Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A New Perspective on Aging

There was an experiment in Boston recently where the participants, who were all over the age of 75, were taken to a retreat center outside the city for one week. The retreat center was made to look like a building from the 1950's- the furnishings were from the 50's, the clothing the participants wore was from the 50's, the music they listened to, the movies they watched and the books and magazines they read were all from the 1950's. After one week, nearly all of the participants had dramatically reversed their biological markers for aging. No change in diet, no change in exercise- just the mental cue to their bodies to be as they were in the 50's and remarkably, they were!

The biological markers for aging are: bone density, fat content in the body, cardiovascular health, strength and flexibility thresholds, vision and hearing thresholds and quantities of sexual hormones in the body. All the newest studies show conclusively that every single one of these markers can be reversed! In studies where diet and exercise were added with the mental component, the results are even more dramatic: researchers were able to create biological markers in 75 year olds that were equal to that of the average 25 year old. The big lesson here is to change the way we think about aging. It is very possible to age joyfully and gracefully.

Nothing ages our bodies more rapidly than stress- studies show it makes us age 10 times faster. If we look to the animal kingdom- if a gazelle has a stressful encounter with a lion and survives the encounter, immediately the gazelle goes to take a deep rest to recover. What do humans do after a stressful day at the office? Most of us just keep going, doing it all over again the next day. The regular experience of the down regulation of the nervous system, the relaxation response, is absolutely necessary for optimal health, graceful aging and to counter the periods of up regulation- the stress response. The practice of Yoga, particularly a practice with an emphasis on the Yogic Sleep Meditation at the end, is a very efficient means of managing stress and evoking the relaxation response. When the body is relaxed it has energy to send to "non essential" tasks like anti aging and cellular repair and healing.

Under the microscope, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between the muscle of a 20 year old and the muscle of a 70 year old, but where we do see dramatic difference is in the joints. Weight bearing work, like in the standing poses of Yoga, is amazing for putting a little stress of the bones to trigger new growth while still protecting the joints. Joints crave fluid movement and flowing Yoga sun salutations are very therapeutic for the joints.

In the animal kingdom those animals with slower breathing patterns, like turtles, tend to live longer. Yoga teaches us the same principle- if we can slow down our breathing patterns on a regular basis, we can increase our lifespan and have more time to work out karmic debt and to perform spiritual sadhana.

In the experiment with the 75 year olds who spent the week remembering how they were in the 1950's, we saw a change in their physical bodies in the present. Remembering the past can make physiological changes in the present. Use this wisdom to your advantage in your Yogic sleep meditation- if there is a physical issue that you are trying to heal or manage with your Yoga practice it would be beneficial to remember a time from the past before that issue was present and see yourself performing activities then that are not possible now. In your meditation experience the past fully- remember the sounds, sights, tastes and fragrances of the past.

This is an exciting time to be human on planet Earth. The later years of life are a natural time to focus more on spiritual practice and selfless service- our kids are getting older and more independent, our debts are getting smaller and we often have more free time as we work less. Aging can be a joyful transformation and the last part of our life can be just as dynamic and meaningful as the first.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I recently read an article about the seeming paradoxes found in highly creative people. There is a paradox between rest and activity. Creative types can remain intensely focused for long periods of time expending enormous amounts of energy on their discipline of choice and most report doing some type of physical activity on a regular basis. Yet, they also report spending long durations of time chilling out, doing nothing, resting and contemplating. Creative types are extroverted and love being on stage and being the center of attention. Yet, they also have periods of hermit like isolation and solitude. I am one of these types and I understand well the many faces and polarities of the personalities of creative artists. The paradoxes seem absolutely necessary for me. The activity and extroversion are facilitated by the resting and solitude.

Amit Goswami, a retired professor of quantum mechanics and a mystic, says that most people desire one polarity over the over- the act of doing or the act of being. Rather than being a type who likes to do, do, do or either a type who like to be, be, be- Amit says we are happier, like the artist, if we enjoy the dance of both- do be, do be, do be- some time spent doing and some time spent just being.

In Yoga, we ask you to build physical shapes, asanas, and in those shapes to engage opposing muscles groups in a balanced way. We say engage and enliven the muscles that you can. Yet, we also say relax and be calm and peaceful as you do this. These are seeming paradoxes. Yet, again the quiet mind we cultivate in Yoga actually facilitates the balancing of the forces in the pose. It is only when we are calm and peaceful that we able to explore the most physically demanding poses or sequences.

Find your Sthira- strength and stability in the pose. And find your Sukkha- comfort and ease. Enjoy the dance.
Do be do be do be!