Eating Light

P.A. Straubinger’s attempt to solve the mystery of surviving without nutrition

On The Town | Sarah Rabl | October 2010

The tiny Kinosaal in the Apollo Cinema in Vienna’s 6th District would become this evening’s host for P.A Straubinger’s debut film "Am Anfang war das Licht," an Austrian documentary on the mysticism of light nutrition. Munching our popcorn, we soon felt the  gnawing of conscience; all those people we were about to see, living next to nothing…

Glancing over the mixed audience, it was a somewhat older crowd, academics perhaps, some students, and some implacable business types – not the young innocents who leave a trail of popcorn hoping in vain to find there way back from the doom that awaits. This film was about people who don’t eat; would they too need to leave markers to make their way back to life?

The video wall – 2 times 3,5 meters – triggered giggles from the cinephiles. ("Our TV at home is bigger than that," whispered a 30-something man in the row in front.)

The ads start and what? Only half the screen was filled, the other half – glaring bright green. Translation: it was not working. A house techie, notably embarrassed desperately tried to restart the system. The green strays disappear. "It’s part of the ‘light nutrition,’" quipped a woman from the back. This audience was ready for a good laugh at the expense of P.A. Straubinger’s documentary. It was hard to take seriously a film that claimed to unveil the secret of living on air.

The screen returned to bright green. "Dies ist das Lichtmahl" (this is the light nutrition meal) came a male voice somewhere in the back of the room, "voll mit Ameisen" (full of ants) those little black flickers running across the screen. "So the movie is on holiday," commented a middle-aged man next to me, who turned out to have some first-hand experience. All of a sudden, the movie starts. So to say, at the beginning, there was light.

"Menschen die Licht essen können, glauben sie das?," echoes Straubinger’s voice over the loud speaker. Hmmm. People who eat light… Do I believe that? Well, not yet.

The cloudy sky on the screen soon reveals that we are flying across our first stop over: Switzerland. The Swiss national hero Niklaus von Flüe was said to have lived without food for more than 20 years, an unbelievable fact, but one that has attracted small 21st century believers following in his footsteps.

One is Dieter Hochegger, who stopped feeding his body with calories in 1998. He plainly lives on liquid and believes his organism needs calories on a different level, the level of light. He regards human beings as "creatures of light."

"One does not need to eat if the human body absorbs nothing but light," says Hochegger.

The controversial Australian proponent of prana – the cosmic particles that make up light nutrition – Jasmuheen preaches that for the first seven days of a 21-day process, neither food nor liquid should be consumed. I nearly choked on the sip of water I had just swallowed. No water for seven days? Is that healthy?

Answer: Experts say no. In the field, this deprivation is seen as highly questionable and dangerous. They also admit they do not understand the process itself.

If nourishing the body through Prana worked "nobody would starve to death," critically remarks nutritionist and head of the Austrian Agency for Health and Nutrition (AGES). However, the story is not as simple as it seems. And still, I wonder how a human being could be capable of surviving such deprivation.

Straubinger was motivated by the same question. The producer and film critic (he has his own weekly show on the Austrian radio broadcaster Ö3) in co-operation with Helmut Grasser, sought to move away from the perception of light nutrition as esoteric and consider it as something legitimate. He investigated the issue for more than 10 years, and in the process gained new respect for those who have made this a way of life.

Axel Kiesling, a student, agreed to be the test case and started the 21-day light nutrition process according to Jashmuheen, and documenting it with a handy cam. During day 2 and 3, he described himself as "extremely tired, getting weaker and weaker and slowing metabolism." On day 4, it was no longer any fun. "Das macht keinen Spaß mehr," he complained, and he started to drink water again. Day 5 was decisive. He quit.

Nourishing their body through Prana, a German Lichtnahrungs community managed to abstain the earthly food desire and "be free." One participant reported to have managed twice to live without food for three months. Another woman stated that she had the "feeling she was dying after three to four days" but it was also a feeling of "having faith." All nine participants except one relapsed into the world of desire.

An alternatively dressed haggard silhouette appears on a green Austrian meadow, showing his half-rotten teeth in a bright smile. Walter "Omsa" Rohrmoser from Saalfelden in Salzburg has not felt any hunger for the past seven years.

"I don’t have to be home by 12 in order to eat, and I don’t have to spend 300 Euros per month on food," he babbles enthusiastically, getting lost in stories. "Wos wor die Frog?" – What was the question again? Back on track, he comments that "human beings are afraid of everything that is inexplicable."

Me for one, I think, as I take another mouthful of my deliciously salted popcorn, followed by another sip of water.

The story gets more complex. Michael Werner, a pharmaceutical employee and a "man of science" claims to have been living without food since 2001. He tries to distance himself from the esoteric side of the story, however. He insisted on running a 10-days medical screening under full observation, however, under the condition that the results would be released within three months after the end of the test. As of today, four years later, this has not happened. A second study conducted at the University of Prague, only released upon intense pressure, described the observant as just being in a state of "fasting."

As a fan of conspiracy theories, I wonder. Why would the experts not release the full findings of their studies?

Straubinger then introduced the religious traditions of light nutrition, a long history in the art of Ayurveda, Jainism or in Taoism by reaching the status of bigu (to avoid food) through the Chi. Thus the various phenomena of light nutrition "developed independently of each other" and as parts of religious teachings. A state of not eating can only be reached through long practiced meditation, and not as an end in itself, said Straubinger in a later interview. And neither would it work as a form of diet. After a couple of days fasting, one apparently stops losing weight.

To live on prana, "it is not enough to plainly look at the sun, it needs to be absorbed by your body," says Hira Ratan Manek, meditation instructor who has not eaten since 1995.

The most plausible explanation is that meditation can, in fact, move mountains and give the human body an enormous flow of energy, one apparently reinforced by a highly scientific approach through quantum physics that is entirely over my head. Straubinger is no Carl Sagan.

As the lights slowly fade up again and the end credits roll down the screen, I am still at a loss as to the driving force behind this highly unusual phenomenon. Human beings do not "live off substances," said biophysicist Fritz Albert Popp towards the end of the film. "All that remains in side us is light quantums. Therefore it is theoretically possible to survive plainly through light."

Leaving the theatre, I was still mulling it all over; there was no completely satisfying answer to the question of light nutrition. The only one was, once again, some perhaps divine power in the universe, call it what you will.

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