Evidence Against Breathlessness and Samadhi

Master yogi in meditation
Sri Yuktewsar, master yogi

No basis for yogi meditator’s claims of breathless and deathless states

First, let’s try to define what samadhi is, as that is often claimed to be the goal of breathlessness.

Samadhi is a Hindu and Buddhist yogic ideal of total meditative absorption. The concept of samadhi is imprecisely defined in the yoga texts and traditions. There’s many interpretations of samadhi. We can’t cover them all here.

In this post, we’re focusing primarily on Classical yoga’s definitions of four types of samadhi:

Four types of Samadhi

SavikalpaKalpa means time or aeon, savi means subject to. Savikalpa samadhi means attainment of altered states that are subject to time. In other words, the meditator is not beyond change nor is she beyond mortal existence in the phenomenal world.

NirvikalpaNir means without kalpa (time). So Nirvikalpa samadhi means timeless, changeless superconsciousness. In this state the meditator is supposedly beyond time, is immortal, and beyond the realms of the material world.

Watch two famous yogic masters demonstrate what they claim are superconscious “samadhi” states:

Paramahansa Yogananda in Samadhi

Sri Chinmoy: Samadhi Demonstration

What do you think after watching these master yogis “demonstrate” samadhi? Impressed?

MahasamadhiMaha means great. Mahasamadhi, the great samadhi, supposedly is when a master yogi practitioner forcefully abandons his body at a time of his own choosing, never to return. Some scholars have called this yogic suicide.1

Sri Yukteswar mahasamadhi, Paramahansa Yogananda propped his guru's corpse up for a funeral burial and a photo
Sri Yukteswar mahasamadhi, Paramahansa Yogananda propped his guru’s corpse up for a funeral burial and a photo

The fourth samadhi in Hinduism is a funerary monument, a tomb that houses the cremated ashes or shriveled corpse of a royal person or a yogi. In other words, this type of samadhi is actually a crypt to honor a dead person.

Breathlessness is Deathlessness?

Famous yogi-guru, Paramahansa Yogananda said: “The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on earth, is intimately interwoven with breath. Breathlessness is deathlessness. Realizing this truth, the ancient rishis of India seized on the sole clue of the breath and developed a precise and rational science of breathlessness”.2

What was Yogananda’s method for attaining breathlessness and deathlessness? Kriya Yoga, was a ‘special’ dispensation that he taught his disciples to practice: pranayama, yogic breathing exercises. Pranayama is breath control practiced for the purpose of transforming breath into superconscious awareness, ultimately for the meditator to experience samadhi. 

Through the practice of yoga meditation the practitioner purportedly may experience breathlessness and attain samadhi. Pranayama, the yogic mental and physical methods for regulating or observing the breath, is supposed to lead the practitioner, step-wise, to slowing and ultimately to stopping her breath. To stop breath is supposed to bring an altered state of consciousness: superconsciousness, samadhi, immortality, and unity or gnosis with Brahma or God.

What science actually says about breathlessness

The claims that yogis can stop their breath ought to be verifiable in a controlled laboratory.

  • What is the scientific evidence that yogis can stop breath? None. In fact, it would be dangerous if they did.
  • I was not able to find any scientifically verified examples of meditators who can stop their breath or heartbeat. Read my post Can Yogis Stop Their Heart?
  • Yogis or anyone who could demonstrate breathlessness could earn millions of dollars and promote their “worthy” causes if they would only demonstrate the truth of their supernatural claims.

Abraham Kovoor’s challenge: Anyone who can demonstrate supernatural or miraculous powers under fool-proof and fraud-proof conditions can get Rs 100,000 (Sri Lankan rupees).

JREF Million Dollar Challenge: $1,000,000 is available from the James Randi Education Foundation for anyone who can demonstrate breathlessness or other supernatural feats

Joana Coccarelli, nice breath, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Joana Coccarelli, nice breath, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

There is no scientific evidence for so-called yogic breathlessness. But there is plenty of evidence that proves beyond doubt that lack of oxygen to the brain causes hallucinations and brain damage.

So-called Yogic Breathlessness leads to brain damage, hallucinations, and death

Medical science clearly indicates that lack of oxygen to the brain, which occurs within minutes of oxygen deprivation, leads to brain damage, hallucinations, and even death.

How long can the brain be without oxygen before brain damage?

What is brain death?

Hypoxia: the medical condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply.

Symptoms of oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) includes:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Numbness, tingling of extremities
  • Severe cases of oxygen deprivation, include:
    • Confusion
    • Disorientation
    • Hallucinations
    • Behavioral change
    • Severe headaches
    • Reduced level of consciousness
    • Breathlessness.

Evidence against Breathlessness and Samadhi

Breathlessness, as touted by yogis, is highly improbable, if not dangerous. There is complete lack of any scientific evidence to substantiate yogic claims that one can live without breath for more than a few minutes without brain damage or death.

What we do know about breathlessness, from actual medical and scientific cases, is that oxygen deprivation to the brain causes lightheadedness, tingling sensations, and, in severe cases: lack of oxygen leads to hallucinations, brain damage, and death. Could the samadhi of yogi meditators be hallucinations from lack of oxygen to the brain?

Or, could samadhi be God in a Seizure: Epilepsy & Mysticism?

Readers are always welcome to send me any scientific evidence that might substantiate or challenge my findings here. Until there’s more convincing evidence, the claims that yogis go into samadhi and breathlessness may just be wishful, magical thinking. Like seeking a pot of gold at the end of rainbow, striving for samadhi and breathlessness seem to me at present to be only air-castles of human speculation. Our brains and universe is wonderful and beautiful enough without having to deprive them of oxygen.

Do you have any substantial evidence or arguments for or against breathlessness or samadhi?

Notes

1 David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis,  University of Chicago Press. 2009. Paperback. p114

2 Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Philosophical Library: New York. 1946. Chapter 49

39 comments

  1. David R

    In some mental illnesses like catatonic schizophrenia there are apparently breathless states. Sadhu Haridas who Yogananda mentioned often is an example of enforced breathlessness by pressing on glands after fasting and purging for 3 days, which is what Hamid Bey also did. He used to undergo burials in front of audiences, which is well documented. William James mentions in his Varieties of Religious Experiences that some mystics have been observed in states of breathlessness. Ramakrishna was often observed to be pulseless and breathless by doctors. Then there are cases of people who have drowned in very cold water and been revived without brain damage, not to mention the old cases of people being buried alive and reviving and people that have Near Death Experiences who return with no brain damage.

    As far as Yogananda’s claims of superconscious breathless Samadhi states and the fact there is no scientific evidence for it, there’s no doubt that it hasn’t been shown to occur in a laboratory. Why this is the case I don’t know. However, there are stories of Yogananda with eyewitnesses saying that he would lie down and the blood would withdraw from his body so he looked like a corpse, he wasn’t breathing and there was no heartbeat. They often got scared by this and began to panic thinking he had inadvertently killed himself, only to come back to a normal state within a few minutes. There is a similar story about some American soldier (who’s name I can’t recall) who was able to “die” at will in a similar way, which caused people (doctors included) to start to panic.

    As for the Yogananda Samadhi video, it is impossible to ascertain from an old video whether he went into a breathless and deathless state, especially when the film is so short.

    It could be that there are a few “weird” people with the ability to shut off their physiology in these ways. I certainly don’t believe it is a common thing! Think about that Dutch guy that can be immersed in ice because he can control the temperature of his body.

  2. SkepticMeditations

    @David R: Here’s my responses for you–

    1) The references for catatonic-type schizophrenia didn’t mention breathlessness. I couldn’t find during my research.

    2) I too have heard of or read many, many anecdotal stories of yogis going breathless and performing feats that defy nature.

    3) Classical Yogic texts and modern myths (including Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography) abound with stories of yogis being buried alive, living underwater, resurrecting from the dead, floating in air, walking on water. There’s many fantastic stories in Marvel Comic’s too: see Superman, Aquaman, Wolverine, Batman. We don’t think comic book character’s and their magical powers are actually real though, unless we are dreaming, hallucinating, or delusional.

    4) Where’s any verifiable, corroborated evidence outside of the yogic literature or traditions? I’m open to looking at any substantial medical claims or scientific studies of breathlessness.

    5) It’s a fact of medical science that breathlessness (cessation of breathing) leads to brain damage and death. Most who go breathless for any length of time, if they live, will be a “vegetable”. Does any evidence point to known ‘breathlessness’ cases (oxygen deprived brains) as proofs for samadhi-like states?

    6) Breathlessness (cessation of breathing entirely) is completely different from slowing the breathing, as one is still breathing.

    7) Slowing the breath is not breathlessness. Slowing the breath and holding the breath for many minutes is well-documented and not extraordinary. What would be extraordinary is if a yogi could stop breath or heartbeat entirely?

    8) Feel free to provide citations or references to any medically or scientifically verified cases of breathlessness (cessation of breathing).

    We humans are quite gullible. We’ll believe strange things, despite logic and evidence, if they make us feel good or support our wishful thinking. Classic confirmation bias.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Lawson ENglish

    I linked to 3 studies on “breath suspension” during Transcendental Meditation ages ago, and you claim that there is no research?

    Did you read what I wrote?

  4. SkepticMeditations

    @Lawson: Yes, I read all comments and appreciate any challenges or corrections.

    I read and re-read your comments (which you posted under your alias “saijanai”)
    Claims for Meditation’s Benefits Overreach
    and I almost linked to them for this newer post ‘Samadhi: Anatomy of Yogic Breathlessness’.

    So, why did I not reference them? The datas referenced in your citations and comments could not be determined to be clinically significant “breathlessness” (complete cessation of breathing).

    To take your citations seriously, the first step would be that the duration of time of “breathlessness/cessation” ought to be greater than average or normal persons ability to hold their breath, which apparently ranges from 20 seconds to 22 minutes. See various search results for how long can a person hold their breath

    If you are claiming your citations studies were conclusive of complete cessation of breathing for [x duration of minutes, hours, days]? Please specify.

    Thanks

  5. Lawson ENglish

    I’m starting to see the issue here..

    You are asking for proof of some kind of paranormal/supernatural thing. Leaving aside the philosophical issue of advaita vedanta and “super” natural, you should understand that all these studies are meant to do is examine what, if any, physiological correlates exist for the self-report of a period of “no mantra, no thought, no memory, no emotion, no desire, no intent, no perception-whatsoever, and yet the meditator is somehow not asleep.”

    The fact that they don’t violate the laws of physics or our understanding of biological creatures use oxygen, etc., doesn’t invalidate the studies, it just means they aren’t interesting to YOU because they aren’t evidence of the supernatural.

    Here’s Maharishi’s response to you (originally made to his students who were upset at the idea of using science to study spirituality, period):

    Every experience has its level of physiology, and so unbounded awareness has its own level of physiology which can be measured. Every aspect of life is integrated and connected with every other phase. When we talk of scientific measurements, it does not take away from the spiritual experience. We are not responsible for those times when spiritual experience was thought of as metaphysical. Everything is physical. Consciousness is the product of the functioning of the brain. Talking of scientific measurements is no damage to that wholeness of life which is present everywhere and which begins to be lived when the physiology is taking on a particular form. This is our understanding about spirituality: it is not on the level of faith –it is on the level of blood and bone and flesh and activity. It is measurable.

    Again:

    We are not responsible for those times when spiritual experience was thought of as metaphysical. Everything is physical. Consciousness is the product of the functioning of the brain.

    get over it. It’s preventing you from moving forward, I believe.

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @Lawson: Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure you really do understand why I don’t see the data you provided as scientifically meaningful. That’s OK. But if we are to discuss yogic claims of breathlessness (complete cessation of significant duration) then we need to agree on objective measures–something besides personal opinion or subjective experiences.

    To that end, I asked you “If you are claiming your citations studies were conclusive of complete cessation of breathing for [x duration of minutes, hours, days]? Please specify.”

    You didn’t respond to my question I asked above. It’s Ok if you don’t or can’t. Though, dancing around the edges with vague “spiritual” talk or quoting Maharishi Yogi only seems to betray the fact the claims of yogic “breathlessness” are not scientifically or practically significant.

    thanks

  7. Lawson ENglish

    @SkepticMeditations

    you said:

    To that end, I asked you “If you are claiming your citations studies were conclusive of complete cessation of breathing for [x duration of minutes, hours, days]? Please specify.”

    You didn’t respond to my question I asked above. It’s Ok if you don’t or can’t. Though, dancing around the edges with vague “spiritual” talk or quoting Maharishi Yogi only seems to betray the fact the claims of yogic “breathlessness” are not scientifically or practically significant.

    As I said, the studies were to see what, if any, physiological correlates there were for self-reports of periods of “pure consciousness” (which we TMers believe is “samadhi”).

    The findings were that there was simultaneously an abrupt:

    1) increase in frontal alpha EEG coherence;
    2) increase in skin resistance;
    3) decrease in heart rate;
    4) dramatic decrease or even apparent breath suspension.

    These return, equally abruptly, to normal meditation levels within a minute or so after the first change.

    As to their “scientific” or “practical” significance…

    “pure consciousness” is the theoretical end-point of rest during TM, so there is a theoretical significance. The existence of physical correlates of this state provides support for Maharishi’s claim that it is a physiological state of consciousness.

    The scientific significance is related to the above, because if samadhi” really IS a “major” state of consciousness as the Mandukya Upanishad claims, then this is a major scientific discovery.

    The practical significance is also related to the above, because the entire theory of how TM works is that the mind tends to wander “towards” levels of “deep rest” during TM and by theory, samadhi is the deepest level of rest during TM, so if theory is correct, any and all effects of TM should be related in some way to the characteristics of the pure consciousness state.

    Samadhi is also seen as the exact opposite of stress, and enlightenment is seen as the situation where the nervous system is sufficiently low-stress AND resilient that stresses never overwhelm one’s sense of self.

    This to has potential “scientific significance,” not to mention great potential value for Society. The US military and the Dept of Veterans Affairs are spending millions of dollars to research the effects of various kinds of meditation on PTSD, for example.

    The United Nations is also interested in this issue. IN Africa alone, as many as 100 million people have PTSD and so the UN and various private organizations that work with refugee populations in Africa are doing their own research on PTSD and TM.

    Depending on their findings, it is possible that diaster relief workers will be trained as TM teachers and teach TM to refugees as part of their regular duties. The David Lynch Foundation is projecting that by 2020, 3 million people will learn TM for free via prison guards, school teachers, relief workers, etc., trained as TM teachers and that by 2030, as many as 100 million people will have learned TM that way.

    You can’t get much more “practical” than that, IMHO.

  8. SkepticMeditations

    @Lawson: Thanks for summarizing the citations findings. I think this is similar conclusions to where we landed last time you and I discussed samadhi. This latest post though I’ve focused primarily on the marker of “breathlessness” (complete cessation of breathing). Famous yogis, such as Paramahansa Yogananda, claim that correct practice of yoga pranayama leads to breathlessness (complete cessation of breath and heartbeat). We ought to be able to measure in a lab any significant cessation of breath and heart rate.

    The TM studies appear to measure these but I’m not seeing “cessation” as a finding. Nevertheless, I’ll grant that the TM studies are interesting and warrant further independent investigation to test if they can be replicated in similar conditions.

    A concern I have of TMers or yoga devotees conducting “clinical” studies is potential for too much bias. Yogis want to prove their teachings are scientific. So they make the claims first and work backwards to prove their validity. Whereas, scientific method, when it works properly is hypotheses are tested, if the findings stand independent and peer scrutiny, they go on to be tested further. If independent studies fail to find the same results the hypothesis is revised or thrown out. We should be critical of studies that are not rigorously conducted multiple times and by independent clinicians (outside the faith-traditions of yoga, TM, or whatever meditation technique).

    Let me know if you find any new, concrete, verifiable data to take this discussion further. For now, I’m suspending my judgement and doubting there’s any truth to claims of scientifically meaningful “breathlessness” (cessation of breathing).

    Thank you

  9. Lawson ENglish

    “The TM studies appear to measure these but I’m not seeing “cessation” as a finding. Nevertheless, I’ll grant that the TM studies are interesting and warrant further independent investigation to test if they can be replicated in similar conditions.”

    What do you think the term “breath suspension” means in the title if not “cessation”?

    In fact, to the naked eye, or to less-sophisticated equipment, some TMers, while in the state of “pure consciousness,” often do appear to have “ceased breathing” -that is why the words “breath suspension” appear in the title of the studies. The story goes that the first time this happened in a laboratory setting, the lab tech, not being aware of any stories about such events, panicked and tried to provide CPR, much to the bemusement of the meditator.

    More sophisticated analysis using modern equipment that wouldn’t be available to Paramahansa Yogananda or his predecessors, shows that breathing doesn’t really cease, but just appears to.

    The point though, is not to prove (or disprove) that yogis can stop breathing, but to examine the physiological correlates of a specific mental state. The fact that, using the tools (eyeball) available at the time the legends first arose, meditators CAN seem to “stop breathing” during samadhi (as we TMers define it) only shows that the legends had some basis for their claims, not that they were “true” in any absolute sense. In fact, not everyone accepted that it was a complete cessation anyway. Maharishi’s own tradition, for example. Maharishi told researchers to hold a bit of down to the meditator’s nostril as his tradition holds that there’s never a complete cessation, but merely a “pouring of teh ‘inbreath’ into the ‘outbreath'” (a rapid fluctuation, which was also observed) which only appears to be a cessation.

    I’ll make it clear: samadhi, as TMers call it, DOES NOT bring about cessation of breathing, but to the naked eye, it might appear so. There’s no supernatural thing on. The best guess is that when the state begins, a side-effect is a slight reduction in sensitivity to CO2 in the blood that leads to a reduction of breath rate or even a cessation of the impulse to exhale, so the meditator simply makes a single, extremely slow inhalation that is so slow that it is imperceptible to the naked eye. That’s all. Thus far, no-one has been observed to be in this state more than 72 seconds, though that particular person was in the state more than 50% of her total meditation time.

    But again: no paranormal claims are being made. It is simply something that happens sometimes in some TMers and it is associated with the “no thought, no mantra, no perception, no nuttin'” self-report.

  10. SkepticMeditations

    @Lawson: Fair assessment. And, that specific duration of 72 seconds for suspension (apparent “cessation”) of breathing is a helpful physical measure of some meditative states.

    Appearances are frequently not what they “appear” to be. Naked eye observations and intuitions are often not reliable. The earth appears to be flat, but we know today that’s not the case after examining the shape of the earth using modern, scientific observations. Fair comments you’ve made above.

    thanks for your comments

  11. Nil

    Ppl i havnt thorough all comments but its not a rocket science just concentrate on your breath in and breath out for 5 minutes religiously u can achieve breathless ness state on day one

  12. SkepticMeditations

    Hey Nil: Do you have something you want us to take seriously about your claims of breathlessness?

    If you do, would you please reply and elaborate on your statement? Backing your conclusion with some evidence or a logical argument.

    If you do not reply, I’ll delete your comment since by itself does not contribute to the discussion but is either a bald assertion of religious belief or a joke.

    Thanks

  13. nil

    I am sorry that I can’t explain it with alpha gamma beta and some hi-fi scientific terms but this is something you have to experience your own, I can tell you my own experience when I ask my guru about the best way of meditation he gave short one line answer ” just concentrate on your breathing activity” that’s what I started doing and I noticed that my breathing process is getting shorter and shorter to the breathlessness state , I remember I was scared to death, when next day I told my experience to my guru he told me not to worry he said your body does breath all the time, when you reach breathlessness state your body breathing process reaches to the as shortest or minimum level that you can’t even feel at all, so you think your breathless but your not actually, in India we call it ‘samadhi’ level, this is a basic level of meditation and wonderful experience, btw this is as simple for me and may be illogical for you so delete my comment if you wish, Thank You.

  14. SkepticMeditations

    @nil: Thanks for clarifying here your first comment.

    My reply to your second comment–

    1) I have practiced watching the breath for hours at a time for decades;
    2) I have experienced so-called “breathless” states;
    3) When breath slows the body and mind slow down, one may experience peace, joy or hallucinations that are pleasant or frightening;
    4) Breath in no way demonstrates a higher state of supernatural consciousness. I’d argue it demonstrates the opposite, natural states available without need for meditation techniques or beliefs in yogic cosmology.

    “Samadhi” is an abstraction of human thinking. Samadhi may be some state beyond human comprehension (or a supernatural experience). But as is defined by yogis and meditators, Samadhi’s existence or non-existence is unfalsifiable. Meaning samadhi may or may not exist and for a person to believe in samadhi requires faith (unwarranted belief), obedience to a guru, or in the authority of ancient religious texts or yogic mythology.

    Is there something else you’d like to ask or to challenge me on relating to this or any other posts I’ve written? I learn from others, especially if they challenging my thinking or beliefs with persuasive argument or evidence.

    You may be interested in my post:
    Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness

  15. saijanai

    @SkepticMeditations

    “Samadhi” is an abstraction of human thinking. Samadhi may be some state beyond human comprehension (or a supernatural experience). But as is defined by yogis and meditators, Samadhi’s existence or non-existence is unfalsifiable. Meaning samadhi may or may not exist and for a person to believe in samadhi requires faith (unwarranted belief), obedience to a guru, or in the authority of ancient religious texts or yogic mythology.

    As I have said several times, the TM researchers asked people who were claiming to be in samadhi on a regular basis to press a button when they noticed samadhi during meditation and researchers documented consistent physical changes in their brain and nervous system that were associated with that button press.

    This doesn’t “prove” that samadhi exists, only that there are consistent physical measurements associated with the claim that they are (or have been) in the samadhi state.

    This is exactly the kind of process by which scientists study waking, dreaming and sleeping.

    I realize that you have an agenda to show that there cannot be any scientific research on these states, but if you assume that they are physiological states the same way that waking, dreaming and sleeping are, you can.

  16. SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Wrong. I don’t claim there cannot or should not be any scientific research into claims of samadhi or meditation or yogic states of consciousness. On the contrary, I encourage research. However, there’s just nothing, no evidence, that the studies thus far demonstrate anything extraordinary or special with meditation. Sleep, dreams, hallucinations, normal waking consciousness has enough mystery and data to keep us wondering. I don’t know why we need to worship special, altered states. But fine if you do. Just don’t expect me to be impressed with the data, until there is something impressive.

    Of course, if one is already predisposed to believe in samadhi or so-called mystical states of consciousness the studies prop up one’s beliefs there’s something there. I’d love it if there was something conclusive rather than simply reading more into what is in inclusive data.

  17. saijanai

    @SkepticMeditations

    You said that you have experienced breathless states…

    how do you know?

    The TM “breathless” state is where one is not aware of ANYTHING, including being breathless.

  18. SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai
    Good question.

    You asked, how do I know I have experienced breathless states?

    In my reply to nil, I was specifically replying to his definition of “breathlessness” as a slowing down of breath during meditation practice. That’s easy enough, no?

    Further, I have had experience in meditation when I was not aware of breath or anything else per se. When I “came back” to awareness I gasped for breath. While I was monk I was told by senior monks these experiences in meditation could be an indication of a breathless state. OR, I also heard from the President and Vice President’s of the Order gasping could be a sign that one is controlling breath, consciously or unconsciously. (SRF, the group cited above, initiates members into a meditation technique, Hong Sau, where the devotee is to watch their own breath until, ultimately-maybe-someday, one achieves the breathless state). Controlling breath in Hong Sau was a big no-no. Cessation was supposed to happen without conscious force.

    “Breathlessness” is an unfalsifiable claim (like unicorns or immortality) about a yogic myth of breathless states. Lack of oxygen, breathlessness, causes brain damage. Maybe that’s what the yogi’s who claim they have it have: brain damage or hallucinations they are in some divine realm!

    If in TM “breathless” state one is not aware of ANYTHING, then how does one claim that that state is even possible? There are no validated records of persons who don’t breathe that do not also have brain damage or in a vegetative state (which I guess some yogis voluntarily enter into the vegetable state 🙂

    The so-called breathless state appears to be just another false promise from the gurus and meditation groups. Keeps devotees coming back endlessly, donating and buying more, since there’s no real state of breathlessness except as an abstraction in the mind of wishful followers.

  19. saijanai

    If in TM “breathless” state one is not aware of ANYTHING, then how does one claim that that state is even possible? There are no validated records of persons who don’t breathe that do not also have brain damage or in a vegetative state (which I guess some yogis voluntarily enter into the vegetable state 🙂

    Paraphrasing the research…

    In the first study, the researchers asked people who reporting regular instances of what they considered to be “pure consciousness” to push a button, and they had 500+ button presses from the subjects to analyze. These appeared to be highly correlated with periods of apparent breath suspension.

    With the subject who most consistently pressed the button during TM, they used a much more sophisticated, sensitive measuring apparatus and found that the button presses apparently always appeared at the end of, or after, the period of breath suspension, implying that there was no awareness DURING the period, but only afterwards.

    In none of the studies did the subjects report respiratory distress (“gasping for air” as you suggest) and the detailed analysis in the first study showed that the breath suspension started on an inhale, and ended on an inhale, with no drastic increase in volume of air for the first post ‘suspension” inhale. This, the researchers took to mean that there was actually a slow inhale (apneusis) rather than an actual cessation of breathing (apnea). They also found that test subjects tended to show a slight increase in CO2 in the blood, and took that to mean that the subject had merely not felt an urge to exhale during the period, as happens when CO2 levels increase above the normal range.

    Researchers have identified 4 simultaneous physical correlates for the periods associated with the button press:

    1) an abrupt increase in skin resistance;
    2) a abrupt decrease in heart-rate (not necessarily dramatic, but definitely there);
    3) an abrupt increase in alpha1 EEG coherence in the frontal lobes;
    4) an abrupt decrease of breath-rate (or even apparent suspension of breathing)

    A new study is currently in the rewrite phase. Fred Travos that he took the initial EEG measures of a new batch of people reporting regular “pure consciousness” episodes, and marked them according to the criteria above and then passed the raw EEG data to the EEG specialiosts at the Key Institute in Switzerland, who have done an EEG microstate analysis of the raw data and then checked to see if anything unusual appeared during the periods that Fred marked. (See this website) for more info on microstates.

    Don’t know when that study will appear.

  20. saijanai

    I’m pretty sure I got the part about the breath suspension starting on an inhalation wrong. Was typing from memory. Will check the studies and try to be accurate, sorry.

  21. SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: The medical, scientific fact is that lack of oxygen, actual breathlessness, causes brain damage. The yogi promises of attaining breathlessness are broken.

    “Breathlessness” is an unfalsifiable claim (like samadhi or immortality). No yogi has demonstrated, in controlled settings.

    Breathlessness is another yogic myth that gets taught to many meditator followers.

  22. Brent

    Hi Scott…

    Great website. I’ve been reading for months.

    One thing that you have not discussed is about your years in the ashram and whether other monks or nuns claimed to be able to go into Samadhi.

    You’ve stated that gurus use the samadhi promise in order to acquire and retain devotees (students). I understand that your purpose here are is to ask for scientific evidence to support these claims, but I am more interested in the cultural reinforcement of the supposed “lie” of samadhi.

    I want to be clear here, due to others commenting on reports of samadhi, that Yogananda was very clear that the samadhi he was talking about was a blissful/ecstatic state that was so intense it couldn’t be described in words. This ecstatic aspect of samadhi was/is what I think most folks seem to be chasing. That anything short of this would make the practice of meditation almost a waste of time.

    So what exists in organizations, and specifically the ashram that you lived in, that allows for this perpetuation of a lie? Was there winking and nodding like “that guy/gal over there pops into ecstasy whenever he/she wants”, but the person being talked about doesn’t actually own up to it? Were there senior monks who just flat out lied about their results and did so justify their place in the organization? Could it also be that the novice meditator in an ashram buys into the notion of a future ecstatic state based on what seems to be their own apparent short term success of slowing/stoppage of breath in meditation?

    Also you have not mentioned pranayama. Pranayama increases the uptake of oxygen and allows for the short term stoppage or at least quiescence of breath. (some divers do this to stay under water longer.)

    So do these apparent successes in “breathless” states convince the meditator that there is something to the samadhi “lie” and if they just keep going…for a few years/decades… they will suddenly have ecstatic experiences?

    Thanks in advance for your insight.

    .

  23. Scott

    Hi Brent: Thanks for taking the time to share your comments with us on this website. It would help me to understand what you know about Hindu-yoga meditation. As there is much background beliefs that go into yoga meditation and each Hindu-inspired meditation group. I’ll assume you know a fair amount of background and I’ll do my best to reply to your questions.

    1) Yes, certain monks and nuns explicitly or implicitly claimed to have experienced “samadhi” or samadhi-like states. The rank and file monks and nuns were indoctrinated that the SRF gurus and many senior disciples were either avatars, saints, or spiritually-advanced–with yogic super-powers, siddhis.

    2) I don’t recall writing that samadhi is a “lie” (that may be your choice of word). My questions are what is samadhi actually? I’ve written several posts on samadhi, trying to find a clear definition. It’s like asking what is love. A thousand people have a thousand different answers to what is love. Same with samadhi proponents.

    3) Breathless or cessation of heart beat is easier than samadhi to try to identify. We can physically check for breath or heart beat. There’s no well documented cases of humans who stop heartbeat or breath for a superhuman amount of time. But there are many cases of charlatans who claim they can.

    4) Pranayama is the alleged method of attaining samadhi, breathless, heart-cessation and many supposed magical mystical yogic states. I am working on other posts that will discuss pranayama and many related topics and extraordinary claims of yogi meditators.

    Background beliefs enable followers/disciples to surrender and practice for years. Have you read my post Duped by Meditation?. There I outline the premises that I think are key to understanding the belief systems and manipulations between guru/disciple. Who can say when one has reached an “advanced” meditative state? Why the guru or someone who claims to “know”. But how do they know? Is it only by revelation or special walkie talkie with gods or spirits?

  24. Brent

    Thanks Scott. I realized after this post that your blog is quite extensive, so I have a more reading to do.
    One thing I would like to ask is if you think the meditative experience is progressive. I have been practicing SRF techniques off and on for 40 years. The thing that I find undeniable, especially in the last year, is that the “character”,of my meditations has changed. I’ve quit meditating a thousand times over the years thinking it was “bunk” only to take it up again. I kept coming back to it mostly due to a stressful career and the help it seemingly provided to mitigate that stress. It worked pretty well. Not great, but pretty well. But now I am kind of stuck. I had conveniently filed meditation under the “useful tool” category. Now I’m not so sure. Hence the interest in your Blog.

    The reason I chose the word “lie” as opposed to “myth” is that the samadhi experience seems to be provable. If it can’t be proven, it’s a lie. Take the example that Christians believe Christ rose from the dead. This is not provable so it is a belief.

    The other thing that strikes me as suspicious is whether the Guru is lying. The Guru knows whether he is telling the truth about Samadhi. He claims to experience it, so he knows that he is lying. I am suspicious about the Guru’s motivation, but is he is lying? Now we are getting into the world that maybe we can apply apologetics. From what I read of your blog it sounded like you rejected Christianity as unbelievable on the face of it. I turned to Christian apologetics when I was young to help me through reasoning through the truth of christianity.
    Probably the best known apologetist in recent times was C.S Lewis. He proposed to apply idea of Lord, Liar or Lunatic. to Jesus. His logic was that Jesus either lied about who he was, was insane or was who he said he was. In this case, if we think about Yogananda, he clearly described being able to go into samadhi at will. He said that samadhi was an ecstatic state one that is indescribably blissful. So here we appear to be stuck. Yogananda knew if we was lying given that he stated this time and time again. But he does not strike me as a liar. There’s no room in here to describe him as a good and moral teacher either. A misguided guy? No moral teacher would be such a blatant liar. Now how about mentally ill, a lunatic? This appears to be equally unlikely. So now I’m stuck with him telling the truth and therefore the samadhi story is true. Not a lie.

  25. Scott

    @Brent: Just because there is no verifiable evidence does not mean something is false, a lie, or delusion. Nor does it mean that it is therefore not one of these and therefore must be true: samadhi is real, a man rose from dead, or aliens impregnate cattle.

    The emotionally mature and intellectually honest approach is to say “I don’t know” and give no credence that something is “true” until proven. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. May I recommend you watch the Burden of Proof video on my Resources page?

    Was Yogananda lying about samadhi? I urge you to instead ask and examine what is “samadhi”? Not what the gurus or holy texts say it is…what does that word mean?

  26. Brent

    So Scott,
    Thanks much for your response. I used the word “lie” with regard to samadhi and maybe shouldn’t have given that we could probably agree that the people who report having experienced it are reporting back on a “subjective” definition. So long as the definition is somewhat fluid, then no progress can be made on the validity of the experience. (“I had Mexican food last night and WOW what a Samadhi!”)

    But, there is no proof of Yogananda’s assertions of “Saints” being able to levitate, walk on water, drink poison while remaining unharmed etc. These, along with the “breathless state”, can be examined and determined by science to prove with finality whether these are possible or not.

    The reality is that Yogananda’s assertions have NEVER been proven. Ever. Ever, Ever, Ever..
    So we have a “Holy Science” that cannot stand up to science! It cannot!
    There are 7.4 billion, that’s billion with a “b”, people on the planet, and not one single person can levitate, walk on water or drink poison and live. Not one. Not one. Not one.

    Or I could be wrong. Maybe there is one person, just one SRF member. Monastic, or otherwise, who can
    levitate, walk on water or drink poison and live.
    Yogananda is claimed to be one of the greatest yogis in generations. Yet not one of his followers can do what he claimed…or anyone else on the face of the planet for that matter.

    So help me understand why Yogananda’s assertions aren’t lies. He knew for a fact that these things were lies. He knew that he himself couldn’t do these things even though he was supposedly highly realized. (He was a Paramahansa!) He absolutely knew the answer to these questions… But he chose to lie.

    The problem is that Yogananda is just so darn lovable. I mean this sincerely. Based on his writings, I am persuaded to love him. I’ve loved him for many decades. I’ll probably love him forever. But when confronted with the truth, when confronted with facts, I have to say that he lied.

    But wait! Maybe there is hope yet! All we need is for SRF Mother Center to produce one single person. Yes that’s all! Just one! Who can prove that even one of these miracles is possible.

    Crickets …chirp …chirp….chirp

  27. Scott

    @Brent: Yes, excellent points. When we examine extraordinary claims, like the many Yogananda makes, we find nothing except the guru’s claims to back them up. To believe takes faith and a fantasy prone personality, which I think Yogananda had.

    Psychologists identified the traits of fantasy prone personalities as a disposition or personality trait in which a person experiences a lifelong extensive and deep involvement in fantasy. Read my Wikipedia link above for an overview of fantasy prone personality.

    Was Yogananda a liar? Did he “know” what he was telling people was false, lies? I don’t know. Yogananda may have had many reasons to believe they were true: his extraordinary claims of samadhi, visions, and gods propped up his ego that he was special, disciples followed him, paid and donated for his luxurious properties, cars, and trips. We find that “charismatic” leaders often are able to create obedient followers, especially when it comes to promises of heaven, salvation, or liberation from pain and suffering.

    Thanks

  28. Brent

    Scott,

    I normally reserve the word “wow” for special events. But I followed your link to “fantasy prone personality” and wow. The FPP traits… daydreaming, absorption and eidetic memory … look hauntingly suggestive of PY. And I get your thought that “lying” may not be the best description. He may have “believed” exactly what he was attesting to, Deluded in his own mental predisposition, he could have said what he believed to be true.
    Instead of someone who “woke up” from delusion, he could have been in the deepest of delusions.
    Wow.

  29. Brent

    Hi Scott,

    In reading prior discussion on the “breathless state”, I really think all the “fuzzy science” that people submit needs to end. We should just say a true scientific proof of breathlessness would be to take a TM or SRF practitioner, or any other type of yoga practitioner for that matter, the opportunity to prove their assertions. Just show us by:

    1) Doing whatever the meditative/yoga practice they prefer.
    2) Put and keep their head under water for 25 minutes

    (the current record is 22 minutes… see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqERqQj-ozc)

    Arguing about whether something like this is possible is endless due to the nuance of argument and “science” they think is relevant.

    If there is someone out there (and there surely must be based upon the indignation of some of your contributors) let them show up and with no external device or drugs, go into a meditative state and keep their head below water for 25 minutes.

    I’ll pay their airfare out to where I live and throw in a dinner at a restaurant of their choice.

    That’s my offer.

    This should be nothing for an accomplished TMer or SRFer. They have the best gurus and techniques in the world.

    (I should also state that I won’t be responsible for emergency services, hospitalization or funeral expenses.)

    Cheers

  30. Scott

    @Brent: Thanks for your comments. I plan to research more and write about FPP and Yogananda.

    I like your simple test of the yogic claim of breathlessness. Yes, under controlled conditions let the “breathless” saint or yogi hold their head under water for longer than 25 minutes. Slowing down of breath is not acceptable which everyone does when relaxed. The yogis, like Yogananada, claim utter and complete breathlessness.

    Simple enough to prove the claim of breathlessness. I suspect the objection will be something that I hear often, “you can’t test a saint or god on your own limited, human terms”. Yes, we humans should trust the malarky that the gurus feed our gullible brains.

  31. Brent

    Right. I thought that might be the objection. But if “saints” really cared about the rest of us, they would encourage us by showing us true scientific evidence of their claims.

    The “science” that’s been done so far does not prove anything extraordinary. This is your point. Music, warm baths, listening to the ocean all have effects on our cardiovascular and mental states. So do arguments with a significant other, final exams and getting yelled at by your boss.

    For the most part, the people that have been described as “saints” haven’t proven that they care about others…. I would submit Mother Theresa as an example of a “true saint”. She lived her life for others. People who strive to achieve higher states of consciousness are doing it for themselves. They not “selfless” but rather they are “selfish”.

    Yogananda said “Change yourself and you have done your part in changing the world”. Or is it more true that we should change the world, and in this selfless process, we will also be changed.
    Cheers…

  32. Scott

    @Brent: On the contrary, I don’t see so-called “saints” as particularly special people. The Albanian saint, Mother Teresa, was according to Christopher Hitchens “a spurious, despotic, and megalomaniacal operative of the wealthy who long opposed measures to end poverty, and fraternized, for financial gain, with tyrants and white-collar criminals throughout the world.” See The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Or, watch Mother Teresa: Hell’s Angel.

    Not sure you were serious about Mother Teresa as “true” saint. Perhaps the links above will show her saintliness could be debated. Personally, I don’t know what “true” saint means, other than some “sanctimonious” labels we give to certain individuals favored by our religion or values.

    Thanks

  33. VJ

    Hi
    If samadhi is a state of hallucination,wonder how everyone who attains NIRVIKALPA SAMADHI(highest state of samadhi or the end of everything),reporting same kind of experience that emptiness/oneness.A blissfull state.If this were hallucination,it should have been subjective experience.

  34. Scott

    @VJ: Hallucination is one possible explanation. An experience of emptiness or oneness or blissful state? Many people get these experiences. The question is what meaning are you giving to them? My latest post Re-Interpreting Mystical Experience discusses generally the physiological and psychological effects of mystical experience.

    Scott

  35. VJ

    When we talk about SAMADHI,first should be understood what’s the meaning of this word.SAMA means equanimity and DHI comes from BUDDHI literally means intellect.So here samadhi means “equanimity of intellect”.Yogananda when talked about samadhi,nowhere he mentioned that he was dead,he said his breath stopped.Breathlessness and stoppage of breathing are two different process.Many yogis during their deep state of silence(meditation),they are able to stop their breath until the point, outwardly can’t be sensed.But this doesn’t mean our EKG and ECG machine can’t pick up life beats in our brain.Yogananda never claimed he was breathlessness,he was dead but said that he able to stop breathing ( if you take this as breathlessness ,it’s a misunderstanding) for extended period of time.

    of intellec,it doesn’t mean that when u are in a state of samadhi you are breathlessness,you are lifeless,you are dead and so on.No scriptures say,samadhi is state of breathlessness,some or rather these billions of cells in our body needs some air tobe alife eventhough at microscopic level.More investigations and researh is needed on your side before coming to the conclusion that what claimed by Yogananda is wrong.Yogananda talked about stoppage of breathing outwardly because some yogis can go very deep silence until even doctors can’t pick up their heart beats with their tools in the office but of course EKG and ECG reading would show something happening there at deeper level. Nowhere Yogananda said he was dead,state.Can you

  36. Scott

    @VJ: The descriptions of samadhi you give are abstract concepts. I get that people, yogis included, can have various experiences–including “equanimity of intellect”, whatever that means. “Samadhi” and such are abstract concepts that are not meaningful except to those who interpret these concepts via secondhand gurus and so-called enlightened masters. How are we to know those concepts are true, real?

    Breath and heart either stops or it doesn’t. What happens when breath and heart stops for an extend period? Brain death begins, death sets in. So if some guru or disciple claims some yogi can fully stop breath or heart beat, how can we verify such claims are true in the terrestrial universe? How would we go about demonstrating these claims are true and someone could test them claims to demonstrate their truth or falsity?

  37. VJ

    I truly can’t catch what you are seeking?Are really doing serious scientific research on state of Breathlessness or Samadhi OR just having a dialogue and argument to show that you are knowledgeable​.Since you spent 14 years in monastry,am sure met so many experts in this line, could’ve scrutinized them to get the actual picture.Anywhere Scott,tell me honestly did you ever had any Samadhi experience?If yes,Can you share your experience?

  38. VJ

    When you truly experienced Samadhi no questions arise after that.If still doubt and have many questions puzzling you,meaning you haven’t arrived at SAMADHI yet.Your experience of samadhi and many people that claimed had the same experience(had good experiences,some fearful experiences,some blissful experiences and variety of experiences) actually they are hallucinating as you suspect.The real Samadhi experience is the end of all the suspicions and all the questions of the nature of our existence.When you arrive at Samadhi,this the beginning of enlightenment.There wouldn’t be anymore or anything after that but if you still have many doubts about the nature of your existence,please be realized you haven’t arrived yet.

  39. Scott

    @VJ: Try this: I experienced blue unicorns. No questions arise after that. If you doubt and have many questions puzzling you,you haven’t arrived at unity with unicorn.

    Sounds silly? But familiar, huh?

    Substitute “samadhi”, god, bigfoot, or any unprovable concept for unicorn above–that’s your argument.

    To me your argument is silly, nonsensical. Sounds like the ‘no true scotsman fallacy’ linked below. I no longer am interested in believing these fallacies or the many unsubstantiated claims and promises of “samadhi” and such by gurus and their robotic follower-devotees.

    Don’t bother commenting on this site unless you are willing to entertain that your ideas are nonsense–“samadhi” is nonsense and is not true in the terrestrial world as it is. Not a world that you wish it to be. But as it is. I know your guru-believing craziness. For decades, I too was a guru-follower. It took me lots of self-trust and self-awareness to let go of my crazy beliefs in the nonsense peddled by guru-authoritarians.

    No True Scotsman fallacy
    Spritiual experiences won’t prove the existence of gods
    Doubting religious experiences

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