What’s at the center of your being right now? Right this second.
That’s a question my coach asked me once during a conversation, and I froze in my tracks to puzzle it over. I considered possible weighty, metaphysical responses—deep, profound, disingenuous and ultimately without meaning. I also considered broad, simple answers: mind, consciousness, awareness. Accurate, but vague enough that there would be no actual substance to the response.
After I had spent a few moments wondering what the “right” answer was, my coach said, “Well, I would hope that right now ‘listening’ is at the center of your being.” He went on to explain that he didn’t mean anything mystical or mysterious by the question: it was a literal cue to stop and consider what was my current prevalent focus, mood or internal atmosphere. He said we’re often tempted to think “the center of our being” is something set in stone—some completely inflexible core around which everything we are is built layer by layer. But actually, he said, it doesn’t work like that. The center of our being is constantly shifting—being swapped out and renewed day by day, moment by moment. Right now you’re focused on reading, and that is the center of your being. The act and process of reading is central in your mind; your body and attention are aligned towards the text. As long as you’re so aligned, reading is the center of everything you are. Your heart is beating in service of reading. In five minutes, maybe “hungry” will be the center of everything you are, and then you’ll shift “making a sandwich” to the center, because, body and brain, you will turn yourself towards that task.
Staying updated on this, knowing “what’s at the center” at any given moment, is not only a vital part of coaching, it is a vital part of powerful, effective, self-aware action. A coach needs to be aware what’s at the center of others, athletes needs to be aware of what’s at the center of themselves. And it’s not a one-time revelation: it’s an ongoing study.
Think of the first time you ever walked into the gym. What impelled you? Why, deep down, did you decide to step through the door? That’s not in any way a rhetorical question. It demands a specific, direct answer. Being transparent to yourself and commanding deep knowledge of what motivates you would put you in a position to benefit fully from every available resource—both your own internal resources, and the external opportunities that come along to move further towards your goals.
But it isn’t just a one-time revaluation exactly because of the shifting, transforming nature of our motivations and aspirations. Whatever was at the center of your being the first time you walked into a gym, it may not be—in fact, almost certainly isn’t—the center anymore. Your perspective has changed, your knowledge has deepened, your resources have expanded, and you’re aligned towards something new now. Staying up to date on what’s at the center now vs. what was at the center then is the difference between subscribing to a narrative about yourself and having knowledge of yourself.
If you take out all the specifics, every hero’s journey comes down to the same fundamental arc. The hero moves out of familiar surroundings, into the realm of adventure. After trials and striving, the hero arrives at some kind of symbolic revelation; he or she returns to the normal world, but now everything looks different.
Whether you’re a bodybuilder, a weightlifter or just someone who generally aspires to “fitness,” your training can follow a hero arc. Every workout can be a heroic journey. You move out of the common, everyday concerns of life, into a realm where all different values, all different motivations are brought into the center of your being. Strength, power, poise; health, self-care, high aesthetics; self-revolution. Undertaking to lift a heavy thing represents a will to undertake exceptional tasks, a burning fervor to challenge and stimulate your mind and body in a way that perhaps no other sphere of your life enables. Passing out of ordinary life into this realm, you arrive at revelations about your own strength, beauty or steadfastness, and you return to the ordinary world changed.
But to really reap the deepest benefits of this arc, you can’t go through the motions like an automaton. It requires ongoing self-knowledge. It requires you to be transparent to yourself. Just like you become leaner and stronger little by little, you need to become more self-aware, little by little.
[A short snippet from my book The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg, describing the beautiful moment of lifting a heavy thing.]
You should see my Olympic weightlifter friend in action. First, she steps onto the mat and approaches the barbell—for a few moments she’s merely the friendly, cheerful person I know, walking casually along, a familiar smile on her face. Coming to a stop standing with her toes below the steel bar (which is elevated by the weight-plates at either end) she squats down and takes hold with a wide grip—hands pronated, elbows locked, spine straight, chin raised. Already a transformation is taking place. I’m not simply seeing a friend of mine anymore: I’m now seeing a physiological machine poised to explode into intense action—a kinetic sculpture; an artistic exploration of human capability. Somatic and mental evolution expressing themselves in a playful manipulation of force and matter. Chemical, cellular, musculoskeletal, nervous—every level of physical and psychological organization coming into a finely-tuned, automatically consolidated functional balance.
From this meticulously disciplined starting position (because the lift has already succeeded or failed in its preparation) she takes a deep breath, holds it (making her core a more solid base for what’s to follow by the increase of intra-abdominal pressure) and launches into motion. The muscles of the lower body supply the initial drive; legs extending, hips moving upwards and forwards; simultaneously, her tightened trunk draws backward, pulling her body towards a natural standing posture, very nearly “the anatomical position.” Agonist and antagonist muscles are precisely contracting isometrically and isotonically, locked in a seamless, reciprocal integration of movement—like members of an orchestra upholding their individual parts of a rigidly structured kinetic melody. The bar, rising in her grip as her body rises, slides first up her shins, past her knees as they lock, then to her waist; without the slightest break in the continuity of the movement, she makes a small hop off the ground—a fast-twitch muscle flourish, a subtle, easily-missed token of complete technical mastery of the physics at play—before dropping into a deep squatting position; knees fully flexed and tracking over the line of her toes, weight on heels, crease of hip below parallel to the floor; lumbar region of her back strong and active. Meanwhile, while she made her hop, her upper body was far from passive; shoulders shrugging upwards powerfully, she launched the barbell at the ends of her locked arms; bringing it up from her waist, she takes control of its rise and stops its motion as it comes directly overhead.
By this point, you have already witnessed a dazzling display of neurological communication and control—to say nothing of the counterbalanced muscular strength and diarthrotic joint flexibility involved. But you feel as though you haven’t only seen the movement performed once: rather, you’ve seen the culmination of a thousand (or more) repetitions. Over the course of long practice and entrainment, the complexities inherent have been internalized; their execution is, to a degree, automatic and unconscious, in the sense that they could not be properly performed in all their simultaneous aspects by the conscious mind alone. The brain as a whole, the central and peripheral nervous systems in their entirety, must be recruited. The lifter, for a fleeting instant of powerful motion, is displaying a human brain and body operating at functional capacity; motor cortex output traveling along efferent neurons, winding smoothly into an opposite stream of sensory input, as millions of afferent neurons carry the somatosensory signatures of every muscle’s position in space to a central executive will, a unifying cognition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said that our first and foremost certainty is of our body. Immersed in a universe of mysterious and metagnostic dubiety, we are grounded throughout our lives by the continuity of our somatic experience. The body is the base of all our experiences—we are viscerally certain of it even when we are certain of nothing else. And so it is only natural that in moments where the body and the mind lock into the operational oneness they were born to enjoy, when every cell is working to a common goal—when the spontaneous and intermeshed expression of the body dominates the entire mind and has the whole attention rapt—it is only natural that everything should make sense. Everything is certain, because this moment is certain, and this moment is everything. In the subjective experience of complete functional integration, nothing falls outside the perfection of the execution.
We don’t ask anyone why they want to be happy; happiness justifies itself. In the same way, immersed in the optimality of integrated movement, the movement justifies itself; the experience, the moment, the body, all justify themselves through the expression of their perfection.
I doubt these are the thoughts going through the lifter’s mind, in the instant she’s coiled at the bottom of the squat, back tight, head raised, the barbell held above by perfectly straight arms. The experience of optimality is too complete, too focused, to allow for such meandering thoughts; it’s alive, and it only lives in motion; doesn’t stop to put itself in words. It can only be put in words after it’s already over; and even then, the words are always inadequate.
But the lift hasn’t ended yet. Extending her legs once again—as if attempting to press the floor beneath her away—she rises into a standing posture, the barbell high aloft, the very picture of triumph. Completion. The end of the kinetic score. The orchestra falls silent and only the reverberations remain to tell what has just occurred. Dumping it forward, she drops the dead weight of the barbell from its height to the floor. A quick bounce, a slight roll across the mat, and it is still: disengaged from the hands of the lifter, it has lost its living motion. It, which seemed such an active character in the preceding performance, is revealed to be lifeless without its connection to the honed proprioception of the athlete.
Turning away, she walks from the mat, a wide smile crossing her face. The barbell has returned, essentially, to the spot where it started. Nothing has been changed. But everything has changed. The lifter’s smile shows that she understands this; she, immersed in the motion, conducting the band, felt its relevance, its absolute self-justification. She has acted out the lyrics “Do not die without knowing what your limits were.”
“You look good. Do you work out?”
No, that’s not what I do. I don’t like the vernacular “I work out.”
It sounds like a meandering, generic, unreflected concept—because it is one. People who think in terms of “workouts” don’t actually train. Training is a systematic, goal-oriented, efficient, no-nonsense, graduated plan. A background in the martial arts preps you for thinking in these terms. You don’t walk into a martial arts studio for a “workout.” Sure, you’ll get one, but the physical exercise is sort of incidental. You’re specifically training to develop a range of skills, to advance your rank, and to increase your knowledge-base in topics relevant to your field.
Serious weight-lifting or gym-going is the same. You’re not in it for a once-off workout—every training session builds on the last, and they carry you towards a definite objective with steadily increasing momentum. Whether your goals are aesthetic and qualitative (i.e., you’re after a tapered torso and bigger biceps) or quantitative (i.e., you want to deadlift 405 pounds,) the objectives cannot be reached in the short term. It is a long-term objective, something that takes systematic training and perseverance to attain. If you thought only in terms of once-off, individual workouts, your goals would evaporate.
Now, the Zen saying that “If you keep your eyes on the goal, you won’t be able to see the path” is true. If you are so consumed with your goals that your relationship with individual workouts becomes stoney-faced, militant and unenjoyable, you won’t actually reach those goals that you cherish. You have to value the experience to build on the experience. Every workout is a unit of currency for, in essence, buying you the effect you want. Each one is a penny. A hundred make a dollar. You want 20 inch biceps? Okay, that’ll be $100 dollars. Better start hoarding those pennies. Careful not to get too self-satisfied with small change, because you need real money here. But also, don’t get too casual about undervaluing pennies, because if you don’t value them as well as they deserve, they’ll never collect in large enough quantities to amount to much.
And as you “mature” in your training, you’ll have an evolving relationship with the currency. When you were five, having $20 felt like being rich. You could practically buy everything you could imagine wanting. By the time you were sixteen, you were dropping $25 dollars a day, easily. By the time you reached adulthood, you would hardly feel rich with anything short of $1,000,000. So as your training goes on, your accrued “wealth” of effort and experience is still divisible down to the level of individual pennies, but the sheer volume of pennies you need to approach the goals you have at your level is staggering. Your goals are not only evolving, but your ability to formulate goals is evolving. As you go, you are unlocking an understanding of things you want that you didn’t even know you wanted in the beginning.
It’s a balancing act. Cherish the pennies—but remember you are dealing in dollars.
And then you’re not just meandering from workout to workout. You’re training.
Four Things About Fitness I Wish I’d Known Sooner
1.“Fitness” describes a capacity, not a state of being.
Saying someone is “fit” describes a capacity they have; being fit is not a thing in and of itself. “Fit” is an adjective, not a noun.
Think of it this way. A noun describes a thing, a thing that exists and has characteristics of its own. A pistachio. A walrus. Those are things. They are the same thing no matter where you encounter them: a walrus out of its natural habitat is still a walrus. No matter how incongruous the context in which it appears (“Why the fuck is there a walrus in my bathtub?”) it is still the same thing. Fitness, however, is not a thing. It does not exist, and it has no characteristics.
Fit is an adjective. It describes something, and what it means always varies depending on where it’s used. A fit marathoner and a fit weightlifter are not the same thing. Speaking of their “fitness” describes their ability to do their own sport, but in each case it describes something wildly different. And not only are those capacities different, they don’t necessarily overlap at all.
The capacity to lift a lot of weight is not suitable or appropriate to help one complete marathons—hence, in that context, it is not fitness. The capacity to run a long way without stopping is not suitable or appropriate to help one set a new bench-press PR—hence, in that context, it is not fitness. The two athletes probably look different and certainly perform differently, but they are both fit.
This may seem like hair-splitting semantics, but it actually isn’t. Understanding that “fitness” does not exist and has literally zero innate characteristics topples the entire popular conception of what being “fit” means. The media make Fit a noun. It’s touted as a thing that exists—a specific thing that can be aspired to and achieved. Unless they’ve somehow never been exposed to modern media, the vast majority of people have at least some stereotyped ideas about the “innate characteristics” of fitness. —Six-pack abs. Thick arms in men, thin arms in women. A certain percent body-fat. Certain activities and certain foods are paired in people’s minds with a “fit” lifestyle. Maybe even certain clothes.
But this is entirely based in sloppy thinking, fantasy, media and marketing. Fitness is without characteristics. Fitness is no more about the size of your waistband than the size of your shoes.
There are as many ways to be fit as there are different things in the world that people do. And there are as many body-types associated with fitness as there are, well, body-types.
2. You’ll Probably Need To Expand Your Thinking.
Whatever you’re doing right now in your training, odds are good that your program is going to change. No matter how great the sense of all-in-one completeness you derive from the routine you’ve found or created, in ten years you will have learned so much more, your thinking will have changed on so many topics, and your body will have changed enough, to cause you to change your approach. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a criticism of whatever you’re doing. Think about it: what you do now is the optimal approach to fitness-training according to your current understanding. In a year or two, you will know exponentially more, and what you think is optimal now may no longer look optimal. Your approach may be refined, tweaked, tightened up in some places, loosened in others. Or whatever. But it will change. Your thinking will expand—new knowledge will come in and shake up the settled order of your training.
That’s important to keep in mind because of our tendency to grab onto our programs or approaches and think we’ve found the One True Way.
“Man, you’ve gotta try this yoga class I’ve started doing. It’s an unchanging sequence of poses every time—same timing, same temperature in the room. Everything the same. It’s designed perfectly. Perfection: nothing to add or subtract. It’s the magic bullet—all you need wrapped up in one class. Everyone should be doing exactly this, and if you talk to me about anything else I’ll excommunicate you immediately.” That’s a pretty extreme example, but it’s too easy to tend towards that mindset in anything we do, fitness-wise.
“THIS IS IT! I’VE FOUND THE GRAIL.” Just take the guess-work out of it, and accept from the beginning that you’ll never find the grail, because there isn’t one. What you may think is the answer to all your fitness questions right now almost certainly will not be the answer anymore a decade from now. That’s not a bad thing—that’s as it should be. Help yourself along the road of continually expanding your thinking and practice by treating everything you do in your training like a tool. Firm grip on the handle, but don’t clutch it. If you clutch the handle of a tool too tightly, you wind up wielding it awkwardly.
3. You’ll Also Probably Need To Expand Your Timeframe
We want jumpstarts and reboots and six-week transformations. We want to “kick our metabolisms into gear” and “shed pounds” and do all kinds of things that sound like rapid changes and drastic overhauls. But rapid changes generally don’t last. Think of an illustration from nature: a plant that grows quickly withers just as fast. It explodes out of its seed, spreads around, bears a yield of fruit, then dies. On the other hand, a tree grows slowly. A bit at a time. And 100 years later? It’s gargantuan. And it’s still growing a bit at a time.
We make healthy, lasting changes to our bodies more like the tree than like the plant. Expand the timeframe in which you demand results. What you’re measuring in days, start measuring in weeks. What you think of in terms of weeks, you should probably be thinking of in terms of months. And so on.
4. You Really, Really Need To Be Having Fun
I’m not saying you need to work out exclusively on playgrounds. I’m not saying you need to pause after every set of deadlifts to have sex with your workout partner against the gym wall (though I’m not not saying that.) All I’m saying is, if the attitude you bring to your training is rigid, militant and devoid of joy, you probably aren’t going to get where you want to go. It’s a long road. If you’re not deriving any joy at all from what you’re doing, it’s unlikely you’ll stay with it over the long haul.
Think of joy in your training as being equally important to getting protein in your diet. Put the same level of attention into it. Give it the same level of precedence in how you gauge your progress. It will make a difference.
If you absolutely positively can’t find any joy in what you’re doing, it means you’re doing the wrong thing, and that’s that. If you analyzed your diet and realized you were getting way too little protein, you would obviously know that you needed to change your diet. If you analyze your fitness training and realize that you’re getting no enjoyment out of it, you need to change your training. You need to find ways to move, strive and challenge yourself that compel you and that you find joy in.
It’s a long road. Actually, scratch that: it’s an infinite road. There is no final destination. You may have concrete goals, but when you reach those goals they always turn out to just be milestones. You pass them, and move on. The goals you set at one moment in time, when you finally reach them, no longer seem like enough. You’ve expanded: the old goals are small compared to you now. So you move on.
And so it goes, on and on. There is no finish-line to cross. If you put your head down and barrel onward, as if you’re just going to tough it out until you get there, you’re in for a harsh surprise. It’s an infinite road. If being on the road itself isn’t joyful, you’re bound for disillusionment.
My girlfriend & I have joined forces on an ebook geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether newbie or veteran, 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, and blogs here: http://yogamattes.com.)
You can see other sample chapters from the ebook about sweating, hydration, electrolytes and nerves either here on Planet Beast or over at her blog. Most of the chapters we’ve put up have been in order, but now we’re taking it out of order to share some basic information about the role of stretching in health and fitness. Again, the ebook is geared towards Bikram yoga students, but any kind of athlete could benefit from the info.
Proper stretching has a host of benefits for the body. When done regularly, stretching can help to improve range of motion (ROM,) can help prevent injuries and arthritis, relaxes the muscles, can increase flexibility, improve posture, help prevent hardening of arteries and increases blood-flow. Those who stretch regularly benefit more than those who stretch occasionally, and those who perform a variety of stretching exercises benefit more than those who only perform only one or two. By both those criteria, a regular yoga practice is just the ticket.
Types of stretching
There are actually four different types of stretching: ballistic, dynamic, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, and static. Static stretching is the only kind we do in Bikram yoga class. As the name implies, static stretching is performed by stretching the muscle until a gentle tension is felt and held for a certain amount of time, or until muscular release is felt, without any movement or bouncing. The hold is static. This is an important distinction, because bouncing and moving “to get farther into the pose” is a common mistake made by beginners. This is ballistic stretching, which is an entirely different animal. Ballistic stretching exercises are a thing, but they are not at all like yoga exercises. Yoga poses are not designed to be performed ballistically, hence it is not safe, biomechanically, to treat them that way.
Physiology of Stretching
To understand the tight, pulling sensation experienced during stretching (called passive muscle tension,) it is necessary to look at the physiology of the muscles themselves, simplified to the aspects most relevant to our discussion. An individual muscle is made up of bundles of individual muscle cells. When you think of a body cell, you might imagine a little round glob with a single nucleus. Muscle cells, however, are different than other body cells. They are long threadlike things, which is why they are also called muscle fibers. They are incredibly thin—10 to 100 nanometers—but they generally run the entire length of the muscle they comprise, and can contain multiple nuclei. So, for instance, the individual threadlike muscle fibers that make up your biceps run the whole length of your upper arm; those that make up your hamstrings run the whole length of the back of your thigh, etc. We’ll see why in a moment.
Inside the outer membrane of the threadlike fiber is an even thinner fiber. This tiny inner fiber is called the myofibril. The myofibril, in turn, is made up of individual microscopic contractile filaments called sarcomeres. These sarcomeres facilitate the movement of skeletal muscles (the muscles that move your skeleton; the ones you use all day every day, whenever you do literally anything.) When the muscle fiber is stimulated to contract, these tiny overlapping filaments pull together. On and on down the chain, they pull together, causing the entire muscle to contract towards its origin point and pull against its insertion point. And because the skeletal muscle is anchored to a freely moving joint, the contraction pulls on the joint and causes its angle to be either increased or decreased, depending on what that particular muscle’s “job” is.
Think of a bodybuilder flexing his biceps. As his elbow bends, the biceps muscle suddenly looks larger and rounder. What’s happening? The microscopic sarcomeres inside the muscle fibers are pulling together and overlapping—rather than resting laid out along the upper arm in a long chain, they are piling up: the muscle is contracting. That same contraction is what causes the elbow to bend. Contracting towards its origin point in the shoulder, the muscle pulls on the opposite end—it exerts leverage against its insertion point in the elbow and causes the straight arm to bend. That’s why each muscle fiber runs the full length of the muscle—so they can exert a pull all the way from origin to insertion.
The cause of the passive resistance felt during stretching was once supposed to be extracellular (in the connective tissues,) but a study by Magid and Law demonstrated that it actually comes from within the myofibrils themselves.
What this means is, when you’re stretching, you’re stretching against the elastic resistance of those microscopic sarcomeres. And due to neurological safeguards against injury, it is normally impossible for adults to stretch most muscle groups to their fullest possible length without extensive training, due to muscle activation of antagonists as the stretched muscle reaches the limit of its normal range of motion. While stretching is highly beneficial to the body, over-stretching is detrimental. The body is wired to protect itself against over-stretching injury, and the upper limits we experience in our flexibility are often not mechanical limits at all but rather due our body’s hardwired resistance to the stretch itself.
Stated another way, some of the increases we see in our ability to stretch with practice are not due to increased capacity to stretch but rather increased neurological stretch-tolerance in muscles. Safe, effective stretching increases stretch-tolerance within a healthy, biomechanically sound range, thereby improving range of motion, better aligning joints and relieving chronic muscle tension. Another benefit of stretching is that it stimulates the production of synovial fluid (the fluid that pads and lubricates freely moving joints.)
Understanding that the passive resistance felt during a stretch comes from within the muscle itself illustrates an important principle in safe stretching: when stretching a muscle, it should be relaxed. Contracting the muscle, as we’ve seen, pulls the sarcomeres together, whereas stretching pulls against those sarcomeres. Thus, attempting to stretch a contracted muscle is physiologically unsound, because the muscle will be physically unable to stretch and the tension will be transferred to surrounding connective tissues. Ligaments and tendons do benefit from gentle stretching, but yoga poses are not designed to safely allow connective tissue to bear the full brunt of the stretch. That is not the intended effect of any pose. And yet, stretching against tight, contracted muscles tends to transfer the brunt of the stretch in exactly that way, potentially making the pose more conducive to causing soft-tissue injury. In short, you’re doing it wrong.
I was talking with a client this morning after her weightlifting session; we discussed the concept of moderation in her fitness routine. Before we started working together some months ago, she had a highly driven, hi-octane approach to her physical conditioning. Less than half an hour on the treadmill, for instance, and the session didn’t even count, as far as she was concerned—she told me how she had to abandon her habit of running before work, because by the end of her intense cardio sessions she would be sweaty and tired. She’d need a full half hour to cool off, shower, and pull herself together. It took too damn long.
She gave up on the idea of getting in some physical activity before her largely inactive workday, because there just wasn’t time for that rigamarole. As a result, her exercise sessions clustered together at the end of the week—she was inactive all week because there was no time to work out, then made up for it with a bombardment of rapid-fire, soul-crushing workouts all through the weekend. That story isn’t unique. Plenty of people do exactly the same thing.
I think moderation gets a bad rap. We look on moderation like a markedly uninspired, pantywaist reluctance to push ourselves, or a general policy of backing away from hard work. We have given “moderation” a negative connotation just like we’ve given “decadence” a positive connotation. How many times do we need to call a dessert “decadent” before decadent is functionally a synonym for “delicious?” How many times do we have to call something wimpy “moderate” before moderate is functionally a synonym for wimpy?
But Moderation, be it with a capital “M” or otherwise, is “the avoidance of excess or extremes.” Excess and extremes are, by definition, too much of something. So making moderation your goal is, literally, making it your goal to do the right amount. Being moderate is bringing critical thought and discernment to bear on your fitness and health. It means designing a plan that works for you and, on the nitty-gritty practical level, is rational and ultimately effective. Moderation means doing things in a sustainable way that works well in the long term, rather than an extreme way that is short-lived and doesn’t work as well. Moderation is a function of clear judgment and critical thinking.
Which is why, when my client told me about how she didn’t run before work anymore because it took to long to cool down and recover, I gave her a piece of moderate advice.
I didn’t say, “Suck it up! This is your health we’re talking about. Work for it. Do the session.”
“Don’t work so hard,” I said. “Instead of half an hour running, do fifteen minutes.” And she did. And it was easily manageable. Fifteen minutes of running before work was no problem—and she didn’t get as sweaty and worn out, so she didn’t need all that recovery-time before moving on with her day. It became her new habit to run for fifteen minutes before leaving for work, not getting up much of a sweat, not wearing herself out.
In other words, she had been thinking in extreme terms and ultimately had to give up on her before-work sessions because they weren’t manageable. As a result, she was largely inactive all week. Then she started thinking in moderate terms. Her before-work sessions became manageable—and thus she got in up to 75 additional minutes of exercise per week, between all those short sessions.
So, that’s a pretty significant change in her level of activity during the workweek. Extreme attitude towards exercise, 0 minutes of exercise. Moderate attitude towards exercise, 75 minutes of exercise. (Who’s pantywaist now, Extremism?)
And this morning, she said something to me about the change in her attitude that inspired me to write this post: “It used to be like I was at a banquet.”
You see, I had described a moderate approach to exercise like this: exercising is no different than eating. When you eat, you eat until you’re satisfied, then you stop. You plan on eating again later. That’s just how it is. This meal isn’t going to last you forever—soon enough, it will be time to eat again.
Workouts should be the same. No one single workout will ever make or break you. Each one is an increment. Each one is a small part of an ongoing series. The series, the plan, the overall habit and tendency, is where moderation asserts itself. Moderation thinks in terms of the right amount to be sustained across a long haul.
It creates an overarching framework to continue building upon as time goes by. Someone with an extreme attitude, on the other hand, tries to get done with everything, JUST ABSOLUTELY ALL OF IT RIGHT THE HELL NOW, HURRY, HURRY, THERE’S NO TIME. Extremism thinks too much in terms of each workout having discrete, individual importance. —“This is the big one. This is the one that counts. This is the one that it’s all about.”
But a single workout only has value in as much as it is part of a habit—as a stand-alone event, a single workout can’t do much for you. No matter how drawn-on the marathon session is, no matter how thoroughly you annihilate yourself, no matter how many calories are burned or how many pounds of water-weight are sweat out, a single session is not going to bring the results you seek. Those results come over time.
Moderation eats a little, planning to eat again later. Extremism gorges itself, sitting at the head of the table at a massive banquet—but all that food isn’t going to bring much nourishment if it just goes and goes until it is fucking vomiting all over the floor.
Or think of it like this: You want to grow an orchard. You plant apple-tree saplings, and water them. Later, the soil is getting dry, so you water them again. That’s moderation: you think critically about how much water the trees will benefit from at this stage of their development, and give it to them when they need it. You do that over and over again.
Now, suppose you decided to skip those little individual watering sessions, because who has time for that? Better to do it all at once—over the weekend, when you have time to do some serious watering. So you give the parched, withering trees a sudden influx of massive amounts of H2O—more than they can possibly take up through their roots all at once.
Congratulations! You’ve killed your apple-trees. Or if they survive and mature, they’re not going to produce anything close to optimal apple-yield.
Now I’m done spouting metaphors and similes. Go apply it to the real deal, instead. Consider your workout plan—is it moderate (i.e., well-thought out for maximum effectiveness and sustainability over time) or is it extreme (i.e., poorly thought out, causing it to become unbalanced in actual practice, spiral off course and prove itself ultimately unsustainable.)
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.
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.]