Chapter 1: Appendix. Stopping the Heartbeat – Fact or Fiction

Paul Brunton was a British author and journalist who came to India with the view of recording his independent findings about the acclaimed yogis. A man endowed with a critical intellect, he traveled far and wide in order to understand the mystic phenomenon. He was neither credulous nor an avowed disbeliever. He searched impartially and recorded truthfully. His book ‘In Search of Secret India’ is a record of his findings where on the one hand he exposes charlatans, and on the other hand, he is struck with genuine awe and admiration with cases that are authentic, delving in the supernormal. The book mentioned is a fine document both because of his lucid style of writing as well as his impartial and non-sectarian approach to things mystical. Reproduced below is an extract of a strange and authentic phenomenon that defies traditional scientific logic.

Stopping the Heartbeat – Fact or Fiction

‘…After the celebrations of my visit are finally over, the old lady departs and we settle down to serious talk. I plunge anew into that matter of breathing which seems to play so important a part in Yoga, and which is wrapped in such secrecy. Brama regrets that he can show me no further exercises for the present, but he is willing to tell me a little more of his theories.

“Nature has measured our 21,600 breath-rhythms in every man, which he must use up daily and nightly from one sunrise till the next. Quick, noisy and tumultuous breathing exceeds this measure and therefore shortens one’s life. Slow, deep and quiet breathing economizes this allowance, and so lengthens life. Every breath which is saved goes to build up a great reserve, and out of this reserve a man can draw extra years for living. Yogis do not take so many breaths as other men; nor do they need to for — but, alas! How can I explain further without transgressing my oaths?”

This reserve of the Yogi tantalizes me. Is it possible that a knowledge which is hidden away with so much pains cannot have something of real worth in it? If that is really the case, then one can understand why these strange men cover up their tracks and conceal the treasure of their teachings in order to ward off the superficially curious, the mentally unready and perhaps the spiritually unworthy. Is it likely that I, too, may come within one of these latter classifications and eventually leave the country with little more than my trouble for reward?

But Brama is speaking again: “Have not our masters the keys to the powers of breath? They know how close is the connection between the blood and the breath; they understand how the mind, too, follows the path of the breath; and they have the secret of how it is possible to awaken awareness of the soul through workings of the breath. Shall I not say that breath is but the expression in this world of a subtler force, which is the real sustainer of the body? It is this force which hides in the vital organs, though it is unseeable. When it leaves the body the breathing stops in obedience and death is the result. But through the control of breath it is possible to get some control over this unseeable current. But though we bring our body under extreme control — even to the point of controlling the beats of the heart — do you think that our ancient sages had only the body and its powers in view when they first taught our system?”

Whatever I think about the ancient sages and their purpose, disappears in the intense curiosity which is suddenly aroused in my mind.

“You can control the working of your heart?” I exclaim in surprise.

“My self-acting organs, the heart, the stomach and the kidneys, have been brought to some degree of obedience,” he answers quietly, without a trace of boastfulness.

“How do you do that?”

“One gains the power by practicing certain combinations of posture, breathing and will-power exercises. Of course, they belong to the advanced degrees of Yoga. They are so difficult that few persons can ever do them. Through these practices I have conquered somewhat the muscles which work the heart; and through the heart muscles, I have been able to go on and conquer the other organs.”

“This is indeed extraordinary!”

“You think so? Place your hand upon my chest, just over the heart, and keep it there.” With that, Brama changes his position, takes up a curious posture, and closes his eyes.

I obey his command and then wait patiently to see what is going to happen. For some minutes, he remains as steady as a rock, and almost as motionless. Then the beating of his heart begins to diminish gradually. I am startled to feel it become slower and slower. A thrill of eerieness spreads over my nerves as I distinctly feel his heart completely stop its rhythmic functioning. The pause lasts for about seven anxious seconds.

I try to pretend that I am hallucinated, but my nervousness is such that I know the attempt is useless. As the organ returns to life from its seeming death, relief seizes me. The beats begin to quicken and normality is safely reached at length.

The Yogi does not emerge from his motionless self-absorption till some minutes later. He slowly opens his eyes and asks:

“Did you feel the heart stop?”

“Yes. Most distinctly.” I am certain that there was no hallucination about the feat. What other strange Yogi tricks can Brama play with his internal mechanism, I wonder?

As if in answer to my unspoken thought, Brama says: “It is nothing compared with what my master can achieve. Sever one of his arteries, and he is able to control the flow of blood; yes, even to stop it! I, too, have brought my blood under some measure of control, but I cannot do that.”

“Can you show me that control?”

He requests me to take his wrist and grip it where I can feel the flow of blood through his artery. I do so.

Within two or three minutes I become aware that the curious rhythm which beats under my thumb is lessening. Soon it comes to a definite halt. Brama has brought his pulse to a stop!

I anxiously await the resumption of circulation in his artery. A minute passes but nothing occurs. A second minute, during which I am acutely conscious of each second, likewise ticks itself away in my watch. The third minute is equally fruitless. Not until halfway through the fourth minute do I become conscious of a faint return to activity within the artery. The tension is relieved. Before long, the pulse beats at its normal rate.

“How strange!” I exclaim involuntarily.

“It is nothing.” He modestly replies.

“This seems to be a day of strange feats, so will you not show me another?”

Brama hesitates.

“Only one more,” he says at length, “and then you must be satisfied.”

He looks thoughtfully at the floor and then announces:

“I shall stop the breath!”

“But then you will surely die!” I exclaim nervously.

He laughs but ignores the remark.

“Now hold your hand flat under my nostrils.”

I obey him hesitantly. The warm caress of exhaled air touches and retouches the skin of my hand. Brama closes his eyes; his body becomes statuesque in its steadiness. He appears to fall into a kind of trance. I wait, continuing to hold the back of my hand immediately under his nose. He remains as still and as unresponsive as a graven idol. Very slowly, very evenly, the caress of his breath begins to diminish. Ultimately it completely ceases.

I watch his nostrils and lips; I examine his shoulders and chest; but in no single case can I discover any external evidence of respiration. I know that these tests are not final and wish to make a more exhaustive test, but how? My brain works rapidly.

There is no hand-mirror in the room but I find an excellent substitute in a small polished brass dish. I hold the dish under his nostrils for a while, and again in front of his lips. Its shining surface remains unmarred by any dullness or moisture.

It seems impossible to believe that in this quiet conventional house near a quiet conventional city, I have established contact with something significant, something that western science may one day be forced to recognize against its will. But the evidence is there, and it is indubitable. Yoga is really more than a worthless myth.

When Brama ultimately emerges from his trance-like condition, he seems a little tired.

“Are you satisfied?” he asks, with a fatigued smile.

“I am more than satisfied! But I am at a loss to understand in what way you can do it.”

“It is forbidden me to explain. The restraint of breath is a practice which is part of advanced Yoga.”

“But we have always been taught that man cannot live without breathing. Surely that is not a foolish idea?”

“It is not foolish; nevertheless it is not true. I can hold my breath for two hours, if I wish. Many times I have done that, but I am not yet dead, you see!” Brama smiles.

“I am puzzled. If you are not permitted to explain, perhaps you can throw a little light upon the theory behind your practices?”

“Very well. There is a lesson we can draw from watching certain animals, which is a favoured method of instruction with my master. An elephant breathes much more slowly than a monkey, yet it lives much longer. Some of the large serpents breathe far more slowly than a dog, yet they live far longer. Thus, creatures exist which show that slowness of breathing may possibly prolong age. If you can follow me so far, the next step will be easier for you to grasp. Now, in the Himalayas, there are bats which go into winter sleep. They hang suspended in the mountain caverns for weeks, yet they do not draw a single breath until they again awaken. The Himalayan bears, too, will sometimes sink into trance throughout the winter, their bodies apparently without life. In deep burrows of the Himalayas, when food cannot be found during the winter, there are hedgehogs which pass into sleep for some months, a sleep in which breathing is suspended. If these animals cease to breathe for a time, and yet live, why should not human beings be able to do the same?”

His statement of curious facts is interesting, but it is not so convincing as his demonstration. The common notion that breathing is an essential function in every condition of life is not to be thrown aside at a few minutes’ notice.

“We Westerners will always find it difficult to understand how life can continue in a body unless breathing continues also.”

“Life always continues,” he answers cryptically. “Death is but a habit of the body.”

“But surely you cannot mean that it may be possible to conquer death?” I enquire incredulously.

Brama looks at me in a strange manner.

“Why not?” There is a tense pause. His eyes search me, but they do it in a kindly way.

“Because there are possibilities in you, I shall tell you one of our old secrets. But I must first demand your agreement to one condition.”

“And that — ?”

“You shall not attempt to practise any breathing exercise as an experiment, except those which I may teach you later.”

“I agree.”

“Keep your word, then. Now you have hitherto believed that the complete stoppage of breathing brings death?”

“Yes.”

“Is it not reasonable to believe, also, that the complete holding of the breath within one’s body keeps life within us for so long as the breath is held, at least?”

“Well — ?”

“We claim no more than that. We say that an adept in breath control, who can completely retain his breath at will, thereby retains his life current. Do you grasp that?”

“I think so.”

“Imagine, now, an adept in Yoga who can keep the locked breath, not merely for a few minutes as a curiosity, but for weeks, for months and even for years. Since you admit that where there is breath there must be life, do you not see how the prospect of prolonged life opens up for man?”

I am dumb. How can I dismiss this assertion as preposterous? Yet how can I accept it? Does it not recall to memory the idle dreams of our European alchemists of medieval times, dreamers who sought an elixir of life, but who succumbed to the sickle of death one by one? But if Brama is not self-deceived, why should he seek to deceive me. He has not sought my company and he makes no effort to acquire disciples.’[1]

***

“Death is the question Nature puts continually to Life and her reminder to it that it has not yet found itself. If there were no siege of death, the creature would be bound forever in the form of an imperfect living. Pursued by death he awakens to the idea of perfect life and seeks out its means and its possibility.”

Sri Aurobindo

 

“…a fixed form was needed in order that the organised individual consciousness might have a stable support. And yet it is in the fixity of the form that made death inevitable. When the body has learned the art of constantly progressing towards an increasing perfection, we shall be well on the way to overcoming the inevitability of death.”  

The Mother


[1] Paul Brunton: In Search of Secret India.