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.

 

 

In the ring: lessons learned from my first Jiu Jitsu tournament

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I get this text from my roommate Jessica, it’s meant to be simply informative. She knows it’s my first jiu jitsu tournament and I am not clear on how it all works.

“Pit times is like being on deck, where they’ll get the people in your division together first and then take you to your ring.”

Simple, right? Merely factual. Yet the words “take you to your ring” sent a thrill of powerful fear and excitement up my spine. For someone who never intended to train in grappling arts, the idea of being in the ring with anybody seemed so foreign – maybe even insane. Life is hard enough, filled at times with complications and difficult people…why voluntarily step into the ring for a fight I didn’t actually have to engage in? Why not stay home and watch Netflix?

The choice to compete in the AGF tournament at Millsaps College was a last-minute decision, based in part on the assumption that competing is an efficient way to identify important holes in my game. Thus, a way to make my training more effective. I was also curious. Maybe I would hate it…maybe I would love it. There’s only one way to find out. As one of my teachers says, “you can’t learn to swim if you won’t get wet.”

So, I signed up and showed up. As I packed my stuff to head out, my well-worn yoga mat beckoned me from the basket I keep it in. “Bring me,” it seemed to say. I thought, hmm, I may be the only person there with a yoga mat. The only person doing yoga prior to a meet. But that did not dissuade me. Over the course of my life it happens more and more that I’m the only one doing a particular thing. If I let that stop me I would miss out on a lot of fun and also not be able to achieve excellence. Think about it – excellence is often defined by innovation. And innovators by the very definition do something no one else does.

I signed in at the tournament, and weighed in. That part was strange because I’ve lost so much weight. I was slightly terrified that the weight I had used to register was a bad reading from the scale at the gym. I feared getting on the scale on tournament day and some huge number popping up that would delay my match and create the need for a reshuffle of weight classes. None of that happened. The number on the scale was a little less than one pound off what I had used to register. Mischief managed.

The fear that had been getting to me in the week leading up to the tournament was my nervousness about the take down. I’ve always been able to have that experience in the controlled environment of a class with a training partner I know. This match would be different. I feared getting thrown hard or slammed to the ground and then having some kind of mental or emotional freak out that would be unpleasant, negatively affect my game, and cause me to not have a good experience.

So far, one of the best lessons jiu jitsu has taught me is to take action – to move – rather than to wait passively to see what happens. Or to wait for someone else to take charge. As I debated how to handle my fear on tournament day, I realized that I could think of some proactive options. Rather than being afraid of how I would get taken down, I thought of a way to initiate a take-down that would help me to avoid the situation I feared, namely, getting slammed to the ground too hard.

I asked one of my coaches if I could do a level change, drop down to one knee, and take my partner down by the legs.  He thought that would be fine. In this way, I would already be on the ground, and so not stuck in my intense fear of getting slammed down from standing. In my match, I applied this technique and it felt so great both to have faced my fear and also to find a reasonable solution or strategy.

I didn’t win my match but I did get the take down. That was fun!

The other key for me was that well-worn yoga mat. While I did take an hour to cheer other teammates on and talk to some friends, in the period right before my match something inside me said, do some yoga, do it now. While most of the students were still chatting, I rolled out the mat. At first I was a bit self-conscious, but yoga, my faithful practice, never ever disappoints me. After a few minutes my focus shifted to my breathing, my balance, and the familiar poses. I allowed my mind to still. And when they called me to the pit I felt ready and at peace. As I stood in line, I felt excitement but almost no nervousness. Even when my opponent came towards me, I had a calm feeling –  a happy excitement I could almost call joy.

The lessons learned from this day are this: when facing fears in an unfamiliar setting, it’s possible to take control by assessing options and picking one that suits my needs. I don’t have to wait for someone else to help me do that; I can initiate the process and thus gain confidence. And, I can prepare mentally for any challenge by going back to what always works for me. For some folks, it might be talking to classmates or to their coach. For me, it’s the practice of yoga which inevitably calms and centers me. Even if I was the only person with a yoga mat, it was what I needed and I’m happy I did it.

As I said, I didn’t win my match. The day felt like a personal win however. I tried something new. I faced my fear.  I gave it my best shot. I enjoyed doing jiu jitsu with a stranger, and I found out some of the areas of defense I need to study up on. Are you wondering, is she going to try tournament competing again? If you are, well, I’m wondering the same thing! Stay tuned….

 

 

 

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!