands were weak and sore and I couldn’t use them. I could not envision any future careers where I could do them without typing or writing.  I worried that my future was just going to be horrible.

Slowly I found release from the injury and the fear. Strangely, people I didn’t know that well would reach out, offer help, give me options and free or inexpensive treatment resources. It was sometimes hard to accept help.

I was used to being the top student and so being injured was a real shift. I had to let go of this sense of not being able to compete with my classmates. They were all fully functioning and I was sidelined.  I took notes with an audio recorder. I took exams verbally instead of writing them. I had to work all these modifications and alternatives. I was really frustrated because none of the other students had to do that. It felt so awkward having to admit I couldn’t do what they were doing. I was the only one who had to deal with that and work around it.

Well, when that academic year was done and the rankings came out in letters to each student, I was amazed that I was ranked number one in my class. Even though I had to modify, I kept up and learned all that I needed to learn and then some. I kicked that year to the curb.  I didn’t do it by going along with what everyone else was doing. I did it by taking the time for contemplation and prayer and by listening deeply to my intuition. This led me to take a path that was much different from the people around me. I trusted that and the results were very satisfying.

My injuries healed to a moderate level in about a year. I was able to make it and get out of the sidelines and back into the norm. But even better, about 4 years after that, I was not only back completely, I was stronger than before. I could notice stress in my body more quickly and adapt long before it got to be an ongoing problem. I found that I could play a three-hour set on guitar with hardly a break, something I’d never done before the injury. That to me was an amazing accomplishment – a testament to my own power and also the spiritual wisdom available when we make the decision to listen.

I’m aware that not every story of injury or disability will have a happy ending. However, for me the pathway out of that horrifying experience was a clear and steady climb. I made my way by accepting lots of help, and trusting my instincts about how to make things better for myself, even when it meant doing something very different from everyone else around me.





My Father’s Ashes

Before last week, I’d always thought funerary ashes were something to scatter – at a beloved place – not something to ever keep. The very idea of having someone’s ashes nearby, or in my home seemed, well, unpleasant. Beyond the obvious, there was a sort of ‘out of fashion” feeling to the idea. In fact I got a lot of laughs out of the scene from the film “Meet the Parents” where the uptight character played by Robert DiNiro reads an ode to his mother. As the family gazes up to the mantel, her ashes ensconced in an urn, there is a shade of the misguided or even perverse in the moment of filial intimacy. (What happens next is really taboo, and will probably either offend you or amuse you).

Still, the message came last week and hit me quick – I was being shipped a portion of my father’s ashes. My sisters already knew what they would do with their packets of ash, arriving via USPS in a cardboard mailer. They would take them to special places…Colorado…California…places of beauty and places of good memories with him. I loved it. Yet I felt anxious and uneasy about my own decision. My Dad traveled far and wide, for business and for fun. He tried everything he wanted to do – from piloting a glider alongside a hawk, to teaching and mentoring business school students, to living fully and completely until complications from Alzheimer’s took his mortal life.

I clenched my fists and tried to fathom it. Ashes. How weird.

As I contemplated what place I’d been the happiest with my Dad, it wasn’t in my home state of North Carolina. I knew the best moment of my time with my Dad – hands down. Though, as it was considered, it turns out there were many to think over and choose from. The best memory was a ski lift, and a powdery breeze on a sunny day, pines and the cleanest air in our lungs, runs that smoothed and bounced us a little and made us wide and peaceful; silent and peaceful and happy. Together.

That run called “Harriet’s Hollow” was the place our finest daughter and father connection lived. Yet as I contemplated going there, or maybe paying a pilot to fly there, I knew I was on the wrong track. What if it rained the day I went? How could I trust a pilot if I wasn’t going to be there? I knew that even when we try and go back we cannot, as the river is never the same twice. Add to that the pace of modern change, and the way that newness brings intensity and at times anxiety to our world. How could I make a day in 2015 compare to that one fine day possibly a decade ago? The day I had with my Dad and skied the best ever, no worries or bumps or spills. Just smooth sailing. I knew trying to recreate that was not possible and possibly could disappoint me.

As it turns out, after some thinking, I understand now that I want to be nearer to the ashes. Nearer! Surprise. Now they are something more personal, something not abstract. And, they are a sacred substance to me. And now I get it – I understand that they are not him. As my partner Daniel put it, that is not him, it is the ashes of a fire that consumed him. What a beautiful way to say it. My father’s ashes.

My father’s ashes are here now in my home, in a special box that stands on end and looks like an old fashioned, fascinating book. I put a picture of it up at the top of the blog. On the book shelf where this book sits, I have my journal, and my daily reader,  and a box he once received that had his name inscribed. It’s a way of remembering this month of my life in 2015, when the ashes came, and where I came to know and understand even more what it means to me to be my father’s daughter.

God bless my Dad, may he rest in peace.

Uttanasana, I’ve Missed You!


Uttanasana, I’ve Missed You!

This morning I made it to my first “Level One – Gentle Yoga” class since I was sidelined in the late summer by a fall on my bicycle. I have been going to class and doing yoga, but not standard poses. Instead I did a class called “Yoga Therapy” at Tara-Yoga, which used modifications of poses in a chair. It was very basic, very gentle, and very healing. It’s been good to be aware and nurturing, and yet I’ve missed the classic poses I’m used to doing.

So today, with permission and enthusiasm, my body entered into the yoga pose “uttanasana” for the first time in several months.   The pose, if you don’t know, is a deceptively simple one, also called “forward bend.” You stand tall and then bend at the waist, slowly lower yourself into the pose, keeping your back fairly straight and, while you may touch the floor, you keep most of your weight in your feet.

As with any yoga pose, I made the effort to tune in to subtle elements such as the placement of my feet and the weight of my body as it moved down through my feet into the ground. I made an effort to evenly distribute my weight between the front and back of my feet, as well as between the inside and outside of my feet. And for good measure I remembered to lift and spread my toes to have a nice wide space to make contact with the ground. And that’s just the feet! Breathing is important, too, and there are several other areas to focus on that I won’t get into now.

I’ve always enjoyed uttanasa, maybe because it is one of the poses that my body took to naturally. I have fairly loose hamstrings so I can pretty easily touch the ground with my fingertips. When I’m loosened up, I can usually even extend my arms and fully press my whole hand flat onto the floor. I really love the process of folding forward, too, because I find it akin to a prayer motion where I bow my head.  Only it’s even more intense, because instead of just bowing my head, I bow my whole body. I find peace in this release; great peace and also a kind of simple but deep joy.

When I settled into the pose this morning, it was as if I was seeing an old friend after a long time. The intimacy of knowing a yoga pose, of being “in relationship” with a yoga pose is difficult to explain to someone who has not had the experience. I suspect it may be similar with other kinds of spiritual and physical practices. You can describe them in words all you want, but you’ll not truly “know” them without trying it out. And by trying it out, I don’t mean just one time. Or, doing it a couple of times,  like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Meet the Fockers,” who had been doing capoiera for “a few weeks” and was really into it.  To really “know” is to know the pose in your body over an extended period of time. To have done the pose on good days, on crappy days, and on those middle-of-the-road days when nothing special seems to be happening. There is an understanding that comes from an amalgam of those days, of the pose in multiple frames of mind. You find wisdom in the overall experience by connecting the days together. To me, this is the path to “knowing” the pose.

Just as a relationship with a friend might have ups and downs, moments of joy and frustration, and an ebb and flow of giving and taking, so the relationship to a yoga pose can change. One day I might find it super easy to go into the pose deeply, while another day I might be extra tense and tight, and have to try not to fight myself. I have to remember breathe and be patient – both with myself and with the pose. Patient, yes, and determined with a soft and even kind of strength.

So today, as I sunk into the gentle, self-aware and self-respectful state of being I find when practicing yoga, I noted the joy I felt at doing this pose. Like coming back to a familiar place and looking around. Like finally meeting up with an old friend and finding out what we have to say to one another. It really hit me that I’ve been in relationship with this yoga pose for over 20 years and I plan to continue that relationship until I die or am no longer able to practice it. I’ve become aware that the pose is a friend for life. Uttanasana, I’ve missed you!

Important Note: Laurel Isbister Irby has practiced yoga for 20 years, always under the supervision of a professional yoga teacher. She is not trained to teach yoga and any description of yoga poses is intended to share her reflections on her own experience as a student, not to teach others how to do yoga. If you are interested in learning yoga, please get permission from your physician and seek out a trained, certified teacher who can help you get oriented to the practice of yoga.

Photo courtesy of GNU General Public License via Wikimedia Commons.

Scars & the Stories They Tell (Thank you, Gospodin Spassov)


A few weeks ago I was in a difficult accident involving my bicycle, a pile of gravel and a right turn that never was completed. Before I could even react to the spin of my wheel in the gravel, I was face down hard on the concrete street near my house. Quickly I staggered up, headed home and then on to the E.R. with my partner, Daniel. At the hospital the doctor slowly pulled one of my teeth out of a gash in my lip, cleared gravel out of my grated mouth and other road rash areas, informed me that I had broken a tooth, and then, finally, stitched up a big gash on my knee and let me go home.

As I contemplate the slowly healing slice on my right knee – free of stitches, yet still not closed up, still open and showing my gooey insides to the world – I find myself thinking about Ivan Spassov, the Bulgarian composer who, for a few months in late 1996, guided me in music composition, and in life. The reason I think of him is because of a conversation we had one time, about scars.

Spassov was one of the best men I’ve ever known. He survived the untimely death of his daughter and continued to embrace life. He directed one of the top conservatories in Bulgaria and wrote brilliant music up until the weeks before his death of a heart attack in late 1996. It was my great fortune that in 1996 I was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, studying music at the conservatory Mr. Spassov directed, as part of my research for a Fulbright Grant. Right from the start he was gracious and friendly to me. We sat, week after week, at the piano in his large office. He’d often smoke a cigarette as we talked, and occasionally he’d perch the filter end onto the piano with the smoking end out over the keys. My eyes would watch the smoke as he demonstrated harmonic ideas and compositional transitions. I would distractedly monitor the ash as it became longer and longer – surely it would drop onto the piano keys soon. But it never did.

Spassov had studied modern music composition in Bulgaria and in Poland and wrote and conducted a wide array of arrangements and compositions. “During his time in Poland Spassov learned and mastered serial techniques, and was the first Bulgarian composer to employ aleatoric devices and graphic notation.” (  During our tutorials we talked mostly about music and occasionally about life, too.

One day I came in to my lesson a bit upset.  The weekend before I had been shopping in Sofia in a large crowd. Someone tried to steal my wallet by taking a knife to my bag. Though she didn’t get my wallet, the knife left a huge rip in the bottom of the bag. I had sewed the rip up but it left a long scar. I showed the fabric scar to Mr. Spassov (or, Gospodin Spassov, as I called him in Bulgarian). I said, “The bag was special as it was sewn for me by my grandmother. And now it’s ruined with this big scar!”

“Ruined!” he exclaimed, “Nonsense! It’s not ruined. It’s not ruined at all.” He looked keenly at me, as he did when he really wanted his point to sink in. “Scars,” he said, “become stories. Scars are how we show we are alive. It makes the story richer. Don’t feel this is ruined at all!”

It’s been close to 20 years since he told me that, but it resonates in me like a truth that can’t be denied. Life without scars isn’t really life at all. Or, if anything, it is the new life of a baby before the scars that will come begin. I think of Spassov as I look at the new scar forming on my knee this week. The scar that will tell the story of my bicycle accident in the summer of 2013, and of the doctors who stitched it up, and of Daniel who held my hand, and of my fantastic skin and cells that healed it.

Thank you, Gospodin Spassov.

Your former student,

Laurel Isbister Irby

More about Ivan Spassov: