Yogic Management of Ageing

Dr Swami Nirmalananda Saraswati

In any living being, at any given moment, some cells are being born, some cells are growing and maturing, and other cells are degenerating and dying. When the process of degeneration exceeds the other two processes, then the ageing process is said to set in. To stop the ageing process each degenerating cell must be replaced with a new cell and irreplaceable cells must be repaired adequately.

The study of old age is called gerontology and the medical management of old age is known as geriatrics. According to present day norms, anyone aged sixty-five years and over is termed a 'senior citizen', but Paramahamsaji used to say the normal life expectancy is a hundred and fifty years and if we learn how to live a true yogic lifestyle we could perhaps still achieve this.

Why focus on ageing?

During the twentieth century the death rate has dropped drastically and even the birth rate has slowed down to some extent. However, life expectancy has increased and the growth rate of the population aged 65 years and over has now exceeded the overall world population growth rate. As a result we find more aged people in any given population than before and this number is expected to increase.

Moreover, an increasing number of older people are maintaining good health, physically as well as mentally, for longer periods and this human energy is a resource that should be utilised properly. In fact, the United Nations has declared 1999 as the 'International Year for Older Persons'. The problems of old age are peculiar and very demanding on human resources qualitatively, quantitatively and in terms of duration. Therefore, we should try to prevent or at least to minimise them.

The role of yoga

Yoga has a threefold role to play in the management of the ageing process. Firstly, it helps to improve longevity. Secondly, it helps to alleviate the problems of the aged – physical, mental, emotional and social. Thirdly, yoga provides older people with a positive direction in life. In other words, yoga initiates the journey, smoothes out the bumps and provides the goal of the journey. Therefore, the first principle in yogic management is to delay the onset of ageing and its associated problems, starting with young adults. The second principle is to maintain the health and happiness that older people already have. The third and most necessary principle is to alleviate the already existing problems of old age. This major task can be achieved using three tools, viz. yogic practices, diet and lifestyle, and changing attitudes with the aid of various yogic techniques.

The problems of ageing

The problems that older people face occur at four different levels. Firstly, at the physical level there are the limitations of an ageing body as well as various diseases. Physical limitations are due to restricted mobility, joint stiffness and muscle weakness. Failure of the various sense organs adds to these limitations, including poor eyesight, deafness and a diminished sense of balance. Older people are also very prone to bone fractures, chest and urinary infections. Circulation tends to be sluggish and digestion poor.

The fruits of a stressful lifestyle in younger days may mature in the form of high BP, ischaemic heart disease, diabetes and so on. Degenerative diseases of the brain and other organs, such as enlarged prostate, are increasingly found as age advances. In short, physical problems grow proportionately with the ageing process as the physical composition of the body changes.

The second level of problems involves failing mental faculties. These may include deterioration of memory, the learning, grasping power or cognition, concentration, reasoning or logic and a sluggish, inflexible thinking process.

Thirdly, at the emotional level there may be fear of incapacity and death, dependency, insecurity, rejection and loneliness, decreased self-confidence and self-esteem, and lack of trust.

Fourthly, at the psychosocial level there may be problems due to reduced finances, lack of personal space, inability to hand over power to the younger generation, inability to adjust to a lower pace of lifestyle with less responsibility and an inability to find a focus in life.

However, the picture is by no means gloomy. Older people have a wealth of knowledge which can compensate for the other effects of ageing. By utilising these very valuable assets they can turn the game to their own advantage. These assets are maturity and the wisdom of experience, availability of ample time, open-mindedness or acceptance, ability to adjust and a childlike nature or innocence.

Yoga practices

The right combination of yogic practices can, to a large extent, correct most of the problems associated with ageing. The selection of practices depends upon the particular problems and the capacity of each individual. However, certain practices are beneficial for everybody. Amongst the shatkarmas, neti and kapalbhati can be practised every day, and kunjal, laghoo and trataka periodically. Drinking two glasses of warm water, plain or salted, every morning and performing at least three of the asanas for shankhaprakshalana will keep the digestive system in shape. Pawanmuktasana part 1 is necessary to maintain mobility of the body and free movement of prana. One forward bending, one backward bending and one twisting asana to keep the spine supple can be included in a daily program. A relaxing asana can complete the practice.

Certain asanas are particularly helpful in the prevention of ageing, such as leg lock, cycling and leg rotations from a supine position, vajrasana, majariasana, hasta utthanasana, siddha/siddha yoni asana, shashankasana and, if health permits, surya namaskara, sarvangasana, vipareeta karani asana and eka pada pranamasana.

The following pranayama practices are highly recommended: yogic breathing, abdominal breathing, nadi shodhana, bhramari and ujjayi. Among the mudras and bandhas, hridaya mudra, ashwini mudra, shambavi mudra, khechari mudra and moola bandha are beneficial for improving the cardiorespiratory and brain function, for cooling, balancing and sharpening the mind and for general vitality and longevity. Hridaya mudra is beneficial for the heart, ashwini mudra and moola bandha for vitality and improved mental functioning, and khechari and shambavi mudras for expanding the consciousness.

Among the various meditation practices yoga nidra provides relaxation at the conscious, subconscious and unconscious levels. Antar mouna is important for reviewing and letting go of old memories and detaching oneself from the past. It can be performed by itself or combined with other practices like japa and ajapa japa. Trataka improves the mental faculties and trains one in how to internalise the mind. Hridayakasha dharana is beneficial for purifying the emotions and chidakasha dharana assists in expanding the consciousness.

Mantra japa is essential because it works on all the five koshas or levels of the body – physical, mental, pranic, psychic and blissful. Similarly, seva or service, bhakti or devotion, satsang and uplifting reading help to change and focus the attitude and lifestyle in a positive direction.

Diet and lifestyle

The second tool that yoga uses is diet and lifestyle. Diet should be preferably vegetarian: fresh, seasonal and produced in the locality, not over or undercooked, low calories (2,000-2,200 per day), very low fat content (30-40 grams daily) but at the same time not dry, low to moderate protein content of plant origin (50-60 grams), high carbohydrate content and high fibre content, both soluble and insoluble. A yogic diet plays an important role in keeping the weight down, the bowels moving and the pranas high.

Regular mealtimes should be maintained and snacks or eating between meals discouraged. The stomach should be kept partially empty, not stuffed to the brim, to enable peristalsis or effective churning motion of the food. Food should be considered as prasad or from the grace of God, and consumed with the attitude of offering it into the yajna, or sacrificial fire, as mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita (Ch. 4, v.24): “Brahman is the oblation; Brahman is the ghee; by Brahman is the oblation poured in to the fire of Brahman; Brahman verily shall be reached by him who always sees Brahman in action.”

Fasting or eating fruit one day a week rests the digestive system and assists in the regenerative process. The yogic concept of correct lifestyle depends on regularity in activities like eating, sadhana, resting and sleeping. A medium-paced lifestyle, varied activities, avoiding extremes of any kind, togetherness in family life, and expansion of awareness from 'me and mine' to 'us and ours' and beyond. Cultivating a hobby, taking up light sports such as swimming which brings one closer to the element water, brisk walking with breath awareness, spending time with children, keeping pets, bringing uninhibited laughter into daily life, taking vacations, changing the environment and being with nature are some practical ways to put these concepts into practice.

It is important for older people to understand and accept the changes in the body and try to remain physically and mentally active in a creative manner. One should be as diligent in the practice of yoga, meditation and study as one was in a job. It is important to maintain physical, financial and emotional independence. The older generation has a wealth of experience to offer and if the younger generation can utilise this knowledge they will benefit greatly. A little love and care can make elderly people bloom happily.

Changing one's attitudes

The third tool of changing and adopting a positive attitude is a most important but most difficult aspect of yoga training. By practising yoga sincerely, with faith and with regularity, the personality automatically starts to change. Certain yogic concepts are very useful in providing a positive direction for older people. The concept of the four ashramas in life says that the third station in life, vanaprastha ashrama, is intended for a gradual withdrawal from the external world and obligations in order to turn inward on a spiritual journey.

Extend help to your youngsters but do not impose yourself. Analyse the years lived. Try to work out the aim of life and to realise that goal. Work on the SWAN principle more diligently. Balance the chariot of life equally on all the four wheels of artha (financial fulfilment), kama (emotional fulfilment), dharma (social fulfilment) and moksha (spiritual fulfilment). Seva, bhakti and satsang, when practised in their true sense, are excellent ways to bring these yogic concepts into real life.

Delaying the onset of old age

Thus far we have looked at how yoga can assist older people with problems and those who are happy and healthy, that is, 'cure' and 'maintenance'. How does one delay or prevent the onset of old age? The yogic and ayurvedic scriptures do mention kayakalpa, the reversal of old age, and the prevention of old age and death. However, to achieve this state, the aims and intentions must be totally spiritual and intense sadhana is required. One cannot use such siddhis for material benefit. However, by utilising yogic practices and leading a yogic lifestyle one can delay the onset of old age and prevent the suffering associated with this process .

According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, nectar or amrit is generated at bindu. From bindu it trickles down through ajna, vishuddhi and anahata to manipura where it is consumed by fire. Still lower down in swadhisthana and mooladhara it is converted into sexual energy and used up in procreation. If bramacharya is observed in its totality then this energy can be used in rejuvenation or delaying old age. If the flow of nectar is arrested at vishuddhi and directed upwards by khechari mudra and vipareeta karani mudra, then old age can be prevented totally and immortality can be achieved. Siddhasana, pranayama with prolonged kumbhaka and the three bandhas, ujjayi with khechari, vipareet karani, shambavi and vajroli/sahajoli mudras are some of the main practices which will help to delay the onset of old age.

Yogic practices increase the life span and the quality of life by decreasing the metabolic rate, decreasing the respiratory rate and oxygen demand, providing total relaxation of the body, conscious mind and subconscious mind, preventing leakage of prana and aiding in the regeneration of prana. Asana and shatkarma keep the body flexible and free from accumulated tensions and toxins. Pranayama, mudra and bandha all revitalise the brain, the nervous system and the pranas. Yogic practices can also stop the disease process thereby reversing or slowing down the process of ageing. Meditation provides a time for resting and rejuvenating the nervous and endocrine systems, and for generation of prana in pranamaya kosha. The brain is revitalised and the memory loss and senility associated with old age are prevented.

A positive mental attitude can actually reverse the ageing process by stimulating the nervous system. We can achieve this by providing ourselves with an interesting and stimulating environment, continually trying to expand our knowledge, understanding and wisdom. By inculcating a sense of wonder and interest in life, setting aims and goals to pit ourselves against, we will live life with a sense of purpose and direction.