Yoga and Aging

By Urmila Das

Introduction

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word – yug.  It is pronounced as YOG, but today it is generally accepted as YOGA.   The English equivalent of this word is “yoke”.

Meaning:  The meaning of the word yoke is:  to yoke a pair of oxen together, bondage, servitude, enslavement, etc.  (For more shades of meaning refer to the dictionary)

Yoga on the other hand means “union” i.e. bring two things together.  But the meaning of yoga according to the school of Indian Philosophy has a deeper meaning.  Yes!  It means “union” but what kind of “union”?  It is a union of the soul with God and the body.  Most importantly Yoga is a path, a way, a lifestyle.

The Four Main Kinds of Yoga

Yoga forms the foundation of Indian philosophy for as long as historians can delve into the ancient history of man.  There are evidences of references in our scriptures like the Veda, Upanishads, etc., where our rishis discussed the science of yoga.  This ancient science and art form used to be passed down orally from teacher to students, but as years went by, a great Sage by the name of Patanjali organised the system of yoga in a systematic way.  For our Seminar today let us look at the four main kinds of yoga:

Raj Yoga – the way of spiritual discipline

Karma Yoga  –  the way of action

Jnana Yoga  –  the way of wisdom

Bhakti Yoga  –  the way of devotion

I would like to discuss in depth Raj Yoga, but before I do so, I will briefly describe Karma yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.

Karma Yoga:  This is the yoga of action or karma.  It can be called karma yoga only when the action is done in a selfless way with God as the focus. Actions done in this way do not bind a person to the action, but rather liberate that person towards God.

Jnana Yoga:  This is the yoga of knowledge.  But what kind of knowledge?  It is the knowledge of the reality of the soul and God.  As Aristotle said:  “There is no nobler occupation than the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”.

Bhakti Yoga:  This is the yoga of devotion and of surrendering to God.  When bhakti Yoga is practiced then the devotee experiences the presence of God in every part of the universe.

Raj Yoga: In Raj Yoga, the highly evolved seer Patanjali codified this discipline into eight parts, also known as asthanga yoga, e.g.

  • Yamas
  • Niyamas
  • Aasana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyahara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi

For a moment let us look at how the foundation blocks were set up.  It clearly shows a progressive movement from the external to the internal, whereby one experiences oneself.  As we grow in life by adopting such principles to live by we do grow gracefully.

We may ask ourselves what are these yamas and niyamas and what they have to do in making us grow gracefully?  Well, the answer is that they mould our lives in a positive way and they are the stepping stones to the anti-aging process.  There are five principles of Yamas and five of Niyamas.

Yamas:

Ahimsa – To be non-violent.  We must not be violent towards any living being, not even in thought, word or deed.

Satya  – Truth. Always be truthful to ourselves and to others.

Asteya  – Do not take anything that does not belong to you.  We must earn our living honestly and not depend on others.

Brahmacharya – We must be pure in our life and no go after sensual pleasures

Aparigraha – Non hoarding of things.  When we accumulate too many material things we feel trapped and lose our freedom.

Niyamas:

Shouch – Cleanliness, also in thought, word and deed.

Santosh – Contentment.Be happy with whatever we have and not long for what others have.

Tapa – Austerity. We must endure some hardship.  A pampered life will not help us to grow spiritually.

Swadhyaya    To study and learn each day

Ishwarpranidhana – A longing to realize God in this life.

Aasanas:

In yoga terminology the word aasanas refer to postures of the body.  These aasanas emphaize deep breathing, relaxed movements and mental concentration which promote a state of mental and physical well being.  Hence the aasanas rejuvenate and bring the physical body in a state of balance with the natural forces of nature.

We may ask what are the physical benefits of these aasanas?  The most important is the flexibility of the spine.  It is said that ‘you are as young as your spine’.  These aasanas focus on increasing and maintaining flexibility of the spine, and also toning and rejuvenating the nervous system.  Gentle stretching, twisting, bending movements bring flexibility to the other joints and muscles of the body.

But what about the aging process which we are here to discuss.  Yoga helps to slow down the aging process when there is elasticity to the spine, firming up the skin, removing tension from the body, strengthening the abdominal muscles, correcting poor postures, etc.  Thus, we can say that aasanas work wonders in bringing awareness to the body and mind.

Here are listed some of the anti-aging effects of asanas as described by Dr. Paul Galbraith, author of “Reversing Aging”: longevity; increased resistance to disease; rejuvenation of your glands, (like the pituitary, thyroid, etc.); look and feel younger (reduces wrinkles); improved vision and hearing, and mental/emotional benefits as well.  Because of the rejuvenation effects of the glands and nervous system, the practice of aasanas enhances the mental and emotional state of the mind of the practitioner.”

Pranayama:

No one can live for more than a few minutes without breathing.  But what pranayama or yogic breathing does is makes us be aware of the importance of breathing properly.  Pranayama or yogic breathing helps to cleanse and nourish the physical body.  As you inhale fully, you are supplying an abundance of oxygen to every minute cell of the body.  As you exhale the waste products (or toxins) are expelled.    It improves and strengthens the respiratory system, increases vitality and energy level.  A combination of breathing and deep relaxation will help people overcome anxiety and panic attacks, high blood pressure, etc.  Mentally yogic breathing improves concentration and gives clarity of thought.  For aasanas, pranayama is very important.  Aasanas can be called aasanas only if pranic energy force is used.

Pratyahara:

Withdrawal of the senses from your surroundings.  The yoga aspirant who has learned to control sensory attachments to things in the environment and to block attraction to vice is said to have conquered the senses.

Dharana:

Deep concentration of the mind.  When the mind has withdrawn from the stimulation of the senses, only then can it focus on a single aim, goal or idea.

Dhyana:

Meditation with intense concentration.  At this level the practitioner of yoga concentrates on God  and His attributes and the soul, separate from the body and mind.  Most important here is the realization that God alone is the Higher Power.

Samadhi:

This is the final stage of Raj yoga when the soul is said to be one with God.

Yoga and the Aging Process:

Let us take a look at our selves.  Most of us are stressed from overwork, lack of rest, unhealthy lifestyles and, most important, detachment from ourselves.  We live in a world which is highly industralized and “so-called modern”, whereby with the touch of a button or a switch daily chores are taken care of, yet time seems to be scarce.  This modern life style, though it can be beneficial, also does harm to us.  To my mind yoga whether it is Karma, Jnana, Bhakti or Raj yoga is the answer to a well-balanced physical, mental and emotional life style.  Deep down inside all of us know what is good for our mental, physical and emotional selves.  Yoga teaches us to tap into our inner wisdom and as we go through the aging process we see aging as being graceful.  One is never too young or old to venture on this way of life.

We must not lose sight of the fact that aging is a universal phenomenon and this phenomenon starts right from birth.  Chronological aging is inevitable and there is nothing one can do to change that age.  However, what one can do is to let the science of yoga take charge of our physical, mental and emotional being despite the age. For the youth is should be a feeling of joy and beauty of what lies ahead.  For the middle age it should be like entering the enlightenment period, where this great knowledge has given a renewed vision of life.  With experience, maturity and spare time used creativity life can certainly be graceful. Yoga will take years off your face and add years to your life, hence the ageless appearance.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Deepak Chopra: [Quote] “people do not grow old, when they stop growing they become old.”

1. [Spiritually “in the realm of the spirit there is no ageing.”]

2.  [Hand-on activity – not theory but practice]

Bibliography:

Active ageing in the new millennium, edited by Aabha Chaudhary. New Dehli, Anugraha, 2001.

Yoga mind & body.  Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center, 1998.

Ananda, Sudhir.  The Essence of the Hindu religion: with an introduction to the Vedas and Yoga. Los Angeles, ASK Publications, 2000.

Finney, Sumukhi.  The Yoga Handbook. Canada, Strathearn, 2004.

Various readings on the internet on “Yoga and aging.”