A recent talk show on a major network said that some scientists studying longevity believe humans can, through medical science, live to 125. The critical factors, the show host said, were diet, exercise and replacement of worn-out parts with new ones grown in the laboratory.
Apparently, they’d never heard of yogis and other spiritual masters living to 200 and beyond.
That is not to say all yogis and sages are long-lived; they clearly aren’t. Nor is it to say they have the longest average lifespan; there is no census of yogis and sages from which to draw such data. Nevertheless, as a class of people, certain individual yogis and sages have demonstrated extreme longevity which is directly attributable to their spiritual practices—and which is far beyond what conventional science recognizes as possible. (However, there are a few scientific researchers who speculate that medical science and technology may be able to extend the normal lifespan to 150 years or even to several hundred.)
Confirmed documentation is not available for the following cases, but taken as a group, they are highly suggestive of the possibility claimed in some sacred traditions; namely, that a person can attain a greatly extended lifespan with good health.
Cases of Extreme Longevity
An Indian yogi named Sri Govindananda Bharati lived to 137, dying in 1963; also known as the Shivapuri Baba, his life’s story is told by the British writer J. G. Bennett in The Long Pilgrimage. Another yogi named Shriman Tapasviji, who died in 1955, lived to 185 by rejuvenating his aged body three times through a little-known yogic regenerative process called kaya kalpa, an aspect of Ayurvedic medicine; that, too, is described (without great detail, however) in a book, Maharaj by T. S. Anantha Murthy. Author Daniel Goleman, formerly the social science writer for The New York Times, told me in the 1970s of a yogi in Brindaban, India, said to be at least 200 years old. His name was Devara Baba; I’ve heard that he died recently. In Kumbha Mela: The World’s Largest Act of Faith by Jack Hebner and David Osborn, Devara Baba is shown in two photographs and described as “a 250-year-old sage.” Rishi Singh Grewal, in Lives and Teachings of the Yogis of India tells of his 1937 meeting at Kedarnath, India, with the Captain Yogi, whose age was over 360. He was a captain in the army under the Moghul rule of India, as documented by historical records, Grewal states.
Interestingly, western medicine is discovering what yoga has known for millennia about health and diet. Among the latest “revolutionary” health regimes prescribed by physicians is Dr. Atkins’ Age-Defying Diet Revolution by Robert C. Atkins, M.D. In an interview with The Walden Book Report (January 2000), Dr. Atkins said: “The age-defying diet is a lifestyle, not a regimen. The typical adult on the program would eat plenty of low-carbohydrate fresh vegetables…and plenty of high-quality protein…with some fresh berries or melon for dessert. He or she would also have a cup or two of green tea a day. You don’t count calories on the age-defying diet—you avoid carbohydrates and look for nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits.” Welcome to the yogic lifestyle!
Beyond the Atkins diet is the CRON approach to diet. It seems to take the yogic approach and put it on a scientific basis. CRON stands for Calorie Restriction/Optimal Nutrition. The calorie restriction approach was pioneered by Dr. Roy Wolford in the 1980s and is one of the factors pointed to in the recent television program about longevity. It requires a person to eat twenty to thirty percent fewer calories per day than his or her average daily caloric intake, and to supplement the near-starvation diet with an array of nutritional supplements such as resveratrol, a derivative of grapes. Scientific studies of animals indicate that near-starvation levels of food intake cause survival mechanisms which are normally dormant to kick in. (For more information, see The Longevity Meme Newsletter, a free weekly email containing “news, opinions, and happenings for people interested in healthy life extension: making use of diet, lifestyle choices, technology, and proven medical advances to live healthy, longer lives.”
Quality, Not Quantity, of Years Is Primary
In spiritual traditions, however, mere accumulation of years is not the point of extraordinary life extension. Yoga and other sacred traditions aim at enlightenment and stepping off “the wheel of death and rebirth,” so additional years in the body are regarded as an opportunity for further spiritual practice and service to the world. Quality, not quantity, of years is primary.
Nevertheless, in the course of seeking total self-mastery, yogis and practitioners of esoteric disciplines in other sacred traditions have, over millennia, gained astounding knowledge about the operation of the body and how to prolong life. In fact, nearly all our knowledge about higher human development comes from sacred traditions and hermetic schools which have developed disciplines and psychotechnologies for what is now in the West called transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology scientifically studies growth beyond ego to enlightenment, but its emphasis is on the mental or noetic aspects of the process. Paralleling that are changes in the body, including the brain and nervous system, which reflect mental changes; this aspect of higher human development of the body-mind is little known to Western science, even less studied, and does not have a name, so I propose the term “transpersonal physiology.”
Transpersonal physiological changes in the human body may occur spontaneously or be deliberately induced. They are said to involve subtle energies which are presently unknown to mainstream science but which have been described by esoteric science. The energy or energies are known by many names: chi or qi (Taoism and Confucianism), ki (Japanese), prana (Hindu), mana (Hawaiian/Polynesian), baraka (Sufism), yesod (Kabbalism), orenda (Iroquois), megbe (Ituri pygmies). In Christianity, it is called the Holy Spirit (see “The Paranormal in Judeo-Christianity” in my book The Meeting of Science and Spirit). More than 100 names for this mysterious energy have been identified from various sources around the world. (See Appendix 1, “The X Energy: A Universal Phenomenon” of my 1977 Anchor/ Doubleday anthology Future Science: Life Energies and the Physics of Paranormal Phenomena.) These traditions claim to recognize and, in some cases, control a vital cosmic energy underlying paranormal phenomena, and mental and bodily functions. Broadly speaking, all these traditions refer to it as the “life energy.” This process of self-directed consciousness unfoldment is becoming known in the West as “the awakening of kundalini,” a phenomenon associated with higher stages of spiritual development.
Longevity in Other Sacred Traditions
In studying self-directed bodily changes and longevity, science should look not only at yoga, but also at Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, there is a wide variety of means and methods for extending life, and reports of great success with them. There are, for example, “longevity pills” reported by Dr. Glenn Mullin in Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition. Mullin, a Canadian-born Tibetan Buddhist, spent 12 years in the company of the Dalai Lama; during that time he observed a lama at Dharamsala, India, live on nothing but water and longevity pills (herbal-mineral compounds) for two years. At first the lama lost a slight amount of weight, but then his weight stabilized; at the end of his two-year fast, he had actually gained some weight, Mullin reports. The American-born Lama Surya Das, author of a collection of Tibetan wisdom tales entitled The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane, also includes some information on longevity. He told me privately that he has access to information on mineral substance fasts (longevity pills), breathing exercises, visualizations, mantras, prayers and longevity empowerments.
In Taoism, there is the concept of the diamond body for which Taoists strive; it is the final stage of enlightenment. The diamond body is a deathless vehicle for consciousness to operate in, freed of the limitations of mortal flesh. (It is the counterpart of the resurrection body or glorified body in Judeo-Christianity, the solar body of mystery schools, the adamantine body of yoga, the light body of Tibetan Buddhism, the the vajra body of tantrism, the radiant body of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, the Winged Disk or Flying Disk of pharaonic Egypt, and the fravashi or fravarti of Old Persia.) Taoists have a variety of means for life extension, and there are reports of some “immortals,” as they are called in Taoism, who live for hundreds of years. It is a fact attested to by an obituary in The New York Times for May 6, 1933, that a Chinese herbalist,Li-Ching Yun, lived to at least 197. He was probably 256 but the historical records didn’t exist to support the claim, so the more conservative age was reported. Li-Ching Yun claimed his longevity was the result of certain dietetic and herbal practices, as well as the daily practice of pa kua chang, a martial art and healing system.
A landmark book by Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body (Tarcher: New York, 1992) examines the potential we humans have for what he calls metanormal development. It can also be called self-directed evolution. Such is the aim and effect of spiritual disciplines and sacred traditions. Murphy describes the evidence for human transformative capacity, including bodily changes, which in their totality, he argues, offer insight into the next stage of human evolution.
Murphy in his early years was a student of Sri Aurobindo, the Indian yogi whose teaching, called Integral Yoga, pointed to the final stage of yoga as one in which, after attaining union with the Supermind, the yogi begins a structural reorganization of his body on the molecular level. He alters his cellular construction and transmutes his physiological functioning. This alchemical transmutation of the body leads to an immortal body.
Do some yogis and sages actually know how to do this? Are tales about yogis living hundreds of years in the Himalayas mere fantasy or—as I speculated in The Meeting of Science and Spirit—have they learned how to regenerate their organs, as some lower orders of the biological kingdom do, and how to obtain “food” (i.e., energy) directly from the sun via photosynthesis? There are intriguing hints of this as an intermediate stage of higher human development, prior to attaining the light body itself. Transpersonal physiology is a field of study deserving scientific attention.
The author is an internationally known writer and educator in the fields of consciousness research and higher human development. He was formerly Director of Education for The Institute of Noetic Sciences founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. His 15 books include The Meeting of Science and Spirit, Pole Shift and What Is Enlightenment?. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Omni, Esquire and Woman’s Day. His books have been translated into ten languages.