Ageing secrets of the East
As you mature in body and mind, you become wiser, more confident, increasingly tolerant and resilient. Yet, instead of celebrating these attainments, Western thinking often represents age as something to be feared or reviled. This negative over-arching perspective may leave you feeling less visible or valid as time passes. In response, an increasing number of people are turning to Eastern philosophies, devotions, medicines, disciplines and martial arts to learn and enjoy a more holistic approach to ageing.
“To be soft and flexible is the way of life.”
Tao Te Ching
Taoism offers a way of life and, with it, the opportunity to experience a supreme state of being. This is distinct from the worship of a supreme being. First emerging from the ancient Chinese sages around 5000 years ago, Tao means “the way or path” — a journey though life that is in balance with nature, communing with nature rather than trying to conquer her. In Taoism there is no separation between mental and physical health. The belief is that only a strong, healthy body can house a strong, healthy spirit.
Yin and yang form a foundation principle in Taoism, which is congruent with its respect for the natural world. The original Chinese ideogram for yin is “the shady side of the hill”, representing darkness and passivity. Its qualities include softness, yielding and contraction and it is symbolised by woman, earth and water. Yang is referred to as “the sunny side of the hill” and it represents activity and light. It is associated with expansion, hardness and resistance, and is symbolised by man, heaven and fire.
Despite their polarity, yin and yang are interdependent, in a state of constant interaction and potentially interchangeable. The principles of yin and yang apply to everything, from the movement of the planets to the movement of our cells. They govern Taoist dietary principles, healing arts and the very concept of disease, which is viewed as an imbalance in yin and yang.
A path to longevity is perhaps Taoism’s greatest gift. In Taoism, a normal human lifespan is considered to be 100 years, with 150 years representing a long life. Skilled Taoists have been reported to live beyond 200 years. Over the millennia, Taoist instructions on how to age well and live a long life have been recorded, including guidelines in the following areas:
- Diet:Enjoy a largely vegetarian diet including a high consumption of raw fruits and vegetables, which purify the vital organs. Eat fresh, low-fat and high-fibre foods, avoid excess protein and, if you consume alcohol, do so moderately.
- Purification:Purifying your body supports physical health and enables spiritual wellbeing. It is a key principle of Taoism and is perhaps the most important factor in longevity. Poor dietary habits, alcohol and other drugs and environmental pollution age your body and mind and encourage chronic disease. Taoism suggests daily breathing exercises and good dietary practices to defend against pollutants. Also recommended is fasting one day a week and a seven-day fast each year to purify the body and rejuvenate the spirit.
- Exercise and breathing: The nutrition provided by breathing exercises is considered in Taoism to be even more important to health and longevity than nutrition from your diet. There are two basic types of breathing: cleansing and energising. Breathing, too, is based on balancing yin and yang and creating harmony of the Three Treasures — essence, energy and spirit. One of the most famous Taoist breathing exercises is the Bellows Breath, to purify the lungs and bloodstream. Taoism recommends you follow a regular regime of physical exercise and deep breathing once or preferably twice a day. Exercise, especially martial arts, keeps the body’s fluids, such as blood and lymph, and its vital energy circulating.
- Sexual energy: Taoists view sex as a powerful means of encouraging and exchanging vital essence and energy. To facilitate longevity, men are instructed to establish a regimen of ejaculation control that is based on factors such as their age and physical health and women are encouraged to support them in this.
Taoism also employs modalities such as the use of herbal medicine (such as panax ginseng), nutritional supplementation, acupuncture and massage to regulate the vital organs and enhance longevity.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
“All the best medicines and good food in the world cannot help one achieve longevity unless one knows and practises the way of yin and yang.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also offers a more positive and empowering perspective on ageing and a means to ageing well, mentally and physically. Once again, it does not separate the body and mind and pays special attention to yin and yang. The ancient Chinese described the physiological stages of growth, development and ageing in women and men in texts written more than 2000 years ago, which themselves were records of long-established knowledge passed on orally.
In TCM, ageing is generally attributed to the exhaustion of fundamental substances within the body, such as qi (energy, the universal life force), shen (spirit) and blood, as well as the degeneration of organs and the accumulation of metabolic wastes from sources such as poor dietary and lifestyle practices.
A core element of ageing in both women and men from the TCM perspective is the depletion of kidney qi, which may manifest in your body as symptoms such as fatigue, loss of bone density, shrinkage of the sexual organs and thinning of the hair. There is a strong focus on applying herbs and acupuncture to support kidney qi. Herbs that may be used include:
- Gou qi zi (wolfberry)
- Dang gui (dong quai)
- Shu di huang (rehmannia)
- Wu wei zi (schisandra)
To strengthen qi generally and promote health, TCM offers some guidelines on key aspects of life:
- Sleep:Aim for eight hours or more and, most importantly, sleep between midnight and 6am, the hours in which deep sleep occurs and vital repairs are made in your body.
- Diet:Eat larger meals earlier in the day when your digestive system is most efficient.
- Exercise:In the first third of life your exercise should be more vigorous. In the middle years, incorporate more regulating and harmonising practices; and in older age, focus on more relaxing and meditative exercise.
“When diet is wrong medicine is of no use. When diet is correct medicine is of no need.”
Ayurveda, meaning “the science of life”, is an ancient Indian medical system and life philosophy that also offers a holistic approach to health, disease prevention and longevity. In Ayurveda, health is defined as a perfect state of balance between the body, mind, spirit and environment and it offers much in the science and art of rejuvenation. Ayurvedic principles focus on renewal of body and mind, not only to prevent and postpone ageing and enhance longevity but also to create a life filled with creativity, spontaneous joy and awareness. In this state of being, the heart and mind can have the same clarity in old age as they do in childhood.
In Ayurveda, humans are regarded as being born with a perfect and unique balance of the five elements (air, water, fire, earth and ether). The elements combine to form the three doshas or constitutions: vata, pitta and kapha. In a state of balance, the doshas maintain physiological and psychological health and, when imbalance exists, physical and emotional diseases result. To enhance health as you age, Ayurveda employs tools such as rejuvenating tonics (rasayana karma) to strengthen your body and mind, prevent decay and postpone ageing. Common rasayanas for the three doshas include:
- Vata:Ashwagandha (also known as withania), garlic and ginseng
- Pitta:Aloe vera, shatavari and gotu kola
- Kapha:Elecampane (horse-heal) and guggul
“O, Inner Dweller, Lead me from the unreal to the real. Lead me from the darkness to the light. Lead me from mortality to immortality.”
Traditional yoga prayer
Yoga represents another gift from India in the quest for health and longevity. First emerging more than 5000 years ago, “yoga” is a Sanskrit word with translations including “union” and “to yoke or harness”. This beneficial practice is many things to many people, including a way of life, a spiritual philosophy and a body of physical and mental techniques to enhance wellbeing.
Interestingly, rather than defining your age by a number, in yogic philosophy your age is defined by the flexibility of your spine. Yoga provides several helpful pathways in the journey of healthy ageing and enhanced longevity. It promotes flexibility and muscle strength, relieves mental and physical stress and enhances clarity and calm. So forget expensive anti-wrinkle creams! Committing your time to the practice of yoga asanas (postures) is a much more potent longevity investment.
Although dedicated practice guided by a yoga teacher will serve you best in your quest to age well, some recommend specific asanas enhance rejuvenation and assist you to age more healthfully:
- Ardha matsyendrasana (spinal twist) This asana keeps the spine elastic, massages the abdominal organs and acts as a tonic to the liver and gastrointestinal tract.
- Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) Increasing circulation to the throat, chest and heart, the shoulder stand is also great to relieve stress and fatigue and promote vigour and longevity.
- Matsyasana (fish pose) The fish pose facilitates breathing, stimulates the thyroid and promotes pelvic elasticity.
- Halasana (plough pose) This pose enhances spinal elasticity and is of benefit to those with arthritis and neck or back stiffness.
“Because chakras serve as junction points for energy and consciousness, the vitality and balance of each chakra is reflected in a human being’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing or dysfunction. The chakra system is a holistic entity; every part affects every other part.”
The concept of chakras appears across many Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices, such as Hinduism, yoga, tantra and Buddhism. A Sanskrit word, “chakra” translates as “wheel” or “disc” and refers to an axis point in our bodies that receives, transmits and connects to life energy. Hindu writings reference more than 88,000 chakra points in the human body, the most important being the seven chakras found from the base of the spinal cord (the root chakra) to the top of the head (the crown chakra).
Chakras support our physical bodies and organ functions and, if they are not healthy or active, corresponding illnesses — physical, mental and spiritual — arise. In contrast, when balanced and vital, the chakras support your health potential and, consequently, your longevity. The throat chakra, known in Sanskrit as “vishuddha”, meaning “pure”, is believed to be the place where the “nectar of immortality” is produced.
Through practices such as meditation and yoga, you can harness this power, unlocking and releasing your emotional and spiritual energy as well as supporting your physical health.
“… each one of us is a union of all universal energy. Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognise it. This is the tantric approach.”
Lama Thubten Yeshe
Although its geographical origin may be in India, tantra is not clearly a part of one philosophy or spiritual practice. A Sanskrit word, “tantra” translations include “techniques”, “continuity” and “thread”. Tantric practitioners use modalities such as yoga to achieve an integration of themselves with a higher self; a communion between their physical beings and the cosmos.
In tantra, as in Taoism, there is a focus on the sacredness of our sexuality and the benefits to our health and longevity to be gained from certain sexual practices that promote spirituality and connection. However, in tantra, according to some, longevity is believed to be gained from the release rather than retention of your sexual energy and fluids.
“A man once took a flower and, without a word, held it up before the men seated in a circle about him. Each man in turn looked at the flower and then explained its meaning, its significance, all that it symbolised. The last man, however, seeing the flower, said nothing, only smiled. The man in the centre then also smiled, and without a word handed him the flower. This is the origin of Zen.”
Zen is a school of Buddhism that places a strong emphasis on meditative practice as being the key to awakening your true nature and revealing your inherent wisdom and compassion. Like many other Eastern philosophies, Zen is not merely a means to a long life but to a rich, meaning-filled life. Zen encourages you to live in the moment, so less importance is placed on tomorrow and, therefore, on ageing. Instead, being in the present moment without attachment and worry, gaining self-knowledge to encourage wisdom and bringing serenity into your life are its main tenets. Arguably, these three ideals are among the greatest guidelines in the quest for longevity and ageing well.
These philosophies and practices of the East offer life-affirming and positive guidance to inspire and empower your path to growing older. They help you shift your vision from outer to inner beauty and from youth obsession to a focus on wisdom. By studying and applying them, you can approach age with greater acceptance, tranquillity and health.
Sionhan Jordan is a naturopath and health writer specialising in nutrition, stress disorders and women’s health.
“As irrigators lead water where they want, as archers make their arrows straight, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their minds.”
After Buddha began a journey that led him away from his life as a privileged prince and to the discovery of suffering (including ill-health and old age), he then taught two fundamental truths that pre-determine our longevity and ease our suffering:
- Dependent origination: Nothing exists of itself; all is interdependent. For example, a tree’s growth depends not just on a seed, but also on water, sunlight and soil. This is also true of our bodies. If we want to live a long life we must nurture our bodies with the right diet, exercise, mindset and the right respect of each other.
- Karma: If we act skilfully in our lives and follow Buddha’s path (of compassion, loving kindness and treating all beings as equal), we will be rewarded in this life or in future lifetimes. In Buddhism, a difficult life — for example, one filled with poor health — is considered the result of negative karma.
“Man has three ways of acting wisely: First, on meditation, this is the noblest; Second, on imitation, this is the easiest; Third, on experience, this is the bitterest.”
Records suggest that Chinese philosopher Confucius was born in 551BCE and since that time his life and teachings have influenced many philosophical traditions in the East, including Taoism. Confucius emphasised study, deep thinking and a questioning mind. Rather than devising a set of moral codes by which to live, Confucius believed in being a living example of morality and justice. Although he also offered guidance on dietary and lifestyle practices, he believed longevity was best achieved by cultivating your mind and living a moral life. His advice is this: Be benevolent to achieve longevity.
“He is forever free Who has broken out Of the ego-cage of I and mine To be united with the Lord of love. This is the supreme state. Attain thou this And pass from death to immortality.”
The above quote sums up the ageing ideals of Hinduism. It comes from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous of the Vedic texts (a collection of early Hindu scriptures), which offers spiritual guidance that enhances our wellbeing and quality of life as we age.
Fitness for mind and body
The healing side of martial arts is born of Taoism or Buddhism. There are two main styles: hard (yang) and soft (yin). However, if their underlying philosophies are adopted more completely, both yin and yang may be expressed. Studying and practising any of the following martial arts will support longevity of both body and mind:
- Tai chi:With roots in Taoism, this more yin practice is a martial art, healing art and philosophy. Tai chi involves gentle, flowing movements that represent a deep understanding of the body’s best and most natural way of moving (or biomechanics) while also calming the mind and promoting the flow of chi (energy).
- Tae kwon do:A Korean martial art that is more yang in style, this national sport is utilised in military training. However, when studied completely, tai kwon do incorporates combat techniques and self-defence with meditation and philosophy. Its name loosely translates as “the way of the foot and fist” or “the art of kicking and punching”.
- Karate:This martial art originated in the Ryukyu Islands of the Pacific (which includes Okinawa, an area boasting some of the greatest numbers of people living to 100 and beyond). Again a more yang form of practice, karate involves punching, kicking, open-handed techniques and knee and elbow strikes.
- Jujitsu:References to the term “jujitsu” can be found in Japanese writings as early as 23 BCE. Although a method of close combat, unarmed or with minor weapons, jujitsu is perhaps more distinguished by its name, with “ju” meaning gentleness, yielding, flexibility or suppleness, and “jitsu” art, skill or technique.
- Aikido:Aikido is a Japanese martial art that translates to “the way of unifying life energy” or “the way of harmonious spirit”. It places great importance on motion and the biomechanics of movement with the emphasis on using the opponent’s own energy to move them away or gain control.