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Re: Can you achieve immortality through yoga?


One approach to answering this question is to use the statistical evidence regarding the Maximum Reported Age at Death (MRAD): https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v538/n7624/full/nature19793.html#ref14.

The Nature paper says:

To approximate the absolute limit of human lifespan, we modelled the MRAD as a Poisson distribution; we found that the probability of an MRAD exceeding 125 in any given year is less than 1 in 10,000.

This means, that even if that probability held constant for all of human (genus Homo) history (roughly 3 million years), there may be no more than 300 instances of anyone exceeding an age of 125 (assuming that multiple instances of exceeding this age in one year cannot occur, which I think is a reasonable assumption in this case). What are the problems with this approach to answering this question? How can we address them?

Obviously, it would be better to rely on the biological evidence:

What could be the biological causes of this limit to human lifespan? The idea that ageing is a purposeful, programmed series of events that evolved under the direct force of natural selection to cause death has now been all but discredited. Instead, what appears to be a ‘natural limit’ is an inadvertent byproduct of fixed genetic programs for early life events, such as development, growth and reproduction. Limits to the duration of life could well be determined by a set of species-specific, longevity-assurance systems encoded in the genome that counteract these inadvertent byproducts, which are likely to include inherent imperfections in transferring genetic information into cellular function.

However, it is difficult to find an estimation of lifespan based on these factors, if such an estimation exists.

We could also say that an extraordinary claim that yoga would circumvent such factors requires extraordinary evidence, but while this might be a good basis to ignore the claim, it does not refute it.

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    MRAD is biased - by its very definition it would not include any "perfect yogi" that can live forever. Even if it did (maybe one got tired of living and let himself die) it's probably impossible to verify their age due to lack of records that go that far. – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:17
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    The claim begins by stating that there are people still alive from the Vedic age (which ended 2500 years ago). Does the fact that the oldest person ever mentioned outside of religious literature died at 146 count as refutation? – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 18:19
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    @ventsyv It wouldn't include someone who hadn't died yet, but the commentary linked in the question mentions someone who lived for hundreds of thousands of years and eventually died. Also, the OP specifically asks about living for 500 or 1000 years. We can at least argue against these instances with MRAD, right? – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:20
  • @CPerkins I don't think so. That person would not qualify as "perfect yogi" – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:20
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    @ventsyv And I agree about not being able to verify the age. I was going to post an answer along those lines but decided to start this discussion here. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:20
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I understand the claims to be these:

"Through a set of religious/supernatural practices, some yoga practitioners can live as long as they like. At least two have lived for 5000 years."

From that, we can ask several questions:

  1. Are those two people still alive, after being born thousands of years BCE?

  2. Has anyone used yoga to live for supernatural lengths of time?

  3. If the first two answers is no, is it possible for people to use yoga to live for supernatural lengths of time?

The first question is a legitimate question about the real world. That it has religious overtones doesn't mean it is out of scope. It is a case of overlapping magisteria.

The second question is a legitimate question about the real world.

The third question is NOT a legitimate question here, because it cannot be answered with empirical evidence. Pointing to scientific models of MRAD doesn't help, because that relies on natural methods, where this calls on supernatural methods.


Note: I avoided the phrase "immortal" because that is unfalsifiable, even after living for 5000 years. I am also very aware of the two cop-outs in the original claim wording - the No True Scotsman fallacy and that a yoga practitioner dying at aged 78 might still be explained away as living "as long as they liked".

  • This is a good point. Regardless of whether or not it is religious, we can clearly understand even the atheistic Hatha Yoga claim to be supernatural, as it is a dualistic philosophy. – called2voyage Jun 22 '17 at 0:28
  • For questions 1 and 2, it is impossible to prove the negative without answering question 3. For question 3, limiting it to natural methods actually produces an interesting question (albeit one we don't have the technology to answer yet). However, that question probably belongs on a science stack (biology?) rather than Skeptics SE. – Brilliand Jun 22 '17 at 21:27
  • I think immortality is fine and it's not an unprovable assertion, unless taken literally. Scientifically speaking there are such things as immortal strains of cells. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immortalised_cell_line – Sklivvz Jun 22 '17 at 23:27
  • @Sklivvz: I hear "immortality" and I do take it literally. I don't think the biological jargon uses of the word were likely intended by the original claimants. But I am not asserting my position is right - just that the conflict was my motivation for avoiding the term. – Oddthinking Jun 23 '17 at 7:26
  • @Oddthinking there's a subtle point here: one can be immortal in the sense of not being subject to the aging process, while still being mortal due to disease, accident, etc. In this case, which I find it's a plausible, not-jargon-y acception of the term, immortality can be proven. Stating one is always a mortal because we can't make an infinitely long experiment is probably not a valid logical argument. – Sklivvz Jun 23 '17 at 16:39
  • In the same way, it's possible (theoretically) to prove that a perpetual motion engine works, by explaining the way it works and measuring that its internal energy does not decrease while it outputs other energy. One could argue that it's not strictly proving it would work forever but that's not the point. – Sklivvz Jun 23 '17 at 16:43
  • @Sklivvz Current medicine can also bring people back from coma. Does that make the Biblical claim that Jesus came back to life on-topic here? The original claim is obviously a religious one, as the person making the claim uses the word "yogi" in a religious sense and context. In the context of the claim, the word "yoga" is not used in the Western meaning of an exercise system. – BKE Jan 25 '18 at 10:08
  • @BKE that claim would be valid here, in fact we have such a question (which is IIRC marked as a duplicated of "did jesus live" because that question already contains all the known jesus evidence, which is scant). – Sklivvz Jan 25 '18 at 17:36
  • @Sklivvz really? I thought questions about Jesus as a historical figure would be valid, but religious claims about eg. resurrection would not be on topic. Am I wrong? Similarly, the claim about yogis is entirely religious. So would the question "is Jesus alive today" be valid on Skeptics SE (given a notable claim)? – BKE Jan 25 '18 at 18:26
  • I downvoted this because it confuses empiricism with science. This is — unfortunately — a very common confusion but it’s nevertheless wrong. For the same reason I also disagree that the third question should be off-topic here but this would indeed require a change in the site rules (which, I believe, were a mistake in this regard). – Konrad Rudolph Jan 29 '18 at 17:11
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All of the claims are obviously true.

"By controlling the breath, the perfect yogī can continue his life for as long as he likes."

To live forever, all you need to do is continue breathing. It is obvious. If someone is not able to do that, then they are obviously not perfect yogis.

Sometimes we hear from the Vedic literature that some personalities from the Vedic age, such as Vyāsadeva and Aśvatthāmā, are still living.

These stories are demonstrably part of Vedic literature, so it is true that we can hear these stories. Many, if not all other religions have stories about humans with supernatural powers, so it is not even a special claim in the domain of religion.

Seriously: The claim is obviously a religious one. The misunderstanding, resulting in lengthy discussions here, is because in the Western world, the word "yoga" has gained a different meaning, as a basically religion-less exercise system. However, in the context of the claim, "yoga" is a religious practice. The Vedas are religious texts:

Hindus consider the Vedas to be apauruṣeya, which means "not of a man, superhuman"[4] and "impersonal, authorless".

Therefore, the correct context for the claim is, that a religious person is claiming something based on their religious scriptures, which is off topic on Skeptics SE.

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As currently presented, this is inescapably a question about faith.

And according to the faq, that makes it off-topic here.

In more detail because people seem to disagree:

While it's possible to practice yoga non-religiously, the claim is entirely religious. The claim makes no assertion that any non-religious practitioners believe that non-religious yoga will grant this massive life extension.

The claim references a commentary on the Bhagavata Purana, which:

is a revered text in Vaishnavism, a Hindu tradition that reveres Vishnu

(according to Constance Jones and James Ryan (2007), Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Infobase, ISBN 978-0816054589, page 474).

The commentary is by Swami Prabhupada, who:

was a Gaudiya Vaishnava spiritual teacher (guru) and the founder preceptor (acharya) of the Hare Krishna Movement.

At the core of the support for the claim, we find this:

The explanation of this longevity is given here by the word yoga-siddha

Yoga Siddha is:

a spiritual path founded by Muktananda (1908–1982). The present spiritual head of the Siddha Yoga path is Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. A fundamental characteristic of the Siddha Yoga path is shaktipat-diksha, literally translated as “initiation by descent of divine power,”

This is exactly parallel to a hypothetical claim about a (historical) Jesus walking on water. We could assert that many people believe this, but all of my support for that would be based on religion.

It's off topic for this site.

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    If the question were just the title, I would agree. Immortality is generally assumed to be a matter of faith. However, the question goes on to ask about specific ages, and yoga is a specific practice, with health benefits discussed in modern science, which may be followed non-religiously. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:43
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    The question is hard and perhaps unanswerable, but that does not make it off-topic. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:45
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    I tend to agree with @CPerkins. I read the question very carefully and it appears to be circular logic. yoga-siddha is why you can live that long but the actual proof of perfection is that you can live forever. – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:47
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    @ventsyv Flaws in the logic behind the claim do not make the claim off-topic, and while they can help in dismissing the claim they do not refute it. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:48
  • @called2voyage but it makes it unanswerable. Nobody is perfect if they don't live forever, only a perfect person lives forever. To disprove you need to find a perfect yoga guru who has died, but he has died, therefore he wasn't perfect. Obviously this is theological argument. – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:52
  • @ventsyv We can dismiss such arguments against any answer that we might provide as fallacious, that doesn't prevent us from answering the core question. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:53
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    @called2voyage If the question cannot be answered, is it on topic here? I'd argue that it is not. – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 19:05
  • @CPerkins The meat of the question is potentially unanswerable but not definitively unanswerable, and the former is on topic here: skeptics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/3095/14622 – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 19:07
  • @CPerkins Ultimately, it is theoretically possible (though we may not have all the evidence today to show it), to scientifically demonstrate that the practice of yoga cannot correct for the biological limits on lifespan. Thus, the question is theoretically answerable. Of course, that assumes that some spiritual effects are not considered, but being a skeptical site we can dismiss those out of hand. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 19:10
  • @called2voyage You're right - I don't think my question is off-topic even if unanswerable. If I were ask the same question on a religious forum they would throw me out, so I posted it here :) – svh Jun 21 '17 at 19:17
  • @called2voyage I would say, to the contrary, that: we know that it is theoretically possible to become immortal (by some means, genetic engineering being the most reasonable-sounding), and the domain of yoga is ill-defined enough that it could be argued to include such things. The question is not asking whether anyone has actually done it. – Brilliand Jun 21 '17 at 20:00
  • @called2voyage It is literally unanswerable. Immortality means forever. No test will ever show that someone lived forever. And no believer will ever accept any death as proof that a "perfect Yogi" can live forever - they'll just pull the "no true Scotsman" and go on believing it's possible. This question is unanswerable. It's a religious question at its heart. – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 20:01
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    @CPerkins The question was always about 500 or 1000 years, but the title used immortality as an attention grabber, initially. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 20:05
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    @called2voyage referring to your note that it's possible to practice yoga non-religiously. I agree, but that doesn't make it a suitable claim. I have updated my answer to address it. – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 21:01
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    @called2voyage It totally is analogous. There's no support for this being a notable belief outside of religion. Also, Christianity has a long tradition that is not entirely Christian - in fact many elements are pre-Christian (Judaic, in fact). I'll see your comments, but until it's revised and supported to support secular belief in it, it's off-topic imo. – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 21:08
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I don't believe this is strongly answerable. If we assume that the "verified oldest people" are the actual oldest people (or at least close) then that raises the question of why there isn't anyone using yoga to live for hundreds of years, but it's a vague/weak enough claim that it's difficult to disprove completely. How does one differentiate between "It can't be done." and "No one currently living has the knack of it."? I dont' see anywhere in the claim the idea that this ability is anything other than quite rare, or that there's an intermediate step of "not good enough to make it to 500, but you might hit 150 or so". The claim seems to be a straightforward "If you reach this perfect state, lifespan limits are no longer a thign for you."

Worth noting that the evidence presented in the initial claim was in the form of statements of faith. "Sometimes we hear from the Vedic literature that some personalities from the Vedic age, such as Vyāsadeva and Aśvatthāmā, are still living. Here we understand that Maru is also still living. " I'm not convinced that there's a strong non-faith-based claim here to address. Is there any evidence that anyone holds this as a significant claim outside of a religious practice?

  • I agree that it doesn't appear to be strongly answerable, but I don't think we need to give a strong refutation. See my proposed answer: skeptics.meta.stackexchange.com/a/3994/14622 – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 20:32
  • As far as whether it is significant outside of religious practice Eliade explains that it was a popular belief not associated with a particular religious tradition. He calls it "magic" but in the anthropological sense that the people had expectations of a physical practice that in contemporary terms cannot be explained by science, not that the practice was non-physical to the people of the time. At some point there was a definite secular belief in a physical means of achieving immortality. Whether that is relevant today is another question. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 20:42
  • Of course, the waters here are muddied by the fact that a hodge-podge of Indian beliefs got lumped together as "Hinduism" in the modern era, which may make something sound like a religious belief when it is not. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 21:00
  • @called2voyage - this Eliade was writing in 1969 or so. Is there any credible support for the idea that a meaningful group of people believe this in a non-religious way today? There's a lot of stuff that people believed years ago that is not a fit topic for this site. – Ben Barden Jun 21 '17 at 21:26
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I'm thinking about posting an answer whose summary would be along these lines:

The current scientific approximate limit of human lifespan is 125 years. It is believed that this is a hard limit due to [known biological factors discussed above]. In the absence of any evidence of a mechanism by which yoga might correct those factors and the absence of any verifiable instances of an individual living longer than 122, it would be reasonable to assume that yoga cannot achieve this effect.

Would an answer like this be acceptable?

  • This seems to boil down to "General scientific consensus is that this is false. Therefore we assume that it is false." That's... something of a slippery slope. I think you'd be better off attacking the existence of verifiable claims - as all of the claims made appear to be that of longevity of people who lived long ago. The most verifiable is probably that of Maru - as the author of the primary claim only died in 1977, and seemed to think that Maru was alive at the time. – Ben Barden Jun 21 '17 at 20:41
  • @BenBarden Is there a way I can word it to avoid that perception? I did not intend for it to communicate that. Rather, I intended to communicate that we have no reason to believe the claim. 1. Because we know of no mechanism by which it could be true. and 2. Because, as you say, the supposed incidents attested are not reliable. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 20:46
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    I really think that the core of it is whether or not it's currently relegated to religious thought. If there was a notable current nonreligious following, then we could examine their actual claims, and we'd have something to respond to. All of the current claims that are available to respond to are articles of faith being presented by a (decades-dead) religious leader. – Ben Barden Jun 21 '17 at 21:29
  • @called2voyage "We have no reason to believe this claim" is a defensive position. Answers need to take a definite position. – Brilliand Jun 21 '17 at 23:11
  • I think you need to answer with specific evidence. The scientific consensus in this case proves nothing, it just sets a null hypothesis. In practice you can say "we don't know if this phenomenon is true, therefore we'll assume it isn't". It's technically correct but it's a generic non-answer. – Sklivvz Jun 22 '17 at 0:04
  • I disagree that science can be used to answer this. See my answer. – Oddthinking Jun 22 '17 at 0:26
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I suggest taking the following approach: Take a look at high level yoga masters and see if they live any longer than expected. If they don't, or if they do but not that much longer than most other people, then it can be argued that extrapolating from there, reaching 500 would not be possible (or extremely unlikely).

  • This is a good idea, but there are some confounding factors that need to be handled carefully (ethnicity, socioeconomic conditions, area lived in, etc.). Of course, it could be argued that to some extent this is what the yoga is to help correct. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:24
  • Yeah, you would have to control for those. Might be a good idea to look at long other long lived people and compare the yogi to them as it seems likely that someone who practices yoga, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, etc, etc would likely live longer than the average person. – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:29
  • Here is a very unscientific sanity check of the lifespan of yogi masters: 1. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - 90 2. K. Pattabhi Jois - 93 3. B. K. S. Iyengar - 95 – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:30
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    @ventsyv where are the ones from the Vedic age? Or if not 2500 years old, how about 200? – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 18:34
  • @ventsyv And things are already getting complicated, since Maharishi moved to the West in 1959. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:36
  • @ventsyv It is going to be hard to correct for the effects of fame. – called2voyage Jun 21 '17 at 18:37
  • @CPerkins Supposingly those are still alive :-). Also kind of difficult to based your argument on people who lived before the modern age. Even harder when they've been deified... – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:38
  • @ventsyv so how can such a claim be addressed? If it can't be proved or disproved, it's not suitable here. – user34418 Jun 21 '17 at 18:40
  • I don't know much about yoga. What are other famous yoga gurus? – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 18:40
  • "Take a look at high level yoga masters and see if they live any longer than expected." - Yes, that's the kind of answer I was hoping for, someone validate the 'yoga claims' with some real evidence. – svh Jun 21 '17 at 19:20
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    @GoldenMole In that case can you reward the question? Can you ask if "yoga increases life expectancy"? That would make it much easier to answer as we won't need to go into the weeds trying to disprove that once upon a time there might have been someone who lived extremely long time. – ventsyv Jun 21 '17 at 21:27
  • Ok, I made some edits, feel free to edit further to make the question on-topic. Thanks. – svh Jun 21 '17 at 23:00
  • I disagree that this is a legitimate approach - see my answer. – Oddthinking Jun 22 '17 at 0:25

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