Much ageing research is pointing to the fact that the ageing process is one which can be slowed or speeded up depending on our state of mind and our emotions. This is because they directly affect the brain and endocrine glands and thus the rate of our metabolism.
Metabolism is the energy producing process of the body. It is composed of anabolism, the build-up of cells and tissues, and catabolism, the destruction of old tissues. Metabolism is the maintenance of life; the burning of fuel in the life energy, prana; the processes of birth and decay. The metabolic rate is the speed with which the metabolic fires proceed to consume fuel, and is measured by computing the energy produced when food burns in the presence of oxygen.
Basal metabolism is the metabolic rate under normal and standard resting conditions: complete physical and mental rest, 12 to 18 hours after a meal, in an equable environmental temperature. These conditions are usually satisfied after sleep. In this state, energy liberated is used to maintain activities of vital organs like the heart, brain or glands, but most is converted to heat to maintain body temperature.
Factors influencing basal metabolism are:
Between youth and old age the metabolism is said to decline, with peak periods during times of physical growth. It is believed that an excessively fast metabolic rate, especially during our early life, is linked with disease and premature ageing. Thus much research is going on into the effects of slowing the metabolic rate.
It seems that our whole society has pointed itself in the direction of an exclusively high, hyper, metabolism, through its fast and hurried pace, faulty lifestyle and habits, over encouragement of ambitious personality traits, sympathetic nervous system over activity, and so on.
The normal rate in a young adult is probably a little higher than it should be in order to live longer. The lungs and the heart have to work harder to carry more red blood cells and oxygen to feed the overworking hyper metabolic cells. The individual literally fans the flames and burns up faster. Therefore, a lowered metabolism, a hypo state relative to the norm of our society, is thought by many researchers to be conducive to a longer life.
If we are hyper metabolic in our youth, we will probably swing to the opposite direction in old age, excessive hypo metabolism, burn out of body tissue. For example, a burned out or inactive thyroid, as often occurs in old age, leads to a very low metabolic rate and premature death if not corrected. This may explain why so many old people suffer in cold weather, because their tissues no longer have the capacity to create enough body heat via the raising of metabolism to counteract external cold. This is especially so if precautions such as moderate diet, exercise and so on were not resorted to in youth, and if these elderly are encouraged to be inactive, spending their remaining years sitting in an old people's home. This only leads to accelerated ageing and senility.
To achieve an active and prolonged life, elderly people must eat and sleep less, keep warm, and take sufficient exercise in order to raise their lowered metabolism up to a relative hypo metabolic level, low relative to the excessively high normal in our society.
If we apply yogic techniques to slow and accelerate the body's internal functions at the different stages of life, we can achieve an ideal and balanced metabolism. The young have to lower their hyper metabolism and the old raise their hypo metabolism. Of course the ideal is to live a relaxed and relatively hypo metabolic life from the beginning, with all the principles of health and longevity built in. This makes growing old so much easier.
Researchers have found that even though more male than female babies are born (105 to 100), men die younger than women as a rule (by age 65 to 74 years, men are outnumbered by 100 to 79). It is thought that this happens because of several factors which stem from the traditional male role and which cause him to enter into a higher metabolic state than his female counterpart. To prove his masculinity and to fulfil his role as the warrior, hunter and provider of the family, the male of the species must work harder and worry more. He plays a more active, hyper metabolic role and tends to be sympathetic nervous system predominant. That is, his body and mind are so engaged in external activity that relaxation and introversion become difficult. He cannot switch off even when he wants to, his cells continually work hard to supply energy for inappropriate activity such as excessive thinking. Men drink more alcohol and smoke more cigarettes, usually in an attempt to relax tension. They have more nervous breakdowns and commit suicide more often. Men starve sooner than women who are also better able to endure shock, exposure, and fatigue. Women may fall sick more often, but men are more susceptible to major diseases as well as dozens of genetic diseases that females hardly ever get. It seems that the relatively hypo metabolic state of most women is superior in its survival value to the faster metabolism of most men.
When we slow down via meditation or pranayama, we lower metabolism, slow the heart and lungs, drop the body temperature, and so on. There is less wear and tear on our body organs and cell mechanisms, less toxic chemicals are produced, more energy is saved and the natural processes of repair and rejuvenation are allowed to go on unimpeded.
As meditation is soothing our overheated metabolism and slowing down body function, it allows us to look inside and see how we have allowed ourselves to speed up in the first place. We become aware of our roles, how we have been taught, trained and conditioned to act in set patterns without even thinking why or what we are doing. Meditation first teaches us to be aware, and then gives us the capacity to slow down and take control, to stop or to go as we please.
The power of yoga to rectify the hyper metabolic state has been demonstrated by several researchers who have shown that yoga reduces body temperature, a sign of lowered metabolism.
Elmer Green and his associates of the Menninger Foundation, Topeka (USA), have experimented with an accomplished yogi, Swami Rama, who had such superb control that he could vary the temperature on either side of the palm of his hand by 10 degrees F.*1
O.P. Bhatnagar and his associates of the department of physiology, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Pondicherry, showed that body temperature "decreased significantly with progressive yoga training. The decrease was probably due to an increase in muscular relaxation which results in a fall in metabolic rate."*2
Benson and Wallace set out to ascertain whether the meditative state achieved by yogis and other eastern mystics is accompanied by distinct physiological changes.*3 They state:
"Some of the common disorders of our age, notably 'nervous stomach' and high blood pressure, may well be attributable in part to the uncertainties that are burgeoning in our environment and daily lives. Since the environment is not likely to grow less complex or more predictable, it seems only prudent to devote some investigative attention to the human body's resources for coping with the vicissitudes of the environment."*4
In their experiment, 36 subjects, ranging from 17 to 41 years of age, and with meditation experience ranging from 1 month to 9 years, were selected. Blood pressure, heart rate, rectal temperature, skin resistance and brainwaves (on an electroencephalograph) were recorded. Blood samples were taken at 10 minute intervals for analysis of the oxygen and carbon dioxide content.
Each subject was given 30 minutes to habituate to the various measuring devices after which measurements were started- 20 to 30 minutes of a quiet premeditative state (as a control to compare with the meditation), 20 to 30 minutes of mantra japa meditation, and finally 20 to 30 minutes after stopping meditation.
The results of this experiment showed:
They sum up these results by saying that the physiological signs are those of a 'wakeful hypo metabolic state'. This state differs from sleep and hypnosis in that:
Meditation research has shown us that yogic disciplines can favorably affect the body in the direction of better health and consequently a longer life. Benson and Wallace state:
"The pattern of changes suggests that meditation generates an integrated response, or reflex, that is mediated by the central nervous system..."
There is good reason to believe that the changing environment's incessant stimulations of the sympathetic nervous system are largely responsible for the high incidence of hypertension and similar serious diseases that are prevalent in our society.
In these circumstances the hypo metabolic state, representing quiescence rather than hyperactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, may indicate a guide post to better health. It should be well worthwhile to investigate the possibilities for clinical application of this state of wakeful rest and relaxation.*5 That meditation and pranayama can lower the whole tone of body function and thereby slow down the inner working of the cells by acting on the central nervous system, is in line with both the scientific and yogic theories of ageing. By slowing breath and metabolism we can slow the cellular clock, delaying the ageing process. Yogic techniques seem to be the key. Just how much we can slow down ageing at a cellular level remains to be seen. That yoga can slow breathing has already been shown, and its effects are profound.
Bagchi and Wenger showed that in meditation the breath slowed and in some cases was seen to fall to between 4 to 6 breaths per minute.*6 In a few individuals it was seen to become so faint and irregular that no recording could be made.
Yogis entering samadhi have been found to almost stop breathing, the state of kevalya kumbhaka, a blissful life-affirming experience. They enter a state of minimal body metabolism in which they are said to be able to survive without food or sleep because they feed directly on light, the pranic energies of life. These yogis are then said to be able to live indefinitely and to choose the time for the death of their bodies. They have attained a state in which their consciousness is eternally awakened, the state of cosmic consciousness. They have become masters of the life force and are said to be liberated, freed from death and rebirth.