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by John-Ivan Palmer
Chew on this: Prahlad Jani, the Indian holy man, has not eaten a bite of food for 77 years. Nor has he swallowed a drop of liquid. What does he know that we don’t? According to London’s Daily Mail, “Eminent doctors [are] taking him seriously.” Then there’s Ellen (“Jasmuheen”) Greve, flashy New Ager from Australia, reported to have ingested nothing more than a rare cup of tea since 1993, and guru Wiley Brooks from Santa Cruz who says he has lived for decades on nothing but sunshine. Another Indian sadhu, Hira Ratan Manek, subject of Peter Sorcher’s documentary Eat the Sun, claims not only to have eschewed the table for 11 years, but advocates staring directly at the sun for long periods. He says it’s good for you.
These and at least 5,000 others like them around the world are known as “Breatharians,” those who practice the fine art of eating nothing. Its origins trace back to the ancient philosophical system of Yan Xin Qigong, from which we also get fen shui, tai chi and acupuncture. Through the centuries, when food was scarce and starvation common, various Buddhist and Hindu holies figured out how to get noticed by claiming to receive their entire nourishment from air. Who wouldn’t want to know the secret to that?
Keeping the practice alive, the Renaissance physician Paracelsus reportedly lived for years on only “one half scrupule of Solar Quintessence,” and in 1669 a report was submitted to the British Royal Society on a woman named Martha Taylor who flourished for twelve months on nothing. The Bavarian nun, Sister Therese Neumann, is said to have gone 36 years loading her plate with only a generous helping of God, and had such a large following that in 2005 the Bishop of Regensburg formally opened proceedings at the Vatican to declare her a saint.
Whether it’s eating nothing for ten years, or downing a hundred hot dogs in ten minutes, it’s done before an audience. “Look at me!” say the Breatharians, gorging on what you can’t see. They get attention, then help themselves to the rest.
The self-styled “Jasmuheen” conducts lucrative seminars internationally, teaching her sign-ups how to eat sunbeams. She is a thriving one-woman industry (Jasmuheen.com), selling books and MP3s in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. The nourished-looking young husband-wife team from California, Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello, say they have not eaten anything except a stray piece of fruit for 10 years, and they will show you how to do it—for a price. Their high-end web site (Ricardoakahi.com) offers Pranic Fast™seminars in California, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Poland for between $888 dollars and $1,490 dollars. Meals not included, of course. If you’re hungry for more, the radiantly handsome Akahi will work with you individually by teleconference for a mere $300 dollars an hour, or, if you want to go cheaper, $88 dollars will get you his three volume MP3 Living on Light. At the very least you can hit the button on his web site that says “Donate” and give him as much or as little as you want.
Here’s the obvious question: what do all plant and animal cells need for life? The answer, stated technically, is this: mitochondria are cellular organelles that produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which transforms food molecules into energy to run the organism, whether it’s a grasshopper or guru. For a cell to function without food molecules for ATP to break down, as Breatharians claim, is like running a car without gas. So how do the air gobblers do it?
The trick is not getting caught. In 1927 Dr. Otto Seidl studied Sister Therese Neumann’s air-feasting for 15 days under “controlled conditions” in her home. Those conditions turned out to be less controlled than Dr. Seidl had expected and the saint-to-be managed to slip away occasionally. What man is going to follow a nun into the bathroom? Lab results were consistent with someone who had fasted for a while then ate normally. The Sister’s family denied permission for any further tests. In India in 2010 a team headed by Dr. Sudhir Shah studied Prahlad Jani for several weeks on closed circuit TV, seeking to find how he was able to get by for 77 years without food. When the study was over, Dr. Shah said that Jani’s eating habits (or lack thereof) might “tremendously benefit mankind,” even though skeptics pointed out that the food scoffer moved out of camera range for extended periods. Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, was outrightly busted eating a pie in a hotel, and Hira Ratan Manek was caught on hidden camera by his own documentarian chowing down in a restaurant.
The glamorous eat-nothing, Jasmuheen, agreed to be tested for the Australian version of 60 Minutes under conditions so controlled that not even a carrot could be shoved through a hole drilled through a bathroom wall. When her organs began to fail after two days, doctors had to call off the study. She claimed the air was too polluted eat. A reporter saw her ordering an in-flight meal en route to one of her seminars, and observers have noticed the refrigerator at her plush estate in the affluent Chapel Hill district of Brisbane stuffed with delicious viands.
Consumers of piping hot Breatharian air might not get off with just a red face. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, mortality rates from anorexia are the highest of any psychological disorder, and 80% of them are female. Ms Jasmuheen’s exploitation of this gender specific vulnerability is not likely to cause that statistic to go down. She and other Breatharian hustlers might focus their meditations (assuming they actually meditate as claimed) on at least three of her followers, Verity Linn and Lani Morris in Australia, and Timo Degen, in Munich, who tried living solely on a diet of sunshine—and died.