In ancient times, according to the folklore, myths and traditions of many different peoples, men lived to very advanced ages, and remained useful and productive to themselves and the community right up to their death. In those times men lived to be as old as trees, though some of them would die as infants of 100 years. How far removed we are from that ideal today, with modern man's life expectancy of about 70 years in the advanced countries and considerably less than that in the underdeveloped countries where high infant mortality and infectious diseases still exact a heavy toll.
The study of old age is known as gerontology, while the study of death and dying is known as thanatology. In recent years research in this area has been focusing on longevity (longer lifespan) and dramatic laboratory findings have led scientists to believe that there is a way for humans to remain virtually ageless.
Ageing manifests as a gradual loss of body cells. Everybody experiences a constant loss of cells, but in youth, anabolism (production of cells) is predominant and more powerful than catabolism (decaying of cells) and so these cells are rapidly and fully replaced. In middle age the ratio of anabolism and catabolism is about equal but as the body ages, catabolism overpowers anabolism, some cells are not replaced, and tissue function diminishes accordingly. Death of a part or of the whole body ultimately supervenes beyond a crucial stage when there are not enough cells remaining in an important and necessary organ system to keep it functioning.
To avoid ageing, each replaceable cell which dies must be substituted with an exact replica, while non-replaceable cells must be properly repaired.
In theory, the body possesses within its programming the means and facilities to reproduce perfectly all replaceable cells and also to repair all irreplaceable cells perhaps indefinitely. If a cell possesses a perfect memory unit of genes, and is provided with perfect building materials, then it can continue for a very long time, and possibly forever, to replace or repair itself.
It is here that the quality of our lifestyle, our diet and our stress coping mechanisms play their decisive role in limiting our lifespan and this is also where yoga offers not only an age resistant lifestyle, but also provides specific and unique regenerative and vitalising techniques.
Researchers are today attempting to find out exactly what goes wrong in the body's replication and repair processes and have attained promising results in suspending or slowing down the process. Several mechanisms have been advanced to explain the ageing process, which complement, rather than contradict each other.
It is this unsystematic and impoverished attitude which is responsible for the rapid deterioration and degeneration of man's body with time. At the same time, more and more evidence is suggesting that this need not be the case.
Researchers have achieved remarkable results in retarding ageing. Life extension of 150% has been attained in mice undergoing an experimental program devised by Dr Hans Kugler*1 which is directed specifically at countering the most probable causes of ageing. He finds that only 2 or 3% of people today are leading a lifestyle that will offer longevity. He claims that most people die at around 70 years when they are genetically equipped for a healthy, active lifespan of no to 120 years, and attributes the glaring deficit to poor basic health habits, poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive smoking or drinking and excessive stress accumulation. Dr Kugler conducted an experiment in which he used dietary antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to 'soak up' the excess free radicals produced in hyper metabolic states. DNA - RNA damage was counteracted by injections of supplementary DNA - RNA, and stress was reduced ' by providing a clean, quiet, non-crowded environment with adequate, but not excessive, nutrition. Neurotransmitters were balanced by generous supplies of their specific amino acid building blocks and vitamins and minerals were given to bolster the immune system. Dr Kugler's studies have been validated at the Duke University Centre of Ageing in Carolina, USA, where female mice, already beyond their equivalent of the menopause, resumed their hormonal and reproductive functions when subjected to the full anti-ageing therapy. This result could obviously have far reaching implications for man, as it indicate s that regeneration of the endocrine glands and their functions, which is one fundamental aim of yoga therapy, is distinctly possible.
Another clinical laboratory engaged in enhancing human ageing is the Health Testing Centre at Berkeley, USA, where the director, Dr Chad Everone, conducts a 'lifestyle engineering' program. Everone has devised a plan which he claims: "Should ensure to just about anyone a totally non-diseased functional life of 80 to go years".
Everone's 400 or more clients, ranging in age from 21 to 86 years, follow a program which is based upon a low calorie diet of mostly fresh, pure and unrefined foods, with mineral and vitamin supplementation, yoga, meditation and relaxation (with attention to altering self-limiting expectations), together with medical attention and moderate to brisk exercise.
It is found that the lifestyle programs which both Drs. Kugler and Everone recommend are essentially similar to the way of life of the long lived people of the Caucasus, Hunza and Vilcabamba communities, and closely follow yogic lifestyle recommendations.
The yogic approach to longevity is perhaps best described by one of Dr Everone's patients, an 86 year old woman who came to the lifestyle adjustment clinic after her third heart attack, fully believing that she was soon to die. One year after she adopted a modified lifestyle under Everone's guidance, including a natural and wholesome diet, simple yoga postures, breathing techniques and daily relaxation exercises, she reported: "Every day I feel stronger now. I stopped taking my heart medicine months ago, and I continue to improve. When I get up these days, I feel like I could move a mountain".
If I'm smart I'll live to be a hundred. I want to, and that's the main thing. People tell me, 'Oh, your new program isn't going to add years to your life now, its just going to add life to your years'. Now, isn't that ridiculous? Trying to make a distinction like that? Because as far as I'm concerned, there's not a speck of difference between the two. Mot one speck.
'As a man thinks, so he becomes' is an ancient adage which accurately indicates the awesome power of the human mind in creating and upholding the vision which can carry an individual towards the fullest realisation of his inborn propensity for a long, joyful, and creative life.
Research clearly suggests that it is largely within our power to create our own program and life plan, so that if we choose consciously to live to 100 healthy years of age, and translate our decision into practical terms by following a lifestyle in accordance with our goal, then we shall surely achieve it. Only in the absence of such a cohesive alignment of vital energies, willpower, mental clarity and awareness, does one die in accordance with the scales and probabilities upon which life assurance tables, retirement and superannuation funds are structured-Yoga is a most powerful means of removing the personal limitations of vision, will, vitality and purpose which prevent us from formulating and then attaining a goal such as a long and healthy lifespan. Daily practice of yoga virtually guarantees a long life graced by physical health, mental stability as well as spiritual accomplishment.
*1. H. Kugler, Dr Kugler's Seven Keys to a Longer Life, Fancett, 1978.
*2. H. Kugler, Slowing Down the Ageing Process, Pyramid, 1973.