My long-standing friend and publisher of several books Piyush Kumar sent me a copy of Lifespan, a book by David Sinclair, regarding the science behind aging, during my stay at AIIMS, New Delhi. Dr. Sinclair (b. 1969) is an is an Australian-American biologist and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. The book declares aging as a disease and proclaims that it can be treated. This sounds hoary, but the description of aging as the root of all other diseases was an eye-opener.
The book is rooted in science. Written for general readers in a storytelling mode, it first describes life as information (DNA) that evolved over the earth in different life forms before human beings arrived and then passed on to us by our ancestors. So, each one of us carries within us intelligence that is 3.7 billion old, when life developed on earth that was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Some apelike creatures in Africa began to walk habitually on two legs some 5 million years ago and evolved into large-brain modern human beings some 12,000 years ago.
Now this intelligence, stored in our DNA, that we have received from our parents, contains the secrets of how life survived all along. Though the general impression is that the human genome is fully decoded, and we have some 25,000 functional genes, that make our bodies, the reality is that of the 3 billion base pairs of our DNA, less than 2 percent codes proteins and the rest — 98.5 percent of DNA sequences – remain unexpressed throughout our life span, or so the scientist believes.
Dr. Sinclair postulates in the book “The Information Theory of Aging,” a concept that aging happens at the DNA level. This theory, like a tripod, stands on three legs: (1) Aging is caused by a loss of information in the DNA; (2) The environment around genes decides to switch off/on genes; and (3) Loss of information happens by loss of repetitive DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome, called Telomere every time a cell is copied and is one of the main causes of aging, and it may be delayed and even repaired.
The unexpressed genome, which is most of it, carries survival circuits embedded. How our ancestors survived without food, when they were chased by wild animals, and unprotected under severe heat and old. So, Dr. Sinclair argues, what if we relive those situations – by intermittent fasting, exercising – running even if no animal is chasing you, and having cold/ hot water baths – to activate the survival circuit?
It makes perfect sense, and even if I ignore the most recent scientific discoveries, fasting is a tradition found in every major religion in the world, along with extreme physical exertion on undertaking strenuous pilgrimages and ritual baths – both in hot springs and ice-cold mountain rivers. These practices kept our ancestors healthy for the duration of their lives, which were between 30 and 40 years. Shankaracharya lived for 31, Swami Vivekananda lived for 39 years, and both of them traversed India on foot and worked tirelessly to their very last day. Dr. Kalam lived for 84 years and died giving a lecture at IIM, Shillong, in front of a packed auditorium.
In a typically American way, the book subtly promotes supplements and medicines for reversing aging, and when you browse through the Internet all major remedies mentioned in the book – Sirtuins activators, NAD Boosters, Rapamycin – are already being sold online, as natural products and food supplements. But the point I am drawing here is to return to a simple life, a simple diet, doing some manual labour every day, sleeping for eight hours, and a few minutes of meditation. These are the surest ways to improve the internal environment around genes.
A sedentary life style of eating and sitting is a sure way of getting in to health related issues. Human bodies are have evolved to do physical labour. The Greek term askesis, which means to exercise, practice, and train, is the source of the English word asceticism. It was initially used to refer to sports, but over time the term came to mean systematic and rigorous training of the will, the mind, and the soul in order to achieve a more virtuous existence or a better spiritual state. A spiritual seeker, or Tapasvi, is essentially an ascetic in the Vedic society.
ब्रह्मचर्यमहिंसा च शरीरं तप उच्यते॥
Worship of gods, saints, teachers, and wise men; purity, simplicity, celibacy, and non-violence are called austerities of the body. (Gita 17.14).
Fundamentally, asceticism is a self-discipline and self-denial program that is voluntary, prolonged, and at least partially systematic, in which one forgoes immediate, sensuous, or profane gratifications in order to achieve a better spiritual condition or a more profound absorption in the sacred. I have seen Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam an embodiment of this intentional asceticism. He will stay away from all indulgences and think several times even before changing his shoes or buying a new pair of socks. He entered the President’s House in 2002 with two suitcases as his personal luggage and checked out 5 years later with the same two suitcases.
Asceticism is characterized by fasting, celibacy, poverty, seclusion, and even discomfort like sleeping on the floor. But there is also “inner asceticism,” which is harder to explain but even more important. Such asceticism involves staying away from wants and entanglement with sensory objects and staying away from the vanity fair of the world like awards and felicitations. The yoga system is distinctive because it combines both outward and inside asceticism.
Asceticism has a positive effect on a person’s willpower. It takes years of consistent practice to master. As you continue to practice, stronger spiritual abilities begin to emerge. What was originally referred to as the hostile effects of the demons were nothing more than ingrained memories from our DNA that were manifesting in the present. Because doing so is impossible, these cannot be suppressed. Allow them to come as ideas and emotions, but resist acting on them with your willpower.
The purity of body and mind is very beneficial. Daily bathing, fresh clothing, moderate consumption of fresh food, and avoidance of pointless thoughts are all prerequisites for purity. No one would pour something into a dirty cup, and the same is true of a heart full of animosity. Whatever term is used, the best cure is to keep calling out God’s name. If you continue to live in this manner for a few weeks, you will experience communion with the supernatural, or reality that lies outside the realm of the senses and the mind.
So why not begin by fasting one day every two weeks, if not more frequently? Join the ongoing and well-established Ekadashi Vrat tradition of fasting on the eleventh lunar day of a waning or waxing moon. Eat only home-cooked meals, avoid using the fridge and microwave, say no to all sweets including confectioneries and cool drinks, and drink as much water as possible! The goal is to be healthy until the very end, not to live longer! Die at work, surrounded by loved ones, not in a hospital bed being watched over by masked strangers. The decisions you make today, not just a desire or a prayer, will determine it.
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