No one should have to write this. But thanks to a story that went viral at the end of last week, it should be emphatically stated that humans need food and water, and that they cannot be nourished by solar rays alone.
Well, of course the fuck not, you say.
But maybe you didn't catch the whopper of a piece in The Sun last week, profiling a California couple that practices Breatharianism—an extremely fringe philosophy based on a handful of yogic tenets that its adherents claim allows them to subsist on prana, or cosmic life force, which they absorb through air and sunlight.
Not exactly known for rigorous journalism, The Sun uncritically—and apparently without irony, considering the paper's name—published a story claiming that the couple, Akahi Salas and Camila Castillo, "have barely eaten for NINE YEARS" and that Camila has carried two healthy pregnancies to term while eating nothing more than "a bit of fruit or vegetable broth." The couple told the paper that they haven't eaten more than that—and sometimes nothing at all for months at a time—since 2008.
This is, of course, a very special breed of nonsense. Say what you will about the putative benefits of Goop's vaginal egg stones or the whole rotten "detox" industry; claiming to be able to survive without food or water goes well beyond the pale of New Age quackery.
The danger here is obvious and practically too stupid to state: People can't live without food. Intentionally abstaining from food is otherwise classified as an eating disorder, and every living creature knows its effects: death. Not a single medical professional on Earth would tell you otherwise.
Yet systems of belief keep cropping up that challenge established science, from concerned-yet-defiant anti-vaxxers to parents who insist on raising vegan children, even at the most critical points in their development. (The latest in a string of such cases came to a conclusion last week when two Belgian parents were convicted in the death of their seven-month-old child, whom they had raised on plant milks and who died with organs half the size they should have been.)
Before any anti-vaxxers @ me with "actually" about the purported dangers of routine vaccines, let me be clear: I don't agree with your choice, but I understand that you are making that choice because you want your child to live a long and healthy life. You put your faith in one data set, while I put my faith in another.
But Breatharianism has no data set, nothing in which to put one's faith, because there are no studies even to dispute. Rather, it is textbook bad faith. Breatharians know that food and water are essential for animal life on this planet—the evidence is, quite literally, all around us—but choose to believe that through deep introspection that they can transcend some of the most basic laws of nature, that they can transform their physiology to essentially rely on photosynthesis, all because someone on the internet told them so.
For a long time, that person has been Jasmuheen.
Born Ellen Greve, Jasmuheen is an Australian mortgage-broker-turned-New-Age-writer who has advocated Breatharianism since the mid-90s, most notably through her book Living on Light: The Source of Nourishment for the New Millennium. In it, Jasmuheen describes a 21-day program that will allow people to prepare their bodies to survive without food or water, gradually decreasing their intake of both over the course of three weeks.
Since its publication, at least five deaths have been linked to her program. The latest was in 2012, when a Swiss woman died of starvation after reading Jasmuheen's work. One of the most gruesome was the death of Lani Morris in 1999, who stuck with the 21-day program despite suffering a stroke and vomiting black liquid for days before she ultimately expired.
Regarding her death, Jasmuheen defiantly told journalists that Morris had "not [been] coming from a place of integrity and did not have the right motivation."
That same year, Australia's 60 Minutes decided to put Jasmuheen to the test by continuously monitoring her for several days. (At Jasmuheen's home, they found her refrigerator and cupboards stocked with food, but she claimed it was all for her boyfriend.) The producers challenged her to not eat or drink for a full week, putting her under surveillance and posting a guard to ensure she didn't cheat. When Jasmuheen began showing signs of dehydration after two days, the Breatharian guru claimed it was due to the pollution in the air around the hotel in which she was being housed. "Seventy percent of my nutrients come from fresh air!" she complained.
When the program's producers moved her to a more bucolic setting, she fared no better. After four days, Jasmuheen appeared gaunt and her eyes sunken, with her pulse double that of when she had started the test. Diagnosing her with extreme dehydration, a doctor concluded that the test was too dangerous to continue, as she would likely damage her kidneys or worse.
Predictably, Jasmuheen has since claimed that the footage was manipulated, but has yet to present empirical evidence that any animal body, human or otherwise, can survive through pranic nourishment alone. She has stated that her body manufactures all of its own nutrients, which even plants can't do—they have roots, you know.
Jasmuheen isn't alone, nor the first, to advocate Breatharianism. She was preceded by a spiritual guru named Wiley Brooks, who claimed he hadn't eaten in 19 years. He was eventually busted in 1983 by journalists who caught him with a chicken pot pie and Twinkies outside a 7-11.
For both Brooks and Jasmuheen, the Breatharian project isn't simply one of selfless evangelism—it's a full-time source of income. Brooks charged followers $500 for training sessions (in today's dollars, that's around $1,200). Jasmuheen has sold books, tapes, and videos online, as well as hosting retreats around the world that cost upwards of $1,500.
And it should come as no surprise—though it isn't mentioned in the Sun article—that Akahi Salas and Camila Castillo also make a living from their Breatharian lifestyle. Like his predecessors, Salas sells books and MP3s instructing his disciples in the ways of not-eating, through what he calls his "Eight-Day Process," the whole package of which can be yours for a mere $500. Following Jasmuheen's example, he and Castillo also host retreats around the world, currently priced up to $1,700. Although they claim to have gone for months and years at a time without food, Salas and Castillo's retreats involve only a three-day "water fast" (preceded by days of drinking fruit juice), which may be unhealthy, but not necessarily deadly.
It's also worth noting that Jasmuheen claims that "all the money from our seminars as well as the sale of the my art [sic] funds the Embassy of Peace projects," though the Embassy of Peace appears to function as nothing less than a clearinghouse for the Jasmuheen brand, hawking books, events, and live conferencing (for $22 per month).
All of this raises the question: Why charge money to teach people to not eat food? If pranic nourishment were, indeed, a thing, it would be the single-greatest achievement in the history of human evolution. Why isn't Jasmuheen working for the United Nations and spreading her techniques to starving communities in the Sudan, in Comoros, in Yemen? Why isn't she partnering with governments to repurpose millions of acres of farmland to set up fields of solar panels and wind turbines, allowing the human race to become food- and energy-independent? Do families facing famine in Somalia "not have the right motivation," as Jasmuheen said of Lani Morris? Why should they starve while individuals who can afford thousand-dollar navel-gazing seminars are privileged to learn to live on light alone? What kind of spiritual counselor could reconcile that?
There lies the incredible selfishness—really, the astounding humanocentric egotism—inherent in Breatharianism: the idea that a small group of enlightened people can succeed where the rest of the animal kingdom cannot, that Breatharian-trained humans are somehow better than the natural world, from whose cosmic energy they desire to feed.
People who are predisposed to believe Jasmuheen and her ilk will undoubtedly dismiss these charges as uninformed; that Breatharians who claim to subsist without food or water for months are living proof that the practice works.
And if you have evidence to suggest otherwise, I'm more than happy to hear it. You can find me by the buffet.