Yoga diehards have long claimed that the practice can allay physical ailments, such as back pain and headaches, as well as improve mood and mental agility. But these perks may not represent the full reach of yoga's power, says parapsychology researcher Dean Radin in his new book, Supernormal: Science, Yoga and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities.
Before its recent popularization as an alternative physical and mental discipline, Radin writes, "The essential goal of yoga was to achieve states of insight that revealed the true nature of Reality." This rarefied plane of consciousness offers many spiritual rewards, some of which we're familiar with—deep focus, empathy, enlightenment—and some of which sound more like the paranormal weaponry of the X-Men. By clearing their minds of static and attachments, and perfecting bare focus and attention, Radin suggests, yogis of previous eras were able to transcend their intellectual and bodily confinements to commune with—and alter—the world around them. "After thousands of years of exploration, refinement, and discussion about [yoga] techniques, advanced yoga practitioners may have advanced far beyond what science is currently capable of confirming," Radin asserts.
Radin's investigation into the supernormal potential of yoga begins with a look at ancient yogic writings called the "Yoga Sutras," which date back as far as the second century B.C. and which "provide a taxonomy of supernormal mental powers"—called siddhis—"and a means of obtaining them." He then turns to the cutting-edge field of paranormal science and parapsychology, where researchers test the validity of these ancient claims through a range of studies and experiments. We take a look at the hard science behind four yogic superpowers Radin identifies.
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The "Yoga Sutras" name 25 siddhis, one of which is "knowledge of the meaning of sounds produced by all beings," or what Radin refers to as "clairaudience." Achieved by maintaining a meditative focus on the area behind the ear (a kind of trance state known as a "samyama"), clairaudience "may be interpreted as a form of clairvoyance, or telepathy that extends beyond human minds and includes animals, insects, and other species," Radin writes. In other words, yogis who attain clairaudience would be able to communicate with—or at least understand the messages of—living beings other than humans, leaving us to wonder if Dr. Dolittle was really just an esoteric yogi extraordinaire.
According to the "Yoga Sutras," performing samyama on the throat enables some yogis to liberate themselves from the need to eat and drink, a phenomenon known in Catholicism as "inedia" and, more generally, as "breatharianism." "The implication is that the human body can transmute ambient energy into nutrients," Radin writes, "and through the practice of cultivating this ability one can live comfortably for as long as one wishes without food." He points to the case of an Indian yogic ascetic named Prahlad Jani, who claims to have lived healthily without eating or drinking from the age 11 to the present (he is now in his 80s). Jani has participated in two medical tests in India—the first in 2003 and the second in 2010—in which he was observed to go without food or drink for as many as 14 days with "no drastic changes…in his physiological condition."
Just as a samyama focused on the ear can engender clairaudience, a samyama focused on another person's mind—as in the case of trying to send a message to another person's mind—can engender telepathy, according to the "Yoga Sutras." Radin points to a type of test called a "ganzfeld" experiment, in which "receivers" are deprived of sensory input (in Radin's example, they wear headphones that pump in pink noise and wear halved Ping Pong balls over their eyes) while "senders" attempt to mentally communicate a specific image. The receiver then reports any images that come to mind over the course of their sensory deprivation. Radin recounts a ganzfeld experiment that he and a team of researches conducted in 2010 in which the "sender" telepathically communicated an image of the pyramids at Giza. The "receiver," in turn, reported images of something "tall," "monolithic" and of a "rough texture." Radin classifies this experiment as a "hit."
According to Radin, "some of the siddhis in the 'Yoga Sutras' are described as interactions between mind and matter." He points to an experiment in which subjects were seemingly able to influence the physical body of another person through deep meditative focus. In this "Love Study," Radin and his colleagues tested 36 adult couples, one of whom was healthy and one of whom was undergoing cancer treatment, to see if focused, channeled affection could measurably influence the physical body of another person. The sender (the healthy participant) sat in a remote chamber watching an intermittently played video of their partner, while researchers measured the skin conductivity of the receiver (the ill participant). Radin reports (with graphs showing results) how the ill patients' skin consistently displayed markedly higher rates of conductivity after the healthy patient had viewed a video of them. Radin argues that this constitutes evidence that a purely mental faculty—in this case, love—is able to influence material reality.