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This text is a modified excerpt from an article I have pre­sent­ed as part of my yoga teacher training at the Vivekananda ash­ram near Ban­ga­lore, India in the year 2000.

[...] in the text indicates that more details are given in the free pdf-version. Please find the download link at the bot­tom of this page.

1. Introduction

Human beings get born, grow up, are getting older and finally pass away. After body and mind have developed to their greatest ca­pa­bili­ty, usually in good health, a slow decay starts off. The body’s defence mechanisms against var­i­ous dis­eases will weaken and even­tu­ally it will die. The process of aging affects man’s physical, in­tel­lec­tual, mental and spir­i­tu­al capacities.
This article deals with some possible changes on the bodily and mental level and how yoga can help to live a healthier and content life. The focus will be on the bodily level while the meditation section of this website provides helpful means on the mental level.

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2.0 Changes of body and mind

2.1 Bodily changes and problems

Due to changes and a slowing down of the metabolism oc­cur­ring with old age, muscle cells are no longer re­newed as quickly as before and will increasingly trans­form to fat cells. The elas­tic­ity of the fibres and the tonus of the muscles are reduced.

Decades of mal­nu­tri­tion and the use of in­tox­i­cants like to­bac­co and alcohol may have left deposits of plaque in blood vessels (ar­te­rio­scle­rosis, cor­o­nary heart disease), re­duc­ing the blood cir­cu­la­tion, in­creas­ing the blood pressure. Sed­i­ments of various kinds affect the joints and will result in dis­com­fort, pain and reduced flexibility. Accidents and injuries may increase.
The immune system is often weakened, re­sult­ing in an increased del­i­ca­cy against pathogenic agents.

The following diseases occur fre­quent­ly with age:
  • Hypertension, heart insufficiency, heart attack, stroke;
  • Arthritis, arthrosis, rheumatism;
  • Stiffness, weakness of joints and limbs;
  • Back problems;
  • Reduced performance of inner organs, constipation;
  • Diabetes mellitus;
  • Respiratory problems;
  • Eye- and ear problems and other.

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2.2 Mental, intellectual and emotional problems

Due to various reasons like de­gen­er­a­tion of nerve cells, a lack of blood supply to the brain, changes of trans­mitter sub­stances responsible to trans­port in­for­mation between nerve cells in the brain, changes in the hor­mon­al sys­tem, dehydration and others, prob­lems like
  • A lack of concentration;
  • Insufficient memory;
  • Parkinson's and Alzheimer's dis­ease;
  • Depression, neurosis and others may occur.
Additionally elderly people may get lonely and may face difficulties in find­ing something interesting and chal­leng­ing to do after their retirement. They are said to be of little or no use for society anymore and there­fore they lack respect in (western) so­ci­e­ties. This again may lead to wor­ries, anxieties, isolation, de­pres­sion, ag­gres­sion etc. which in turn may result in de­vel­op­ing bodily and mentally tension and dis­orders. A lack of self-confidence and un­hap­pi­ness is not uncommon.

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3.0 How yoga can help

Yoga has positive effects on the bodily and mental health. Though the focus is more on prevention than on curing, yoga therapy is suc­cess­fully applied on chronic and stress related ailments like disturbance of blood supply, digestive and sleep related disorders, respiratory and back problems.
Details on yoga therapy can be found at “Yoga, the science of holistic living” and other publications by Swami Vive­kananda Yoga Prakashana, Bangalore, India.

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3.1 The preventive aspect of yoga in the course of aging

Hatha yoga practice In recent years man in the in­dus­tri­al­ized countries are de­vel­op­ing a more holistic approach in living life. Many have realized that human life is a complex inter­action between body, mind, social and natural en­vi­ron­ment and sick­ness or health have to be viewed and dealt with considering all of these aspects. In dealing with sick­ness one has to take the physical, emotional, in­tel­lec­tual and spir­i­tu­al facet of the patient into account, his past, his origins and culture, his en­vi­ron­ment. Offering chemical drugs, which in many cases will cure the symptoms but not the underlying root cause, will only bring temporary relief.

Practising the yogic system purifies the body, improves health, strengthens the mind, intensifies spir­i­tu­al growth, balances emotions and thus leads to a fulfilled and healthy life. [...]
When talking about yoga in the West, people usually think of the bodily postures, the asanas, also known as Hatha yoga.

Hatha yoga offers a wide range of postures with different degree of dif­ficulties. There is some­thing suit­able for eve­ry­one at every age. Depending on one’s health and fit­ness one can start with very easy pre­par­a­tory exercises and progress little by little. If prac­tised in the right way, positive effects will occur almost im­me­di­ately at any level of practice.

With continued practice the body will become more flexible and healthy. The training of the body, the breath­ing exer­cises and the prac­tice of med­ita­tion will have very positive effects on the mind as well. It will become more quiet and calm by turning inward, the willpower will increase, unrest and anxieties will lessen, con­cen­tra­tion will develop and become power­ful, a spir­i­tu­al growth will take place and in due course will lead to more and genuine hap­pi­ness. This hap­pi­ness is achieved by turning the mind away from chasing external sense pleasures and looking inside instead.
All of the above mentioned effects may lead to a dif­ferent view of life. People prac­tising yoga may switch to a vegetarian diet, avoid in­tox­i­cants, being aware and taking care of them­selves, the persons and the en­vi­ron­ment around them. Their change in attitude and behaviour will give a positive example for others and may inspire them to start prac­tising as well. They may use their gained energy to serve others and society, thus avoiding loneliness.

The practice of yoga cannot avoid death, but living life in a healthy body with a sound, free and content mind can be extended; death no longer is some­thing one has to be afraid of. A trained body is less prone to injuries, and even if weak­ness, sick­ness, and pain of the body cannot always be avoided, the spir­i­tu­al development will help to deal with them more wisely with less suf­fer­ing for the mind.

These are some of the methods and resulting benefits yoga prac­tices may have on the aging process of man­kind.

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3.2 The healing aspect of yoga in the course of aging

If ailments and deficits on the bodily and/or men­tal level have already arisen, one should try to cure, at least lessen them. Yoga therapy has proven par­tic­ular suc­cess­ful in treating chron­ic health problems like asthma, chron­ic bron­chi­tis, high or low blood pres­sure, chronic diarrhoea or con­sti­pation, weak­ness of the immune system, etc.

The key principles of the integrated approach in yoga therapy are:
  • Deep relaxation;
  • Increasing the stamina and for­bear­ance;
  • Awaken and strengthen in­ter­nal aware­ness.
By adopting the integrated approach, the affected organs and the whole body will be normal­ized, strength­ened and re­vi­tal­ized. The application of suit­able bodily ex­er­cis­es, breath­ing and cleans­ing tech­niques, as well as emo­tion­al control through de­vo­tional sessions and me­di­ta­tion are the tools to put these key principles into prac­tice.
Obviously different ailments require dif­fer­ent treat­ments; dif­ferent pa­tients have to be treated in an indi­vidual way; many eld­er­ly persons suffer of multiple health problems. Every single case has to be treated according to his or her deficits in close co­op­era­tion with the doctors and therapists involved.
On the other hand it has proven that certain basic treat­ments will usually have positive effects on a range of dif­ferent ail­ments. [...]

The choice of the asana is very much depending on the severity of the ail­ment. A collection of easy to learn and to do ex­er­cis­es with dif­fer­ent degrees of dif­ficul­ty can be found in my book Enjoy Hatha–Yoga

Yoga asanas will vitalize the whole body, keeping or making it flexible and promote the blood circulation. Together with the deep relaxation it relaxes body and mind, nerves and muscles. Tiredness and fatigue will be released. [...]

Rehabilitation
Another important aspect in the ap­pli­ca­tion of yoga therapy is the field of re­ha­bil­ita­tion, eg, the reha­bili­tation of stroke patients or after accidents. In these cases an often long and intensive treatment is neces­sary. These patients very often will suffer of a lack of con­fi­dence in the pos­si­bil­ities to lessen their deficits or restoring their health. They get dis­couraged, some­times de­pres­sive. An integrated approach which takes care of the bodily as well as of their mental, in­tel­lectual, emo­tion­al and spi­ri­tu­al needs is most essential.

Diet
An important factor for man’s health is his diet. Many bodily and men­tal dis­orders are due to mal­nutrition and the use of intoxicants.

Dedicated yogis will stick to sattvic food (freshly cooked veg­etarian food, if possible organic, fresh organic veg­e­ta­bles,

fruits, legumes, dairy, whole grain products, seeds and nuts, mild spices, no black or red pepper, no garlic, no leftovers) only, but people living in the world may fare already better when adopting a diet with little animal fat and meat, little salt, much fresh vegetables, fruits and grains to ensure a well-balanced supply of vitamins and minerals.

Very important is not only what one eats but how one eats. One should neither eat in a hurry nor eat very big meals. Several small meals distributed over the entire day and slow and mindful eating is required. The ancient yogic rule “Eat the fluids (do not gulp them down) and drink the solids (chew them thoroughly and carefully)” should be applied. A well balanced diet is of enormous value in the prevention of ailments.

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3.3 Aging, spir­i­tu­al growth and yoga

Spir­i­tu­ality and wisdom are in­ter­con­nect­ed. Old age, if not associated with senility, is said to be in­ter­con­nect­ed with wisdom. Does this mean that the process of aging au­to­mat­i­cally lead to spir­i­tu­ality or to a growth of spir­i­tu­al qual­i­ties?

What is spir­i­tu­ality?
Spir­i­tu­ality could be described as a turning away from the "outer" world perceived through the sense doors and as a move towards the "inner" world, as an inward journey in search for man’s true nature, as a search for truth which may lead to lasting happiness instead of chasing im­per­ma­nent pleasures.

What makes man searching for true happiness?
Humans tend to looking outside, to the outer world, to the environment, seek­ing happiness in the outside world by means of the sense organs. Chasing after sensual pleasure by running after delicious food, hearing alluring sounds, smelling fragrant odours, enjoying ex­cit­ing body contacts, watching beautiful sights is all around. All of this may re­sult in some kind of happiness, may be more accurate to say pleasure, for some time but then it will fade away, leaving us craving for another sense pleasure or for a repetition of
Wat Poh

Right: Sculpture at Wat Poh, Bang­kok

the already ex­pe­ri­enced ones – chas­ing happiness end­less­ly.

One needs not to grow very old to understand these im­per­ma­nent, ever changing proc­ess­es in­tel­lec­tu­ally. But to recognize this vicious circle of craving – strug­gling for sat­is­fac­tion – fading away of the sat­is­fac­tion – renewed craving merely in­tel­lec­tu­al­ly will not help much and so we spend year after year, decade after decade in run­ning after sense pleas­ures, in running after dis­ap­point­ment. [...]

The methods of yoga and med­i­ta­tion can help us to avoid many traps and to advance more quickly on the spir­i­tu­al path. It has already proven to be suc­cess­ful in aiding and guiding spir­i­tu­al seekers to the final goal. [...]

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4.0 SUMMARY

In the course of aging body, mind and spirit of man will undergo certain changes. Finally these changes will lead to the unavoid­able death of the person. Before this is going to happen, very often avoid­able and to in­creased aging and decay leading health problems will occur. This is fre­quent­ly due to the fact that humans do not care for their true needs; instead they indulge in all kinds of sensual pleasures in­clud­ing mal­nu­tri­tion and the use of in­toxi­cants. They over­work, do not exercise their bodies properly, and neglect their spir­i­tual needs.

Man sticking to the path of yoga and med­i­ta­tion will know that true hap­pi­ness is not to be found any­where outside but inside them. They will strengthen and purify body and mind; they will balance their emotions and grow spir­i­tu­ally, thus becoming con­tent­ed, peace­ful and calm. Of course they cannot escape decay and death, but they can delay it and lead a fulfilled life.

By fully implementing yogic methods in daily life, the preventive, the healing and to further (spir­i­tu­al) de­vel­op­ment leading aspect of yoga can hardly be separated from each other; they will serve all of these three tasks. This yogic way of life, wisely applied, is beneficial at every age and every state of health.

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