Stretching

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.

7. Stretching

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.

References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4071053.

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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.


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.