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

 

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

IMG_0995

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….