Rejuvenating Old Sense Perceptions

Swami Karunananda Saraswati

Quite recently there has been a world-wide spate of research done into the world of the aged. For obvious reasons, research up to now has been largely limited towards prolonging life, how to avoid death as long as possible, not so much into study of how the elderly can actually live with their failing senses. For this reason nobody has really been in a position to appreciate just how old people feel.

Recently in Michigan's Institute of Gerontology (USA), sociologist and director of research, Leon A. Pastalan became concerned about this.*1 For much of the elderly people's problems are either caused directly by failing senses or by inability to adjust the mind to a decrease in sense perception. Thus they come to mental or physical crisis. At present in the USA alone there are 22 million aged 65 plus. By 2000 AD the total is expected to climb to 30 million. As it is now, his research showed that the present urban environment is not very well suited to elderly people. The reasons which he pointed out for this were as follows:

  1. Failing senses made normal environmental interaction almost impossible in a large number of cases.
  2. People do not understand the situation of elders who, due to the defectiveness of their senses, fail to interpret environmental signals well enough or even correctly.
  3. A continual barrage of misread environmental language very often leads to withdrawal from the world and increased helplessness.

In other words, up till now, the modern environment has unknowingly been largely unsympathetic to the needs of the aged.

Pastalan developed a type of partial sensory deprivation kit which cut down normal senses of perception to the level of perception of an 80 year old person. Such a kit consisted of: special eyeglasses, earplugs, and a glue-like fixative for the fingers which dimmed tactile experience and even cotton to stuff up the nose.

He tested his kit with four graduate students: each one of them went out into the urban environment most commonly frequented by the elderly. They made their observations at three locations: a shopping mall, a senior citizens' centre, and a specially constructed living room in the College of Architecture. So impaired were their senses, toned down to the equivalent of 75 to 80 years of age, that the team members soon discovered they had better not drive to any of the sites. As the danger of accident was too much, they would drive to the parking lot and then don their equipment there. Pastalan noted that even so, we had to be careful not to get wiped out in the parking lot because we couldn't see or hear approaching cars except as visual or aural blurs. Another problem they all encountered was glare. Even inside the shopping mall, for example, they had great difficulty in reading the labels on the cans and packages; a particularly difficult situation for older people who have been prescribed special dietary restrictions by their physician. Even distinguishing previously well familiar currency in order to purchase items became a chore; this was intensified by people who were waiting impatiently behind at the checkout which further increased tension as the correct amount of payment was being fumbled by the experimenters.

When they sat in the lounge of the senior citizens' centre, they found they could not follow much of the conversation around them or place the source of the occasional bursts of laughter. The result of this was that they began to wonder if they were the subject of gossip or the butt of some joke. In fact at this point one of the researchers became so disturbed that he threatened to drop out. One can well see how it is that senior citizens tend to isolate themselves from the surrounding community. Their sense of inadequacy, bearing in mind also that their deficiency is not a temporary removable one, is such that they feel embarrassed at their inability to communicate with others. This intensifies until they become completely housebound, fearing to do the simple duties which younger people do automatically.

As Pastalan says "Pretty soon you start questioning your judgement. How many close calls do you need crossing the street, how many mistakes do you make while at the grocery store before you stay at home on some pretext?" It's not as if the minds of all of the elderly 'go off'. Indeed, this experiment and many others tend to show that the majority of the aged still possess a good sharp mind. However their perception of the world based as it is on the revelation of the five senses, tends to lead them astray. They begin to doubt themselves which of course leads very quickly to strong feelings of self-incompetence, lack of confidence. From this point the mind really starts to mould. From the research Pastalan conducted it seems that the perceptual difficulties elderly people face are not only very real, but also very difficult to adjust to. Pastalan and his team were young, but even with the flexibility of youth, they had a rough time adjusting themselves to impaired perceptual experience. Add to that the know ledge that they knew it was only a temporary situation and one can really feel how desperate an old person must become with the decreasing of the senses.

Basically the world of an 80 year old is full of the following perceptual confusions:

Glare: It can be too much or too little. Many old people, and certainly the experimenters themselves, found that glare inside buildings and outside, blurs and distorts the impaired eyesight often to the extent that they literally can't see what they are doing-Turning off lights may solve the problem of glare but it certainly doesn't give enough light to the elderly. A person who is 80 actually needs about 3½ times as much light as he did when he was 20. Illumination has to be carefully distributed to allow proper visual perception.

Fading colours: Inability to distinguish between colours can result in inability to perceive where different boundaries stop e.g. where a wall starts and where a floor finishes. The distortions of the other senses follow along much the same lines as that of sight but in their own mediums.

As a general rule, ageing human beings have three ways of looking at their decreasing senses.

  1. Accepting it as inevitable they try and bear the new confusion as much as possible. Keeping in mind that very few people have a good understanding of themselves it is not surprising that the majority of ageing people withdraw.
  2. They adjust the mind to take the inconvenience of decreasing perception into its stride- this takes a positive outlook.
  3. They practise physical and mental techniques which bring about new perception and which prolong, refresh and maintain the sensual power.

All creatures have to die. Man is no exception. Man is made up of three things as far as we are concerned: body, mind and spirit. All are subject to change, all are subject to imbalance or as we more commonly term it, disease. A person can enjoy reasonably good health of body, yet 100% health is an untouchable goal. It is something to be aimed for, yet in itself is unattainable. This means that somewhere one has to adjust his outlook on the world and towards life. For example, if one holds the view that unless his health and sensual perceptions are 100% functioning, he cannot perform his daily duties, he would spend his whole lifetime in bed, 'convalescing'. Such a view is totally impractical.

Disease exists and one has to face it. Life is meant to be lived and one should live it. Mind should be always capable of adjustment in regard to one's worldly functionability. Three choices of action are open when old age begins to threaten one's previous way of life: (i) one gives up; (ii) one adapts to the many changes occurring; (iii) one reverses the changes by practice of rejuvenative ways of living. For example, a man with a stomach ulcer can either carry on as he always has done and suffer the pain or eliminate the disease by changing diet, lifestyle, etc.

Elderly people are continually presented with these three choices. In the case of (i) above, it is indeed easy to just give up and accept the inevitable slow dying, yet not easy to suffer the mental and physical consequences which accompany such a hopeless attitude. On the other hand, in (ii) it is not easy to change one's mind, change one's lifestyle towards eliminating and rejuvenating body and mind; not easy to daily maintain new life patterns especially if one is quite well advanced in age. Yet it is infinitely easier to experience new joys accompanying such a positive outlook than to suffer senility.

Healthy perception in old age is not easily come by. Even within young people a balanced mind is not commonly found. Perhaps the elderly have one advantage in that they have generally seen much of life, feel more satisfied with their achievements etc., and thus have a more balanced way of thinking. Yet it cannot be denied that an old mind is very set in its ways, making it more difficult to bring about a change in one's way of living, thinking or acting.

Yoga has always maintained that its practice can be done by all whether young, old or weak. All that is needed is a good amount of dedication and determination. Obviously, in any walk of life, one who has no backbone will never amount to anything. Yoga is no exception. Nobody is going to do your yoga for you. You have to do it yourself, and it takes time and effort but results will be forthcoming. Old people should never have to be a burden and nuisance to society. They have lived, they have experienced and they should be able to share what they know with the young ones. Unless, however, their minds can prove by example to the younger generation that what they know, what they have experienced in life is really worthwhile listening to, elderly people will never command the respect of the younger set. Young people will never lend their ears to the old unless they know they have something worthwhile to teach. Otherwise, there can only be a pity felt by the young for the old, which is not at all an indication of healthy communication. Yoga has the potential to change this.

In the 'Hatha Yoga Pradipika' and 'Gherand Samhita' there are many direct claims as to what yoga can do for the elderly. Maybe they are enthusiastically exaggerated yet they are true to what they offer. For example, it is said, that 'One who practises khechari mudra will remain away from old age and death'.

Now in such a statement there is a lot which is not written. Khechari mudra in its full form takes years of devoted practice to perfect. Yet the fact still remains that even if khechari is practised in a small way, much physical and mental benefit is attainable.

There are virtually thousands of quotes which could be cited, however, many are quite advanced and are initially not practicable for the average elder whose body is usually stiff and often weak. Thus we submit a few easy simple practices below which are good to start with and which lead on to more advanced techniques. Bear in mind that yoga is always best learned from an experienced, teacher who can give practices suited to the student's health. A short stay in an ashram or under some experienced guide is more beneficial than long term individual home study. It eliminates danger of mispractice; yoga is powerful and should be learned with caution and respect.

The following sadhana program has been devised for elders. It can be practised even by those who are very old or enfeebled, either in full or in part: vajrasana with breath awareness, pawanmuktasana, ashwini mudra, majariasana, bhujangasana, makarasana, hasta padasana, uttan tadasana (in lying position), simple bhastrika, basic nadi shodhana, brahmari and ujjayi pranayama, shavasana in between all, yoga nidra.

When this program has been mastered one can proceed to more advanced practices such as jalandhara, uddiyana, moola and maha bandhas; khechari, vipareeta karani, tadagi, bhujangini, maha and maha bheda mudras which are particularly recommended in the ancient yogic scriptures for the rejuvenation of sense perceptions and warding off old age and death.

Old age should be a time of fulfilment. If it emerges as a time of pain, of frustration, something has gone wrong somewhere. Yoga has the potential to change this.


*1. Mark Perlberg, "The Distorted World of Old Age", 'Human Behaviour', 7, 12: 28-32 Dec. 1978.