"You are old Father William
The young man said,
And your hair has become very white,
And yet you incessantly stand on your head
Do you think at your age it is right?..."
Alice in Wonderland
How do we picture old age? Bent over at a 90 degree angle, wearing a hearing aid, odd shoes, no teeth and a mind turned back 20 years to the good old days? Or is old age visualised as Father William saw it, a golden era, a time to sit back and reap the infinite benefits of a life of hard work and to reflect on lessons learned and experience gained?
The fountain of youth, the magic elixir that retards ageing, has been the quest of all cultures from the beginning of time. The secret of youth lies in our youth. Tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of our lives and like the squirrel in autumn collecting nuts for his winter food supply we need to prepare for old age. Whether 18 or 80, yoga is the ideal preparation, providing health maintenance for the young and a comfortable footstool for the elderly. Physical well-being, expanded mental outlook and spiritual aspiration play a positive part in the process of rejuvenation. Arthritis and rheumatism can be prevented or reversed through the simple practices of pawanmuktasana combined with a natural wholesome diet. Major asanas exercise the internal organs and glands, conserving and increasing our energy levels and creating harmony between body and mind. Physical good health brings mental stability, clarity of thought and a joy in being alive. Breathing exercises provide extra supplies of oxygen to the brain, stimulating an active memory and good concentration.
Fear is one of the greatest preoccupations of old age; fear of physical immobility and senility, fear of death, fear of loneliness and isolation, and fear of losing relatives, friends and possessions. Karma yoga, constant selfless activity, is every man and woman's aid in the prevention of senility and overcoming of fear. Modern society has lost the pleasure of hard work for its own sake, and modern household appliances and jet age conveniences all too often do no more then alienate us from the pure joy of physical activity and community effort.
The present day concept of retiring early to a life of ease actually leads to premature ageing. 'Better the body wear out, than rust out through inactivity' is a saying from a sage of India who expounded the virtues of karma yoga. After retiring, people in their 60's often leave their homes and move into comfortable flats or units but find little to occupy their days. When there is no longer any reason to get up early, no house and garden to maintain, old people quickly succumb to premature death through sheer boredom. We are all capable of living for a 100 years. Maintenance of a family, house and career only forms approximately 50 years of our lifespan, what happens to the other 50? What we think we become. Will we remain dull and uninspired for the second half of our lifetime, or will we seek to enter a new, active and creative sphere of increasing wisdom, service, clarity and self-fulfilment? The choice is ours and yoga will show us the way. A relaxed, expansive mind accepts the body growing older, while remaining lucid, alert and inspired. Tension develops when the mind fights against inevitable change, while relaxation comes with the acceptance of change.
Yoga nidra and meditation develop a steady mind and allow the positive attributes of old age: tolerance, detachment, acceptance and wisdom, to gradually unfold. The phobias, fluctuations, inhibitions and restlessness of our youth dissolve over the years and the true nature of oneself is slowly revealed. The key to this transition comes with selfless service.
In our present age people are looking more deeply for a meaningful lifestyle. Often that entails searching for a guru or teacher who invariably is a man or woman of a reasonable age, having the experience and wisdom to guide others. With old age more time can be devoted to relaxation and meditation as the external life with its sensual stimulation no longer beckons so insistently.
The internal life spontaneously opens up to the sounding of the soul. In the meditation practice of nada yoga the mind is turned inwards, so that the witnessing principle begins to uncover the dormant internal sounds. Often an elderly person living alone spontaneously develops an awareness of these sounds, like ringing in the ears, sounds of birds or music, but because of ignorance, is frightened by them. With the same introversion process, visions can also occur. These however are only processes of internalisation and unfolding of deeper mental impressions. Following a single purpose in life leads in time to one-pointedness of mind and after some years of meditation, full familiarity with the purpose develops. When the children have left home, the body is gradually slowing down, and the attraction of the so-called pleasures of life is diminishing, what is left? At that point, that familiarity with a single purpose, that one-pointedness, that centring upon the spiritual goal of life, becomes immensely comfortable, like warm gloves on a cold day. When the mind is free of distractions, the higher intuitive faculties are revealed and begin to guide the individual.
How can anyone hope to evolve most effectively while they possess a stiff rigid body, poor eyesight and a failing memory? When one is motivated and inspired, the energy and capacity to live up to one's purpose in life always comes. Grey hair then becomes a silver crown, worn as a symbol of wisdom.
Life is a challenge, a constant uphill walk. The path is sometimes smooth and easy, but at other times it is rough and steep. The end of our life, old age, is the summit where the ground beneath flattens out and we can walk about easily amongst the clouds and fresh air viewing all that is below, all that has passed and all that held an attraction for us even for a brief moment in time. Preparation for old age therefore is the fountain of youth.