Living On (Hot) Air
Recent deaths contradict Breatharians' claims

Verity Linn wouldn't have starved to death if it weren't for pollution. That's the view of many Breatharians, devotees of the theory that you can "be free of the addiction of food," in the words of movement guru Jasmuheen, and subsist on nothing but air and light.

See also...
... by Etelka Lehoczky
... in the Whoa! section
... from November 17, 1999

At least, that's what the Australian New Age teacher said in last year's Living on Light: A Source of Nutrition for the New Millennium. Jasmuheen won't be elucidating her theories to reporters for a while, though, thanks to a couple of highly publicized incidents that recently took the wind out of her sails. In late September, one of her followers died in the mountains of Scotland, apparently from malnutrition, and just a couple of weeks ago Jasmuheen failed spectacularly in a test of her claims administered by the producers of the Australian 60 Minutes.

That doesn't keep other Breatharians from defending the blond, 41-year-old Brisbane native. "I don't differ with her. She knows the air is important," says Wiley Brooks, head of the Breatharian Institute of America, based in Santa Cruz, California. Brooks has been calling himself a Breatharian for 20 years or so -- he still recalls with pride his appearance on the '70s TV show That's Incredible! -- and thus predates Jasmuheen, who says she weaned herself off food in the early '90s. But he's happy to support her efforts to publicize (and profit from) the potential to live on air.

Brooks offers an ingenious explanation for the death of Jasmuheen follower Verity Linn and for Jasmuheen's own embarrassment on 60 Minutes. If you're relying on air for your nourishment, he points out, you're going to have to depend on the quality of that air -- a risky proposition in modern times.

"The less food you have in the body, the more air is circulated through the body, which replaces the food," he says. "Which means a Breatharian, instead of taking in 110 lbs. of air a day, is probably taking in 1,000 lbs. a day. Now in that 1,000 lbs. of air is a percentage of pollutants. So you see that for a Breatharian the air is so deadly that we have to take something not to increase energy but to decrease the sensitivity to the air. We take food as you would take a drug or a medicine -- to reduce the sensitivity."

The air did indeed prove deadly for Linn, a 49-year-old Australian found dead in a tent near Scotland's remote Cam Loch in late September. Linn, who worked for a Scottish spiritual foundation, is the third person believed to have died from practicing Breatharianism -- she was preceded by a Melbourne woman, Lani Morris, last summer, and German kindergarten teacher Timo Degen in 1997.

Linn's co-workers say they didn't know her to be a Breatharian, but she was found with a copy of Living on Light and a diary indicating she was engaged in a 21-day fast. Jasmuheen recommends such fasts as a way to get used to living on "prana," or liquid light. She claims to have ceased to rely on other forms of sustenance in 1993, when she received a vision suggesting she do so. Ever since, she told an interviewer in 1998, she's healthier than ever -- and since she need not worry about shopping for, preparing and storing food, and no longer needs much sleep, "I have 20 hours a day to play with."

Unfortunately, those benefits didn't amount to much when 60 Minutes put her to the test. To prove her claims, Jasmuheen agreed to be closeted in a hotel room with a 24-hour security guard watching her every moment. The experiment was called off after a mere four days when Jasmuheen began displaying the classic symptoms of malnutrition: She became dehydrated, listless and gaunt, her speech slowed, her pupils dilated and she lost weight.

"It didn't succeed because, I mean, one, they stopped it, and the other thing is they put her right in the middle of the city in a hotel with no air in the smoggiest place in town," Brooks says. "I had already explained to her that this could not be done in this type of environment. But she didn't have the experience. I lived in New York and in big cities so I could see what this would do. But she lives in Australia, where the air is pretty good, and she's never been locked in a hotel room, you see."

Other Breatharians avoid the grandstanding claims that got Jasmuheen in trouble. Ahmen Heaven, author of the spiritually-correct Jesus Diet, says eating is merely an option -- and an unattractive one at that. "You can eat if you want to; that's your prerogative," he says. "But don't believe for a minute that these liquids and solids we call 'food' are loaded with 'nutrients' that you need on a daily basis ... Eating is often a cause of sluggishness, ill health, weight gain, bad breath, etc. The original sin had to do with eating."

Similarly, Stephen Arlin, co-author of Nature's First Law: The Raw-Food Diet, says that while he is "not convinced that one can go without eating or drinking for a long period of time in the world we live in now," he believes in eating less than nutritionists usually recommend, and receiving supplementary nourishment from light and air. "If one has evolved in consciousness, has become pure in physical being, and is in the proper environment, it is quite possible to go without food for a period of time. How long? Nobody knows. There is no magic pill, only a magic process."

Magic or no, the process continues to appeal to people all over the world. Despite the body count, they remain convinced of the power of Jasmuheen's hot air.

Etelka Lehoczky last wrote for GettingIt on Slackers in the Underground, and writes regularly for Salon and the Chicago Tribune.