For most of us the prospect of reaching 150 years of age is not within easy reach, though with proper care, diet, exercise and yogic sadhana, 100 years can be easily attained. By the time most of us have lived to 20 years of age we have accumulated enough toxic chemicals, structural wear and tear, and emotional and mental tension, to subtract at least 50 years from the 150 year ideal. We have followed the example of our parents and society in terms of lifestyle, education, training, conditioning and so on, and thereby speeded up the ageing process. The possibility of living to 150 years does exist. A discussion on the point, however, must refer to our progeny who carry on our genes, our children and our children's children.
Paradoxically, researchers interested in discovering the secrets of slowing down ageing have concentrated a great deal of time on accelerated ageing studies. They have found that in certain species of fish, the salmon and trout for example, that the ageing process speeds up dramatically just before spawning takes place.
At the time of spawning the pituitary gland of the salmon increases to three times its normal size stimulating the adrenals to over secrete steroids. This situation leads to: a massive rise in the fatty components of the blood (20 times higher than normal); the inhibition of antibodies resulting in greater susceptibility to infection; disturbance in the tissue renewal process; and an inability of body cells to maintain vital metabolic needs (a process akin to starvation). The whole process somewhat resembles Cushing's disease in humans where it leads to an early demise in most cases.
These studies in accelerated ageing show that salmon undergo a presumably genetically programmed situation which resembles the two endocrine disorders which most mimic ageing in humans, hypo-thyroidism (too little secretion of thyroid hormone) and hyper-adfenocorticism (too much adrenal hormone secretion). Hypothyroidism leads to a state in which there is an excessively low rate of metabolism, an imbalanced condition which does not resemble the hypometabolic state induced by meditation.
Some researchers, such as W. Donner Denckla of the USA, state that the process occurs in salmon because of the release of 'death' hormones that prevent body cells from taking up thyroid hormones to counteract the effect of the steroids from the adrenal glands. Others hypothesize that it is caused by an imbalance in hormonal secretions creating a toxic condition. Whatever the mechanism involved, these researchers are trying to find parallels to the much slower normal human situation. Their research is pointing out that the process of old age may start as early as puberty in humans when the pineal gland has atrophied, thereby allowing the pituitary gland to start to secrete hormones, the full effects of which, especially when viewed in their combination with other body chemicals, have not yet been properly evaluated.
Because of various changes in the environment, culture, society and family, the age of puberty is slowly decreasing. In some countries the average age for girls is as low as 10 years while for boys it remains just a little higher. More sunlight, better food and more calories, and a more promiscuous society, are thought to be the factors affecting this change.
It is possible that this decline in the age of puberty may well be a sign that accelerated ageing is being inherited by the race as a whole. Of course, this does not happen as quickly as in the salmon, which is an extreme example. However, if stimulation of the pituitary can release a 'death' hormone, as some suggest, or combinations and quantities of hormones that are imbalanced in relation to the needs of the organism, and thereby detrimental to the smooth functioning and maintenance of cells and their genetic machinery, then we will have to find some way of slowing down pubescence if we want to really have a hope of making it to 100 or 150 years of age.
Yogis recognized the need to slow the degeneration of the pineal gland in order to attain an ideal state of body and mind. At the age of 8 years, when pineal degeneration first commences, they initiated their children into those yogic practices which stimulate ajna chakra (the, eyebrow centre) and thereby aid the regeneration of pineal tissue: surya namaskara, nadi shodhana pranayama, shambhavi mudra and Gayatri mantra. These practices aim to prevent premature puberty with its attendant emotional and identity crisis.
In early puberty the child's mind is not able to fully understand the rapid changes taking place in his own body. The yogic practices, however, ensure that the process of puberty is delayed until the mind has more fully matured. Balance between body and mind is maintained and the potential future emotional and mental traumas, which can leave permanent scars on both the body and mind, and thereby reduce life expectancy, are avoided.
This is why children in ancient India spent the first 20 years of their lives as celibates. They lived with their guru who taught them how to conserve the powerful hormones that initiate puberty and sexual development, and to sublimate the energy saved in order to achieve higher mental and spiritual goals. They studied and remained celibate until they were mature enough to face the responsibilities, emotional crises and mental tension associated with relationships, marriage and household life.
For those of us who have passed the crucial age of 8 years and who have not had the opportunity to delay puberty, is it too late? Are we doomed to a premature death because of this? It is obvious that the younger we start yogic practices the better for our future development, for we have less damage to undo and more time in which to progress. For the elderly though, the question remains a poignant one. Still, the mystery grows thicker!
Robert Van Citters of the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, discovered that the steel-head trout goes through the same spawning manoeuvres and drastic hormonal changes as the salmon, but they differ in that the trout do not die. Using radioactive isotopes to track the movements of the fish, he found that the trout recover from their disastrous blood fat levels, and so on, and return to the ocean totally rejuvenated and regenerated. Some trout repeat the process at least two to three times.
The possibilities of regeneration of diseased body parts are some of the most exciting in the science of genetics. The process of regeneration is already known to occur, for example, in the tails of some lizards and in the liver cells of man. Scientists are investigating why these tissues possess their remarkable regenerative powers and why others do not. If their research is successful, the possibilities of living to 150 years may be within everyone's reach. Researchers have found that nerve fibres secrete a substance which regulates the growth of primitive cells and causes them to differentiate (transform themselves) into any kind of tissue. When they receive the correct stimulus they become the basis of regeneration. Dr. R.O. Becker of Upstate Medical Centre in Syracuse, New York, USA, has found that nerves can, when damaged, send out a small electrical current that works in cooperation with the hormone prolactin. Prolactin was once thought to be only responsible for milk production in new mothers, but it is now known to sensitize cells to electric currents. It seems that it is this combination of electricity and hormones both of which are found in the human organism, which may provide the basis of regeneration.
Becker is using external sources of electricity at very low currents (300 millionths of an ampere) to stimulate regeneration of the amputated limbs of rats, an animal in which regeneration would normally not occur. He has also stimulated bone regeneration and healing in humans. Other researchers are looking to his work as a potential cancer therapy. L.V. Polezhaev, in his book 'Organ Regeneration in Animals', describes how he cut diseased muscle from the hearts of dogs who had suffered severe heart at lacks and stimulated the exposed healthy cells to regenerate, a method which is much, simpler and safer than transplantation.
The "Soviet Union" magazine (3, 336: 50-1) reports that a number of "incurable" patients suffering from conditions such as spinal injuries, which previously caused paralysis, have been rehabilitated. They are using a method which allows damaged nerves to regenerate 6 times faster than normal by-ensuring a better oxygen supply.
Research will also have to be. carried out into the possibility of yogic practices to stimulate regeneration through their ability to act on the nervous and hormone-producing systems. It may be possible to correograph asanas and pranayama into quantified and qualified systems for stimulating hormone production in the required combination for regeneration. The future possibilities would then be potentially endless.
Most of us have become fully extrovert, caught up in the daily battle of life with its attendant worries and tensions, and have forgotten how to introvert the mind. Extroversion requires a constant supply of energy, chemicals and hormones to charge and sustain the unceasing work of the body and the mind. Thoughts, hormones and nervous energy are constantly flowing 'down' into the body from the brain, almost all of which are concerned with maintaining our extroversion. But not ail are appropriate to external and internal needs or the wellbeing of the organism. It is as though a tap were constantly dripping; slowly leaking away our precious supplies of hormones and energy; slowly burning up the body through increased metabolism and uncontrolled sexual drive, anger, frustration, fear, as well as joy and excitement.
Introversion is essential because it is the process which reverses this slow leak. When we sit. for meditation or any other yogic practice we become aware of the powerful pull of our desires and cravings for worldly life. We are thereby indirectly experiencing the flow of hormones and other secretions. These uneconomical energy expenditures cannot be stopped immediately or by force. Suppression of the downward path only leads to their spillage into other areas of body and mind, imbalance and potential ill health. Determination, constant effort and willpower wage a powerful campaign in turning the energies back up to their source. A corresponding change in our habits and lifestyle is also necessary.
We need a process such as sadhana to regain balance, initially by introversion, but only so that later we can balance introversion and extroversion simultaneously. This is dynamic equilibrium and peace. Initially, we turn the various secretions of energy inward and upward so that we can flow into the internal world as easily as we flow out to the external. We need to first fix the leaky tap and then learn to turn it on and off, to go in and out when we want. Thus we become masters of our desires and ambitions, thoughts and feelings, fears and joys... of ourself.
Sadhana is the tool kit to fix the leaky tap. Sirshasana, vipareeta karani mudra and other inverted postures, for example, reverse the pull of gravity and thus help to reverse the direction of energy flow to the brain, stimulating and rejuvenating the pituitary and pineal glands.
Sarvangasana stimulates the thyroid gland thereby helping to maintain balance of metabolism, while shashankasana tones down over activity of the adrenals. Siddhasana stimulates mooladhara chakra, which sends a stream of energy directly to the pineal gland. Pranayama helps us to directly perceive and control prana, the life force, and to enable us to slow down our metabolism.
Thus yogic practices are a means to introversion, relative hypo-metabolism, and reintegration of nervous and endocrinal tissues. They are the means to plug the leaks, control our inner switches, tap the inexhaustible supply of energy, and thereby age slowly and gracefully. More than this, when we practise yoga ourselves, we beneficially affect our subtle physical structures, the chemicals and genes. Our children benefit from our relative good health and freedom from neurosis, and they will inherit a set of genes and a lifestyle conducive to the conservation of hormones and 150 years of life.