by Acarya Vedaprajinananda Avadhuta
While most complex machines which we use today have a complete operating manual which explains how to get the best use out of that machine, our human body, which is in some ways like a machine, does not have such a definitive operating manual. As a consequence we often treat our body in ways which are harmful to the proper functioning of this structure. Although medical and scientific knowledge has become an important feature of modern life, many of the physical and mental diseases which plague humanity today can be prevented or cured simply by adopting a way of life which is in harmony with the true needs of our physical body.
Yoga is an ancient science of physical, mental and spiritual development which originated in India more than 7000 years ago. Many people have misconceptions about yoga and think that it is mainly a set of strenuous postures which only circus acrobats can perform, or associate it with mystic or esoteric ideas which are far removed from the daily life of the masses of humanity. Rather, yoga has much to offer to contemporary humans and it contains clear ideas and practices which can be implemented by many people who wish to live a healthy, happy and meaningful life. ln short, the ideas and practice of yoga are the “missing” operating manuals for the successful functioning of the human structure.
While most humans live longer today than they did in the past, during the last years of their life (and often even in middle age) they are often troubled with many different physical problems and become incapacitated to a certain degree. Yoga says that if humans observe certain rules, they can easily live an active life to the age of 80. What are these yogic secrets for a long and healthy life? in this article we will give an overview of these practices. A complete discussion of many of these points would take more time, but interested people can do this by attending our courses or by reading our books.
According to yoga there are six “secrets” of longevity. They are as follows:
1. Proper physical labor
In the past people had to use their physical bodies in the course of their normal work. But today someone may get up, go to work in a car, then sit down, get up to go home in the car and when arriving at home, sit down again for the rest of the day. In such a life there is no physical labor. This physical inactivity is one of the main reasons for a host of diseases. Sport, running. walking and other things must be added to our life if our normal work does not require us to exert ourselves physically. In yoga there are some special exercises which are also prescribed and we will discuss them more fully below.
2. Going to sleep when one feels sleepy
This may sound simple, but many people stay up late even when their body is telling them that it is time to sleep. Yoga and Ayurvedic doctors also say that it is better to sleep in the night and be active during the day. However, people such as students will take coffee and stimulants to study late into the night. Others develop the habit of remaining active at night and sleeping during the day. While we can do this, it eventually takes a toll on health. Yoga says that this kind of unnatural living is one of the contributing factors in the causation of cancer.
3. Eating when one feels hungry
This is also a simple idea, but once again we often go against the messages of the body. If one eats out of habit or due to social pressure at certain time of the day, even when one has no real appetite, then there will not be proper digestion of food. Acidity and indigestion begin and this contributes to the likelihood of other more complex diseases taking root. Having an appetite is actually a sign of good health, but if there is no appetite one should wait a bit and then eat. (If one has no appetite even after awaiting a reasonable amount of time, then a doctor should be consulted because something is wrong.)
4. Regular fasting
If would ask any person to work 365 days per year without any rest, they would complain and say that they must have some rest or else they will break down. But we have never bothered to ask or to think about our digestive organs which we compel to work day after day without a rest. They cannot protest the way a person would to his boss, but they do give us signals that they cannot work non-stop. When we ignore those signals and still compel them to work, those organs break down. That is why yoga is say that on a periodic basis it is good to refrain from eating for one complete day. This gives a rest to the digestive organs and also help in the elimination of wastes from the body. Regular fasting allows a person to use the fasting days for intellectual or spiritual pursuits. Fasting is not for hermits in a cave, but is a sensible practice that anyone can practice. In a future article we will explain the procedures for fasting.
5. Ablution before sleep
As mentioned above, proper sleep is essential for the maintenance of health. If one washes important motor and sensory organs (hands, arms, eyes, legs, mouth, genitals) before sleep using cool water this relaxes the body and prepares it for deep sleep.
6. Regular performance of meditation
The body is linked to the mind. Many of the diseases of this era are psychosomatic. Stress and anxiety take their toll on our physical health. Meditation is a mental exercise which, among other things, allows a person to detach him or herself from the worries of life.
Just as we take vacations and go to the mountains or the sea to “get away from it all” and to get mental peace. Meditation enables a person to do this on a daily basis without expensive travel costs. In a subsequent article the role of meditation in the achievement mental well-being will be fully discussed. In this discussion about the physical aspect of yoga, it is important to remember that meditation has a direct influence on our physical body and helps for example to lower blood pressure. Thus, meditation is one of the keys to a long and productive life.
Additional Tips for Good Health
There are three more prescriptions for maintaining a healthy body.
1. Eat raw foods as much as possible
Raw foods (salads, fruits and vegetables) almost always have an alkaline effect on the body. That is, the digestion of these foods contributes to a flow of blood in the body which is alkaline. Most starches and carbohydrates (bread, grains, etc.) as well as meat products are acid-forming. If one consumes more alkaline foods than acidic foods, many diseases such as rheumatism, skin diseases, cancer and others can be prevented or even cured . Conversely, if one consumes a very high proportion of acidic of foods, it is an invitation for diseases.
2. Eat yogurt
Yoghurt is nutritious and easy to digest. It contains microorganisms which are helpful for our digestive systems.
3. Follow an overall system of physical, mental and spiritual practice
That is, if one follows a complete system, combining proper exercise, food, fasting and meditation, that person’s life will indeed be blissful.
No discussion on the physical aspect of yoga would be complete without some words on yoga postures. These postures are called “asanas,” which means a position which is easily held and brings a feeling of composure in the person. Although some of the postures are complex and require exceptional agility, many of the mare simple and can be practiced by anyone.
In the beginning of this article, we mentioned that physical exercise is a key to achieving a long life. Most physical exercises develop the muscles or aid in the circulation of blood. Yoga asanas are “inner-sizes” in that, in addition to working on the muscles and circulation, they also have a profound affect on endocrine glands and nerves. Yoga asanas were developed over a period of thousands of years. At first yogis watched the postures of different animals and then imitated them. For example, the peacock is a bird with a powerful digestive system; it can digest a poisonous snake. Similarly there is a posture in which the yogi imitates the position of the peacock. The posture helps develop the glands and organs responsible for digestion and can prevent or cure many diseases that originate in this area of the body.
The endocrine glands are ductless glands which distribute hormones directly into the blood. They have a profound effect on many physical and mental activities of a human being. The thyroid gland (located in the throat) regulates metabolism; that is, the conversion of foods into energy. If this gland under-secretes (gives less hormone into the bloodstream), then a person may become very fat even without consuming much food. An over-secretion of the same gland can make a person too thin even though he or she is consuming large amounts of food. The shoulder stand posture of yoga, regulates this gland. It puts pressure on the thyroid gland. When the posture is released the flow of blood rushing into the throat “massages” the gland and helps it to achieve the right amount of secretion. The other yoga postures work in a similar fashion, maintaining the optimum glandular secretion.
Yoga postures also help maintain the flexibility of the spine. As we age the spine has a tendency to grow rigid. Regular performance of yoga, postures stops this process. The posture known as the spinal twist is an example of such a posture.
Finally there is another aspect of yoga asanas which makes them different from other kinds of exercise. One of the important discoveries of the ancients ages is that there is a system of energy centers or cakras (pronounced chakra) in the body. These centers located along the spine are primarily psycho-spiritual realities (rather than anatomical features) but they are associated with physical glands as well as nerves. Each of these centers regulates different mental propensities. The yogis in their meditation, visualized these cakras and described them as flowers having different petals. Each petal represents a particular mental propensity. For example, the cakra located at the height of the navel area is pictured as having ten petals representing different mental propensities. One of these propensitiesis “anger”. Thus it is often true that those people who have ulcers, constipation or other aggravations in this region also suffer from an irritable or angry personality. Yogis thus prescribe asanas for weakened regions of the body which will directly affect the cakras, helping to physical disease as well as psychic imbalances.
One further word about yoga postures. Every person is unique. Our physical bodies are not the same. The yoga postures of a 60 year old woman suffering from rheumatism are quite different from those of young man in good health. Thus yoga postures cannot just be taken out of a book. Rather the best way is to learn the exact postures which are best for your condition. A qualified teacher can help you to learn which postures are the right ones for you.
In summary, these asanas can be helpful to many people They are easily learned and can be practiced conveniently at home. When the yoga asanas are combined with the other points outlined above they become an important part of a way of life which will bring physical, mental and spiritual fulfillment.