Yoga & Ageing

Yoga & Ageing

This research article will look into the ageing process and the reasons why, in spite of a carefully planned healthy lifestyle, our systems eventually shut down. It will look at what happens to the cells of the human organism during its lifetime and which systems of the body are most susceptible to deterioration. I will then investigate which yoga practices can effectively provide longevity to the average person while enhancing the quality of their lives.

According to the Yoga Sutras, we must first perfect the external practices of yoga before we attempt to look inwards in search of our spirituality. Therefore in keeping with this discipline, I will first of all explore the physiological aspects of ageing before looking for yoga practices that will delay its assault.

'We begin to die the day we are born' is not a very palatable statement, however growing old does not need to be a condition of disease and senility. Progressive changes over time, independent from the effects of disease, the abuses of social life or detrimental effects of the environment are unavoidable. Ageing can be perceived as a chronological process that assesses age in terms of time or a biological process in which mental, physiological and mechanical dysfunction takes place in one or many of our human systems. No matter when or where these dysfunction happen, one thing is certain - they all originate at a cellular level; cells begin to change and some die.

The maturation of the 'baby boomers' is here, therefore the success of antibiotics and improved medical technology presents society with an increasing number of aged populations. Unfortunately as these numbers increase so too does the incidents of cancers, cardiovascular, dementia and other degenerative diseases and although there are many theories expressed, there are no definite cures for them at this time. Yoga provides a preventative measure against disease more than a cure, although in some instances certain practices will facilitate the healing process.

Different theories relating to ageing are the "wear-and-tear" theory, in which lifestyle and the environment take its toll on the health of us all. Progressive disorders of the immune system is another theory that is spoken of in which cells turn against and destroy each other. Then of course there is the "genetic theory" that involves the credibility of our genes to provide the necessary framework to fight pathogens and the cellular intelligence for our "telomere time-clock" to function adequately3.

Telomere binds the ends of chromosome strands to the nuclear matrix in cell division, a continuous process throughout our life span, but with each division the telomere gets shorter and it is up to the enzyme telomerase to cooperate during this process by reconstituting the supply of telomere. However it is believed that the supply of telomere eventually becomes depleted and cells are unable to multiply. It is possible to synthesise the enzyme telomerase but unfortunately because a synthesised version is not recognised as 'self' it tends to accelerate the number of cancerous cells and is therefore not an appropriate remedy.

Cellular proliferation (turnover) is easily interpreted in mitogenisis (the cell cycle) and in apoptosis (programmed cell death) but differentiation is much more complicate. It involves the regulation and generation of specialised cells on the basis of molecular signalling pathways; cell to same cell; cell to different cell; cell to extracellular matrix3.

In proliferation the immediate descendants of self-generating stem cells may slightly change (differentiate) between one or two different lineage, however this potential is eventually exhausted. For as the cells become too deranged from the original stem cell, they are no longer recognised as "self" and are rejected, so where there is a serious fault in the replication of a cell, apoptosis occurs. The gradual decline of telomere through repeated transcription sees the cell reach what is known as the cell's cytoplasmic maturation and it dies3.


Normal Cell division

Cells that go through the normal process of mitogenisis, as is the case of the skin, are highly prone to disease and UV radiation5.


Reduction in collagen, partly due to a less efficient respiratory system and decrease in nutrients is one of the first signs of ageing. Epithelia of the skin is thin and as the protective covering for the body it is more prone to trauma from exposure to cold, wind and the sun's rays and is the first system of the body to come in contact with disease.

The skin provides a means for elimination of waste products and as we age a poorer circulatory system reduces not only the nutrients carried to the peripheries of the body but the waste products that could be disposed of in our sweat. The natural survival system of the body draws whatever blood is available toward maintaining its vital organs. Still we must consider that from the day that we are born, we begin to die; our skin cells are in a continuous state of decay and renewal. Very symbolic of life itself.


Asana, in particular Surya Namaskara will increase general circulation and provide nutrients from the blood for healthy tissue. If practised for a reasonable time, long enough to bring about a state of light perspiration, toxins can be eliminated from the body through the pores of the skin, flushing out bacteria absorbed from the external environment.
Inverted postures provide an increased blood supply to the upper body and bring greater nourishment to the cells and taking waste products away from the cells of the lower body at a faster rate that usual.


The intestinal lining is a continuation of the skin - a protective barrier for other tissue and organs from the effects of strong digestive enzymes. A sluggish metabolism and poor circulation will have their effect on absorption into the cells and excretion out of the intestines. Cellular composition of the lining can be influenced through gastric reflux and change into cells similar to those that line the stomach. This increases the chances of developing cancer in the oesophagus.


Asana will increase the circulation of blood throughout the body, providing nutrients to epithelial lining of the entire gastrointestinal tract. The increased exchange of oxygen at cellular level increases the metabolic rate, speeding up the digestive and excretory processes.
Relax the muscles of the abdominal-pelvic region with the practice of Tadagi Mudra. This practice generates intra-abdominal pressure on the entire digestive system, which utilises the contract-relax response to the muscles. Relaxation of the digestive tract effectively allows the system to work more easily.
Stubborn undigested food particles may be flushed through the system with the Shankhaprakshalana practice of Laghoo. The major substances in the body's interstitial fluid are sodium and chloride; therefore using saline water slows down absorption of the liquid by the G.I.T. This allows the water to reach into the thousands of folds that harbour segments of undigested food that are then eliminated with the water through the anus.
In the case of chronic gastric reflux, another of the Shankhaprakshalana practices, Kunjal is of great benefit. Again with the use of saline water, the stomach is filled to capacity by drinking as much of the fluid as the stomach can handle and expelling the contents.
Some people have hang-ups and find that they do not have success with Shankhaprakshalana. For these people, yoga offers a technique in Yoga Nidra that utilises the mind/body connection; visualising the digestive process and experiencing it with each breath; bringing harmony of the breath to the harmony of peristalsis.


This is also a continuation of the skin and a protective barrier. Smoking can turn the finger like ciliated cells into flat squamous type tissue thus reducing their protective properties. Through the ageing process respiratory efficiency declines but this may have more to do with skeletal muscle atrophy than damage to the lining of the respiratory tract. Gas exchange between the alveoli and the capillaries becomes affected, as does the gas exchange between the capillaries and the blood.


Yoga offers many breathing techniques all of which benefit efficient respiration. Swami Satyananda states that "pranayama is indispensable for getting rid of the body's toxins and to avoid ailments resulting therefrom"1 .
Spiritual aspirants, to control and direct vital prana, thus awakening the energy that lays dormant within us, use many of the more advanced techniques. However for therapeutic purposes, simple Deep Rhythmic Breathing is sufficient to stabilise the internal rhythms of the body and to provide life-sustaining oxygen to every cell of the body. Whenever muscle contracts or a gland secretes, or even when we think of something, there is oxidation in the corresponding organs of our body1. The oxidation also involves the removal of waste products from our systems, some of which are transported via the bloodstream to the lungs for expulsion with each exhalation.


With poorer circulation, the immune system becomes less efficient as lymph node follicles at the outer extremities are deprived of essential nutrients. An efficient lymphatic system helps in maintaining adequate blood volume. Fluids are filtered in the lymph nodes, killing off bacteria etc. and recycling unused nutrients before the fluid is returned to the blood. Without this ongoing process, bacteria filled fluid remains at the extremities, damaging surrounding cells.


Pawanmuktasana - Part 1 is ideal for targeting specific areas. The gentle pumping, rhythmic action assists the movement of the lymphatic fluids while at the same time increasing blood flow to the area.
Because lymph drainage does not have a pumping system Surya Namaskara is ideal for stimulating the entire circulatory system including the lymphatics. The major lymph nodes at the back of the knee (popliteal), the groin (inguinal) and at the armpit (auxiliary) are pumped adequately to encourage movement of the lymph.
With the same principal in mind, (ie. the lack of a pumping system) Inverted postures may be useful, however, it must be considered that this alone will not increase the necessary circulation that activates the filtration of the blood.


Red blood cells T-cells, B-cells are manufactured in bone marrow at the rate of about an ounce per day. Our bones stop growing when we reach physical maturity and reserves of calcium need to be maintained for bone density. Resorption exceeds formation after the age of 40 so it is necessary to stimulate its continued production.


Regulation of calcium is controlled through the endocrine system (in particular, the parathyroid gland) and it is advisable to control the manufacturing process of calcium to ensure that supplies in the bone matrix are not overtaxed. Formation of red and white blood cells is an ongoing process as the life of these cells is only 100-120 days.

Therefore, by following a sensible Yogic Diet, which provides the essential vitamins and minerals for homeostatic balance, other effects from ageing will be reduced. Nutrition is a specialised field - advice should be sought from someone trained in this area.
There is no better yoga practice than Surya Namaskara for regulating the endocrine system and it is the homeostatic balance of this system that will ensure both efficient use and effective production of the necessary elements for bone remodelling.


Both types of tissue are highly dependent upon hormones released by the endocrine system, which is discussed in the next section.


Cells that divide only under certain conditions

Some cells, as in the organs (or glands) listed below, require the release and activation of hormone chemicals for mitogenisis to take place. Cell division must be coordinated by the presence, on the cell membrane, of hormones and growth factor receptors. Transduction signals bring on amplification that relays the message to the cell's nuclear protein to divide. Therefore the entire feedback system must be working in harmony to maintain homeostasis of the entire organism.


To discuss the entire cellular activity of the endocrine system is an enormous task; therefore I will select some of the key areas affected by ageing. There are a number of endocrine glands, each one reliant on secretions from one of the others for activation. The control centre is the hypothalamus in the brain that release secretions, which stimulate or inhibit hormones, involved in growth, reproduction and metabolism etc.

The major chemical regulatory gland, the pituitary gland, slows down by 14% every decade and by the time we are 60 years of age we are on half production. The thymus, a major site of T-cell production, becomes fibrous which brings about a greater susceptibility to illness; T-lymphocytes play a vital role in the immune response.

The important thing to remember is that the whole endocrine system works through a feedback loop, as one chemical becomes diminished it triggers the release from one of the other glands for a stimulating hormone. As a chemical becomes overabundant another signal will go to a gland to release an inhibiting factor that stops production. Homeostasis keeps this system synchronised for good health.


The chakra system of yoga bears a strong correlation to the position of several of these endocrine glands, therefore as we stimulate various chakras for spiritual awakening; we also improve the well being of the whole physical body (annamaya kosha). For example, the pineal gland is situated at ajna chakra, the thyroid gland at vishuddhi, the thymus gland at anahata, the adrenal glands at manipura and the ovaries/gonads are located at swadhisthana/mooladhara. All yoga practices, whether asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha or shatkarmas act upon one or more of the chakras
A more advanced practice that influences several of these areas is Mana Bandha. Maha Bandha affects the hormonal secretions of the pineal gland and regulates the entire endocrine system. The decaying, degenerative and ageing processes are kept in check while every cell in the body is rejuvenated. Through this practice we merge prana (vishuddhi / anahata) and apana (swadhisthana / mooladhara) with samana (manipura) in agni mandala. This convergence creates a force of vital energy to be directed up sushumna to ajna chakra.


The liver is an important metabolic organ at any age, maintaining homeostasis of blood sugar levels through gluconeogenesis, glycogenesis and glycogenolysis. It is the storehouse for glucose and fats that are required for energy production. Amino acids are taken up to manufacture plasma proteins that are important blood buffers and essential for maintaining osmotic pressure of the blood. The liver produces bile that enables us to digest fats in the small intestines and it detoxifies metabolic wastes from the blood.

After menopause, the liver can also assist with the production of oestrogen that would normally have been secreted through ovulation. The liver salvages iron from worn out blood cells to be released into the blood when iron levels are low and converts other waste products to urea.

When cells of the liver become inflamed, they regenerate quickly but the liver's resulting scar tissue cells regenerate even faster. As a result the liver becomes fibrous and its activity is suppressed. If you keep in mind that the liver's main function is to filter nutrient-rich blood, as the scar tissue shrinks, blood flow is impeded.


Think about the compact scar tissue and how it impedes blood flow within the liver; now consider that by stretching and massaging the liver, you will assist in releasing tissue adhesions. Therefore the practices of Paschimottasana and Ardha Matsyendrasana that compress, massage and stretch the abdominal organs, in this case the liver, should be considered. Acknowledge that the liver is fused with the diaphragm from above and attached by a ligament to the stomach below.
Shankhaprakshalana practices that assist with the elimination of waste products from the gastrointestinal tract will minimise the enormous workload that is required of the liver.


Kidneys filter the blood, secreting and re-absorbing nutrients then eliminating nitrogenous metabolic wastes in urine. They also regulate the composition, volume and the pH balance of the blood.

For many reasons, metabolism tends to be more sluggish in the aged population and they are more prone to kidney infection and kidney stones. Removal of electrolytes and nitrogenous body waste is slowed down also as a result of the reduced metabolic rate and impaired regulation of the bodily fluid's pH balance can have significant effects on the cardiovascular system.

The kidneys actually shrink with age and the nephrons (filters) reduce in size and number. This condition is believed to be a result of a narrowing of the arteries of the kidneys caused by atherosclerosis in which fatty deposits lodge on arterial walls, thickening and possibly closing them off.


Improving metabolism can prevent the declining number of nephrons and again the benefits of Surya Namaskara cannot be denied. All backward bending and forward bending asana will stimulate the mechanical function of the kidneys. A well balanced diet that is appropriate to the level of physical activity should be considered (advice from a nutritional expert). Arteriosclerosis can be effectively reduced through gentle asana practices and reducing fat content from the diet. Increasing the High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) level in the blood will carry the lipids from the arterial walls to be destroyed by the liver.
Shankhaprakshalana practices (reduced quantity of salt is recommended) that assist with the elimination of waste products, will also increase the fluid taken up into the bloodstream thereby increasing blood volume. As water is filtered out of the blood by the kidneys, they are flushed.


Smooth muscle is found in the gastrointestinal tract and is remarkably trouble free. Tissue can however find irritation from alcohol, spicy foods and bacteria.


Cells that do not divide or multiply

Other cells do not have the capacity to reproduce, so once they become affected by disease they die. Apoptic cell bodies become detached from neighbouring cells and form a cytoplasmic eosinophilic (granular white blood cell) mass that is then phagocytosed (destroyed) by nearby cells.


Cell death can be through unsuccessful synapse connection. In such cases it is believed that the message may then find another pathway while the weaker connection just withers away. Eventually should too many neurones die off, dementia or Alzheimer's disease, major diseases affecting the elderly will result. Are they really diseases or another of the processes involved with growing old? Many theories have been put forward and scientists are still investigating the cause and possible cure.

Calcium surplus depresses neurone function but a deficiency in calcium affects nerve transmission. So it would appear that a fine balance of calcium levels need to be achieved through efficient metabolism. However, survival is uppermost in the organism's evolutionary structure and we should bear in mind that the brain will always be taken care of to the disadvantage of other organs and tissue. So maybe it is not the lack of calcium that causes brain cells to decay, but a defect in the endocrine system.

Never-the-less, one thing that all cells need is blood for the supply of oxygen and nutrients and should there be a lack of this to the brain, supporting cells (not only neurones, but all cells) of the brain will suffer and this may have a detrimental effect on the neurones. In fact the cells of the brain die after only three minutes of oxygen deprivation 7.

The human organism is a finely tuned instrument; when one organ is malfunctioning, it effects those with which it interacts. It is interesting to note that programmed cell death of neurones occurs during the embryonic period. When a human life is first created, there is a full complement of neurones, two-thirds of which die before we are born.


The physiological influences of yoga practices supercharge, improve and elevate the function of the brain. Pawanmuktasana practices encourage and develop a sense of awareness of the whole organism. Physical, mental and pranic awareness are stimulated thus encouraging and stimulating neural activity relating to the corresponding nerve centres.
Rotation of awareness, feelings of opposites and visualisations during Yoga Nidra stimulate many neurones in the brain.
Pranayamas such as Ujjayi combined with Full Yogic Breath promotes increases oxygen uptake into the blood. Nadi Shodhana will balance the arterial flow in each of the nostrils ensuring that both hemispheres of the brain receive adequate supple of blood. Cleansing the nasal passages with Neti beforehand will enhance this practice. Bhramari Pranayama creates a vibration that emanates throughout the body effectively stimulating neurone cells. Studies have shown that pranayama cannot be compared with simple breathing exercises that also increase the oxygen intake, for they require greater respiratory and cardiac work. Pranayama increases the supply of oxygen to vital areas of the brain while simultaneously reducing the workload of the heart 7.
Asana, in particular Surya Namaskara, involves an element of weight bearing that promotes bone remodelling. Neural activity requires the presence of calcium to carry the neural message to its intended receptor site. As muscles are stretched, the tendons pull at their attachments to relevant bony structures. This weight bearing on the bones encourages bone remodelling thus maintaining essential calcium levels for nerve transmission.

Muscle contraction requires calcium to maintain normal heart rhythm and adequate circulation through the cardiac tissue to receive an ample supply of oxygen and nutrients. A sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary habits tend to be more damaging than ageing for cardiac muscle, for as with all other muscles it is dependant upon good blood supply. Arteriosclerosis is a condition where fatty deposits thicken arterial walls, reducing the volume of blood that can travel through the body. This in turn asks for greater effort from the cardiac muscle to pump more blood.


Establishing good dietary habits is fundamental to healthy heart tissue and a balance yogic diet is usually suffice, however, anyone with concerns is better advised to consult a nutrition specialist for dietary analysis.
Pranayama practises for those who have a diagnosed heart condition should first learn basic breathing techniques without any strain or trying to control the breath in any way.
Abdominal Breath Awareness exerts a profound physiological influence by automatically altering the method by which the lungs are filled. Respiration becomes more relaxed and efficient and at the same time the heart rate slows without compromising cardiovascular efficiency.
Pawanmuktasana - Part 1 promotes relaxation and blood flow to the extremities of the body. Even the most fragile people are able to undertake this practice. This can be followed by Part 2 of the Pawanmuktasana series as the heart becomes stronger which will improve circulation and metabolism.
For the more physical, Surya Namaskara provides a tremendous increase to circulation throughout the entire body. Initially just three slow rounds would be recommended followed by relaxation in shavasana.
Meditative asanas are an important preventative measure for cardiovascular degeneration. They induce an automatic shunting of blood to the arterial beds of the brain and the skin, reducing the workload of the heart. Siddhasana was recommended by Dr Christian Barnard to stabilise cardiac function7.


Connective tissue surrounding muscle fibres tends to increase with ageing while at the same time the number of muscle fibre decrease. Muscles atrophy mainly as a result of inactivity. By maintaining high aerobic capacity, one can maintain a metabolic rate that provides good supply of oxygen and nutrients to muscle fibres.

Oxygen is essential for the production of ATP (energy) at a cellular level; this same energy source is required for all molecular activity. As the muscles waste away and there is a decline in ATP production, heat, a product of energy is shunted away from extremities toward vital organs reducing circulation which in turn affects all other systems that become starved of their vital oxygen and nutrients.

Following a nerve impulse to contract, muscle fibres need calcium to complete the task. A release of calcium is stimulated by the presence of the neurotransmitter (neural chemical) allowing the muscle fibres to contract. ATP released with the contraction moves the calcium back into its storage site when the contraction is over. The parathyroid gland regulates blood calcium uptake from the kidneys and the release of calcium from the bones.


Surya Namaskara is the best all round practice for increasing aerobic activity while at the same time encouraging ATP production and toning the parathyroid gland. It increases cardiovascular and respiratory activity, which in turn enhances the efficiency of all other systems.
A full range of asana that included lateral flexion and rotations to accompany Surya Namaskara will provide the stretching, compression and torsional actions needed to release 'connective tissue bound' muscle fibres.
The inverted posture of Vipareeta Karani Mudra will stimulate and tone the parathyroid gland; its influence on this gland ensures normal development and regeneration of bones, preventing premature calcification. Jalandhara Bandha will stimulate and tone this gland also.
Kunjal not only stimulates the throat area but also helps to eliminate energy blockages that may be impeding the release of parathormone, the hormone that regulates the calcium levels in the blood.


Our inherited DNA contains oncogenes that act like accelerators when replicating tissue cells, however this is detrimental where carcinogenic cells are present. Another gene (p53), known as a tumour suppressor gene, is responsible for the regulation of apoptosis3. If we are very fortunate we may inherit an excellent immune system with a very efficient army to fight pathogens and a diligent workshop for repair and renewal of damaged tissue. We must also bear in mind that lifestyle has quite an impact on our inherited genes when it comes to longevity. Cellular abuses, through incomplete diet or injury from vigorous leisure activities, are repaired throughout our lives. Studies have shown that normal fibroblasts responsible for cell renewal have a limited life span5. Other studies show that systems clogged with adhesions and scar tissue obscure diagnosis of other infectious conditions that may otherwise have been eliminated at its primary state.

The problem with ageing is that it can hit us before we have a chance to put into effect useful preventative strategies to delay its onslaught. Our lifestyles have an enormous impact on our biological age and indicators of ageing relate more to our overall health and risk of disease rather than it being a disease in itself. Most of these lifestyle factors are within our control, but where do we begin, which category of cell would you protect most? Yoga has invariably proved effective, and even where death has been inevitable, yoga has given relief, hope and courage and an extension on life itself. The preventative role of yoga must be considered especially the hatha yoga shatkarmas such as Shankhaprakshalana that yogis use periodically to purify the entire gastrointestinal tract, both as a preventative and as a curative measure. The individual who adopts the yogic lifestyle of asana, pranayama and mediation has the best possible guarantee of a disease free future1.

People ask whether yoga has something to offer to cure diseases such as cancer. Therapies have been diverse, they have been unscientific and therefore unacceptable to many of us but we cannot deny that they have been instrumental in some cases in the past7. At the same time let us remember that the medical profession has scarcely fared any better with their modern technology. Yoga is a therapeutic science, which has to be prescribed practically and scientifically just like a medicine. It is best prescribed with full knowledge of medical history and following scientific examinations, which requires sound understanding of anatomy and physiology.

Our cells are in a constant state of replication and/or death; it is this unique state that provides us with our homeostatic balance without which would see the whole organism die much earlier. So how do we regard this ageing process? Age can be defined as period of time but It is not a process of dying, not a process of necrotic cell death through disease. Ageing in reference to the human organism means cell death and cell death is a natural process of cell renewal.

Swami Satyananda says in his discussions in "Yoga and Cardiovascular Management"7 that just as all the dualities of life - pleasure and pain, love and hatred, joy and sorrow, life and death are really the two sides of one coin, so physiology and pathology are really only two different ways of viewing the phenomenon of life in the human body. There is no physiology without pathology, nor can there be pathology without physiology. In tantra the twin forces are recognised as Shiva and Shakti; they are working together in order to relentlessly evolve consciousness from the clutches of matter. He further says, "For me, life itself is all fullness, and whatever it brings me is satisfactory and sufficient. And what about death? It is just a part of life; that is all".

Copyright © - Satyam Yoga Centre - 7 September 2000

The author grants the right to use this file only in its entirety and authorship must be acknowledged


Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Dynamics of Yoga 1983, Bihar School of Yoga, India
A.D.A.M. Software, Inc. " Copyright 1991-1996
Jeremy R Jass, Understanding Pathology 1999, Harwood Academic Publishers
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Swami Satyananda Saraswati, APMB 1996, Bihar School of Yoga, India
Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga and Cardiovascular Management 1984, Bihar School of Yoga, India

KRP The Brain