Source: Tat-Ming Lim
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Tales of Tibetan tummo meditators, capable of elevating their body temperatures to dry wet sheets wrapped around their naked bodies during a freezing Himalayan ceremony, have intrigued and baffled practitioners for centuries .
It sounds like the stuff of legend, being able to manipulate one’s own body temperature with nothing but the power of the mind. And indeed, while the internal mechanisms of tummo meditation remain uncertain, the steps for practicing the technique are now well understood.
In this comprehensive guide to Tibetan tummo meditation, we discuss:
- What tummo meditation is
- The origins of tummo meditation
- The research surrounding tummo meditation
- How to practice tummo meditation
- Personal anecdotes with tummo meditation
- What Is Tibetan Tummo Meditation?
- The History of Tummo Meditation
- The Benefits of Tummo Meditation
- Higher Self-Esteem and Sense of Self-Worth
- Improved Memory Retention and Recall
- Improved Focus and Concentration
- Greater Emotional Stability and Control Over Mood Swings
- Research on Tummo Meditation
- Step-by-Step Guide to Practicing Tummo Meditation
- Two Phases of Tummo Meditation
- Forceful Breathing
- Gentle Breathing
- Alternating between FB and GB
- Two Phases of Tummo Meditation
- Our experience With Tummo Meditation
The tummo, or g-tummo meditative control of one’s inner energy, is among Indo-Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred spiritual practices.
The technique combines neurocognitive visualization, isometric muscle tension, and isomatic breath-holding to enter a deep state of relaxation, from where the meditator focuses their internal energy, increasing their core body temperature, and body temperature at their extremities .
Also known as “psychic heat” practice, when trained with consistency and commitment, meditators using the tummo meditation technique experience an intense sensation of bodily heat in the spine, lower abdomen, hands, and feet .
Tummo meditation works by sitting in a comfortable position, or standing for the more experienced, and focusing on the breath while relaxing the entire body.
The practitioner then begins breathing deeply, or forceful breathing, while visualizing a rising flame that starts below the navel and with each breath rises to the crown of the head .
Forceful breathing is followed by a prolonged breath-hold on full lungs while tensing the lower abdomen and diaphragm muscles.
The breath is then gently released, and the practitioner switches to gentle breathing, during which the practitioner visualizes their entire body being filled with a surging sensation of bliss and heat.
We take you through the process step-by-step later in this article.
It is widely accepted that the tummo meditation technique originated in ancient India, with The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama teaching the technique during his lifetime from 563 B.C.E. to 483 B.C.E – well over two thousand years ago .
The first written accounts of the technique were scribed by the Indian yogi and Buddhist scholar Naropa and in the Tibetan Bön lineage, since which time the technique spread and was practiced throughout monasteries in Indo-China.
In contemporary Buddhism, monasteries that maintain an extensive tummo practice are relatively rare and are mainly located in eastern Tibet (now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan).
Source: Rime Center
Tummo meditation has also made its way into western culture, with individuals such as Wim Hoff advocating similar breathing and meditative techniques to withstand exposure to extreme cold and environmental stresses.
Many of the mental benefits practitioners gain from tummo meditation align with the general benefits of any meditative practice.
- Higher self-esteem and sense of self-worth
- Improved memory retention and recall
- Improved focus and concentration
- Greater emotional stability and control over mood swings
- Greater awareness of the self and how one interacts with one’s environment and peers
A primary goal of Buddhism is to cultivate love and compassion for oneself and one’s peers.
By regularly engaging in tummo meditation, practitioners report an increased sense of self-worth and self-confidence .
This is likely due to experiencing the physical sensations of internal warmth and joy, but also because of the individual’s achievement of committing to practice, working on that practice regularly, then noticing the tangible results.
Meditation of any technique, and particularly tummo meditation, requires a clear mind in order to achieve the deep state of relaxation necessary for vivid visualization.
In turn, having a clear mind means processing thoughts to the point that they no longer need to be processed – so they no longer linger on the mind.
The time spent following and processing one’s thoughts, so they no longer need thinking about, helps meditation practitioners store and recall information and memories because the mind isn’t cluttered, it is organized and still.
By teaching the mind to only focus on the task at hand – in this case, visualization and breath control – tummo meditation practitioners exercise their mind’s capacity for extended attention to a single task or thought.
This learned and practiced skill then becomes transferable to other daily activities and tasks.
By processing one’s thoughts through tummo meditation, the practitioner is able to self-reflect on a deep level. They get to one themselves by analyzing their interactions, conversations, and reactions to external stimuli.
By better knowing the self, what makes one agitated, what makes one calm, a meditator then improves their ability to control their reactions to scenarios in their everyday lives.
One of the unique benefits of tummo meditation is the ability to control one’s own body temperature.
As a monk practicing meditation in the frigid Himalayan environment, the ability to warm oneself is understandably a beneficial skill.
In the modern-day, athletes and travelers have benefited from tummo meditation if they find themselves in unplanned survival situations and can prevent hypothermia by resorting to the tummo meditation technique .
Science and the spiritual will always toil in a never-ending duel of skepticism, belief, and proof-seeking.
“In a monastery in northern India, thinly clad Tibetan monks sat quietly in a room where the temperature was a chilly 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4° Celsius). Using a yoga technique known as g Tum-mo, they entered a state of deep meditation. Other monks soaked 3-by-6-foot sheets in cold water (49° Fahrenheit, or 9.4° Celsius) and placed them over the meditators’ shoulders. For untrained people, such frigid wrappings would produce uncontrolled shivering.
If body temperatures continue to drop under these conditions, death can result. But it was not long before steam began rising from the sheets. As a result of body heat produced by the monks during meditation, the sheets dried in about an hour.
Attendants removed the sheets, then covered the meditators with a second chilled, wet wrapping. Each monk was required to dry three sheets over a period of several hours” .
Source: Harvard News, courtesy of Herbert Benson
Since witnessing this scene in the 1970s, French researcher Herbert Benson, amongst numerous others, has studied tummo meditation through the lens of science for the past forty years to analyze and quantify the physiological changes that occur in a meditator practicing tummo meditation.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated significant changes in core body temperature and peripheral body temperature during tummo mediation [7,8], as well as metabolic and electroencephalographic changes in heart rate and brainwave patterns .
Changes in core body temperature were shown to be correlated with the duration of breath-hold and intensity of isometric muscle contraction, suggesting increased localized blood flow might be partly responsible for temperature increases.
Local vasodilation and visualization of the flame imagery are thought to contribute to maintaining an increased core body temperature, as the heat generated during forceful breathing and isometric contraction isn’t lost.
While science and scholars will always strive to explain the biological mechanisms that cause phenomena such as body temperature control through tummo meditation, the monks who have practiced this technique for millennia know and experience it daily.
Please understand that the monks who use tummo meditation to dry wet sheets in near-freezing conditions have dedicated their lives to Buddhism and meditation.
Cultivating this level of control over one’s mind and body is a life-long pursuit. In fact, each of the monks studied in Kozhevnikov et al.’s 2013 paper had participated in no less than three three-year tummo meditation retreats.
We don’t include this information to discourage you from practicing tummo meditation – on the contrary, we use it to encourage you to practice as regularly as possible. Ourselves and other members of Meditation Focused have personally experienced the sensation of internal fire from using tummo meditation – but we’ve also never dried wet sheets with our bodies in the Himalayas.
If you apply the following steps in a regular practice (ideally daily, but minimum 3-4 times a week), over a period of weeks, months, or perhaps even years, you too will begin to experience the surging sensation of inner fire.
Tummo meditation involves alternating between two distinct phases of breathing and visualization, using a primal breathing technique known as “vase breathing”.
This style of breathing gets its name from the protruding lower abdomen after a full inhalation, which resembles a vase or a pot.
Source: Square Space
The first phase of tummo meditation is forceful breathing (FB), which is rigorous inhalation and exhalation through the mouth, accompanied by visualization of a flame starting below the naval, which builds to the crown of the head with each inhalation.
During the FB phase, inhalation is rapid but as deep as possible. The exhalation is performed by ‘dumping’ the air as fast as possible through the mouth, accompanied by a ‘huh’ sound, forcing all the air from the lungs using the stomach and diaphragm.
While performing this breathing, the practitioner visualizes the air fanning their flame, from a glowing white ember to a fire that is bigger than their body. The purpose here is to cultivate and build as much heat as possible.
After the FB phase, the practitioner performs a full lung breath-hold, which is then followed by gentle breathing.
Following FB and the breath-hold is gentle breathing (GB), which is delicate breathing and without strain.
Allowing the breath to come naturally, during GB, the practitioner visualizes the heat generated during FB seeping from their body’s center to fill the rest of the body with a warm sensation of bliss and heat.
The goal of GB is to maintain the heat and observe the sensations it causes in the body. So FB and the breath-hold can be viewed as building the fire and internal heat, whereas GB is maintaining and experiencing the heat.
- Find a comfortable seated position in a secure, enjoyable space. A meditation cushion that facilitates correct posture, spinal alignment, and comfort can be useful to optimize your tummo meditation practice.
- Sit with eyes open, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, taking stock of your immediate surroundings, any noises in your environment. Notice these sounds, contemplate their sources.
- Gradually, close the eyes, and slow the breathing. Bring your focus away from your environment to the breath. Let your thoughts come and go, and let them play out in your mind.
- Once your mind starts to quieten, start making the breath deeper and even slower, and begin a “body scan”. A body scan is a process of mentally observing each part of your body, and releasing any tension.
- First, visualize the crown of your head, then forehead, ears, nose, cheeks, lips. Gradually move into the neck, throat, the collar bone, the muscles of your shoulders, triceps, biceps, forearms, wrist, backs of the hands, each finger segment.
- Then return to your core, relax the chest, upper abdominals, lowers abdominals, the pelvic muscles. Go over each of your legs, relaxing your quads, hamstrings, kneecaps, calves, ankles, and each muscle in your foot.
- On your way back up your back, do your backside, relaxing the buttocks, anus, lower back, mid-back, lats, traps, dropping the shoulders, finally returning to the crown of your head.
- Do this as many times as you need to feel fully relaxed, aware, and familiar with your body. Then, start the same process, but visualize your skeleton, internal organs, blood vessels, and inner workings.
- Practicing a proper, complete body scan is itself a powerful meditation, and the more you do it, the greater detail and depth you’ll learn to visualize your own body with. It might take 5-10 sessions before you can do a complete body scan without losing your train of thought, so first, work on performing a whole-body scan before moving into the subsequent phases of tummo meditation.
- Once your body scan is complete, and you can visualize inside yourself almost becoming a red blood cell and traveling around inside your body, you can begin the fire visualization required for tummo meditation.
- Take your awareness to the base of your spine. It is here that you start to visualize a tiny ember, the smallest grain of white-hot sand. Notice where it is in relation to the rest of your organs, musculature, and bones, and as you breath see how when you inhale, the ember glows with heat, and as you exhale, the ember burns with residual heat.
- Once you can clearly see this white-hot ember in your mind’s eye, begin forceful breathing (FB). Take rapid, deep inhalations through the mouth, exhaling with a forceful ‘huh’ sound. With each breath, notice how the flame starts to grow, how its heat intensifies, and how the flame’s crown gets higher and higher up your spine with each fanning inhalation.
- When the flame reaches the crown of your head, take a final deep inhalation, and hold your breath with full lungs. Squeeze the muscles of your pelvic floor and your anus, push out your lower abdomen so it resembles a vase, and hold your breath, visualizing the flame burning with as much intensity as it can, like a blow torch on full-bore.
- As you get more experienced with tummo meditation (by this, we mean after weeks and months of daily practice, so your practice times are getting towards 40-50 hours), gradually extend the duration of these breath holds. Experienced tummo meditators might hold their breath for 2-2.5 minutes, but those just starting out should only aim for 5-10 seconds and slowly increase breath-hold durations by 2-3 second intervals every 2-3 sessions.
- After your breath hold, gently and gradually release the breath, visualizing the flame calming down, and then switch the gentle breathing (GB).
- During GB, you allow your breath to come softly and naturally, breathing as the body asks you to. Visualize the heat you generated during FB and the breath-hold leeching away from the ember at the base of your spine, permeating every bone, organ, cell, and body part. Experience the bliss of the heat spreading through your entire body.
- After several minutes, you’ll notice the heat subsiding. When you’re comfortable and ready again, do another body scan, then begin another round of FB, a breath-hold, and GB. Do as many rounds as you wish, as many as you feel comfortable doing. We recommend doing only a single round during the first 2-3 weeks of your practice, as this allows you to really focus on your body scan and visualization.
- When you’re beginning to finish your session, visualize your fire slowly subsiding, gradually returning to a single point at the base of your spine. Then, gently open your eyes, and while maintaining a soft focus, take stock of your surroundings. Rub your hands together, rub your face seven times with your hands, massage your head seven times with both hands, rub down each arm with the opposite hand seven times, straighten each leg and rub each leg down seven times. This is to bring you out of your meditation and restimulate the blood flow.
Practicing tummo meditation is best done regularly. It is better to do 15 minutes every day instead of 1 hour twice a week.
To help with regular practice, download our free month-long practice schedule. We’ve created pre-planned daily sessions that vary in session duration, number of rounds, and breath-hold duration, to help you work towards a tangible goal and build a habitual practice. .
Really develop your body focus as the foundation for tummo meditation. Learning to visualize your body in detail, both inside and out, is an essential skill to picturing the flame during your meditation.
*If you’re unfamiliar with the body scan technique, don’t do FB, the breath-hold, or GB during your first 5-10 sessions. Learn how to do the body scan first, and use that as your daily meditation.
With each session, you’ll see you can visualize your body faster and in more detail, releasing more tension and stress. Once you can do this comfortably, start short phases of FB, breath-holding, and GB. Do this regularly, with patience, consistency, and dedication, and after a number of weeks or months, you will begin to experience the incredible sensation of controlling, fanning, and manipulating your inner fire.
The above process of tummo meditation was taught to a community member while he stayed with a Buddhist monk in an abandoned hostel in the mountains behind Dali, China, for two months in 2011.
Source: Top China Travel
Since then, he has continued tummo meditation and practiced the technique with other teachers in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Scotland. This is what he says about his journey in practicing tummo:
“Doing tummo meditation is just like anything else – it’s a skill that needs training, guiding, and regular practice.
When I first learned the basics of tummo, it took me two weeks of daily practice, around 3 hours each day, to become familiar and comfortable with the body scan before moving onto the FB and GB phases. Once I could do a calm, full external and internal body scan, I moved on to practicing visualizing the ember at my spine’s base.
This took another two weeks to find, and then I started playing with FB and GB. I could feel some heat but didn’t learn to gain rudimentary control over the ember and create a flame until around 3 months of practice, after which I could make the flame hotter, but then spreading and retaining the heat during GB took a long time to learn.
Learning to visualize deeply and with incredible detail was key for me. It can be tempting to rush the practice, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize the best way is to enjoy the practice for what it is and let the improvements happen naturally. This can’t be forced”.
So, we encourage you to start tummo meditation, but with no expectations. Adopt the mindset of it being a longer-term goal, and remember that the point is to feel deeply relaxed and connected between your body and mind.
If you have any questions or would like to share your experience with tummo meditation or tell us how our process has helped you, we’d love to hear from you! Send us an email, and we’ll get back to you.
- David-Neel A (1971) Magic and Mystery in Tibet (Dover Publications, New York).
- Evans-Wentz WY (2002) Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (Pilgrims Publishing, Varanisa, India).
- Mullin GH (1996) Tsongkhapa’s Six Yogas of Naropa (Snow Lion Publication, Ithaca, NY).
- Michael Carrithers, The Buddha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, ISBN 0192875906), 3.
- Kozhevnikov M, Elliott J, Shephard J, Gramann K (2013) Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58244. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0058244
- Benson H, Lehmann JW, Malhotra MS, Goodman RF, Hopkins J, et al. (1982) Body temperature changes during the practice of g-tummo yoga. Nature 295: 234–236.
- Benson H, Malhotra MS, Goldman RF, Jacobs GD, Hopkins PJ (1990) Three case reports of the metabolic and electroencephalographic changes during advanced Buddhist meditation techniques. Behav. Med 16: 90–95.