In India the birth rate continues to increase, and no really efficient way has yet been found to lower the burgeoning population. In technological countries, however, it is the contrary. There society is quickly growing older. On the one hand modern medicine has lengthened the lifespan, and on the other, contraception has reduced the number of births. This indicates that the problem of old people will become more acute in the future. Although the years after retirement should represent the harvest time after a full life, this period is often plagued with ill health, emerging infirmities and finally isolation from society.
Yoga can certainly provide a solution to the problems of old age, especially if it is started as a preparatory measure before the symptoms of degeneration become overwhelming. The power of yoga to rejuvenate the human body is astonishing. We often receive testimonies from persons who have taken up yoga late in life, the following are two such examples:
"We are grateful to yoga for our excellent health during the first years of retirement. We are enjoying better health than the others around us. It is more than we could have hoped for."
"The application of yoga has literally transformed me. I am growing younger every day."
In Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris, groups of 150 old persons have been practising yoga for several years under the observation of Dr Berthelier, a psychiatric doctor. The story of this group and its leader, Miss S. Eglin, is very interesting and we have quoted it below.
"My story begins at the age of 3½ when I contracted typhoid with cardiac complications. Although medicines cured me I was a weak and asthmatic child. I also had nephritis since the age of 10 and was unable to use salt. Asthma and heart trouble persisted all through adulthood despite drugs and doctors. Due to a salt-less diet my spine had been calcium deficient since childhood. I tried to compensate for this by doing physical exercises all my life, but when I was 50, my spine collapsed. Doctors call this condition Paget's disease. I was treated with physiotherapy and massage but the condition continued unabated. Next my liver, intestines and bladder brought on another painful crisis. It was at this time that friends of mine told me about yoga.
I started classes and progressively I felt one improvement after another. After 3 years practice my cardiologist was astonished to find that my spine had straightened, my arteries and veins regained elasticity, and my liver, intestines and bladder were no longer a problem. Nor could any asthma be detected in the lungs. There is no definite age to begin yoga.
At about this time, the Red Cross of Issy-les-Moulineaux started a Gerontology Centre to answer the needs of the aged population of the city. The Red Cross manager, having heard about my transformation through yoga, asked me to start yoga classes there. I felt that I was not able to give classes so I wrote to my teacher for advice. He answered, 'If someone asks you to teach yoga, you must teach'.
I felt that I should at least study first but I had no time as the Red Cross manager informed me, 'You must start your yoga classes right away'. And what a first class it was! Facing me were two men and one woman. The woman was wearing a brace, her spine was completely collapsed. One of the men announced that he had very sore coronary arteries, and the other was deaf but certain noises made him shudder. I asked for the brace to be taken off and began my first lesson. At the end of the class they wanted to know if they could continue their gymnastic classes along with yoga. I told them to choose gymnastics or yoga, but not both. After discussion they decided, 'We will come back because after the gymnastic class we get out of breath, but after yoga we feel very good.'
In fact they felt so good that they told all their friends and soon I was giving 6 classes to old people between the ages of 65 and 85.
As a footnote to Miss Eglin's story, one of the delegates to an International Yoga Convention held in Zinal, Switzerland, was an old man who was seen following the proceedings with an attentive, meditative attitude. Later conversation disclosed that he had participated in the yoga program conducted by Miss Eglin at Issy-les-Moulineaux. His initial aim in practising yoga was to succeed in tying his own shoelaces!
The psychiatric doctor who observed Miss Eglin's classes found the results so positive that he decided to present them at the 71st Psychiatric Congress. He related the answers which the pupils had given to the question, 'How have you benefited from yoga practice?' Here are some extracts of that conference.
All 30 answers submitted established amelioration in the breathing, improved articulation and mobility in the bones and joints, and a much more positive psychological state. How were such encouraging results obtained in patients who are generally considered to be fairly unresponsive to conventional medical and psychological therapies?
Firstly, the breath was ameliorated by the direct effects of pranayama. They objectively experienced an increased breathing capacity and a slower breath rate. Thus shortness of breath with exertion was felt to a lesser degree.
Secondly, in articulation of joints, mobility was greatly ameliorated through yoga postures. This phenomenon depends upon both an increase in the elasticity of the ligaments and an attenuation of the hypertonic muscles which are often associated with arthritis. Almost all the answers established that rheumatic and arthritic illnesses had diminished or even disappeared.
Thirdly, on the psychological level, there was an almost universal decrease in anguish and anxiety, coupled with the reappearance of a normal sleep pattern. Often an improvement in interpersonal and group relationships was noticed along with diminished psychosomatic manifestations, especially digestive problems.
In these yoga classes inner visualisation of changes in the body was emphasised. Don't forget we are speaking about elderly people who are often condemned to a life of uselessness, isolation and exclusion. Their image of their own body is generally underestimated in contrast to the mythical idealistic body images generated and reinforced by mass media. Thus they often succumb to feelings of inferiority and apathy. The old man almost without exception cares very little for his body and even neglects it. The correct yoga practices ensure that the elderly person can improve and revitalise this 'useless and worn out body' and help it to recover its lost functions. This leads to a more positive and self-enhancing reinvestigation of the body image. Ultimately, these changes in the body attitude and activity can be readily observed while practising relaxation techniques.
Finally, we must comment upon the richness of the interpersonal relationships which are created through the yoga classes. The personality of the teacher plays an important part in this, but the common participation in the ongoing living and growing process provides the stimulation for progress, communication and creativity. These yoga groups served as the basis for an extremely rich social life. They proved to be very beneficial for elderly men and women who were personally and socially isolated. As the new relationships extended beyond the yoga classes and into other group activities, there was actually a spontaneous institutionalisation occurring.
The preventive and curative aspects of this discipline are seen most clearly in the area of psycho-pathology and mental degeneration. The social isolation of old age often results in pathological behaviour and subsequent admission to old age homes or geriatric hospitals. In this study of yoga for elderly citizens, not a single member deteriorated in any way, whatever his age during the 3½ years since this program was established. We consider this program to be exemplary because it shows how, through yoga practices involving the body, group dynamics can be established leading to re-socialisation of old people. This analysis of the benefits of yoga practice recognised and recorded by the class members themselves, suggests that yoga offers a technique for cure and especially prevention of the psycho pathological degeneration syndrome so commonly encountered in elderly people. It also suggests that this type of program should be more widely implemented.