Skeptics may feel pretty justified in their denial of paranormal powers. By definition, the supernatural flouts natural laws. From clairvoyance to telekinesis, these abilities have no place in the established order of what we know.
But nevertheless, there have been times when supernatural abilities have survived the scrutiny of the scientific method. While they still tend to elude scientific explanation, the evidence is sometimes so compelling that even the most ardent skeptics are given pause.
Here, then, are 10 mystics, yogis, holy men, and psychics whose paranormal powers have stupefied science.
10. The Gomchen of Lachen
The gomchen, or ‘great meditator’, of Lachen was an unlikely candidate for Western scrutiny. Tucked away at an altitude of 12,000 feet in a remote Himalayan cave near the border of Tibet, he rarely encountered anyone at all. But far-fetched rumors were common, attributing to the gomchen the power of flight and command over demons, among other things, and in turn sparking the interest of outsiders.
Among the first of these was the renowned French explorer Alexandra David-Néel, who made the perilous journey to meet the hermit in person. Specifically, she wanted to learn about Tibetan mysticism and ancient occult practices. Agreeing to spend three years with the gomchen, David-Néel embarked on a discipleship that involved training in tumo, or the “art of warming oneself without fire up in the snows.” Proficiency in this skill, she wrote, was measured by the number of wet sheets that novices could dry on their skin while spending the night outdoors.
9. Prahlad Jani
Claims of inedia, or the ability to live without food, are commonplace in India—especially within certain Jainist and Vaishnavist sects. Devraha Baba, for instance, a Yogi saint who died in 1990, was believed to have gone up to 700 years without solid food.
A more recent example is Prahlad Jani, a Gujarati hermit alleged to have had no food or water for more than 70 years. Unlike most holy men making such claims, Jani twice submitted to clinical research—for 10 days in 2003 and 15 days in 2010. Both studies took place under 24-hour surveillance at the Sterling Hospital of Ahmedabad and, according to researchers, in neither case did the subject eat food, drink water, or even pass urine or stool. Given the 2010 study was paid for by the Indian military’s Defense Research and Development Organisation, its results have drawn considerable interest worldwide.
8. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (and Co.)
Best remembered as the founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi professed to teach ‘yogic flying‘ as part of his TM-Sidhi program. This three-stage technique, he claimed, would allow the most advanced students to levitate as high as they wished before descending back to the ground. Unfortunately, all anyone really learned was how to hop up and down in the lotus position.
More compelling was the so-called ‘Maharishi Effect’. First observed in 1976, this phenomenon saw crime rates drop in areas where at least 1% of the population were engaged in TM. A 1993 study—one of many conducted—found a striking correlation between the practice of TM by 4,000 people in Washington, D.C. and a 23.3% decrease in the city’s violent crime rate. The likelihood of this occurring by chance was less than two in a billion.
Similar effects have been reported outside the realm of TM. When Paul Ekman—a renowned psychologist and expert on micro facial expressions—met the Dalai Lama, he experienced a “sense of goodness and a unique total body sensation” that he wasn’t able to explain. Somehow, this brief encounter also brought his lifelong struggle with anger to an immediate and permanent end.
7. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was ‘the father of modern yoga.’ The first to teach women the practice, he also helped to separate it from religion—ultimately laying the groundwork for the way that it’s taught today. Throughout his 101-year lifetime, he showed plenty of strange abilities as well. By halting cars with his hands and lifting weights with his teeth, he inspired a fresh enthusiasm for yoga right across India.
As a guest of the king of Mysore during the 1930s, Krishnamacharya gave his most famous demonstration of all. Monitored by a team of physicians, he abruptly stopped his heartbeat for longer than a minute before allowing it to resume—a skill he claims to have developed through pranayama, meditation, and a diet consisting of milk.
Skeptics dismiss his party trick as a favorite of phony holy men. By hiding lemons in their armpits, these charlatans apply pressure to cut off the blood to their wrist, thereby giving the illusion of having no pulse. But in Krishnamacharya’s case the physicians weren’t checking the wrists; they had stethoscopes right up to his chest. If the Yogi’s heart was beating, they should have been able to hear it.
6. Yogi Satyamurti
A more obscure—and altogether more perplexing—case of a Yogi stopping his heart was reported in 1973. For eight days, a research team in Udaipur confined their subject, Satyamurti, “a sparsely built man of about 60 years of age,” to an underground pit sealed at the top with cement. Their only way of monitoring the holy man was through ECG leads attached to his body, providing constant feedback on his heart rate. On the second day, as promised by the Yogi, the ECG flatlined. And it remained that way until the morning of the eighth day, shortly before Satyamurti was released.
The most obvious explanation, that he simply removed the leads, was immediately ruled out. If he had, the ECG would have registered an electrical disturbance. In fact, the team made every effort to remove the leads without causing such a disturbance, all to no avail. They also tested the equipment for faults and found none. For the Yogi, the answer was simple: he was in a state of samadhi, or union with godhead, throughout.
5. Joseph of Cupertino
An Italian mystic of the seventeenth century, Joseph of Cupertino, or the ‘Flying Friar’, was regularly seen hovering around churches and floating through trees. Drawing huge crowds, this phenomenon appeared to be an involuntary response to religious rapture, usually preceded by a sob or a shriek. On one occasion, while a surgeon was cauterizing his leg, Joseph is said to have entered a deep trance and risen several inches out of his chair. Apparently, a fly had also landed on his pupil, ignoring the surgeon’s attempts to wave it away.
On the surface, there seems very little reason to believe Joseph’s story. Levitation is a common enough trick and a favorite of street performers worldwide. But a number of details set this case apart. Not only was Joseph’s power confirmed by 150 cardinals, physicians, and inquisitors over a period of 35 years, but all of them agreed on seemingly trivial details—like candles not flickering as he passed. There was also no motivation in the seventeenth century for the clergy to endorse false miracles. In fact, the Church became relentless in its efforts to debunk Joseph, eager to spare themselves the embarrassment of potentially endorsing a fraud.
While nobody can say for certain whether Joseph really flew, the evidence was enough to satisfy the highest authority of his day. He was beatified in 1753 by Pope Benedict XIV—a man known for painstaking rigor and meticulous integrity when it came to verifying miracles.
4. Tadashi Kanzawa
Tadashi Kanzawa has a knack for sedating animals at a distance. By transmitting chi—the energy force known to martial arts—he claims to overcome them with ease. The species is unimportant; he’s demonstrated on elephants, otters, kangaroos, hopping mice, flocks of sheep, and even a Bengal tiger.
In front of experts on one occasion, Kanzawa made a small herd of bison lay down—a behavior rarely seen with humans nearby. He also knocked out a pen of alpacas, including an alpha female, in the middle of the day. According to their owner, this was extremely unusual. Writing on her blog more than a year later, the rancher went on to add that Kanzawa used chi to heal a sickly animal that wasn’t moving, eating, or responding to conventional treatment.
Although some of the shows he’s been featured on are pretty dubious to say the least, Kanzawa is something of an an expert in Japan, with several books to his name. Apparently, his skill came out of nowhere while he was sleeping, a feeling he describes as intense shocks that vibrated throughout his body.
3. John Chang
The Indonesian mystic John Chang (or Dynamo Jack, or the Magus of Java) is well known in neigong circles. Discovered by a film crew in the 1980s, he claimed to use chi as a means of healing people—directing it through his hands and into their bodies as a kind of electric shock. Distinguishing between yin and yang chi, he also appeared able to push and pull from a distance, stop air rifle pellets in his hand, and even set things on fire.
Several years after their first meeting, the film crew revisited Chang, this time with a team of skeptical doctors and physicists in tow. After a personal demonstration of his chi shocks, they scanned his entire body with a metal detector to look for hidden devices and, unsuccessfully, attempted to get a voltmeter reading. As Chang explained afterward, chi hadn’t registered because it isn’t a form of electricity. Ultimately, the team of researchers failed to produce any evidence of fraud.
2. Djuna Davitashvili
The CIA’s Stargate Project, which sought to weaponize remote viewing and telekinesis, turned up some interesting data on psychics. Many scientists from the project—such as Russell Targ and Edwin May—remain convinced that extrasensory perception is real.
Of those tested, the Russian faith healer Djuna Davitashvili was among the most successful. Her task was to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of someone in San Francisco, two hours into the future, from her own position in Moscow. She was correct every time. Another test subject was able to describe, in detail, the inside of a Soviet weapons factory, based solely on its geographical coordinates.
While the CIA has officially denounced the findings of the Stargate Project, calling them useless at best and fraudulent at worst, Davitashvili’s success is replicated elsewhere. And very often in remote viewing experiments, the odds against chance are several billion to one.
1. Swami Rama
Celebrity guru Swami Rama spent more time in the lab than anyone on this list. Under controlled conditions, he demonstrated precise mastery over his blood flow, body temperature, brain waves, and even the production of cysts. While showcasing these abilities at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, it was almost in passing that he claimed to be telekinetic as well.
Predictably, the Swami’s first demonstration of this feat—making a pencil on a string rotate by reciting a breathy mantra next to it—failed to impress anyone. But his subsequent attempts are harder to explain. The second time, not only were the Swami’s mouth and nostrils covered with a reinforced face mask, but he wrapped himself in a sheet to restrict the movement of his arms. Air vents were also covered and the subject was seated five feet away from the target: two knitting needles joined in a cross and mounted on an axle.
After reciting his mantra (which he forbade researchers from recording) Swami Rama uttered a shout, or ‘word of command’, and the cross rotated by 10 degrees. A little while later he repeated the process and, sure enough, the cross rotated by another 10 degrees. Although controversial, these baffling results continue to elude a logical explanation.