Report on Dr. William Bushell’s Research Trip to Kumbha Mela 2001

Report on Dr. William Bushell’s Research
Trip to Kumbha Mela 2001

Sponsored by The Infinity Foundation

by William C Bushell, PhD
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This report covers the author’s brief research trip to the (January-February 2001) Kumbha Mela Festival in Allahabad, India, the purpose of which was to initiate a larger, on-going research program on yoga. This trip has proved to be very successful, accomplishing the goals set out in the proposal:

  1. to inaugurate a formal collaborative research program with Mahayogi Pilot Baba and his ashram;
  2. to interview and establish on-going research relationships with long-term, advanced yoga practitioners who were uniquely gathered in one place at one time for the occasion of this major Indian religious festival;
  3. to witness and observe a demonstration of the bhugarbha (underground) samadhi practice, and to make arrangements for a variation of this practice to be performed in the clinical setting in the United States.

1. Preliminary arrangements had already been underway before the Kumbha Mela for the development of a research program on yoga practices, in the form of an on-going joint venture between Mahayogi Pilot Baba (Kapil Adwait) and the present author, William C Bushell, PhD. To this end, parcels of land in Delhi and the lower foothills of the Himalayas in the area of Nainital (UP) have been donated to Pilot Baba’s organization, the Mahayog Foundation, for the establishment of a research center. The Foundation has already begun to attract donors for the development of the center. One purpose of the meeting was to discuss the short-range and long-range plans for this project. A plan for studies of deep samadhi yoga meditation, in which the meditator is able to voluntarily reduce vital functions to a level of profound hypometabolism, was sketched out. This research would take place in both India and the US. The first installment of the research program has now been scheduled to begin between April and June 2001 at the Autonomic Physiology Laboratory of the Columbia-Cornell Medical Center in New York City, specific dates to be set. This demonstration will be performed by Pilot Baba himself.

2. Several yogis were interviewed during this trip, and follow-up arrangements were made for further research. Based on preliminary data, the interviews were focused on meditation and dietary practices. It was found, as expected, that yoga practitioners, like so many others, were followers of what is formally called in western nutritional science a dietary or caloric restriction (DR or CR) regimen. This ancient practice of Indian yogic science has been recently discovered in Western science only in the past several decades, and especially in the last several years has become a subject of enormous importance in Western nutritional science, gerontology, and medicine and physiology in general. The reason for this intensive focus is the fact that CR can significantly retard aging and extend the maximum life-span, and delay or prevent the onset of many diseases associated with aging, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, other major forms of neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other debilitating conditions (Weindruch and Walford 1998; Mattson 2000).

The essential CR regimen involves a reduction of caloric intake, by between one- and two- thirds, while maintaining a comprehensive, balanced nutritional composition: “undernutrition without malnutrition” (Weindruch and Walford 1988). Achievement of this goal is generally facilitated by utilization of nutritionally rich, balanced foods such as legumes, milk, and other kinds of nutrient-dense foods (Walford et al 1992). Such a regimen results in enhanced physiological functioning on a fundamental level, involving enhancement of the immune system, antioxidant defense systems, and, as most recently determined, enhancement of growth factor and stem cell activity (Weindruch and Walford 1988; Lass, Sohal, et al 1998; Mattson 2000).

While in Western medical science the discovery of the benefits of the CR regimen are currently flourishing as never before – and bringing with them the very tangible, realistic notion of dramatic life-span and health-span extension into Western scientific consciousness – this knowledge has been a central part of Indian yogic science for centuries, and probably millenia. The association of this type of dietary regimen with enhanced longevity has continued into modern times (eg, Tripathi 1978), and the yogis I interviewed at the Kumbha Mela followed a classic Indian form of CR based on 1-2 small meals a day consisting of legumes, milk, and augmented with fresh vegetables and fruit.

Two of the members of our research team are leading experts on CR and its comprehensive health-enhancing, brain-rejuvenating, longevity-promoting effects: Roy Walford, MD, of UCLA Medical Center, a pioneer in this field for over four decades, who is a Founding Board Member of the National Institutes on Aging and recent recipient of the distinguished Ipsen Award for Longevity Research (Paris, 1998); and Leonard Guarente, PhD, Novartis Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was recently profiled in the New York Times (September 26, 2000) as a leading figure in the emerging field of longevity biology.

3.The spectacle of the underground (bhugarbhasamadhi that I was privileged to witness at the Kumbha Mela camp of Mahayogi Pilot Baba was truly impressive. Performed by his student, Yog Mata Keiko Aikawa, a Japanese woman, the yogini was buried in an underground pit for 72 hours. She emerged on the afternoon of January 23rd in apparently excellent condition after having entered the pit, which was covered over with earth, on the afternoon of January 20th.

The full scientific understanding of this phenomenon awaits an appropriate investigation, which has in fact been scheduled for the spring of this year at the Columbia-Cornell Medical Center. The practice has been observed and written about for centuries by Indians and Westerners, including physicians (eg, Honigberger 1852). An appropriate scientific consideration of the practice must take into account the following: the practice has been done in the past under false pretenses, ie, in some cases a secret tunnel was dug which allowed the performer to escape the underground enclosure. Instances of such deception have been recorded (see Tripathi 1978: 123-4; Siegel 1991: 170f). In addition, the underground enclosure can be constructed so that, in actuality, no special respiratory, metabolic, or other putative yogic abilities are necessary, other than the ability to tolerate the tedium and physical discomfort imposed by the demonstration (although this may not be designed with the intent to deceive). In such a case, the dimensions of the pit, in conjunction with air seepage through the soil, allows for enough oxygen to make survival possible without such reputed yogic abilities.

However, these considerations do not fully explain the bhugarbha samadhi practice, as several previous preliminary clinical investigations, including by members of our own research team, have shown that dramatic voluntary control over respiration and metabolism may in fact be involved. In these several studies, the yogis agreed to perform the samadhi under controlled conditions while being monitored physiologically (Anand, Chhina, & Singh 1961; Heller, Elsner, and Rao 1987; and see also Benson et al 1990, who studied a similar practice in Tibetan yogis). In these several cases, the yogis demonstrated an unprecedented voluntarily-induced state of profound hypometabolism, ranging from 40-64% below resting baseline. Such states are generally only encountered in profoundly hypothermic individuals close to death.

Furthermore, Mahayogi Pilot Baba has purportedly demonstrated the more extreme variation of this practice, the underwater or jala samadhi, for four days (see for example, CNN World News, November 5, 1992). If such a feat proves to be possible under controlled conditions – as is soon to be tested – this indeed would constitute a revolution in Western physiological science. Such a feat would require, among a number of critical adaptations, the survival of extended respiratory suspension and circulatory arrest. Although human survival of circulatory arrest for briefer durations has been conclusively documented – in, for example, cases of medically induced hypothermia for surgery and cold-water near-drownings – the voluntary induction and survival of such a phenomenon is scientifically unprecedented. (See Bushell, in preparation, for comprehensive review of this data and discussion of allegedly demonstrated heart-stopping by yoga practitioners. On the genetic relevance of hibernation for primates, including humans, see Andrews et al 1998, Srere et al 1992).

The study of this phenomenon, as mentioned, is scheduled to be conducted at the Autonomic Physiology Laboratory of the Columbia-Cornell Medical Center within the next several months. With the present author as Principle Investigator, the study has been designed by him and the above-mentioned researchers. HC Heller, Chairman of the Biology Department and Dean of Students at Stanford University, is an authority on mammalian hibernation, and R Elsner, formerly of the prestigious Scripps Research Institute, is one of the world’s leading experts on the physiology of diving mammals. The study of this phenomenon, far from merely representing an exotic, anomalous sideshow technique, actually represents part of the spectrum of enhanced physiological functioning that constitutes the true potential of human nature as understood empirically in the advanced yogic science of India.


Andrews MT et al, 1998. Low-temperature carbon utilization is regulated by novel gene activity in the heart of a hibernating mammal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95: 8392-7.

Heller HC, Elsner R, & Rao N, 1987. Voluntary hypometabolism in an Indian yogi, Journal of Thermal Biology 12(2): 171-3.

Honigberger JM, 1852. Thirty-five Years in the East. London.

Lass A, Sohal RS et al, 1998. Calorie restriction prevents age-associated accrual of oxidative damage to mouse skeletal muscle mitochondria, Free Radicals in Biology and Medicine 25(9): 1089-97.

Lin S-J, Defossez P-A, Guarente L, 2000. Requirement of NAD and SIR2 for life-span extension by calorie restriction in Saccaromyces cerevisiae, Science 289: 2126-8.

Mattson MP, 2000. Neuroprotective signaling in the aging brain, Brain Research 886(1-2): 47-53.

Siegel L, 1991. Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India. University of Chicago Press.

Srere HK et al, 1992. Central role for differential gene expression in mammalian hibernation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 89: 7119-23.

Tripathi BD, 1978. Sadhus of India. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Walford RL et al, 1992. The calorically restricted low-fat nutrient-dense diet in Biosphere 2 significantly lowers blood glucose, total leukocyte count, cholesterol, and blood pressure in humans, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 89: 11533-7.

Weindruch R & Walford RL, 1988. The Retardation of Aging and Disease By Dietary Restriction. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.