Yoga's ability to beneficially affect our body, mind and spiritual awareness has been known for millennia. Modern science is discovering that yoga exert? its effect on the brain-hormonal system and the mind by its ability to enhance the energies of both via the ida and pingala nadis, primary energy circuits in the spinal cord.
The climax of yoga sadhana is the awakening of sushumna, the nadi which is situated in the centre of the spinal canal. This sends a flood of energy into the brain with profound results. Blissful, life affirming experiences; cure of disease; regeneration of tissues; concentration of mind with all its attendant benefits; the ability to extend the lifespan, and so on, have all been reported in medical journals as well as by the popular press. Much research is still to be done in order to determine the verity of the many claims and to show how yoga achieves its results. Central to the whole question is its action on that most mysterious of organs, the brain.
The brain is in perpetual motion, never ceasing to act until the death process is complete. It is unique, one of the most complex structures in the known universe, for it allows us to know the world around us, to explore, think and reason, even about the reason for our existence.
The cells of the frontal lobe of the brain are linked with the functions of reasoning, intelligence, memory, creativity, and other higher mental functions. They develop by joining up more and more to other areas of the cortex so as to increase and improve the capacity of our computer to help us live a skilful, adaptive life, at a higher standard of existence. The cells join when an axon, which, emerges from each cell, like a tree trunk, sends out branches to the receptors of many other cells, forming a more detailed and complex set of potential pathways. How we use these pathways is up to us.
The pathways of the brain require energy to keep them in action. Those pathways that are most used are reinforced, 'grooved'. They become our habits, compulsions and conditioning, and are sometimes difficult to change, requiring constant effort. Those pathways that are not used, remain dormant and some may actually cease to exist. Techniques such as kundalini yoga send extra energy to the brain in an attempt to open up new areas for our conscious awareness and control. There are many ways to enhance energy and to conserve it within the domain of yogic techniques.
The 12 billion cells of the cerebral cortex do not age in the same way as other body cells. That is, they do not divide and multiply. After puberty, brain cells are never replaced and each year after 30 we lose an average of one percent of our neural network. This naturally varies from individual to individual, but in general, with the present mode of living and deleterious habits of lifestyle, deterioration and the descent into various degrees of senility is common. If we lose one percent of brain cells per year, by the time we are 70 years of age we will have lost 40% of our brain's capacity; by the time we are no we will have lost 80%. This does not seem to matter when we consider that most of us use only 10% of our brain's capacity anyway. But what happens if we live to 150 years, will we have lost 120% of our brain?
We must remember that these figures represent the members of our society. Faulty lifestyle and increasing illness have raised the average much higher than it would be if the majority of people were in perfect health. Alcohol, nicotine, worry and anxiety are just a few of the contributing factors to the one percent loss. We have yet to measure the neuronal loss in yogis and those people who live healthy and harmonious lives. It may be that they do not lose at all and perhaps even gain.
Senility is the feebleness of body and mind that comes with old age. It is thought to result due to a loss of neurones and deterioration of the remaining pathways and interconnections of the brain. In some it is so severe that the individual loses contact with his environment and suffers a kind of living death.
Most people, however, do not become senile. They notice a change in their ability to remember, to think clearly, to reason and so on. There is a progressive slowing down of the mental and physical functions, which is natural in old age. How much we should slow down is another question. It seems that our lifestyle, with its lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, worry and tension, tends to wear out the brain prematurely. We do not get enough of the right kind of mental or physical exercise to keep ourselves in peak condition and to age gracefully. This is why yogis recommend meditation as a method of draining out the tension and anxieties of daily living and replacing them with energy and deeper insight.
There are no marked changes in brain patterns with increasing age and the electroencephalographic recordings of the elderly resemble people of 30 or 40 years of age. Research is showing us that the brain probably has the ability to outlast most of the other organs in terms of the ageing process and that it is the failure of other organs which kills the brain and causes death. It also appears that if we can maintain the rest of our body in good health we should be able to arrest or at least slow down the deterioration of brain cells.
Marion Diamond, an anatomist at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, noted that rats in normal colonies did not suffer brain degeneration between maturity and old age.*1 Neurone loss occurred when the rats were kept in oscillation, which can be compared with the neurone loss reported in elderly patients in geriatric and mental wards, an extreme of the normal process. Diamond stated that: "If you have a clear cardiovascular system and keep active, the nerve cells seem to have endless potential. Yet we have sociological expectations that we'll decline with age. We're told to slow down after 40!"
Diamond said that in a stimulating environment there is good evidence that drastic structural changes do not occur in the mammalian brain with ageing.*2
If our potential is so vast, why do we not fulfil it? Why do we seem to age so rapidly?
Perhaps premature ageing occurs because we program ourselves to think that we must age and thereby we give up and accept the 'inevitable'. We form an image of old age and then fit that image to ourselves, thus subconsciously furthering the ageing process. It seems that if we think we will grow old, then we do! The more we accept the social pressures of 'getting old' by slowing down, the more we stop exerting ourselves both mentally and physically, the less are our chances of reaching a ripe old age with all of our faculties in touch.
On the other hand, a positive mental attitude may actually reverse the ageing process. We can stimulate axonal growth in the brain by:
If we can learn to adopt a healthy lifestyle along with the above suggestions, we may avoid brain cell degeneration and other attendant changes of old age which bring on senility.
The way to stay young is no big secret. It just takes a little common-sense, a moderate and healthy diet, a few 'bad' habits occasionally, some yogic sadhana and a lot of joy in the actual process of living. If we are happy and relaxed, everything happens automatically: the metabolism slows, the mind remains active and interested, the brain grows more axonal connections as we learn more about life and are stimulated by all the wonders of this earth.
If there is any secret of longevity it lies in the power of thought to affect wonderful or disastrous changes in our lives, depending on our own personal choice. Through meditation and other yogic practices we learn that our lives are in our own hands. We can be anything we want to be provided we put in the required effort, energy and time, and have the correct tools: asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas, karma, bhakti and gyana yoga. Tapping the creative energy of the body through yogic sadhana gives us the power to enjoy and learn; to fulfil our ambitions and desires; to be healthy and active; and to view the world as children, even in old age.
Michelangelo did some of his best painting after the age of 80; Edison was still inventing, and Shaw and Tagore were still writing some of their best works when they were 90. There is no reason why we cannot achieve the same thing, but in our own way, of course. We just have to stimulate the brain, both internally by positive thought and externally by an active, healthy lifestyle.
*1. M. Diamond, American Scientist, Jan-Feb, 1978.
*2. "Stimulation Prevents Senility', Brain/Mind Bulletin, 3, 2, Feb. 20, 1978.