Mar 10, 2022

The strange, sad Bay Area 'diet cult' that fell apart over a chicken pot pie

Breatharianism,  Wiley Brooks
Joshua Bote
March 9, 2022

The 7-Eleven trip should have done Wiley Brooks in.

For most dieters, his shopping list on that fateful day in 1983 (chicken pot pie, chili and biscuits) would be, at worst, an embarrassment. But Brooks was no average weight-watcher. He was the founder of the spiritual and pseudoscientific movement known as Breatharianism, famous for spreading the gospel that humans could live on air alone. He claimed he hadn’t eaten in 19 years. To his followers, the binge was an unforgivable sin — as if God himself had taken a bite out of the forbidden apple.

The allegation of convenience store consumption came from Lavelle Lefler, co-founder of the Breatharian Institute, then based in Larkspur. “The truth is he sneaks into 7-Elevens and fast food places and eats just like the rest of us — except worse because he has to rely on places that are open late into the night,” she told United Press International in 1983. Brooks shot back that Lefler was a scorned ex-lover, but more allegations emerged, including an assistant who said he’d spotted Brooks drinking a can of Coca-Cola. A mass mutiny soon followed.

Yet that very public scandal didn’t stop Breatharianism. Instead of dying out, the movement spread around the globe, fracturing over the decades into stranger, more dangerous forms. It’s even helped shape health and wellness culture as we know it today.

All you need is air

How Brooks became a Breatharian is as nebulous as the science behind his claims. He certainly wanted to make a name for himself; the hopeful holy man first gained national attention in 1980 by deadlifting 1,100 pounds on an ABC variety show called “That’s Incredible!” while bragging that he hadn’t eaten in nearly two decades. While the Daily Mail reported he’d been a New York-based sound engineer for the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, this reporter has been unable to find any evidence that he mixed for these titans of rock. A year after his bodybuilding stunt, with the spotlight dimming, he appeared on Tom Snyder’s “The Tomorrow Show” to argue once again that anyone could subsist exclusively on air and sunlight.

The idea of extended fasting is centuries old. An ancient Hindu text, the Ramayana, referred to saints who could sustain themselves on air and sunshine; some modern Jains have claimed to fast for months at a time. Brooks himself said he’d learned the secret from an Indian fakir, or religious ascetic.


“Breatharianism is a philosophy that believes that the human body, when it’s in perfect harmony with itself and nature, is a perfect Breatharian — you know, all the constituents that we need is taken from the air we breathe,” Brooks told Snyder, in front of a studio audience that seemed both amused and entranced by his words.

“There is only one thing that keeps the human body alive, and that is breathing. The food that we take is the same as any other thing we take into the body as it becomes a habit. In other words, eating is an acquired habit, just like alcohol or smoking cigarettes.”

He went on to make other strange, spurious claims, including that Breatharian mothers don’t need to feed their babies, who are born able to survive on air and sun. He also said that hunger strikers who die are killed by their death wish, not from starvation.

Basic scientific knowledge of the human body notwithstanding, Brooks’ message was beguiling, taking the nascent popularity of New Age culture at the time and translating it into the language of what we now call “wellness.” With his heavy focus on spirituality, he made the leap from diet peddler to guru.
Cult diet or 'diet cult'?

The Breatharian sales pitch began with Brooks himself. This was a fit and dapper man, who, at the age of 45, lifted nearly 10 times his body weight on national television. While he did admit to an occasional glass of water or juice, he claimed to need nothing else but an hour of sleep a night. He seemed to suggest that if he could muster this miraculous, otherworldly state, then anyone could.

“All the things we've heard about, ‘we must get old, we must get weak,’ ... that is not the case,” he told Snyder. “When a person gets older and wiser, he should get younger. He should not die in an unhealthy body.”

Despite his many public detractors — including the Pacific News Service, which called Breatharianism a “diet cult” — Brooks soon had a healthy cohort of followers. He opened the Larkspur-based Breatharian Institute at the end of 1982 and began teaching classes. Dozens of adherents paid $500 for lessons from the master himself.

In the first session, Brooks advised against starting with fasting. Rather, he wanted his followers to first “clean their blood” by eating foods with a yellow “vibrational quality.” This encompassed everything from grapefruit, papaya and chicken to Haagen-Dazs rum raisin ice cream.

Over the years, his story — and his rules about what Breatharians could and could not eat — kept changing. It’s even possible the foods with “yellow auras” were based on whatever he felt like eating that day. In 1983, institute co-founder Lefler told the San Bernardino County Sun that “the man loves Colonel Sanders” — and could eat a dozen donuts in a single sitting. Brooks responded to allegations of inconsistency by saying “the true message of Breatharianism did not depend on whether he ate or not anyway,” according to a Pacific News Service story about the mass exodus from the Breatharian Institute that followed Lefler’s public statements.

Most of what happened to Brooks for the rest of the ’80s has been lost to history. One hint, though, came in 2013, when the actress Michelle Pfeiffer said she’d been introduced to the cult by a “very controlling” couple as a young up-and-comer in Hollywood.

The Breatharian Institute moved around several times over the next few years, using similar grifts in new locations: first Arlington, Texas, then Bellevue, Washington. His logic shifted again in 1993, when he told the Seattle Times that he no longer believed food was an addiction. Though he still believed food was a poison, he also believed it could serve as “medicine,” a salve for low-quality city air. He himself occasionally balanced his aura with orange juice, honey and Twinkies, he said.

It got even more odd, and arguably, less healthy at the turn of the century. In 1999, he opened a new Breatharian Institute in Santa Cruz, and began teaching seminars in the Sierra Nevada focused on "the fountain of youth" and "how to obtain everlasting life and live from now on, forever.”

“I guarantee it!” Wiley wrote on the Breatharian website.

In 2009, the official gospel of Breatharianism was updated again, this time with a convoluted explanation of how a McDonald’s cheeseburger meal and a Diet Coke can help keep a Breatharian healthy. In a fifth-dimensional universe, apparently, the “base frequency” of the meal aligns with the needs of man.

Around the time he began to endorse McDonald’s meals, Brooks began to peddle an “elixir of the gods,” a 32-ounce bottle of water that supposedly “flows from the legendary ‘fountain of youth and immortality’ in the ‘Garden of Eden,’” and costs up to $10,000. By the 2010s, of course, Brooks followed the trends of conspiracy and began decrying the Illuminati and chemtrails for making it harder to become a Breatharian.

The cult goes global

When Brooks himself ascended to a higher plane in 2016, at the age of 80, his vision of Breatharianism was a sad fringe phenomenon with a few adherents devoted to its founder. But his philosophy had spread widely even after his ’80s downfall, with at least a dozen gurus taking up the mantle of Breatharianism around the globe in the ’90s and onward.

The most prominent Breatharian, following Brooks’ brief reign, was Jasmuheen, an Australian woman born as Ellen Greve. Throughout the ’90s, she claimed to subsist merely on air and a few cups of tea — until the Aussie news program “60 Minutes” debunked her entirely. When they locked her in a hotel room for 48 hours, she quickly developed high blood pressure and severe dehydration. (She claimed that she was not provided fresh air in this experiment, where “seventy percent of my nutrients come from.”)

Jasmuheen, like Brooks, was also regularly accused of eating. A journalist once found her with a fridge full of food, and she was once caught ordering a plate of airline food. (She claimed that both were for her partner.)

Tragically, the popularity of starvation-as-religion eventually led to the deaths of at least two people: a 49-year-old Scottish woman named Verity Linn and a 33-year-old Australian named Lani Morris. Both died from dehydration midway through extended fasts in remote areas. Both owned copies of Jasmuheen’s book, “Living On Light.”

Jasmuheen denied responsibility for their deaths.

Still alive, still breathing

Even though Brooks was widely ridiculed in the media, it’s easy to see why his ideas found a foothold in the ’80s and ’90s. Low-fat and low-calorie junk foods like Lean Cuisine and Diet Coke filled Americans’ fridges and minds, turning food into a deep source of shame. The idea of self-restriction as the essence of health and beauty was shamelessly promoted in books and daytime television.

The rise of “wellness” culture has given new oxygen to Breatharianism, as it wraps starvation diets in the costume of spirituality and health, trading sugar-free cookies for “juice cleanses,” intermittent fasting and “Keto” diets. In 2014, Ukrainian woman Valeria Lukyanova — also known as the human Barbie — claimed she was a Breatharian who only ate “cosmic micro-food.” In 2017, the California- and Ecaudor-based couple Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castillo claimed to have skipped food for at least three years — including during Castillo’s first birth.

And in 2017, a 22-year-old German man named Finn Bogumil was so strongly inspired by Breatharianism, he died of fasting.

Wellness culture, like Brooks, tells us to fear aging and detest weight gain, as if these things are moral failures rather than an inescapable part of the human condition. Whether through nutritional deprivation or immortality-through-technology, transcending the body and its flaws is all the rage right now. And what comes after humanity but holiness?

“People don’t know what God looks like and who He is,” Brooks told Vice toward the end of his life. “Why in the hell couldn’t it be me? Why couldn’t it be you?”

Joshua Bote is an assistant news editor for SFGATE. He grew up in the Los Angeles area, went to UC Berkeley and has previously worked as a reporter at USA Today and a music writer at NPR. Email:

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