Yoga and Longevity

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Interview by Dignity Dialogue, Mumbai

Why should anyone do yoga?

God gave us a body and mind with its own abilities to perform and interact with the world. God also gave us some basic concepts about life, its relationship with the cosmos, and the realization of our deeper spirtual nature. Yoga is the system through which we can discover the source of harmony and peace, shanti, in our lives. It is that awareness which, in the course of human evolution, continues undistracted by personal involvement in materialism. Evolution is going beyond materialism.

In the ancient traditions of India, four purusharthas have been defined: artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Four different stages of life have also been defined: brahmacharya ashrama, acquiring experience and knowledge; grihastha ashrama, applying the experienced knowledge in society; vanaprashtha ashrama, slowly isolating oneself from the attractions of the senses; and sannyasa ashrama, recognition of the inner identity. So, according to the Indian traditions, materialism and spiritualism go hand in hand, and yoga is just a means to progress from one stage of life to another in a smooth, harmonious way.

Why should the body be worked on at all?

Why do we need to cook food? Why do we go through an intricate process of devising new methods of preparing meals? For our sensual enjoyment. In the same way, the body has to be worked upon because, due to the modern lifestyle, it attracts different kinds of diseases, illnesses and imbalances which hinder the growth of the mind and make it feel pain and suffering. So, for good health and physical well-being certain practices have been devised which make our body perform controlled movements in a way that eliminates the imbalances of the body.

Is there a guarantee that yoga will produce all these results?

There is no guarantee. We have to listen to the experiences of people who have felt definite changes happening in their lives. A sincere aspirant of yoga will experience those changes naturally. Nothing in life is guaranteed. There is no guarantee that you will be successful in your work and not fail, but still you do your best. So why do you think of a guarantee in relation to yoga?

Because yoga has the aura of being a perfected system that will take one to higher levels of consciousness.

That is because the people who have perfected it have experienced these higher levels of consciousness.

Is yoga preferable to aerobics or kinesthetics, badminton or tennis, or ordinary walking, for instance, for the 60 plus age group?

If sports like aerobics, walking and jogging can provide total health and well-being to the internal organs, then you definitely don't need yoga. But so far no exercise in the world has ensured healthy internal organs. Rather they have had a detrimental effect on the functioning of the physical system. We have yogic exercises which are also very complex, but we begin with the simple, gentle movements which aid the maintenance of the physical system and do not damage the natural state of the physical organs with hard movements.

Can a person begin yoga at the age of 60 without the fear of straining or pulling a muscle?

Yes, you can practise yoga at any age whether it be 10, 20, 40, 60 or 80, because the practices begin gradually and are simple enough to exercise the different parts of the entire body. It is not necessary to practise advanced yoga like standing on your head or performing intricate contortions. Asana is a practice through which you attain awareness of the body, release tension and stress from different joints and muscles and come to a state of relaxation, in which you are physically comfortable in whatever you do.

Can you recommend a series of asanas for 60 year olds to do every day?

If , at that age, you are healthy and have no physical problems, illnesses or diseases then the best yoga practices would be the pawanmuktasana series part I and II, the shakti bandha techniques and the trikonasana series, which are very gentle and provide complete exercise for the physical body.

The generation gap is a source of considerable stress and tension for many older people today. Would you comment?

I think this is somehow related to the social upbringing to which we have exposed our children. Parents tend to impose their own aspirations on their children, rather than allowing them to follow their own path in life. For example, a mother may want her child to become a doctor, a father may want the child to become an engineer. The majority of parents never ask him, “What do you want to become?” Instead they make their children in their own image according to their expectations and then expect the children to fulfil those expectations.

In modern society there are many opportunities which people become aware of as they grow up. The younger generation feels that their parents have not given them that freedom to choose what they want to become and to lead independent lives. In a sense, it is social rebellion that makes children distance themselves from their parents. We put the blame, the onus of guilt, on the children and also on external influences. Parents are unable to face their own guilt in not having provided the right form of discipline or education or encouragement to their children. That is one of the major causes of what we call the generation gap. Parents think in one way, children think in another way, and the same children who are now trying to prove to the world that they can be independent will have problems with their children.

We impose our expectations on the younger generation for our own security and sense of fulfilment. We think of children as the support for our old age, but the changing scenario in the world does not furnish that kind of situation anymore. In order to overcome their anxiety or insecurity or mental crisis, parents who are no longer actively participating in society should reflect back and guide their children differently. Parents must become friends to their children instead of being the judge, jury and executioner.

Why do people over 60 still experience stress and tension even though they have retired from competitive society?

At that age they are not actively participating in the formation of society and that becomes a source of stress. After retirement nobody gives them any recognition or importance anymore. That form of stress is more devastating than the usual work or family stress because it hurts the self-image, and loss of a positive self-image destroys personalities.

Even at that age they are groping for a direction. What ideals should they pursue?

The answer is given in the system of the ancient Indian tradition. After retirement you are supposed to take a passive role in society. Until retirement you have a dynamic role in society: you are working and earning, a member of this club or society, participating in this charitable activity and doing many other things. After retirement you just have to concentrate on your spiritual and mental development through contemplation, reflection, meditation. You are supposed to adopt the role of the thinker so that the wisdom you have gained in life through experience becomes the source of inspiration to people who have not had that experience. You have to be a guide and a thinker. There should be a natural transition from worker to thinker.

It seems to be a little divorced from the western prescription for people over 60, which is to be as active as possible.

I agree with that. Our system is not alien or different to this way of thinking. There are many ways of keeping occupied. You can participate in some philanthropic activity. If you have a farm you can do the work instead of depending on servants. You can remain a part of society, but as a passive player. So there is acceptance of this idea in the Indian tradition. It is not just a meditative lifestyle where you sit down every day and think about God, do your pooja and read the scriptures. At the same time, during the day you are encouraged to have the role of teacher, farmer or whatever, so that you can impart your knowledge and experience to others.

You are the head of a great tradition. Can we assume you have reached the ultimate goal of yoga?

That is something I try not to think about. Only a few people have been able to achieve that. At present I don't have the mentality or awareness where I can claim to know even a part of the ultimate truth or God or whatever. But I do believe that there is a method by which we can selflessly involve ourselves in the growth and development of human society, whether it be through some form of social work or through some form of teaching or preaching a system of thought or philosophy. The basic philosophy which we follow is: work selflessly for personal growth and also for the development of human society.

Are there yogic practices that would delay the chronological process of ageing?

Ageing is a phenomenon where cellular destruction gradually predominates over the reconstructive process. Yoga sees this as a natural process and does not go against nature. However, the speed of the degeneration can definitely be slowed down by regulating the secretion patterns of the endocrinal system of which testosterone and melatonin are only a few elements. Regular practice of a balanced set of asanas, pranayamas, relaxation, meditation and cleansing practices are very necessary.

What are the yogic equivalents to melatonin?

The practices influencing melatonin secretion are tratak and mantra japa. If these practices are done before sleeping, then the melatonin levels are seen to rise. However, along with these practices, a regulated lifestyle is a must. Irregular sleep and waking times, dietary indiscretions, high stress levels, indulgence in sensory pleasures and an unbalanced attitude towards life will all put off the desired effects.

Are there yogic practices that would reverse the ageing process? Are there yogic equivalents to testosterone, the endocrinal hormone that can improve male virility?

The specific practices related to testosterone regulation and delaying the ageing process are agnisar kriya, vajroli/sahajoli mudra, vajrasana (left), siddhasana (below) and the shakti bandha asanas.

All these practices affect the circulation from the gonads, and thereby influence the ageing process. (For further information refer to BYB publication Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha.)