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.
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.
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.]
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.”
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)
Silas David Lamprey Jackson
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.