by Dean Radin: Classic yoga texts, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written about two thousand years ago…
tell us in matter- of-fact terms that if you sit quietly, pay close attention to your mind, and practice this diligently, then you will gain supernormal powers. These advanced capacities, known as siddhis, are not regarded as magical; they’re ordinary capacities that everyone possesses. We’re just too distracted most of the time to be able to access them reliably.
The sage Patanjali also tells us that these siddhis can be attained by ingesting certain drugs, through contemplation of sacred symbols, repetition of mantras, ascetic practices, or through a fortuitous birth.
In the yogic tradition, powers gained through use of mantras, amulets, or drugs are not regarded with as much respect, or considered to be as permanent, as those earned through dedicated meditative practice. The promise of these siddhi superpowers has little to do with traditional religious faith, divine intervention, or supernatural miracles. As Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace says,
“In Buddhism, these are not miracles in the sense of being supernatural events, any more than the discovery and amazing uses of lasers are miraculous— however they may appear to those ignorant of the nature and potentials of light. Such contemplatives claim to have realized the nature and potentials of consciousness far beyond anything known in contemporary science. What may appear supernatural to a scientist or a layperson may seem perfectly natural to an advanced contemplative, much as certain technological advances may appear miraculous to a contemplative.”
Yogic wisdom describes many variations of the siddhis. Today we’d associate the elementary siddhis with garden-variety psychic phenomena. They include telepathy (mind- to- mind communication); clairvoyance (gaining information about distant or hidden objects beyond the reach of the ordinary senses); precognition (clairvoyance through time), and psychokinesis (direct influence of matter by mind, also known as PK).
For most people, psychic abilities manifest spontaneously and are rarely under conscious control. The experiences tend to be sporadic and fragmentary, and the most dramatic cases occur mainly during periods of extreme motivation. By contrast, the siddhis are said to be highly reliable and under complete conscious control; as such they could be interpreted as exceedingly refined, well-cultivated forms of psychic phenomena.
The more advanced siddhis are said to include invisibility, levitation, invulnerability, and superstrength, abilities often associated with comic book superheroes. All these abilities are also described in one form or another in shamanism and in the mystical teachings of religions. In fact, most cultures throughout history have taken for granted that superpowers are real, albeit rare, and surveys today continue to show that the majority of the world’s population still firmly believes in one or more of these capacities.
Mainstream science is not so sure. Many scientists and scholars trained within the Western worldview regard such powers not as supernormal capacities of the human mind, but as superstitions used solely to promote religious faith.
Attaining The Siddhis
“The whole history of science shows us that whenever the educated and scientific men of any age have denied the facts of other investigators on a priori grounds of absurdity or impossibility, the deniers have always been wrong.”
— Alfred Russell Wallace
The Yoga Sutras provide a taxonomy of supernormal mental powers and a means of obtaining them. Today we would classify most of the siddhis as various forms of psychic, or psi, phenomena. Others might be called exceptionally precise means of controlling the mind- body relationship.
Samyama: Extraordinary Focus of the Mind
Patanjali writes that the siddhis are attained after mastery of the last three steps of the eightfold path: the ability to simultaneously sustain concentration, meditation, and samadhi at will. “Sustained” in this context means holding a highly focused, unwavering, deeply absorbed meditative state—as opposed to obsessive mental chattering— indefinitely, if one so wishes.
Considering that beginning meditators may be satisfied to hold an unwavering focus for ten seconds, being able to do this for fifteen minutes at a time may seem incredible; for hours without end is practically incomprehensible. But that’s the level of mental control said to be required to exercise and attain the siddhis on demand.
And that’s just the beginning. In the Vibhuti Pada, Book III of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes that samyama might seem special to the uninitiated, but it is rather crude compared to where you really want to go. A translation of Sutra III.8 is: “In comparison to the seedless and unbound goal of enlightenment, samyama is to be viewed as a coarse and external component.”In other words, walking on water is trivial compared to what you really want to achieve, a state called nirbija samadhi, or samadhi without attenuation.
At this point, to prevent our heads from exploding after trying to imagine the intense practice and skill required to attain these advanced siddhi states, let’s return to the comparatively simple practice of samyama. As we do so, we will simply assume that after thousands of years of exploration, refinement, and discussion about these techniques, advanced yoga practitioners may have advanced far beyond what science is currently capable of confirming, and we’ll leave it at that.
Depending on the nature of the object one is absorbed into during samyama, different siddhis are said to arise. This is not due to magical incantations, but a natural consequence of merging with the object of focus. For example, if one focuses on another person, in samyama one becomes the other person. The siddhi that arises is what we would call telepathy.
In the science fiction television series Star Trek, this practice was depicted as the Vulcan mind meld. Telepathy occurs in the mind meld (and in the siddhis) not because thoughts are transmitted from another person’s mind to yours, but because while in samyama your mind breaks through the illusion of separation that tricks you into believing that you and the other person are different. In deep states of the absorptive mind meld, whether yogic or Vulcan, holistic reality reigns.
You are no longer two people, but one and the same. The genius of Star Trek is that it is the dispassionate, hyper rational, deeply focused Vulcans who can achieve this state, and not the attention-deficit, emotionally uncontrolled humans.
As another example, in samyama one may focus on the processes of time, change, and transformation. The siddhi that arises is the simultaneous perception of the past, present, and the future. The idea that the present contains the past is common knowledge; we call this memory. The idea that the present is also influenced by the future may seem odd, but this quasi- teleological concept is accommodated within today’s physics. For example, in quantum theory the idea that the present is constrained by both the past and the future is respectable, but of greater importance, there is now experimental evidence supporting it, published in 2012 in the journal Nature Physics.
The originators of this concept are not mystics. They include physicist Yakir Aharonov, who was awarded the US National Medal of Science in 2010 and is regarded as one of the world’s leading quantum theorists. The future influencing the present might sound strange, but practically everything seems strange the moment we step outside of the everyday world and probe either the inner depths or the outer limits of reality. Likewise, the siddhis seem contrary to common sense only because they arise from depths of awareness that lie far beyond the common senses.
The 21 Siddhi Powers
Past, Present, and Future walk into a bar at the same time. It was tense.
Approximately twenty-five siddhis are listed in the third book of the Yoga Sutras. An exact number is difficult to pin down because the abilities may be interpreted in different ways, and there is some overlap.
But it is possible to view all the siddhis as variations on three basic classes:
1. EXCEPTIONAL mind- body control
2. CLAIRVOYANCE, the ability to gain knowledge unbound by the ordinary constraints of space or time and without the use of the ordinary senses; includes precognition and telepathy
3. PSYCHOKINESIS or mind- matter interaction, the ability of the mind to directly infl uence matter
Fifteen of the siddhis fall into the category of clairvoyance, four fi t into the category of psychokinesis, and six in mind- body control. The siddhis listed here are in the order in which they appear in the Yoga Sutras: PADA III. Sutra 16. (This will be abbreviated as III.16 in succeeding sutras.) Knowledge of the past, present, and the future, resulting from samyana on the nature of change. This is clairvoyance through time, commonly called precognition when the information obtained is from the future, or retrocognition if it is from the past (and is not simply memory).Siddhi III.17. Knowledge of the meaning of sounds produced by all beings, resulting from samyana on the “third ear,” or the concept of sound, words, or hearing. This may be interpreted as a form of clairvoyance, or telepathy that extends beyond human minds and includes animals, insects, and other species. More generally it is known as clairaudience.
Siddhi III.18. Knowledge of previous births and arising of future births, resulting from samyana on one’s latent or inherited tendencies. This is clairvoyance on an aspect of consciousness that does not arise from the body and is sustained after bodily death. A similar siddhi is described in Sadhana Pada II.39, translated as “When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.”17 III.19–20. Knowledge of minds, resulting from samyama on one’s own mind or another’s mind, both of which from a holistic perspective are part of the universal mind. We now call this telepathy.
Siddhi III.21. Disappearance of the body from view, as a result of looking at the body with the inner eye. This is sometimes translated as the power of invisibility, because the Sanskrit aphorism contains words suggesting a “suspension of the coarse or limited projection of the body.” But it may also be interpreted as the ability to perceive aspects of the body that are beyond the limited scope of the ordinary senses. In other words, we could interpret this as clairvoyance, or perhaps as psychokinesis.
Siddhi III.22. Foreknowledge of birth, harm, or death, resulting from samyama on sequences of events in one’s past and present. This again is a form of clairvoyance.
Siddhi III.23. Loving- kindness in all, resulting from samyama on friendliness, compassion, or sympathetic joy. This can be interpreted to mean that when one is imbued with joy, that state may induce similar feelings in others. This may be interpreted as an unintentional or field like form of psychokinesis.
Siddhi III.24. Extraordinary strength, resulting from samyama on the concept of physical strength (the aphorism specifically mentions the strength of an elephant, which was undoubtedly the strongest creature in Patanjali’s world), but it might also include mental, moral, or spiritual strength. This could be interpreted as an exceptional form of mindbody control or as a mind-matter interaction effect. Swami Satchidananda sums up this siddhi with the comment, “You can lighten yourself; you can make yourself heavy. It’s all achieved by samyama. Do it; try it. Nice things will happen”
Siddhi III.25. Knowledge at a distance, resulting from samyama on the “inner light,” which in Western esoteric terms is known as the “subtle body” or the “light body.” This siddhi includes knowledge of hidden objects, or clairvoyance.
Siddhi III.26. Knowledge of the outer universe, resulting from samyama on the solar principle, which could include the sun as a planetary body, or the concept of the solar plexus, one of the principal “subtle energy” centers or chakras in the human body. A more detailed translation of this siddhi would require a major diversion into esoteric yogic concepts where aspects of the human body, some physical and others more subtle, are mapped onto aspects of the cosmos. This arcane symbolism is outside the scope of the present book, so we may simply interpret this siddhi as clairvoyance of macroscopic objects and systems.
Siddhi III.27–28. Knowledge of the inner universe, resulting from samyama on the lunar or chandra principle, or the “pole star.” As with the previous siddhi, to avoid diverting our attention to esoteric lore that is not within the capacity of science to evaluate, we will interpret this as clairvoyance of microscopic objects and systems.
Siddhi III.29. Knowledge of the composition and coordination of bodily energies, through samyama on the navel chakra or manipura chakra. This siddhi may be interpreted as an exceptional mind- body connection, or as a self- healing ability.
Siddhi III.30. Liberation from hunger and thirst, through samyama on the throat.
This siddhi is known as inedia within the Catholic tradition, or more popularly as breatharianism (living on breath alone, without food, and in extreme cases, without water).
Siddhi III.31. Exceptional stability, balance, or health, through samyama on the kurma nadi, the root of the tongue. This siddhi refers to mind-body knowledge leading to exceptional health or self-healing.
Siddhi III.32–36. Vision of higher beings, knowledge of everything that is knowable, knowing of the origins of all things, knowledge of the true self, through samyama on the crown of the head, intuition, the spiritual heart, the self, or the nature of existence. These siddhis are forms of refined clairvoyance.
Siddhi III.37. Siddhis may appear to be supernormal, but they are normal. This is not a description of a siddhi, but rather a caution to avoid regarding or attaining the siddhis as unnatural or supernormal, as that could become a distraction to sustaining and deepening samadhi.
Siddhi III.38. Influencing others. This siddhi suggests that a highly realized yogi who is adept with the previously described siddhis can not only know about others, but also influence them. This is related to the concept of shaktipat, the ability to transmit spiritual energy to others through one’s gaze or presence. In laboratory jargon, this phenomenon is known as “distant mental interactions with living systems.” It may be interpreted as a sort of field effect due to the rarified mental state that the yogi embodies, which acts like a radiating beacon that influences everyone in the vicinity. This siddhi is also related to a sutra described in the second book of the Yoga Sutras, Sadhana Pada. The translation of Sutra II.35 reads: “In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.”
Siddhi III.39 and 42. Levitation, through samyama on the feeling of lightness.
This siddhi is said to allow the yogi to float, hover, fly, or walk on water. It could be interpreted as a highly advanced form of psychokinesis.
Siddhi III.40. Blazing radiance, through samyama on “inner fire,” or inner energy. This has been interpreted in several ways, as possession of exceptional charisma, as an exceptional digestive ability that would allow one to eat huge amounts of food or withstand toxic substances without harm, or as exceptional control of bodily energies. We will interpret it as an exceptional form of mind- body control.
Siddhi III.41. Clairaudience, through samyama on the area behind the ear. This siddhi allows one to hear the “conversations of the enlightened ones, the subtle mental conversations of others, the celestial music, and receive messages through the ether both awake or while asleep, as if they were spoken or whispered whether or not they exist through the medium of sound waves as such.” In other words, this is a refined form of clairvoyance or clairaudience.
Siddhi III.43. Freedom from bodily awareness and temporal attachments. This could be interpreted as a state of perception from out- of- the- body, or as a form of clairvoyance.
Siddhi III.44–45. Mastery over the elements, through samyama on the elements, enabling manipulation of matter, including the size, appearance, and condition of the body. Variations of these abilities include the fulfillment of any desire, or to create or destroy material manifestations; a highly refined version of psychokinesis.
Siddhi III.46. Perfection of the body. This could be interpreted as a melding of exceptional mind-body control combined with psychokinesis. It would manifest in extreme cases as indefinite life extension, as incorruption of the body after physical death, perhaps as the “rainbow body” in Tibetan tradition, in which the corpse does not decay but rather slowly fades away and turns into colored lights.
This list covers Patanjali’s classic siddhis; many other variations of these superpowers can be found in mystical texts from other traditions. They include bilocation (the ability to simultaneously appear in more than one location); the ability to move very fast or cover great distances in a short time; the ability to stay comfortably warm in extremely cold temperatures; the ability to suspend breathing or to hibernate indefinitely; the ability to bestow siddhis to others; the ability not to be harmed by fire; and the ability to change the weather.
Before we begin our scientific examination of the siddhis, it is noteworthy that Patanjali and others specifically highlighted the dangers of dwelling on the siddhis. Patanjali states in Sutra III.51 a warning that may be translated as:
Avoid invitations to display or identify with any accomplishments in yoga, including the siddhis, even if invited by a respected person, because this can reinforce one’s sense of separate self, leading to ego, pride, and arrogance, and this becomes an impediment toward further spiritual unfoldment. There are many ways that this trap can manifest. If personal pride or greed causes one to be seduced by the ever-present challenge of proving one’s abilities to skeptics, such as using psychic abilities to win a prize, then the power gained by that seduction is likely to corrupt the ethical restraints that are the very first lesson to learn on the eightfold path. That “power corrupts” is an unavoidable truth in human affairs, and the consequences of the fall in this case are profound because the goal of achieving enlightenment, which requires far more discipline than simply developing clairvoyance, is lost. Even if one does not personally identify with an attained siddhi, and instead attributes it to one’s teacher or a particular lineage, the damage is done.
This means that from a scientific perspective it may be exceptionally difficult to find people who have achieved these rarified states and are willing to demonstrate them, because paradoxically they have reached those states precisely because they have not demonstrated them in public. When I have asked yogis who appear to have reached some level of mastery to participate in laboratory tests, only on very rare occasions have they agreed to do so. They usually performed remarkably well, but when I ask how they did it, or to do it again, they just smiled.
Fortunately, attaining siddhis is not an all-or-nothing affair. They are not instant phase shifts that appear out of thin air, but rather they’re stable versions of weaker effects that some people can demonstrate some of the time. If this were not so, then science would never have learned anything about the siddhis.
A common complaint about the siddhis goes like this: If science has been studying these phenomena in a systematic way for over a century, then surely we should have settled the issue one way or the other by now. So the fact that the mere existence of these superpowers is still mired in controversy tells us that the siddhis don’t exist.
This logic seems reasonable until one pays closer attention to the history of science. From the historical perspective this type of critique is simply a matter of impatience. For example, consider the case of magnetism. One of the first recorded attempts to study magnetism in scientific terms was in 1269. Until then, everyone considered magnetism to be a magical phenomenon. But Peter Peregrinus, who was serving in the army of the king of Sicily, took a different tack. He decided to write down everything that was known at the time about lodestone (a natural magnetic ore) and how to make instruments using it.
Three hundred years later British scientist William Gilbert would again take up the challenge to explain magnetism in rational terms.
But another whole century would pass before scientists began to think of new ways to understand magnetism. Even then, it took the invention of highly abstract mathematical concepts before invisible forces like magnetism could even begin to be understood, and the truth is that even today we still don’t understand fundamentally what magnetism actually is. We’ve learned a few tricks that describe how it behaves under certain circumstances, and we can make machines that take advantage of that knowledge. But that’s all.
In any case, it took half a millennium for science to learn enough about magnetism to make it practically useful, and unlike psi, magnetism is easy to demonstrate. Similarly, physicists have developed models for how they think gravity works, but we still don’t understand exactly what it is. Nor after many decades of intensive work by tens of thousands of scientists, funded to the tune of a trillion or more dollars, do we understand how to cure cancer. And no one has the slightest idea what consciousnessis, despite it being the one and only thing any of us will ever personally know firsthand.
In sum, given that the number of mysteries in the universe that remain to be deciphered is practically infinite compared to the few trinkets of knowledge that we’ve discovered, it’s astonishing that anyone could possibly argue that after a century of fits and starts we should already have a complete understanding of psi and the siddhis. Some progress has been made, but we’ve just begun.
The third book of the Yoga Sutras describes supernormal abilities in matter-of-fact terms. The siddhis are presented not as magical or divine gifts available to the lucky few but as natural consequences of intense meditation practice. Most of these abilities today would be regarded as variations of psychic phenomena, mainly variations of clairvoyance.
But some of the siddhis stretch our sense of the possible beyond the breaking point. How should we regard such tales?
Question & Answers on Developing the Siddhis with Dean Radin
Q: Can you speak to some scientific evidence that proves the siddhis are real?
Science isn’t about proof. It’s about collection and evaluation of evidence. Along those lines, some of the elementary siddhis, like telepathy and precognition, are perfectly amenable to being tested within scientifically valid experiments. Such abilities have been repeatedly tested in ordinary people for about a century now, and the cumulative results are clear: In repeatable experiments the overall evidence strongly indicates that the elementary siddhis exist as inherent potentials within most people. The main difference between what an accomplished yogi can do vs. what “Joe Sixpack” can do is the degree of accuracy and conscious control of their abilities.
Q: What are some practical ways that people can start to develop and attain the siddhis within themselves?
Most important is maintaining a disciplined meditation practice. Plus, be aware that many simple siddhis will occasionally happen spontaneously, so they shouldn’t be regarded as outrageously surprising, nor should they be taken as anything more than revealing what has always been there, just not previously noticed. To attain super-siddhis, like levitation, not only takes a great deal of practice, but also talent. The former is under your control; the latter is not.
Q: Where did your interest in the researching and exploring the Siddhis come from?
I have been involved in the scientific study of psychic phenomena for over 30 years. In the West these abilities are considered to be so controversial that despite a large body of supportive evidence there is little consensus within the broader scientific community on whether they even exist. I knew that within other cultures and contexts the exact same phenomena are regarded as boringly normal. The siddhis are an important part of the yogic tradition, so I decided to look into that more closely, and that led to my book Supernormal.
Q: What do you make of the Wim Hof Phenomenon?
There’s a huge range of natural talents. Wim Hof’s talent represents an exceptional degree of control of the autonomic nervous system. Others can learn to do what he does to some extent, some more than others. But both raw talent and disciplined practice are necessary to reach world-class performance in any domain. Yogis agree that not every life-long meditator is going to be able to achieve and attain every siddhi. Some extremely rare talents will be able to do all sorts of mind-boggling feats (even though the yoga tradition strictly prohibits showing off!), but most of us will be able to develop the simpler siddhis to some extent.