For Ana-Maria Stefania, discovering breatharianism was "love at first sight. The less solid food I consume, the better and more present I feel." The Cyprus-based health coach and hypnotherapist found what she describes as her "calling" three years ago. Now, she's one of thousands of breatharians worldwide.
Breatharianism is the belief that it is possible to survive on energy from sunlight and air (otherwise known as prana)—and almost entirely without food or water. Devotees are told to gradual transition from vegetarian, vegan, and raw foods and fruit, before surviving on a purely liquid diet.
Although intermittent fasting features in many religions—including Islam, Christianity, and Jainism—breatharianism is one seemingly endless fast. Self-styled breatharian leader Jas Jasmuheen and author of Living on Light: The Source of Nourishment for the New Millennium claims that she has spent over four decades finding different ways to nourish her body without food and has said she can "go for months and months without having anything at all other than a cup of tea."
Medical experts, of course, say that this is not a long-term lifestyle. "Anyone advocating that we can live largely without food or fluids is giving dangerous advice," Professor David Oliver, the clinical vice president of the Royal College of Physicians, says. "Living on air and sunshine will provide no caloric or fluid intake. Anyone who claims to be maintaining a steady body weight on such a diet is unlikely to be telling the truth.'
Unsurprisingly, high-profile breatharians have a history of getting caught with food. In 1999, one was discovered leaving a 7-Eleven with a box of Twinkies, a hot dog, and a Slurpee after claiming he had lived on air for 30 years. Jasmuheen was once spotted by a journalist ordering a meal on a plane, and was unable to continue more than four days into a televised fast at a retreat. (Jasmuheen did not respond to our request for comment.)
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This hasn't stopped wannabe breatharians avidly using online forums to share tips about the best breathing techniques and advice on the best way to navigate the transition from solid food. But in an age when food delivery is only a click away, why would anyone willingly choose to live on air?
"Food is not something I function best on—my fuel is best in the form of light," Stefania tells me. "It's pure bliss, like staying in a cocoon and not wanting to get out. One is accepting, loving, grateful, at peace and tranquil."
Despite having undertaken both 10 and 21-day fasts, Stefania claims that transitioning isn't about counting the number of days without food or water. Being a breatharian, she says, is a powerful tool that "puts my mind at silence. I feel lighter and find it easier to feel, sense and evolve at a spiritual level."
Thirty-three-year-old Nina Valentine explored veganism and vegetarianism, and says that breatharianism seemed the next logical step. "I've been very conscious of what I consume for most of my life and how it affects my health," she says.
According to the Vienna-based hypnotherapist, food is inextricably linked to our emotions. She believes that breatharianism allows people to heal. "In our society where anxiety, depression and obesity is common, we rarely eat purely out of hunger anymore, we eat to suppress our emotions. We eat comfort food that makes us feel good temporarily without dealing what is really going on underneath."
For the last two years, Valentine has embarked on monthly dry fasts. "After three or four days, my thinking is clear, I don't get tired and when I wake up in the morning, I am full of energy that lasts all day long. It's a state of self-love and acceptance."
While Stefania and Valentine are adamant that their lives have been enriched, Rick Miller, a clinical and sports dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, isn't so convinced.
The idea of cutting out my main source of pain and internal conflict seemed very attractive to me.
While Miller says routine fasting is not problematic for healthy people, long-term abstaining from food can lead to a massive drop in blood pressure and internal temperature. This can make you feel nauseous and eventually result in being confined to bed. "Your body is able to drawn on stored fuels, such as body fat to conserve energy for some time but in the short term, internal monitoring systems (such as blood glucose levels) recognize the persistent lack of food and start to shut down any non-essential processes to conserve energy for vital organ function.
"This leads to the drop in heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature, as well as little movement from the person due to excess fatigue from no 'fuel,'" he explains. "If you could prolong that further despite the incredible hunger, you would likely start to feel confused and could hallucinate, slip into unconsciousness, and there's a real risk of eventually passing away."
The belief that it is possible to survive on air alone can have deadly consequences. In 1999, a Scottish woman starved to death after her diary mentioned Jasmuheen's teachings, while Australian follower Lani Morris reportedly coughed up black liquid and passed away after going seven days without food and water. It was part of her 21-day initiation into breatharianism.
It's not hard to see why the restrictive diet has drawn comparisons to eating disorders—and it is not uncommon to hear of breatharian followers who use it to mask their pre-existing medical condition.
I ask Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, whether breatharianism qualifies as an eating disorder. "What typically defines an eating disorder is a fear of weight gain, an overvaluation on weight/shape, and a disturbance in body image," Rosenfeld replies. "Someone could be restricting food for other reasons—for example, a hunger strike for political reasons—but if the above criteria aren't met, we wouldn't classify it as anorexia, unless it seemed that the particular intake/plan was being used in the service of weight-related food restriction."
Dietitian Rick Miller, however, notes that while breatharianism doesn't qualify as an eating disorder, "the eating behaviour is clearly disordered."
This is all too familiar for Brynn Byrne, a 31-year-old yoga teacher from Texas who admits that "flirting" with breatharianism at 23 was a manifestation of her binge eating disorder. "Becoming a breatharian almost seemed like an easy solution. I fluctuated from feeling out of control with binge eating towards never wanting to touch, look at, taste, or smell food again," she said. "The idea of cutting out my main source of pain and internal conflict seemed very attractive to me."
Byrne says that she was aware being a breatharian would never work. At the time, however, it seemed "easy and less painful than the daily hell of trying to reign in my eating patterns." But the extreme demands of the diet proved too restrictive; the closest she came was adhering to a high reduced calorie intake for a few days.
While it may be easy to assume that simply eating after a stretch of starvation will be fine, Miller warns that breatharians can also be at risk of refeeding syndrome: "When people don't eat for a period of time and eat food, the depletion of certain electrolytes (such as magnesium, potassium and phosphate) in conjunction with a sudden increase in insulin levels from eating again can lead to cellular dysfunction, resulting in cardiac arrhythmia, convulsions, coma, and often needs immediate hospitalization. So not only is it dangerous to not eat, food should be reintroduced gradually and slowly."
For many, the pursuit of breatharianism continues to be a life-long ambition. But for Brynn, who has now overcome her eating disorder, the experience of eating is now sacred. As she puts it, there is nothing like the "simple and profound pleasure of enjoying food."