Electrolytes and Nerves

My girlfriend & I have joined forces on an e-book geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether it’s their first time or they’ve been doing it for a while, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.

(My girlfriend is a professional yoga teacher, and blogs at: http://yogamattes.com )

You can see the chapters on sweating and hydration in older posts, on my blog or hers. Again, these are chapters from an e-book geared towards hot yoga class, but the information in it is applicable to all kinds of athletes. We’re writing this guide from our experience in hot yoga, but we’re not just hot yogis—we’re hot no matter what we’re doing. (Har, har. See what I did there?) Anyway, here is some basic information about maintaining electrolyte balance, and what those electrolytes are actually doing in your body.

Chapter 3: Electrolytes

Balancing your hydration level is about more than just water. When thinking about sweat-loss and water intake, you also need to think about electrolytes. Your body’s nerve reactions and muscle functions depend on the proper concentration and exchange of these chemicals.

What exactly are electrolytes? Chemically, they are substances that ionize in solution (that is, dissolve in water) and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Some of the specific ones that are commonly measured by doctors are: sodium, potassium and chloride. These substances are lost through heavy sweating—and if you rehydrate with only clear water, then your electrolyte levels will be thrown out of balance; the ratio of water to electrolytes in your body will be altered.

Sodium is a majorly important positive ion in the fluid outside of cells (the interstitial fluid, like we talked about above.) The chemical notation of sodium is Na+. You know sodium best after it’s been combined with chloride—that’s the chemical composition of table salt.

Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body, and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells plays a vital role in critical body functions (as we’ll see when we talk about nerve impulse conduction below.) Many, many processes in the body and brain require the conduction of electrical impulses for communication, integration and control, and the movement of sodium (a positive ion) is essential in generating these electrical signals. Therefore, too much or too little sodium leads to cell malfunction.

Potassium is a major positive ion found inside of cells (it’s chemical notation is K+.) Proper potassium level is essential for normal cell function—among many other things, it regulates heartbeat and the function of the muscles. A serious disruption of potassium levels can critically affect the nervous system and increases the risk of irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias.)

Hypokalemia is a decreased level of potassium. It can be brought on by kidney diseases, or excessive loss due to vomiting, diarrhea, or—most relevant to our subject—heavy sweating.

Chloride (Cl-) is a major negative ion found in the fluid outside of cells and in the blood. It is closely regulated by the body, and plays a role in maintaining a normal balance of fluids. Just like all the other electrolytes, it can be thrown out of balance by various diseases, but, relevant to our discussion, excessive loss can occur through heavy sweating.

Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance

An electrolyte imbalance can create a number of different symptoms—and the specific symptoms that manifest will depend on which of the electrolyte levels are affected. Altered potassium, sodium, magnesium or calcium levels can lead to: muscle spasm or cramping, weakness, twitching and convulsion.

When the levels are low (the more likely scenario in a Bikram Yoga class, as opposed to high,) it can cause: irregular heartbeat, confusion, blood pressure changes, headache, dizziness and nausea.

In a hot yoga or Bikram Yoga class, by far the most common signs of electrolyte imbalance will be headache, dizziness, nausea, and cramping.

Replenishing Lost Electrolytes

So we know now that these ionizing substances are essential for a host of critical body functions, and that they are lost during heavy sweating, potentially, and very likely, to the point of excess. So the next step, logically, is to replace the lost electrolytes and maintain the balance. The best way to do that is with consistent intake of electrolytes.

A good rule of thumb to follow: drink your water with electrolytes. Don’t just chug clear water before, while, and after sweating heavily—replenish your lost water and your lost electrolytes together by adding sources of electrolytes directly to your water. As one example: try clear water with added raw honey to taste, a pinch of unrefined salt, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Take this concoction with you into class—steadily replete both your electrolytes and water together, even as you deplete them through sweating.

When, during or after class, you need an extra boost of electrolytes, supplementation is appropriate. If you experience symptoms of electrolyte imbalance as you practice, you should seek out some concentrated source, such as electrolyte-replenishment packets (like “Emergen-C” or “Ultima,”) or simply a small pinch of sea salt dissolved on the tongue.

Meanwhile, take electrolytes in steadily through diet in your daily life. Don’t rely on concentrated supplementation alone. What that means is, if you do something that causes you extreme electrolyte depletion all the time—like sweating heavily in a Bikram yoga class several times per week—take the initiative. Take steps to prevent imbalances in the first place. You should always be attempting to take in replacement electrolytes at a steady pace throughout your daily life—not only in occasional concentrated mouthfuls after you have already realized the balance is drastically off. This is done through a diet rich in electrolytes. For instance, you know you’re going to consistently lose potassium through sweat in class—so take it in just as consistently, from dietary sources like bananas or coffee. Or whatever—just find sources that work for you and make electrolyte replenishment a dietary priority.

Electrolytes should be taken in in the same consistent, gradual, measured way that you supply your body with water. You know you lose a great deal of water in class, so you consistently take in reasonable amounts of water during the day, every day. In other words, you keep hydration in mind even when you’re not dehydrated. In the same way, keep electrolyte balance in mind, even before you experience symptoms of imbalance.

Extra Notes on Sodium

Sodium warrants special attention for a couple of reasons. One, it is among the main electrolytes lost in sweat (hence sweat’s salty taste.) Two, you generally don’t get much of it from commercially available electrolyte drinks and powders. As a result, you may be taking in a healthy amount of other electrolytes, but, because you are losing so much through sweat and taking in so little through electrolyte drinks or powders, you may still fall short of replenishing lost sodium.

General medical guidelines for low sodium levels recommend restricting fluid intake in order to prevent hyponatremia (too little sodium in the body, relative to water,) but in the context of Bikram Yoga practice, limiting fluid intake is not appropriate. That guideline is general, and does not apply to anyone who regularly loses huge amounts of water through sweat. In the case of low sodium-concentration brought on by massive loss through sweating and dilution by clear water intake, the solution is, logically, increased intake of sodium. A pinch of salt on the tongue, a pinch of salt added to your water, a sprinkling of salt on your food after class. However you take it in, you will need a little boost of sodium to properly replenish what you lose while practicing, before you’re ready to go into the room and sweat again.

Special Concerns 

Certain medications may cause electrolyte imbalances, such as: chemotherapy drugs, diuretics, antibiotics and corticosteroids. If you are on any of these medications, it is important to keep track of your electrolyte levels. Make sure your doctor knows you are practicing hot yoga and understands how much heavy sweating is involved.

Chapter 4: Nerves

Electrolytes are essential for generating the electrical impulses that facilitate the nervous system’s communication and control. How exactly does that work? We’ll take a short, simplified look at it, to a) illustrate how the electrolytes we’ve discussed actually function by conducting electrical impulses and b) to set the stage for the next chapter, wherein we’ll look at the nervous system. There are two main types of cells in the nervous system—neuroglia and neurons. Neurons are the one we’ll be considering here. They can be afferent (conducting impulses towards the brain) or efferent (conducting impulses away from the brain.)

A neuron consists of a cell body (also called the soma or perikaryon,) the axon, and one or more dendrites. The dendrites of a neuron are processes that stick off and branch like tiny trees (in fact, the name comes from the Greek word for tree.) The dendrites receive impulses to conduct from other neurons. Once received, the impulse travels down the axon—a long process, like a thin tail—and reaches the next neuron by way of terminal branched filaments called telodendria. Axons can vary in length from a meter long to a few millimeters. They also vary in width—from about 20 nanometers down to a single nanometer.

In order to understand how impulse conduction works, and how electrolytes are involved, it pays to get familiar with a few relevant terms.

Potential difference—an electrical difference, or an electrical gradient. A potential difference is the difference between the electrical charge present at two points. A potential difference is a form of potential energy. It is a force that has the potential to move positively charged ions down an electrical gradient, that is, from a point of higher positive charge to a point of lower positive charge.

Polarized membrane—a membrane whose outer and inner surface have different amounts of electrical charges. Basically, a potential difference exists across a polarized membrane.

Depolarized membrane—a membrane whose outer and inner surface have equal amounts of electrical charge. A potential difference does not exist across a depolarized membrane; it is zero.

When a neuron is not conducting, the inner surface of its membrane is slightly negative to its outer surface. There is a potential difference across its membrane—in a nonconducting neuron, this is called “resting potential.” The mechanism that creates this resting potential is primarily a sodium-potassium pump, built into the neuron’s plasma membrane (the outer membrane of the neuron.) This pump actively transports positive sodium and potassium ions through the plasma membrane in opposite directions and at different rates. For every 3 sodium ions it moves out, it moves 2 potassium ions in. If, for instance, it pumped 100 potassium ions into a nerve cell from the extracellular fluid, it concurrently pumps 150 sodium ions out of the cell. This makes the inner surface of the neuron’s membrane slightly less positive—or, slightly negative—to its outer surface.

Blamo—there you have the potential difference in a nonconducting neuron known as resting potential. Now, an impulse comes along for the “resting” neuron to conduct.

1) When a sufficient stimulus is applied to the neuron, it vastly increases the permeability of its membrane to sodium ions at the point of stimulation (it lets more sodium in.)

2) The positive sodium ions rush in towards the point of stimulation. The excess of sodium outside the membrane, therefore, diminishes. It quickly reaches zero. In other words, the stimulated point of the membrane is no longer polarized. But only for an instant. Quickly—within milliseconds—the positive sodium ions streaming in create an excess of sodium inside the cell and trigger an action potential. An action potential is a potential difference across a neuron’s membrane with the inside positive to the outside. So, since resting potential has the inside negative to outside, action potential is a reverse polarization. The inside becomes positive to the outside. Development of action potential at the stimulated point of the neuron marks the beginning of impulse conduction.

3) A chain reaction occurs. The action potential of the stimulated part of the membrane becomes the stimulus for the adjacent part of the membrane, and that next stimulated point goes into the same process. The action potential moves along the length of the neuron, point by point, conducting the electrical impulse on to its destination.

[Next up, the nervous system and the fight-or-flight response.]

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Sweating and Hydration.

My girlfriend and I have joined forces on an e-book, geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether it’s their first time or they’ve been doing it for a while, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.

(My girlfriend is a professional Bikram yoga instructor—here’s a link to her blog: http://yogamattes.com)

So, we’re writing the book with a Bikram Yoga class in mind, but the basic information in there could be useful to pretty much any kind of athlete. These first two chapters are on sweating and hydration—those are important no matter what your sport or style of training is.

1. Sweating

Well over a century ago, a French physiologist named Claude Bernard (1813-1878) made a very important observation. He observed that body cells survive in a healthy condition only when the temperature, pressure and chemical composition of their fluid environment remains relatively constant. This is still a pivotal observation in modern physiology. We don’t call the environment of cells the milieu interne, like he did—we call it the extracellular fluid. Extracellular fluid fills the microscopic spaces between cells, and it is actually of two types: interstitial fluid, and blood plasma (the fluid part of whole blood, as opposed to the red or white blood-cells.)

The relatively constant state of the cellular environment is called homeostasis. The literal meaning of homeostasis in Greek is “Standing or staying the same.” That doesn’t mean our body’s homeostasis is something that stays the same all the time and never varies, it just means that, while the internal environment will vary, the body will work ceaselessly to keep it relatively constant—because there is a narrow margin for change in our internal environment before the cellular and chemical processes that are the literal basis of life cease to move along properly. As an example, the homeostasis of blood temperature is 98º F, but it will vary slightly above and below that point. For the most part, though, the body has mechanisms in place to keep blood temperature there, even when environmental factors outside the body threaten to change it. Mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis involve the functioning of nearly all the body’s organs and systems. The body has its metaphorical hands full, working endlessly to maintain the constant internal environment upon which its survival depends, adjusting continually to a changing external environment.

Temperature regulation is of the utmost importance, because life depends on various chemical reactions taking place inside the body at a certain rate—and changing temperature changes the rate of chemical reactions. Unchecked internal temperature fluctuation would have catastrophic effects for the body, so there are thermostatic mechanisms in place to maintain—yes, you guessed it—temperature homeostasis. To maintain an even temperature, the body must balance heat production with heat loss—if extra heat is produced, that amount must be lost. Heat loss, primarily, occurs through the skin by the processes of evaporation, radiation, conduction and convection.

And that (finally!) brings us to sweat. Sweat is produced by sudoriferous glands, the most numerous of all the skin glands. Histologists estimate that one square inch of skin on the palm of your hand contains 3,000 little coiled, less-than-0.4-mm-diameter sweat glands. The number of sweat glands all over your body can exceed 3 million. These glands will work throughout life to produce a watery fluid rich in salts, ammonia, uric acid, urea and other wastes—a fluid which in addition to excreting wastes helps maintain a constant core temperature. And obviously, if the replenishment of lost fluids is not adequate, serious dehydration will occur. (In extreme conditions the body is capable of an astonishing sweat-production of 3 liters per hour for short periods—a prodigious rate which will almost always exceed what we can replace by drinking.)

Heat energy must be expended to evaporate any fluid, so evaporation of sweat is a major method by which the body loses excess heat. (When you’re in a Bikram yoga class and your teacher says, “Don’t wipe the sweat! It’s helping to cool you down,” that’s what she means.) The process of evaporation taking place on the surface of your skin is contributing majorly to heat loss. Evaporation is especially important in high-temperature environments, where evaporation is the only means the body has for heat-loss. Radiation and conduction involve the transference of body heat to a nearby surface with a cooler temperature (that’s what happens, it’s just thermodynamics) but in the hot-room during a Bikram class, everything around you is just as hot as you are, so you can’t lose heat that way. Evaporation is literally your body’s only shot at cooling itself down. So, leave that sweat there, and if it tickles a little as it drips down, just deal with it.

A humid atmosphere inevitably retards evaporation, which is why a really humid class leaves everyone flat on their mats, even if the temperature wasn’t any higher than usual. But that doesn’t mean you have no hope for heat loss through evaporation in a humid room: a ceiling fan, no matter how slowly it’s rotating, can be your saving grace. Convection is the transfer of heat away from a surface (for instance, the surface of your skin) by movement of heated air or fluid particles. The moving air, even if it doesn’t feel cooler, will allow your body to lose more of the excess heat than it could in a stagnant atmosphere. So avail yourself to the fan, if possible, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s doing much.

Sometimes your teacher will mention the antimicrobial properties of sweat. That doesn’t mean exactly what it sounds like—your sweat isn’t some natural cleaning product that will leave the hot room, by virtue of the gallons of sweat shed into the carpets daily, a sterile environment which never needs cleaning, where we could safely perform surgery or assemble microchips. But sweat does play a part, along with the sebaceous or oil glands, in maintaining a surface film which covers your skin, providing a protective barrier against bacteria and fungus, hydrating the skin surface, buffering against various caustic irritants, and blocking a verity of toxic agents. So, there’s another reason not to hastily wipe sweat away as soon as it starts to glisten on your forehead.

2. Hydration

All this talk of sweat brings us to a strongly related topic—hydration. Water is lost through sweating, and water regulates your body temperature, lubricates joints, and helps transport nutrients. So obviously you don’t want to lose it without replacing it.

If you’re not properly hydrated, your body simply cannot function at its highest level—and dehydration can lead to fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness and more serious symptoms.

There are no rules set in stone, when it comes to guidelines for water-intake before, during and after exercise. Everyone is different. And there are a lot of variables affecting water-loss—heat and humidity, exercise intensity and duration, general level of physical “fitness.” Body weight makes a difference, age can make a difference, etc., etc. Your specific need for water is just that—specifically yours.

The simplest way to monitor that you’re staying properly hydrated is to check your urine. Don’t wince, this is science. If your urine is remaining consistently clear or light yellow, you are most likely staying well hydrated. (Before actually walking into a Bikram yoga class, you should be well-hydrated enough that your urine is clear, but day to day, straw-colored urine is ideal.) If your urine is amber-colored or dark brown, it’s a sign that you’re becoming dehydrated.

There are further general guidelines to be found on the internet regarding water intake in relation to exercise, but, again, your need for water isn’t general. It’s specific to you. And a good guideline that’s specific to you is—yes!—your level of thirst. If you’re thirsty, drink. Stop drinking when you’re not thirsty anymore. Then, when you’re thirsty again later, drink some more. Following that golden rule, and also being aware of the color of your urine and learning to “read” it to judge your level of hydration in realtime, will very quickly lead you to an intuitive understanding of how to balance your water intake with water-loss in your own body and life.

The signs of dehydration include headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, dry mouth, cessation of sweating, and heart palpitations. Signs of severe dehydration include mental confusion, weakness and or loss of consciousness. Obviously, you should seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of those symptoms.

Severe dehydration is no joke.

But over-hydration is also a thing. Hyponatremia occurs when there is too little sodium in the body—as can happen when someone, like an endurance athlete for instance, drinks too much water. Hyponatremia is a rare condition involving swelling of the body-cells with water, including, potentially, swelling of the brain. This is an extreme and it’s rare, but it pays to be aware of it, and aware of the trend of excessive water-intake that can lead to it. Excessive water intake of such a catastrophic, heroically disproportionate level comes from ignoring your thirst-level and drinking to some outside guideline. That is, not drinking because you’re thirsty, but drinking because someone told you how much water to drink, so you think you need to force down that last bottle.

Drink to thirst, keep an eye on your urine. That’s the way to self-regulate your hydration and keep it in healthy parameters.

[Next chapter will be on maintaining blood electrolyte balance.]


Wildly Off Topic. Kind Of.

So, a while back, a research professor at Boston college named Peter Grey, Ph.D., and his collogue Gina Riley (adjunct professor of special education at Hunter College) ran a survey of “unschooled” adults, for analysis and publication in an educational journal and also for a four-part article featured on “Psychology Today.”

(Here’s that: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201406/survey-grown-unschoolers-i-overview-findings)

Since I was “unschooled,” a friend of mine directed me to the survey. I’m was one of the 75 responders.

Since it might conceivably be interesting to somebody who wants to know what unschooling is or what it’s like, here’s my response to the survey in full. (Don’t worry, I at least drop a few references to weightlifting and bodybuilding in here, so it’s not completely unrelated to this blog.)

Survey of Unschooled Adults (Age 18 and older)

Name:

Silas David Lamprey Jackson

Gender:

Male

Birthdate:

10/24/89

1) Please tell us about your history of schooling/homeschooling/unschooling:

I am the youngest of four brothers, all of whom were unschooled.

(a) Did you ever attend a school, as a regular student, when you were between the ages of 5 and 16? If so, please list any schools you attended by type of school (e.g. public, Montessori, etc.), your age when you attended and when you left, your grade level(s) at that school (e.g. kindergarten through 5th grade), and your understanding of why you left that school.

I never attended a school of any type.

(b) During the years when you were not in school, between age 5 and 16, did you ever do homeschooling—that is, school at home, where you were following a curriculum determined by your parent(s) or another adult? If so, please describe that experience, how long it lasted, and your age at the time. If you switched from homeschooling to unschooling, what led you and/or your parent(s) to make that switch?

I never followed a curriculum set out by my parents. I did study with tutors occasionally, but only in subjects that interested me specifically that couldn’t be approached as effectively without a teacher—my parents sought out and made available the resources I would need in those cases. My two oldest brothers did follow a curriculum with my parents briefly (long before I was born,) and my parents gradually drifted away from homeschooling into pure unschooling as they observed how effectively the kids were learning organically, with self-direction driven by their own individual interests. They were inspired to step back and allow them to, essentially, do their own thing—trusting that they would learn what they needed to learn, when they needed to learn it.

2) Please describe briefly how your family defined unschooling. What, if any responsibility, did your parent(s) assume for your education?

I hesitate to say my parents “assumed no responsibility,” because it might imply a semi-neglectful attitude. They assumed the responsibility of standing back, prepared to teach if we approached with questions, but otherwise patient enough not to involve themselves overmuch in our learning while it was progressing on its own.

3) In your opinion, why were you “unschooled” instead of going to school or doing school at home? Is this something that both you and your parent(s) wanted to do?

Both my parents chose unschooling. The brief answer is, they didn’t believe in the formal educational system. They were admirers of John Holt and his educational philosophy, and chose to make this experiment despite its unusualness at the time my older brothers were born. By the time I came along in the late eighties there were plenty of other home/unschoolers in the area, but earlier there were very few. My parents were pioneers in that regard, unschooling my brothers in the old days when it required special permission from the State (which they acquired easily by presenting their views on the matter to the principal of the local school and outlining the subjects my brothers were working with,) and was still met with a certain apprehension by others in the community. That changed slowly as the general social attitude towards homeschooling changed. It was always understood that any of us could have opted to attend school at any time if we decided we wanted to.

4) Are you currently employed? If so, what do you do? Does your current employment match any interests/activities you had as an unschooled child/teen? If so, please explain.

Thankfully, both of my current jobs relate directly to my interests earlier in life. I am a writer and a martial arts instructor. Writing is a craft I’ve always been involved with and have always had ample room to explore in a slow, thorough, unstructured way. I don’t hesitate to say that it is unschooling which allowed my to develop my writing however far I have—reading classic literature with my father from a young age (of course by “reading” I mean “having it read to me”) and bumbling through my family’s extensive library year after year were two totally informal and totally essential components of my education. Later on, when I began to study and practice more structured aspects of writing—finer details like poetic meters and forms, literary composition, the arcana of English grammar, the processes of editing and publication—it was all placed on a foundation of natural love for words that had developed entirely in its own time and way. I wouldn’t trade the opportunity I had to read and think aimlessly for any other type of education in writing. Anything I’m now required to learn in a more formal way as a professional writer, I can seek out on my own. What I couldn’t ever give myself, is more time. That had to be given to me originally—and the time I had, to spend exactly as my own interests directed me to spend it, is something that will continue to benefit me for my entire life.

Martial arts are another subject I was able to immerse myself in exhaustively, thanks to the freedom I was allowed in how I used my days. I began instructing at my Taekwon-do school a few years after beginning to train there, and when my grand-master died and the studio closed recently, I began to run my own classes and take on my own students, blending martial arts organically with the other arenas of physical training I’ve been studying over the years. My academy (“Planet Beast”—the absurd name hopefully conveys what a good time we have, and how much time we spend laughing) in a lot of ways mirrors the paradigm of unschooling. Students come for Taekwon-do, but before the class is over they’ve experienced weightlifting and strength training, military-type exercise, flexibility training drawn from yoga, all blended in a natural way as it applies to and interacts with the original subject they wanted to learn, giving a broader perspective and a sounder understanding of the underlying principles involved. In my mind, that is the philosophy of unschooling. First chew, digest and understand the principles behind things, then worry about finer details.

5) Please describe briefly any formal higher education you have experienced, such as community college/college/and graduate school. How did you get into college without having a high school diploma? How did you adjust from being unschooled to being enrolled in a more formal type of educational experience? Please list any degrees you have obtained or degrees you are currently working toward.

I haven’t undergone any formal higher education.

6) What was your social life like growing up? How did you meet other kids your age? How was your “social” experience as an unschooler similar/different to the types of social experiences you have now?

Growing up, I mainly met kids my own age either through friends of my parents, or through my mother’s students (she is a music teacher.) As a kid I had a small group of friends, but close-knit and, years later, the friendships have endured and remain of absolute, paramount importance to me, not even second to blood family. Over the years, my social circle expanded exponentially through involvement with various activities that brought me into regular contact with comparatively massive numbers of people. So the sheer number of friends and acquaintances is one key difference in my modern social experience versus earlier in my life. A seven-year-old me, for instance, likely wouldn’t have been able to handle them all.

Another key difference is that many of my friends now have a context that we mainly connect through—yoga friends, bodybuilding friends, martial arts friends, author friends, etc. We have our specific thing that we generally do together, and when we’re not doing it, we’re talking about it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy genuine, satisfying relationships with them—it’s just that we relate in a different way than my older friends because there’s a specific framework that our friendship developed within, rather than being a slow, aimless, markedly unschooled-like experience spanning from childhood on.

7) What, for you, were the main advantages of unschooling? Please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences. In your view, how did unschooling help you in your transition toward adulthood?

If maturity can be measured by self-knowledge, then unschooling allowed me to mature (in a personal sense) in a fairly smooth way that, given my natural temperament, may have been impossible for me otherwise. That is, had I not had the rich allowance for quiet introspection I always had. Growing up, I had no grasp of what this meant, because I had no palpable frame of reference outside of my own educational experience—I was what I was and learned as I learned, without any particular critical evaluation of either. Looking back, however, I see that unschooling—by allowing me to gravitate towards my own interests and digest them at my own rate, not moving on until I thoroughly understood them and how they related to me—gave me the strong comprehension of what I want to do in my life, and the strengths and weaknesses I will be working with as I attempt to do it, that many of my peers seem to struggle to attain. Simply put, I feel I arrived at a sense of purpose earlier than the average person because I had leisure to mull the matter over earlier than most people. Shifting from subject to subject in a formal setting, tangled up in homework and tests and grades and schedules, there’s not enough time to do nothing, and the brain isn’t given enough time to think.

8) What, for you, were the main disadvantages of unschooling? Again, please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now. In your view, did unschooling hinder you at all in your transition toward adulthood?

I suppose the main hinderances were related to an asynchronization between how I operate and how the larger world operates. We had drastically different paces of life. My early existence was never governed by schedules, and as a result my functional relationship with time developed to be quite loose (my difficulties with conceptions of time led to a running joke that I don’t know how old I am or what year I was born in.) Basically, when the world got up and moved, it was difficult for me to to keep step with it. I was used to leisurely meals and time to sit and digest, in a world that thrives on fast-food, eaten on the go. The challenge for me was, and is, to learn to thrive on fast food when I have to.

It occurs to me that what I just called a hinderance is basically the mirror image of what I above called an asset. Oddly, this isn’t an inconsistency. Many factors of my personality that were developed through unschooling, I find, can be assets or hindrances equally in different contexts. The value of each trait isn’t innate, but rather depends on how effectively it can be adapted, in motion, as the situation demands it.

9) If you choose to have a family/children, do you think you will choose to unschool them? Why or why not?

If I have a family, and assuming my future wife is of the same mind, I will certainly be unschooling my children. If my own experience with it were not enough to fix unschooling in my mind as the best educational option, I now have the added reinforcement of watching my nieces grow and learn, unschooled by my oldest brother and his wife. Oddly enough, my brother, having been unschooled, was at first adamant that his daughters go to school. His wife, who was formally educated, was adamant that they home- or unschool their children. Once he observed his little girls’ natural learning, my brother agreed with his wife and decided that unschooling was the best option.

So the main reason I would unschool my children, is I trust a child’s natural capacity to learn even without professional intervention. Since my general philosophy in life is that every step taken away from our nature carries a steep price, I would prefer to model something as major as my children’s education along a paradigm that follows, rather than in many ways antagonizes, their nature.


Why Bodybuilding?

Last night, a friend of mine asked me why I lift weights and build my body. She wasn’t being flip—she was actually intrigued by it, and wanted to understand what motivates me in the kind of training I do. I replied—and here’s what I said.

“HEY! So, why the training? Sorry in advance for writing a really long thing, but I’m getting pretty fascinated by trying to answer the question, because it forces me to step back and take a fresh look at why I do what I do, getting it clear enough to communicate it to someone else.

Really, the WHY varies from person to person, and there are as many different drives finding an outlet in bodybuilding as there are bodybuilders (and many, many different drives finding an outlet EVEN IN ONE bodybuilder, haha). But I can only get into my own stuff, and what I’ve talked about with my coach. (Did you read The Man Who Pulled HIs Own Leg? I don’t want to just rehash stuff from the book to answer your question, but a lot of the basic personal reasons I transitioned from yoga to bodybuilding are in there.)

One of the big things that keeps me with the training is that I JUST LOVE IT. Like, I love the actual moment of lifting a heavy thing. Since I take a lot of joy in the training itself, even if I made little or no ‘gains’ I would still be lifting. I do it because I find it amazing that my body is capable of it, and that keeps me intrigued by progressively discovering just how MUCH MORE my body is capable of. That, and feeling good physically as a result of it—so on a bodily level, basically the same exact two things that kept me with yoga for the past decade, and with martial arts for even longer than that.

I authentically enjoy the physical activity of hard, manual labor, even if that’s something as simple as having to move a pile of boulders from one place to another for some practical reason. Weightlifting is a way to enjoy that kind of thing systematically, for it’s own sake, while developing the ability to do more and more of the work as time goes on.

As for bodybuilding, WHY build bigger muscles and aspire to certain physical aesthetics, for their own sake, distinct from any actual application in physical or athletic work—that’s harder to answer because it has a lot of different motivations simultaneously. I’m not kidding when I say, for me, it is basically sarcastic. I do it with a wink. But at the same time, even though I’m doing it sarcastically, it’s very, very much NOT a joke (I don’t know if that contradiction makes much sense, but the fact that my coach instantly understood what I meant by it is one of the big reasons we get along so well, haha.) What I mean is, I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t derive my sense of self from, say, my biceps, but at the same time, it’s the outlet of a very serious artistic impulse. It’s not any different from the impulse to paint something or sculpt something. Except instead of working with canvass or marble, I’m working with my own genetics and physiology.

My left brain is intrigued because it’s a way to delve into how the body works and explore it on a practical level—practical, because it’s aimed at actually making observable changes—and my right brain is satisfied because the work-in-progress is something deeply artistic, aiming for the creation of a pretty damn powerful symbol. It’s the archetypes that are represented by a jacked body-as-a-symbol that make it compelling to work towards. Just ask ancient Greek sculptors. That’s why bodybuilding poses exist. They’re tools to express an ideal, and since they’re all about being seen, they’re about communicating something with other people.

And on the subject of being seen, the attention that comes with creating an imposing or impressive physique is also satisfying on some vain level, haha. I admitted to Dev a while ago that the bodybuilding progress-shots I was uploading to Facebook all the time while she was far away weren’t coincidence—they were almost entirely for her benefit. 😉

Lastly, for me, bodybuilding is kind of a mental deprogramming from a lot of stuff I’ve worked through in the past, where I glorified feeling shut-down and inadequate by justifying it with deconstructive philosophies—destroy the ego, abandon identification with the body, surrender all attachments, remain emotionally aloof from worldly things, etc, etc. I’m not knocking Eastern religions, I’m just saying I related to those ideas in a way that was basically negative.

And bodybuilding is a way of continuing to turn around from that, because what’s more body-positive, constructive and creative than directly working to get physically bigger? Hahaha.”


Those Who Can’t Do, Teach

You’ve probably heard the old saying that “Those who can’t do, teach.” Maybe you took offense on the behalf of teachers everywhere—maybe you are a teacher, and were personally offended. I can certainly understand that. It’s a crass, infuriating sentiment—it’s used ignorantly by ignorant people who don’t appreciate what a complex and amazing skill it is to effectively teach someone something.

But actually, there’s some truth in it.

Have you ever had a teacher who was naturally gifted at whatever they were trying to teach you? Didn’t it suck? Weren’t they drastically out of touch with the experience of an average student, struggling to make progress in something that feels at every step unnatural or confusing? For instance, if you were a middle-aged, heavyset man with a history of football injuries, just starting to take yoga classes, would you want a slim, flexible 20-something woman who has been doing yoga since she was a teenager—and had never done anything else—as a teacher? If it all comes easily to her, how realistic would her frame of reference be for what an actual struggle it is for you to touch your toes? How safe and clear will her instructions be for you to follow? Wouldn’t someone who had been through the exact or comparable difficulties to yours be much better equipped to give you guidance? Someone who had already bumbled through what you’re bumbling through, and already made a vast stock of observations regarding the pitfalls and benefits associated with everything you’re doing? Probably. Probably, in this hypothetical situation, a heavyset, middle aged man who had used yoga to rehabilitate old football injuries would be your ideal teacher. The man who initially couldn’t do much of anything would, after years of difficulty and gradual progress, be the best possible teacher for you.

So the saying should be, “Those who at first couldn’t do, teach.”

It’s the people who have had to think critically about their limitations and make experienced-based judgments about what is approachable (or even beneficial) for an average person who are the best teachers, because their experience is a resource for them to use in relating to the difficulties of their students. Whereas someone who easily followed along with everything their instructors told them from day one, and who skyrocketed from beginner to advanced to elite faster than anyone else in their class, has no comparable resources to draw from as a teacher. A champion-level yoga-practitioner trying to teach a beginner could easily assume a student working with a limitation is just lazy—because they simply don’t have the experience of a body that doesn’t bend very far even during intense effort. They might tell their students to stop messing around and work harder. Thanks to this in-touch, compassionate advice, the struggling students suddenly morph into a different body-type altogether and enjoy hitherto undiscovered ranges of motion. Whoops. No, I meant to say, “Thanks to this advice, the students promptly hurt themselves doing something that is inappropriate for their bodies.”

Something I draw on as a martial arts instructor, is the fact that when I started training in martial arts, I was very, very light. I only weighed about 100lbs. Ergo, it was essential for me to really understand the body-mechanics involved in generating powerful strikes. I had literally no choice. If I had started to learn Taekwondo weighing as much as I do now, 13 years later, I could easily have relied on brute strength to generate equal or greater levels of power behind my strikes. But since I was instead forced by my small size to use critical thinking, and to devoutly absorb the technical instructions of my teachers, and to develop nuanced skill to generate power, I now have that mental model of the mechanics of each technique to draw upon when instructing my own students. If I had started off being able to deliver strong blows with ease, I would be a less effective teacher.

The same goes for teaching anything. Your struggles in it become the resource with which you can instruct others.


I Wonder What The Deal Is With Essential Oils

It’s a fact that essential oils have been used in various therapeutic applications for centuries, but there has generally been little published clinical research on their use. So we don’t have much hard data on their effectiveness in alleviating or attenuating the various conditions they are utilized in traditional medicine to treat. But this is starting to change lately, as a little spattering of scientific studies on essential oils are being conducted around the world.

There are a quite a few inherent difficulties for any study centered on essential oils. For one thing, that shit ain’t standardized. Unlike with a pharmaceutical drug, medical researchers can’t count on the fact that the chemical constitution of, say, lavender oil is exactly the same in all cases. The chemistry of an essential oil is inevitably going to be influenced by local geographical conditions, and weather conditions, as well as the season and the goddamn time of day when the plants are harvested. Additionally, how they are processed, and how they are packaged and stored, will affect the oils’ constitution. Each plant is unique in its chemistry, so essential oils are never exactly the same—this is obviously different from pharmaceutical drugs that are synthetically reproduced and are identical every time. It throws a wrench in the works when you’re studying something, if you can’t be sure that thing is, on a chemical level, exactly what you think it is.

Another problem is derived from the fact that it is difficult to conduct blinded studies with aromatic substances. Typically, research studies involve testing two groups—one group gets the experimental substance, whatever that may be, and another group gets a placebo substance (this group is referred to as the “control” group).  When using aromatic substances, it is very difficult to conduct a blinded study, for the exact reason you would think. Basically, your subjects in a study are going to know whether you’re giving them a fucking beaker of lavender oil to sniff, or a beaker of saline solution.

But some researchers are finding ways to get around these difficulties, and conducting clinical studies on essential oils.

Preliminary controlled studies indicate that various forms of aromatherapy may have clinical applications in the reduction of anxiety experienced by patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. For instance, one interestingly designed (albeit small-scale) study, a hospital ward was suffused with either lavender oil or water for two hours. An investigator then entered the ward and evaluated the behavior of the 15 residents, all of whom had dementia. (The investigator was unaware of the study’s design and wore a device to block inhalation of odors, because double-blind medical studies require both the researchers and the study-percipients to be unaware of whether the actual substance or the placebo has been delivered.) The results indicated that use of lavender oil aromatherapy modestly decreased agitated behavior.

It’s common, however, for patients suffering from dementia to lose their sense of smell, rendering the application of aromatherapy in dementia patents somewhat limited in its usefulness.

Essential oil of lemon balm has shown promise in this regard; in a double-blind study of 71 people with severe dementia, use of lotion containing essential oil of lemon balm reduced agitation compared to placebo lotion.

In a trial involving sixty-six women waiting to undergo highly anxiety-inducing surgical procedures, ten minutes of inhaling the aromas of essential oils of vetivert, bergamot, and geranium failed to reduce anxiety significantly, compared to placebo treatment. In another study, rosemary oil failed to reduce tension during an anxiety-provoking task, and conversely might have actually increased anxiety.

Another interesting complication involved in studying aromatic substances, is that human beings have a strong connectivity in our brains between memory and smell. Smells pull up a lot of emotional associations for us—it’s such an accepted fact that neurologists even have a pithy name for it: “nasal nostalgia.”  So, if a subject smells rosemary and becomes anxious, how can a researcher possibly know if that’s due to some innate property of rosemary oil, or because that subject has just been reminded of the rosemary perfume his crazy aunt Mildred used to wear—the one who used to chase him around the house with her taxidermy cat when he was a child?

Yet another wrench in the works.

Still, some other clinical trails have actually revealed favorable effects. In one such study, researchers assessed the anxiety-level in three-hundred and forty individual dental patients, all waiting for dental appointments (who were all presumably about to flip their shit.) Those that inhaled the scent of lavender showed lower levels of anxiety compared to the control group. In another study, one-hundred and fifty patients were randomized into one of three treatment groups: control (standard care), standard care plus lavender, or placebo (standard care plus another kind of oil not thought to have any anti-anxiety effects). Those in the lavender group did actually experience an appreciable reduction in their level of anxiety.

Approaching the use of essential oils from a different angle, researchers have evaluated the effects of massage therapy done with essential oils on people suffering from anxiety and/or depression, while undergoing treatment for cancer. The treatment did appear to provide some short-term benefits to those patients. Again, absorption through the skin may have played a role here.

There is weak evidence to suggest that inhaled peppermint oil might relieve postsurgical nausea. Peppermint was associated with the attenuation of nausea symptoms in a small randomized trial of 35 women after nonemergency cesarean section, compared to placebo aromatherapy and standard antiemetic drugs.

Inhaled peppermint oil may also be useful in relieving mucus congestion of the lungs and sinuses—there is, however, only marginal supporting evidence for this application.

There is clinical research showing that an essential oil constituent (perillyl alcohol) has been successful in treating brain cancer. That’s a pretty frigging big claim, and calls for linkage:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=perillyl+alcohol+AND+brain

So we know that in certain circumstances the constituents of essential oils can do big things. But that doesn’t necessarily display the effectiveness of the essential oils themselves—for instance, does inhalation necessarily lead to the same effects as other modes of administration? Maybe. Or maybe not.

In one rat study, bergamot essential oil inhibited the damage caused by “focal ischemia” (the same type of damage caused by stroke). The oil was injected, not inhaled.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19607983

Persistent anxiety is an all-to-common problem in the general population, and the pharmacological drugs used to treat it can often lead to sedation—hence the perennial search for alternative modes of treatment. Since the anxiolytic properties of lavender have already been demonstrated in some studies and small-scale clinical trials, like we’ve been looking at, a controlled clinical study was performed to evaluate the efficacy of “silexan,” an oral lavender oil capsule preparation. The lavender oil preparation was shown to be roughly as effective as pharmaceutical drugs (benzodiazepine) in the treatment of anxiety.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19962288

So what does all this say? Nothing other than what it says. There’s no broad, all-or-nothing take away, like “essential oils work!” or “essential oils don’t work.” (Sorry not to have a magic answer.) As time goes on, more and more evidence will be amassed both to debunk the effectiveness of oils in some applications, and to support their effectiveness in others.


The Myth of Fitness

“Fitness” is a highly coveted state. If you want to know what that state entails, never fear: there are plenty of weekend Crossfit warriors and people who have taken two or three Bikram yoga classes in their lifetime who will be happy to tell you in intimate detail that they have arrived at the one true definition of “fitness,” and then proceed to magnanimously climb down from their high horse and explain to you exactly what you need to do to become, like them, “fit.”

But if, like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that “fitness” is meaningless jargon engineered to sell magazines and keep self-dissatisfied people scrambling after an illusory goal, then I have something you might be interested in reading. Here’s a small excerpt from my book, “The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg,” about my experiences, observations and reflections over the past nine years in yoga, and also in bodybuilding.

“This is a good moment to mention something important: ‘Fitness,’ as most people use and understand the term, is a mythic state. Next time someone says something along the lines of ‘I’m really fit,’ treat them like they just said, ‘I’m actually a unicorn.’ It is a state of being that exists only in their imagination, fueled by desperation to be a happy, beautiful immortal. It’s the plasticized, Photoshopped state of a man on the cover of a magazine, whose shaved abs and percent body-fat demand a constant, obsessive maintenance that his cool, suave expression belie. It’s a non-specific athletic mastery of everything, including things we haven’t tried yet. It’s a symbiotic unity of perfect health, dazzling functionality and sculpted physical aesthetics, carried to an expression of perfection where they’ve all hit critical-mass and perpetually sustain themselves, needing only air and good cheer for fuel—leaving the Fit Superhuman with nothing to do but engage effortlessly in rigorous recreational activities, bask in their own classical beauty and have terrific sex, on and on forever.

The reality is, fitness is always specific. It’s always fitness to do something. It makes no difference if that thing is running or pole-vaulting or lifting weights or doing yoga. By doing that thing, you increase your fitness for it—your body continually adapts to that specific thing, to the detriment of your fitness for other things. A champion Strongman athlete looks and performs nothing like a champion Marathoner—they are both ‘fit’ to the highest degree in their particular sport, but the adaptations that brought their bodies to that high level of fitness were drastically different. This doesn’t mean you can’t be in generally good shape—defining ‘good shape’ as having the strength, stamina and natural mobility to engage in a wide array of activities, enjoy a great quality of life and maintain a high level of activeness for years to come. That is immanently feasible—that’s primal human heritage. That’s how the body evolved to work. But something people don’t acknowledge when they think about fitness, is that such a general state as being ‘in good shape’ necessarily doesn’t veer to any extremes. If you want to engage in specific activities—say, yoga—to a point where your abilities are truly exceptional, you’re inevitably going to take away from your ability to do other things exceptionally. Your body will adapt to yoga so heavily that there’s no room left for adaption to other activities—if you want to shift your adaptation in another direction, you can, but it’s going to come at the cost of your previous extreme adaptation.

Being ‘in good shape’ doesn’t require anything more than a novice-to-intermediate level of ability in any particular thing. For instance, you can progress from being completely sedentary to being pretty good at yoga and see a massive corresponding increase in your general quality of life. But that’s as far as the principle extends, before the returns for your effort start diminishing. After that point, the shifts from intermediate-to-advanced-to-elite will have absolutely no corresponding increase in your general quality of life, because at that point the training you’re doing is specialized. It’s yoga-specific (or anything-else-specific) adaptation that has no practical overlap with the outside world.

Nothing in excess, everything in balance. You know what that is? It’s the fucking slogan of  ‘Core’ dog-food company. Who cares where wisdom comes from. Learn it by heart.”

If you’re interested in reading some more excerpts, here’s my book’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/BikramYogaMemoir/timeline