Keys to a Long Life
(Originally published as a three part series of newsletters for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
When it comes down to it, a great portion of our efforts are in some way motivated by a desire to keep living – to survive. To this end, life is frequently spent thinking always of the future and missing out on the richness of the present moment. None of our worrying makes life last any longer; it just serves as an unpleasant distraction. In effect, we can spoil our experience of life through our efforts to hold onto it.
To remedy this conundrum, it is worthwhile to witness our day-to-day perception of our life. Do we spend more time celebrating life or being burdened by it? It is not so much our circumstances as our perspective that dictates the quality of our life. A simple change of perspective can have an enormous impact, even if the external situation doesn’t change.
If we’re not lucky enough to have a naturally happy-go-lucky disposition, our success at maintaining a positive outlook may be largely determined by plain old discipline. This is the discipline to catch ourselves indulging in drama and negativity, and departing from the present in order to worry about the future. It is the discipline to bring ourselves back to the present, back to gratitude and the truth, back to the sweet breath we’re taking right at this moment. It is the discipline to remember over and over and over what is really worth living for. Until we investigate and challenge the factors that infringe on the quality of our life, what’s the use of trying to prolong it?
Now for some practical measures. Following is a list of the practices I consider most valuable for extending life. I recommend partaking in them liberally and enthusiastically. But please remember, it’s possible for these practices to become devices that perpetuate our relentless drive to go, go, go! Rather than viewing them as the means to escape from death, see if you can think of them as ways to relish life.
Exercise: Everyone knows of the value of exercise. The human body is very responsive to physical activity or a lack thereof. Simply put, it’s “use it or lose it.” I believe exercise that mobilizes every part of the body in every possible way is the best way to keep it in good shape. Yoga and dance are ideal for this. My first yoga teacher, Gurunam Kaur, used to say, “You are as young as you are flexible.” Exercise that focuses on building core strength and controlling energy flow, such as Qigong and Taijiquan (Tai Chi) is also a valuable tool for promoting long life.
Dancing: In addition to other forms of exercise, I feel there is a unique benefit to dancing. Dance is one of the most basic and primal forms of release. I’m talking about dancing like no one’s watching – putting on your favorite music and really letting loose with spontaneous movement. There is a particular exaltation we can achieve through dance, and I believe this is potent medicine. And dancing with others is an invitation to let the love in your heart spill over – why keep it just for yourself?
Breathing: The quality of our breathing can have a profound effect on all aspects of our health. Deep, full breaths exercise the internal body, they send oxygen-rich blood to all our parts, they calm the mind, and they facilitate the release of emotion. What you’re breathing matters too: clean, fresh, unpolluted air can be powerful medicine. Beyond good old deep, unrestricted breathing, there are a few specific breath-centered arts that are even more potent at building vitality and releasing blockages. These include pranayama (a facet of yoga), Conscious Breathing (AKA “rebirthing”), and Holotropic Breathwork, to name a few. In Chinese medicine, there is a saying: “Qi (life energy) follows the breath.” That is, breathing promotes the circulation of energy. It allows us to open restricted or deprived parts of ourselves, and to share the intangible essence we draw into our lungs with every deserving cell in our body.
Posture: The main detriments of poor posture are that it restricts our breathing and squashes our organs. Then there are the shoulder, back, neck, jaw, arm, hand and other structural problems it can lead to. The biggest cause of poor posture is sitting in a chair at a table or desk. Most of us start taking all our meals this way around age 2. We spend 6 or more hours a day doing this through all our years in school. Then, if we have a desk job, we do it 8 or more hours a day until retirement. If you spend much time in this position, it’s worth optimizing your seating, desk positioning, and ergonomics. Hang up reminder notes in your workspace. The body simply functions better when it’s held in an open and aligned fashion. Beyond all the physical benefits of good posture, most people just plain feel better when they pick themselves up.
Sleep: Americans epidemically overwork and under sleep. A sufficient amount of good quality sleep can prolong life. Insufficient sleep is associated with an increased incidence of obesity, which is a major risk factor for several conditions that shorten lives. Insufficient sleep is also a major risk factor for accidents. If we’re not well rested, we’re running on lower than optimal resources; thus, we have a reduced capacity to deal with stress, decreased immunity, and a decreased “buffer” between us and the world – all of which impact our health. If you eat a poor diet, you might be able to make up for it by supplementing with high quality nutrients; if you don’t get enough sleep, there is nothing else you can do to rejuvenate yourself in the way sleep would. Prioritize sleeping.
Eating Habits: I could write pages about nutrition, but for the sake of space and simplicity, I’ve chosen to write on four things you can change about your eating that will have the greatest impact.
- One: Under-eat. Experiments have shown that mice that are never fed to the point of “fullness” can live several times longer than mice that are allowed to eat their fill. The same is likely true for humans. You don’t need to starve yourself; even if you merely avoid overeating, you’ll be doing something great for yourself. Overeating is taxing to our bodies and is a clear sign that we are in some way “disconnected” in the act of eating. Think of your stomach as being like a washing machine. If you stuff a washer to capacity, the clothes don’t circulate very well and they don’t come out very clean. Likewise, if you pack your stomach, chances are you will not digest and absorb your food optimally, and you will undoubtedly exceed your caloric needs. Try to stop eating as soon as you are satisfied, with a feeling that you still have some room left.
- Two: Focus. Eat in a slow, deliberate, seated, relaxed, and enjoyable way, without doing anything else at the same time (e.g., reading, walking, driving, watching television). Put your fork / spoon / chopsticks down after each bite. This supports good absorption of the nutrients in the food, and connects you to the sanctity and pleasure of feeding yourself. I’m not advising you to be overly mechanical about eating, but to simply allow yourself to really savor your food. Unless you have to eat yucky food, there’s no good reason not to savor it. Also, when you dine this way, it’s harder to overeat.
- Three: Reduce your consumption of sugar (and avoid artificial sweeteners). This includes all sugars – evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, rice syrup, molasses, malt, etc. – and other refined carbohydrates, such as flour. It’s true that some of these are worse than others, but the point is, humans are just not built to handle the large amounts of sugar most of us consume. Our rates of sugar consumption have skyrocketed over the past few centuries and our bodies have not been able to keep up. Sugar suppresses the immune system, taxes our adrenal glands and pancreas, promotes obesity, and causes diabetes – the leading cause of blindness and amputations in the elderly.
- Four: Choose foods with vitality in them. In the words of Dr. Paul Greenbaum, one of my favorite nutrition teachers, the main guiding criteria for choosing a good food should be that it is whole, pure, and natural. Every step of processing our food goes through reduces its vitality and nutritional value.
Laughter: If you can’t laugh at life, why mess around with longevity? We’re all familiar with the saying that laughter is good medicine, and we all like to do it, so let’s invite more of it into our lives. Watch comedies, listen to comedy on your way to and from work, tell jokes, tickle, make funny faces, or join a laughing group (people who get together to induce themselves and each other to laugh). Full belly laughs are best – they get the whole body involved. Meanwhile, reduce the degree to which you cultivate bad feelings (fear, grief, sadness, pain, horror) and cut down on violent and sad movies, and media that sensationalizes tragedy.
Singing: When you sit hunched over at a desk, the chest tends to be closed and the abdomen squashed. When you sing or chant, you work your abdomen and open your chest, which helps undo the squashing and collapsing. Singing can help us release emotions, it can be uplifting, it can allow us to connect with others (if we sing in a group), and it can be fun. On a slightly esoteric level, I believe the frequencies and timbres we produce when we sing have a resonant effect throughout our bodies that can enliven and harmonize our cells.
Community/Companionship: Most of the longest lived folks in the world have people who check in on them, who expect to see them, who share warm conversation with them, who eat with them, and who help them do many of the things I recommend in this article, such as exercise, laughing, singing, and dancing. Moreover, when we put ourselves in service to our community, we see our value, we see that we matter, and we take our attention off our own problems for a while. Plus, when we keep fine specimens of the human race nearby, they make us want to stick around longer.
Human Touch: Human touch affects us like no other therapeutic “intervention.” Compassionate touch conveys warmth, caring, connection, and reassurance. Most of us begin life getting an abundance of healthy touch from family members. Frequently, this drops off as we get older. Eventually we may start to think that real men don’t touch, or that wanting touch might make us seem desperate or perverted, or that touching wouldn’t be professional or appropriate, etc. So, in addition to welcoming more touch into our lives, many of us also need to work with our mental programming to develop a healthy attitude about touching.
Massage: One of the chief benefits of massage is, of course, that it’s a safe forum for receiving compassionate touch. Then there’s its undeniable ability to alleviate stress, a known contributor to virtually all disease. Finally, massage is simply the most basic and valuable tool for physical complaints. I have seen countless headaches, backaches, and joint pains disappear from massage. I’ve even seen certain forms of massage resurrect flaccid limbs in multiple sclerosis and post-stroke. The fact that massage often feels good may be a curse. It has led to the stigmatization of massage as a “luxury item.” The truth is, it’s just good health care.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a complete medical system. It treats everything from pain to allergies to depression to menstrual disorders. But its real strength is that its scope goes beyond fixing problems. Acupuncture has a long history of use as a tool for health maintenance and enhancement. It can be used to release emotional blockages, promote immune function, reduce stress, improve circulation, build energy, and lift the mood. It can be used to detect and correct imbalances before they show up as disease. Much of the development of acupuncture has been attributed to Taoist sages, who specifically utilized its principles for life extension. Acupuncturists, like all medical professionals, vary widely in their approach and skill level, so find someone that you like and respect.
Spending Time with Nature: Though I have mentioned companionship and human touch as important factors in longevity, let’s remember life isn’t all about people and people’s stuff. We are at a unique place in human history when a life can be spent almost entirely in buildings and cars, and we have to be reminded of the benefits of being in nature. Put your bare feet on the earth, tend to a garden, get in the water, sit by a fire, feel the breeze on your skin, breathe fresh air. Immerse yourself in the awe that the majesty of nature commands.
Letting Go: I believe a major reason why most humans die younger than they have to is because of all the unresolved mental and emotional garbage we carry around. Not only does it directly contribute to imbalance in our bodies, it also leads us to be negligent of our health. Everything about our past that we wish had gone differently, everything about our imagined future that we’re anxious about, and everything about the present that we can’t accept – these all amount to resistance of life. And no amount of resistance changes any of it; it only degrades our experience. There are many techniques for letting go of persistent psycho-emotional patterns (including psychotherapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, the Sedona Method, meditation, conscious breathing, Hakomi, and more). Whatever the approach, the crux of releasing this stuff is having a willingness to feel it and a willingness to let it go. The more we let go, the more we find we are at peace.
Choosing Life: Both the most obvious and the most elusive “secret” to living longer is to love life. All of it. The war, the crime, the disease, the music, the art, the poetry, the food. It is the ultimate act of aligning ourselves with reality to fully accept that at this moment, this is what life is. If we can be grateful for it, not denying any of it, life begins to open like a flower. To welcome every bit of it with an open heart – this is living in the truest sense.
What good is a long life if we’re not healthy enough psychologically and physically to enjoy it? Any steps we take to improve quality of life are worthwhile regardless of how much life we have left. The lifestyle recommendations I have presented in this series are by no means the only way to live a long life. However, they are some of the most universally beneficial things humans can do – both for quality and duration of life. Furthermore, when we embrace these practices and our experience of life becomes richer, we actually tend to become less concerned about longevity.
May your life be full of life.