From Fort Lauderdale's famous fountain of youth to expensive cryogenic treatments, the art of living longer has become big business. It seems that new and novel treatments are emerging every day, but many of the centenarians who have actually achieved the impressive fete maintain that the secret to a longer life lies in the simple and time-honored methods: a healthy lifestyle, low stress levels and mindfulness.
It seems that stress levels are constantly on the rise, with the modern world more complex and faster paced than ever before. It should come as no surprise, then, that the stress management business is booming too, particularly among those looking to unlock the secret to a longer life.
Yoga, once considered the reserve of Indians, Buddhists and hippies, has become a mainstream workout, with studios springing up on every corner and many offices even offering workplace sessions. As well as improving their physical health, with yoga offering benefits for strength, flexibility and general fitness levels, yogis traditionally strive to achieve moksha, which is a state of self actualization. Often partnered with meditation, yoga is praised as much for its mental health benefits as its physical ones.
Another popular pass-time enjoying a recent spotlight is Tai Chi. In the past, its calm, non-strenuous pace made it most popular among an older crowd, but it has lately attracted the attention of a much wider range of practitioners.
A Chinese martial art associated with both Taoism and Confucianism , it has perhaps become better known as a mental health practice than a form of self-defense. The focus on form is said to promote inner calmness and clarity, in a similar fashion to meditation.
The practice of training one's mind is something that consistently sparks conversations, from the believers debating the skeptics to the margis disagreeing with the monks. There are a number of variations of meditation, but the underlying aim remains the same throughout them all: to achieve mindfulness and inner harmony. And, of course, the much lauded but as yet unproven benefit of improving life expectancy.
The three primary categories of meditation are often described as: transcendental, open monitoring and focused attention.
The Yogi Trinity
The first, transcendental, is also known as effortless because of its minimal approach. It's perhaps the most commonly recognized form of meditation, where the aim is to achieve a blank state of mind by clearing it of all thoughts.
One common technique used in this practice is the famous ''if tree falls in the forest and there's nobody around to hear it, does it make a noise?'' paradox. Before it became the popular riddle it's known as today, it was said to have been conceived by Buddhist monks. The idea is that by focusing on an unanswerable question all other thoughts are pushed out of the mind.
The second type of meditation, open monitoring, does not aim to eradicate all thoughts - rather, it relinquishes control of them. The idea is to allow thoughts to flow freely, without attaching judgement or emotion to them. This detached observation is said to give the practitioner a third-party perspective that allows them to cultivate a more objective view of their own mind.
The third primary form of meditation, focused attention, is another that complies with commonly held perceptions of meditation. It is this type that requires practitioners to focus on their own breathing (or an external object), with the aim of developing precision focus.
This particular style of meditation has seen rising interest thanks to the popular Vipassana retreats that are now attended all over the world. Clients being with an initial 10-day retreat, during which they are allowed no access to the internet or their phones. The entire time is also to be spent in absolute silence. Throughout the retreat, food is provided, although comprising minimal servings of fruit and water, and all attendees share dormitory-style rooms.
The practice is particularly popular among backpacker types, perhaps because payment is on a donation-only basis. However, it's becoming increasingly popular among peace-seekers of all varieties, and while it can be difficult to measure any real effect on life expectancy, the reviews of previous attendees are overwhelmingly positive.
While ostensibly subjective, the study of meditation and its effect on longevity has been undertaken by the aptly named Shinzen Young, who penned The Science of Enlightenment.
Ageing According to Young
In his book, Young professes that meditation is the secret to a longer life. In fact, he says, it can even double your life.
While this may seem a bold claim, it may not be as literal as first expected. Young discusses the importance of being present in every moment, and how a mere few minutes of meditation in the morning can improve your focus for the rest of the day. It would seem that Young's claim is that simply paying attention to time makes it feel younger - something that any clock-watcher can attest to. As such, meditation that improves your focus and presence of mind can make even an ordinary length of life feel longer.
Of course, as well as reading the opinions of scholars and practitioners, it seems prudent to take the advice of those who have successfully led long lives - namely, centenarians. And for an unusually high concentration of those to talk to, many turn to the Bama village in the Guangxi region of China.
Nicknamed Longevity Village because of its most famous residents, Bama is home to more than 80 men and women aged over 100. This unusual demographic has captured the attention of tourists all over the world, and as of 2013, approximately 200,000 visitors had taken up residence there.
Morning exercise and slow-paced lives are popular in Bama, and many believe this is where its strength lies. It seems that these practices, both shared with meditation, are common themes among looking for the secret to a longer life.
Ironically, this new-found fame threatens to be the undoing of the very thing that caused it. While many native residents attribute their good health and long lives to a healthy diet and hard work in the fields, the lifestyle in Bama is beginning to change.
New wealth means a richer diet for many, and a blossoming tourism industry allows locals to take up more sedentary employment. As Bama's fame increases, the next few years will serve as a test of the village's longevity.
While health and lifestyle advice is constantly changing, it seems that meditation is still a tradition that transcends generations and culture. Whether or not it is truly the secret to a longer life remains up for debate, but those who practice it certainly sing its praises.