What we all know and consider to be our existence is a strange thing. Most tortoises make it to be at least 100 years old, but a mosquito fish is lucky to live just two short years, and mayflies can live and die within 24 hours. African forest elephants have an average life span of about 70 years — almost as long as a human being’s.
Queen fire ants can make it to seven years, yet worker ants are lucky to last 180 days. Life spans seem an unfair and funny thing, but we only know what we know.
James Carey, a biodemography specialist at the University of California, Davis, recently discovered how all these animals’ life spans can let us in on a little secret.
The clearest observation would be that species within a certain group of organisms typically have similar lifespans. But what you may not pick up on immediately is that species that push the boundaries of their group’s normal life span can provide valuable insight into how we can prompt our own evolution of longevity.
Longevity is Linked to Total Energy Expenditure Over a Lifetime
Animals who survive harsh conditions, such as in the deep ocean or the arid desert, give us an idea about how we can live longer, as do their social habits, but Carey specifically discovered that the longevity of many species is related to the total energy an animal exerts over its lifetime.
Think of how we waste our energy. The yogic tradition encourages Ujjayi breathing, or ocean’s breath, to provide a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system, release feelings of irritation and frustration, and help calm the mind and body. The breath is slow and deliberate, and is more like that of elephants than of dogs. We know that the big and slow elephant is known to outlast the fast and hard-working yet tiny ant. This leads us to the assumption that energy expenditure, rather than size, predicts longevity.
Learn all about yoga breathing techniques that can slow aging in The Little Book of Yoga Breathing: Pranayama Made Easy
What the Tortoise Can Teach Us
A 300-year-old tortoise breathes a mere three or four times per minute, while an average human breathes at least 15 times per minute.
Among some of the only land vertebrates that can live this old, there is much to learn from them. They expend energy to get food, procreate, or move out of the sun, but only when they absolutely need to. In order to reduce the sensory stimulation that it must process, the tortoise withdraws sensory organs, like the hands and feet, into the shell frequently.
What the Vedas Know
The Vedic culture taught the Brahmins that the faster we breathe, the faster we die. Think of money. We can either spend frivolously, emptying our bank accounts, or we can budget, enjoying our funds throughout our lives. In the same way, when we practice pranayama techniques that lengthen the cycle of the breath and slow the resting heart rate, we can extend our life span.
Carey’s research may not have discussed yogic practices, though he may be intrigued to find the similarities. Paramahansa Yogandanda, for instance, the same yogi who taught the Beatles and who wrote An Autobiography of a Yogi, said this about breathing and life spans:
The restless monkey breathes at the rate of 32 times a minute, in contrast to man’s average 18 times. The elephant, tortoise, snake and other animals noted for their longevity have a respiratory rate which is less than man’s. The tortoise for instance, who may attain the age of 300 years, breathes only 4 times per minute.
Elephants and ants can teach us that we can reserve our energy by slowing our breath, or we can use it up and work ourselves to death. It’s a beautifully simple lesson about the economy of energy.
It’s all in the breath! Learn to focus on how you breathe and perform breathing meditations.