Before me is a very interesting article in the 'Amrita Bazar Patrika' (11.8.79) entitled "Most People Die Before Their Time". It quotes Dr Vladimir Negovsky, Head of the Department of Reanimology in Moscow, Russia, who states that the normal human lifespan should be about 150 years but that most people die before their time because of 'mechanical breakdowns' that could be repaired by the ever advancing technology of medical science.

Dr Negovsky has been able to prolong the critical period of clinical death from the average of five or six minutes to ten or fifteen minutes and he expects to be able to increase this period to two or three hours by lowering body temperature. He said that thousands of people are alive today who would not have survived accidents or hospital complications without his techniques.

In his forty years of research work, Dr Negovsky has persuaded the Soviet medical establishment to set up some 200 special 'reanimation wards' and to train doctors in his techniques. The most important task his units face is to control unjustified deaths in which something in the body is damaged but which, with adequate knowledge and facilities, can be restored to stable and adequate function. The process of dying can be halted and a second chance at life may be gained.

What is death?

According to Dr Negovsky, death is a natural, physical process which can be reversed by such techniques as artificial respiration, heart massage, electric shock, drugs, blood and fluid replacement, and treatment against lowered body temperature and hypoxia. He states:

"People say a person died of loss of blood. In the eyes of re-animators this is a crime. A person cannot die of loss of blood. To save such a person is not complicated..."

Our studies show that death is not so mysterious as we had thought. Death is a biological phenomenon just like many other biological phenomena. You can study it in detail and learn how to reverse the process.

Biological studies show that a man should live about 150 years. But along the way, sometimes breaks down; something stops working and death sets in.

Yogic philosophy and physiology are in agreement with the findings of Dr Negovsky, for yoga views the dying process as one in which body organ and cell interaction, integration, harmony and co-operation break down, the whole process of dying starting long before the actual event. Life is dependent on the continuous harmonious interaction of all body parts and energies. Damage of one part weakens the whole organism and decay, disease and death of tissues lead to the cessation of body movement. The life force, prana, leaves the body; the breath and blood circulation slow and finally stop; cell metabolism stops.

There is no one moment at which we can say "Now death has occurred!", for even doctors using sophisticated machinery are facing insurmountable problems. Today doctors define death according to the cessation of brain activity as measured on an electroencephalogram (EEG). However, even this is not reliable as researchers have shown that EEG electrodes attached by one group of doctors to a bowl of jelly detected waves which were interpreted by another group of doctors as coming from living tissue.

Death- then and now

In the year 1900 a child in the technologically advanced countries of the world only had a 50% chance of living to the age of 48 years. Since then the average lifespan has risen to 70 years with the eradication of many of the major killers. The most important of these, accounting for about one third of all deaths, was infection such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza and diarrhoea in infants. Their eradication has occurred because of a general rise in the standard of living (including sewer instalment, garbage collection, better nourishment, pasteurisation of milk, better housing standards) and the development of antibiotics and vaccines.

Paradoxically, the rise in man's standard of living has led to an increase of the diseases of 'civilisation'. Today the major killers in affluent countries are heart disease and cancer (accounting for 75% of non-accidental deaths) followed by emphysema, bronchitis, cirrhosis of the liver and accidents. Despite all the improvements in the fields of medicine, public health and science in general, man has not been able to solve the problems of health and disease, the problems related to his lifestyle and inner life. In America, only two or three people out of 100,000 can now expect to live to one hundred years. This can mainly be ascribed to failure to care for health during our youth and also to inborn weaknesses that have not been fixed by such techniques as yoga provides. It seems that as we have gained more leisure time our lifestyles have become an orchestration of bad habits. It is not the occasional indulgence that does the damage, but the regular use and abuse of potentially harmful foods and drink and excesses of all kinds in our lifestyle.

We must then ask ourselves the questions, "Is it possible to really live to 150 years? And why do so few make it?"

The long lived

Certain isolated communities of people have managed to maintain long, healthy and active lives. The most famous of these are the Andean villagers of Vilcabamba in Ecuador, the Hunzas in the Karakoram Range in Pakistan controlled Kashmir, and the people of the Abkhazia region in the Caucasus Mountains of the Georgian Republic, USSR. In comparison with the three centenarians per 100,000 population in the USA, a 1979 census showed that the centenarians in the Abkhazian region number 63 per 100,000. Ages of 130 and beyond are common and it is not uncommon to see many centenarians actively engaged in hard labour.

Factors thought to be important in their longevity include:

  1. Diet - In America the recommended diet by the US National Academy of Sciences for the 55 year old is 2,400 calories (including 65 grams of protein) for men and 1,700 calories for women. However, the average consumed is almost 3,300 calories for all ages (including 100 grams of protein, 157 grams of fat and 380 grams of carbohydrate). The Hunzas take only 50 grams of protein, 36 grams of fat and 354 grams of carbohydrate. Of this, meat and dairy products constitute only one and a half percent. The people of Vilcabamba take only 1200 calories on average, mainly of vegetable origin, while the inhabitants of the Caucasus take approximately 1,700 to 1,900 calories per day. In all groups the fat consumption is very low and the diet is mainly vegetarian.
  2. Exercise - The people of these three mountainous regions share a great deal of physical activity in their traditional farming, household duties, and moving by foot over hilly terrain. The elderly take an active part in weeding fields, feeding livestock, picking tea, tending flocks, spinning and weaving, and cleaning the house.
  3. Mental attitude - When questioned as to how long they expected to live, the young people of Abkhazia said, "To 100!" The expectation of a youthful 80 years is no doubt an important factor in longevity. This compares with the western attitude in which 70 years is the upper expected limit.
  4. A healthy and prolonged sex life - This was found amongst all those who lived to more than 80 years of age.
  5. A supportive social system - The elderly are independent and free to do as they wish. They enjoy a high social status and a central and privileged position in the family and society, being esteemed for their wisdom and experience. Thus they feel useful and wanted.

The factors thought to lead to longevity in the Hunzas and other long-lived groups are being confirmed by laboratory experiments. McCay and his associates, and other researchers, have shown that rats who were put onto a nutritious but calorie restricted (low quantity) diet prolonged their lifespan by as much as 40 to 50% more than normally fed controls. Some workers believe this occurs because reduced food intake lowers the metabolic rate and slightly lowers the body temperature at the extremities. It seems to increase the effectiveness of the protection and repair mechanisms in the body. Less food seems to mean that fewer damaging substances are produced and the protection and repair mechanisms have more time in which to eliminate those poisons that are produced.

Studies have shown that lack of movement shortens the lifespan of experimental animals and increased movement prolongs life. Other studies have verified that tiredness seems to stimulate the repair of tissues and that it is only after a certain level of tiredness is reached that the process of regeneration is able to take place at optimal levels. These reports point to karma yoga as a health promoting science.

The above researches into the long-lived and the prolongation of lifespan point to the fact that if we carry out certain basic rules of living we can avoid the mistakes which lead to the breakdown of body machinery. Just as certain grades of oil and regular overhauls are required to maintain a car in running order, so too, the following guidelines, laid down by behavioural psychologists and physicians, should help to prolong life: get more exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, change your diet, avoid accident traps, avoid mood-changing drugs, decrease alcohol intake, improve the quality of your sleep, improve your sex life, and prepare for an interesting old age full of energy and vitality.

Yoga and longevity

For most people the transition period from the old and unhealthy lifestyle to the new and healthy is rough and requires hard psychic and physical work to change. There are no pills, potions or shortcuts. However, yoga offers a systematic and scientific approach to tackle the negative aspects of lifestyle and also to actually aid in the regenerative processes of the body. Using asanas, pranayama and meditation we can strengthen each part of our organism, at the physical, emotional, mental, psychic and spiritual levels so as to integrate our energies into a more positive, healthful and dynamic state.

Modern research is showing us that yogic practices of pranayama and meditation lower the metabolism and thereby help us to overcome the stressful effects of the ever increasing speed of modern society. Breath control is the key to longevity because when we lower the actual speed of the respiration and thereby the whole metabolism, we slow our heart beat and brainwaves, and lower blood pressure and body temperature. We affect the whole substructure, the chemical reactions of the body, allowing the naturally inherent rejuvenating power of nature to work unimpeded by external influences. If, as Dr Negovsky claims, lowering body temperature slows the dying process, it may be that we are able to tap the forces which repair and protect our physical body through pranayama. In yoga, pranayama is the basis of all pranic healing.

Yoga prescribes many methods of conserving energy and peace of mind. Brahmacharya and other austerities and disciplines are said to give one amazing strength, vitality and health. They are able to aid in the regeneration of those parts which wear out or are tense and diseased. These practices must be learned under the guidance of a skilled master or in an ashram situation where proper tuning of the organism can take place, just as the petrol station is the best place to have your car fixed.

For all those who wish to reach a ripe old age, the intake of light, nutritious food in small amounts, occasional fasting, and plenty of hard physical work and karma yoga are of utmost importance. When these are combined with asana, pranayama and meditation, there is a growth of awareness which, in itself is the biggest teacher of the correct way to live. It opens the doorway into the body and the mind so that we just know what is the wrong and the right way to live.

In this way we can gradually move forward into the fold of yoga where 150 years of age is a real possibility.