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



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.





Roses for Nona Mae

The gift of good memories – that’s what she gave me, and many others. My maternal grandmother Nona Mae Knight Prichard lived a long and valuable life, contributing hope and encouragement while maintaining a strong barrier against the forces that can knock us down: discouragement, despair, loneliness and regret.
The best part of growing up, hands down –  the annual visits to Sunflower County, Mississippi. Early on out in the country by Macon Lake, and later in the very small town of Inverness.
Driving there recently, I felt the pull of these good memories like a strong magnet. I made the trip to visit the cemetery where my grandmother was laid to rest. The air was alive with memory; a breeze lifted the leaves on a nearby tree, and scores of dragonflies hovered high in the air like living kites.
The time shared in the company of someone you deeply love makes a mark on you. Though she was like all of us –  imperfect – my grandmother had values that I admire. To focus on blessings and be thankful, to invite everyone to the table – including ex’s, new spouses – I mean, everyone, and to always love deeply the things that are most special about a person.
It was a gift she had – to recognize someone’s passion or that thing that made them light up – and get them talking about it. She also had a knack for the small details that made gatherings special – the ever-present red and green foil-wrapped Hershey’s kisses, Mr. and Mrs. Claus skating on a mirrored surface on the coffee table in the same spot every year, and that moment of arrival where she burst through the front door to come out and welcome you. That moment made the long drive well worth the effort.
As I knelt and placed roses on her grave, I thanked her for all of these good memories. They are strong enough to last a lifetime.


A Reflection on Numbers: 1,000 plays on Sound Cloud!


This week my Sound Cloud website page crested the 1,000 mark!

That’s over 1,000 plays of the songs and compositions I have there! I’m pretty excited about it. I want to first thank you, if you are reading this and you have ever listened to something I put up at Sound Cloud. Thank you! I also want to thank Jamie Weems for telling me about Sound Cloud several years ago. It’s a great way to get music into the world. To have my music heard.

Sound Cloud allows me, via analytics, to track the source of the people listening to my music. For instance, one week last year, I had 26 plays of my music tracks from someone in India. Pretty amazing! The website allows me to tag each music track with words like “folk,” or “guitar,” or “violins,” so that users around the world who search for those terms can find my music and give it a listen.

While I’m on the subject of numbers, I have a few more for you:

Amount of money I still have to recoup to pay back the investment in my 2005 CD Nona Mae’s Wishes: $1200
Amount of money I get paid when someone buys one of my tracks digitally on iTunes: $0.637
Amount of money I get paid for one song stream on Spotify: $0.00780000 (that’s not a typo!)

That’s the thing. Numbers can boost you up, and numbers can bring you down. And while I’ve had three successful small businesses in my life, there is one small business that I can’t ever seem to make money on and that is the business of recording and selling music. With such dismal prospects you might think that I’d give up. You know, let go of the dream. Try knitting or hockey, or cake decorating or something.

The truth is, I’ve tried! Twice in the past decade I came to the point of giving up. Once in 2008 I had a gig where I did the exact same amount of publicity (a lot) I always did, only – this is embarrassing – a total of 4 people turned up. Four people. Nice people, yes, very nice people.

Number of CDs sold that night: 0.

After that show, I felt so down that as I was driving to work the next day, I thought to myself – enough! Why put yourself through this anymore! Screw it, we’re giving up! And just at that moment, I heard my own voice coming out of the radio!

You see, I was listening to WLEZ, a local Jackson, MS radio station, and a year or so prior I had gone there to make a promo bit. You know, the, “This is singer-songwriter Laurel Isbister and you are listening to WLEZ” type promo. Edward St. Pe, who at the time was running that place, had invited me in to do the promo. The coincidence of this timing was not lost on me. It reminded me of how much fun I’d had at WLEZ, and also how far I’ve come, whether or not the financial numbers add up.

In 2014 I had another of these “giving up” moments. I started a new day job last year, one with pretty intense hours. I was feeling tired, very tired. I was in a bookstore, gazing longingly at some fiction. I thought, what if I gave up trying to always have two careers – a day job and music. What if I just had one? I’d have so much more time to read…maybe to wander in the woods and read a book all day. Oooh, yeah that sounded so good. And just at that moment, I received a text message from my friend, a web designer, letting me know she had just finished up with the new website we had been building!

By the way, the website,, is up and you are most welcome to visit!

Once again, I felt the mystic pull of music tugging at me…reminding me to look beyond the typical numbers of “success.” I have a gift that not everyone gets…and I have 30+ years of training, learning, writing, gigging, scoring, arranging, tracking, mixing, you name it! I have had total strangers stop me as I was singing randomly in the airport and say, “You sing like an angel!” or “I thought I was listening to the radio – but that was you!” I can honestly say I feel thankful and blessed beyond belief to have this gift.

At the end of the day,  I measure life, music, and success by more than numbers. Can I live with myself if I don’t make music? Nope. Can I look back at projects I’ve done, whether or not they made money, and feel proud and fulfilled? Yep. That I can.

Enjoy life, my friends. And celebrate today, with me, for topping that 1,000 milestone! Hell, I didn’t even get paid for those Sound Cloud listens, but they make me feel good – people all over this country and all over the world get to hear what I make, what I create! And do me a favor – encourage the people in your life who create music.

For without music, how much would we enjoy life? The answer for many of us: zilch!