Mental Degeneration and Yoga

Swami Karunananda Saraswati

A psychologist went to an old people's home to lecture on the subject of failing mental powers, with special emphasis on retention of memory. The lecture was well received but perhaps the most appreciated portion of the whole event was the fact that when he left, he forgot his briefcase. The old people laughed which was good for them. However, many when questioned later about the incident, said they felt somewhat relieved that such a well reputed psychologist could also suffer from memory lapse. Maybe, they said, our own increasing mental feebleness is not so serious. That was not so good. Such a viewpoint rather shows up our society today; a society in which weak people group together and believe that to be weak is the norm.

Today, more than ⅓ of the world's population is over the age of 50. While there are many old people who make great and constructive use of what life has taught them, examination of the old people within the present confines of society shows that too many are without constructive activity, too many are regarded by society and by themselves as useless. While society provides for their old age, it does not provide for their human dignity. Many elderly people feel this deeply, and being isolated or left behind by society, they tend to 'shut off', a mental attitude which welcomes the arrival of senility.

An old person might suddenly realise that his capacity for remembering even important daily routines is diminishing. This can be very frightening, especially to one who has never had to think about the state of his mind before. It is a situation which leaves the old person not knowing which way to turn. If you are young and you cannot remember whether or not you have eaten, you will not give it a second thought. Young people have no fear of 'losing their mind', whereas old people are far too aware of this imminent possibility.

All around them their lifelong friends and acquaintances are either dying or going senile and being packed off to old folks homes. Of course it is not always such a gloomy picture, yet it does appear like this to many old people. Their insecurity is often reinforced by the impatience of society which cannot wait for their tired faculties to grind into action. Add to this the fact that many old people do not have constructive ways to fill in their time, and thus spend long periods brooding over the past. This is where mental degeneration actually springs from, not from a failing of the brain and its components, but from a lack of usefulness and purpose.

History has shown countless examples of men and animals who, while there is something important to be! done, whether they enjoyed it or not, continued to live and work at it. Yet as soon as their task was accomplished, they wasted away. A man with a purpose can literally move mountains.

Yoga prevents senility and maintains good mental functionability by giving one a purpose and interest in life. Yoga has many techniques to prevent memory loss, and all that is required is a small amount of self-awareness and effort.

To give an example of how yoga actually works, we will describe raja yoga briefly. Raja yoga is one of the classical yoga systems and is comprised of 8 parts. For the purposes of mental rejuvenation and cultivation of memory, we need only be concerned with the first four, namely: yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama. Yama and niyama are moral disciplines, the attempt by the aspirant to place his lifestyle on a more aware and disciplined footing. Confused, haphazard living is an indication of a similar state of mind. A change of habits will definitely affect the mind and vice versa. Within this change of activity patterns, there has to be a cultivation of self-examination or introspection, otherwise no change will come about. A mind which is established in self-awareness can never slip into degeneration in the first place.

Losing the hold on the mind is like dropping off to sleep with something in your hand. While you are going to sleep, you forget that something is being held. Yet as soon as sleep comes the noise of the object hitting the floor wakes you up. If the object is strong and remains whole, then there is no difficulty in picking it up. However, if it is fragile, you have to crawl around picking up all the broken pieces. Yama and niyama could be said to be the means by which we keep awake so that the mind doesn't drop, while asana and pranayama are the method of picking up the pieces and gluing them together.

However stiff and inflexible body and mind might be, bears little or no relevance to success in yoga. The aspirant must want to work on himself; he must have personal interest. At present too many old people lie on the outer diameters of an externally radiating spiral. The distance from the central node being furthered with an increase in mental degeneration. As such their whole mental being is scattered. If they are to survive as human beings, with the full use of their mental faculties, they must reverse the outward going spiral, and create a spiral which gradually zeros in on the central point, thus ensuring single mindedness.

You may be old and feeling the weight of years, or even young and feeling the heaviness of life. Yoga has the capacity to transform such burdens into usable equipment... either way the choice is yours.

Almost world-wide there exists a general belief that one should live as much as possible while youth is in flower, 'make hay while the sun shines'. People do all they can to put aside various stores in preparation for when they are 'old and useless'. Yet such a viewpoint, when seen in the light of potential mental and physical lifespan, takes on an almost negative hue. The brain itself, having unlimited potential and being the organ from which one's whole humanity springs, medically speaking will not wear out if it is treated well. The same applies to the body. This does not mean denying oneself of the pleasures of life, rather it means learning to use them properly.

Too many people have almost total disregard for body and mind; as long as both remain functional they are satisfied. Up to age thirty, because the body is still moving towards its prime, few health problems arise as the rejuvenating faculties are full of energy. However, if that basic energy is not maintained in some fashion, eventually the indiscriminate user will have to pay out for what he has used. The body and mind will begin to lose their initial vigour. Through the practice of yoga, sensible diet and lifestyle, one can easily maintain the energy levels required for optimal mental and physical functionability. In learning to link up body and mind with the practices of yama and niyama, asana and pranayama, one ensures that mind and body will be able to work together harmoniously, not only in our youth, but right up to the end of our days.