In the primitive times when the Bible was written, it was accepted that a person’s maximum lifespan was “three score years and ten”. Yet today millions of people are more than 100 years old.
China alone has several million — perhaps not surprising when that ancient nation’s development of mental, emotional, and physical exercises specifically designed to enhance chi, life-energy, and the pre-eminent role preventive medicine plays there, are considered.
Recently, in a book about the Chinese martial art tai chi chuan, I came upon the picture of a white-haired teacher obviously aglow with health and vitality. The author mentioned that this extraordinary man had once remarked to him, “One thing I know for sure — life begins at 70!”
Like other such masters, he trains daily among trees, for the Chinese believe there is more chi among trees and in the mountains, a sentiment outdoors people well understand.
In Aikido, the Way of Harmony, author John Stevens, a highly qualified aikido teacher, recounts that during a recent training session his 70-year-old teacher, Shirata-sensei, threw him around continuously for several hours before noticing he was tiring. He then kindly told Stevens to rest awhile — and began training with another fresh youngster of a mere 30 or so!
The genuine martial arts are much more than physical culture; they also cultivate the mind and those “inner” qualities of the spirit and the chi which the Chinese and Japanese consider so important.
It usually takes a decade or two for participants to begin to reap the deeper benefits of these arts, and in aikido, it is said that real understanding begins only when one’s raw physical power starts to wane, so it is usually the “old masters” who best display the awesome abilities of these arts.
What a stark contrast such concepts are to those held in most Western activities, where participants are usually “washed up” by 40, and retired at 60 or so! Yet there are some activities in which people not only become more skilled with age, but healthier.
Do these activities create long-lived people, or do they attract those with a genetic predisposition for long life? Are we genetically programmed to run down after a certain number of years, or heartbeats, or calories consumed, as some scientists propose? Or are there practices and activities which slow down the aging process, and rewind the clock if it runs down?
One thing seems certain: we have not yet tapped our full potential, and there is much we still have to learn about living life fully.
Humans have been described as “goal-seeking mechanisms”, and it is only in the pursuit of goals that arouse our enthusiasm and desire that our life-energy really flows. But in pursuing goals we establish priorities, and to be truly ambitious we must make a high priority of maintaining good health, for without it we may not have the energy required in later years.
Just as an athlete must establish and maintain a good fitness base through consistent training in order to perform well, so the vigor and stamina of ambitious youth eventually give way to degeneration unless careful life-habits are established. A carefully serviced machine performs better and longer than a neglected one; a lovingly nurtured pet lives longer than one whose welfare is disregarded.
A vital factor in fitness and long life, it is now accepted, is aerobic exercise, which conditions the heart-lung system. Outdoor people experience it when bushwalking, running, cross-country skiing, rowing, cycling, and so on, but just as important seems to be gameness and spiritedness.
A leading Sydney surgeon, Associate Professor Christopher Magarey, writing about breast cancer in the Medical Journal of Australia recently, notes that a longer survival time in patients is linked with a fighting spirit and a rejection of the authority of doctors, while an attitude of helplessness and a lack of hostility towards the diagnosis is associated with shorter survival times.
And Dr. John Diamond, in the book Life Energy, describes two young male patients in adjacent beds, paraplegics from car accidents, who developed identically infections. Each received the same antibiotic. Within a week one was cured and the other dead.
The one who died had turned his back on life, his only interest being obtaining more compensation for his accident. He broke his engagement and refused to undertake any form of preparation for his future.
The survivor had continued his plans to marry, and took correspondence courses, participating fully in his therapy while actively planning for the future.
He had that “gameness” which, for all Ned Kelly’s faults, makes him one of history’s most admired Australians, the “fighting spirit” so important in martial arts.
Martial-art teachers maintain that, just as it is necessary to clean one’s teeth and bathe daily, so it is necessary to cultivate chi. Just as cleaning one’s hands before eating is sensible hygiene, so exercises for developing and harmonizing chi are parts of the daily routines in aikido and tai chi.
Outdoor activities play an important part in all such systems, and meditation, spontaneous or deliberate, is also essential. Meditation activates the intuitive-creative functions of the brain’s right hemisphere, whose secrets Western science is just beginning to unravel, and occurs spontaneously when people become submerged in the beauties of unspoiled places, perhaps activated by the chi which the Chinese say is stronger there.
These are the things which arouse a zest for living, enhance the chi, and can lead to vigorous longevity. Paddy Pallin, Australia’s best-known bushwalker through his many products and chain of bushwalking shops, will be an active 87 years old this year and is still walk ing strongly. He is living proof that people who undertake arduous-joyful, fatiguing-exhilarating outdoor activities gain an increase in life energy.
Science has only recently learned how to measure aerobic fitness and to analyze how various activities enhance or degrade it, and is still only on the threshold of discerning how various mental and emotional states affect one’s biochemistry, though it is now evident that alpha rhythms — measurable indicators of “creative” mental activity — can be cultivated through activities such as meditation.
It now also seems clear that the mind and the body are fully interdependent so that it is too simplistic to say that aging is kept at bay by aerobic exercise alone, even though those who exercise aerobically remain biologically younger. For without a complementary mental/emotional drive, individuals cannot undertake the arduous physical techniques of aerobic conditioning.
Long-term studies of competitive versus non-competitive older runners in the United States show that maintaining a high intensity of training is important in slowing down aging. Loss of aerobic capacity, as measured by the individual’s ability to utilize oxygen when running, remains lowest in those who train hardest, even into extreme old age.
Yet it may well be that the drive to excel, not merely for competitive reasons, but because there is a spiritual yearning for excellence, is what motivates fit oldsters to continue their training, rather than an egotistic desire for personal survival, though all I have met obviously have powerful survival instincts.
And there are other things which hold back the biological time-clock, such as art and music and love. The things which count, it seems, are those which produce good chi and alpha thinking.