Tummo: Fierce Lady of Yogic Heat, Michael Sheehy

Tummo: Fierce Lady of Yogic Heat, Michael Sheehy

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Hello, I'm Michael Sheehy from the University of  Virginia. Today I'll be talking to you about tummo   contemplative practice in Vajrayana Buddhism,  as part of the Buddhism and Breath Summit. An outline of what I'll be discussing today begins  with what I call "Yogic Buddhism and Breath".   We'll then discuss some of the  underlying theoretical and philosophical   underpinnings of the practice of tummo,  and the practice of yogic heat itself.  Then switch to discussion of  tummo in the modern imagination,   and really the Buddhist  imagination over the last 100 or   so years. We'll talk about scientific research  on tummo that's been conducted, some of the  

physiological effects, and I'll conclude with  some discussion on the technologies of breath. Tummo is a paradigmatic contemplative  breath work practice of Buddhist tantra.   The term tummo literally means "gtum" - or  fierce, "mo" - lady or woman. Mo here is a   feminine marker in the Tibetan  language and is the translation of the   Sanskrit term "candali", a class of goddesses.  It's often translated as "inner heat" or   "psychic heat" or "mystic heat" or "fury fire"  etc. You'll find many different translations,  

though this is not the literal meaning. There's a  descriptive yogic language of heat for visualizing   fireballs, wearing the clothes of inner  heat, eating the foods of yogic heat,   stoking the inner embers, bliss warmth, etc. Tummo  can be a stand-alone practice or an enhancement   practice, a so-called bogdon or enhancement  practice, to complement ancillary yogic practices.   Practice is applied in a modular fashion,  and over the history of this practice, tummo,   there's a variety of perspectives  that have emerged about   when to practice and which ancillary  practices are conjoined with tummo. It's important to keep in mind that tummo is  embedded within a broader Vajrayana contemplative   curriculum. That is to say, there's a  contemplative program in which tummo is situated.   This begins with the ordinary preliminary  practices, reflections on the preciousness   and rarity of being a human being, having a  human life, impermanence of that human life and   your own mortality, but also the impermanence  of phenomenon, the transience of all things   conditioned, reflections on the pain and the  sufferings of the world, that is to say, there are   stresses and a sense of dissatisfaction that  pervades living beings, and there are causes   and effects in contemplating karma or the  causality of the physical world, but also   of one's own actions. What one says and does and  thinks effects other beings as well as oneself.  

One shifts then to the extraordinary preliminary  practices, that is to say, going for refuge in   the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha - the  teacher, the source of the dharma, the teachings,   and the sangha or the community of support  and the networks of support for practitioners.   Generating an altruistic aspiration to awaken,  that is to say, to be free from the pains   of the world, not only of oneself but really  understanding in a deeply empathic way how   that transfers to all beings who experience  pain and suffering in the world and wish   for them to be free from that, so working  towards that. There is a practice called mandala   offering of the cosmos, in which one imagines the  entire physical cosmos symbolically represented   on a plate with precious gems and substances piled  high, and then one offers that as if offering the   entire cosmos as a profound act of generosity  and extension beyond oneself to the cosmos at   large and of the cosmos at large. There's a  practice on purification called Vajrasattva deity,   where the deity Vajrasattva,  this pure, crystal, translucent,   white deity pervades one's body and mind stream  to purify all of the stains and impurities.  

Practice of guru yoga in which one  connects with one's own personal teacher   who one has studied with and received  transmissions, but also the broader historical   family tree we might call it, the assembly  tree of the lineage masters, and those who have   historically received transmission and passed  these teachings on into the present. There's   generation stage practices of deity yoga,  and completion stage practices which involve   somatic yogas. Generation stage is a process of  simulating oneself as the sublime body of a deity.   These are a main set of Vajrayana practices.  Deity yoga, otherwise known as deity yoga is   a performative visualization based  on a script called a sadhana, and   the sadhana is ritually performed with gestures  and bodily postures, mantras that one recites,   and visualizations. One begins by reducing  all phenomena in the universe to emptiness.  

From that emptiness the practitioner generates  their ordinary body as the sublime body of a deity   in the environment of a mandala - the sights  and sounds and smells, the entire experiences   of the deity. This process is designed to  transfigure the ordinary habitual bodily image   and sense of self in the world to the sublime  sense of being a deity in the mandalic surround.   The sadhana practice concludes with the  dissolution of the deity and the mandala into   open silence and reemergence of the practitioner  or the self into the ordinary world.

Following the generation stage  practices are the completion stage yogas   that are sets of tantric practices designed to  somatically and cognitively transform the ordinary   body into a sublime body. That is to say, once the  generation stage practices of visualizing oneself   and orienting oneself in the environment of  the deity and the sublimity of the deity,   one then shifts to these more somatic  body-oriented practices that are designed to   move one from a non-buddha body to a buddha body.  These practices apply somatic yogic exercises,   breathwork, ritual, and visualization to  manipulate interior vital bodily energies.   These practices are interested in also  harnessing extreme experiences, including   hypnagogic states such as falling asleep,  dreaming, also dying, orgasm etc, that is to say,   threshold experiences at the edges of the  self, the edges of ordinary self-experience.  

These yogas simulate and mimic the radical  threshold experiences to transmute these energies   into insights. It's important to keep in mind  that there are myriad systems of yoga practice,   and in particular these completion stage  yogas, that tummo breath work is integral   to completion stage yogas and is foundational to  transform the body in several tantric systems.   Tummo however is not a single method. The  techniques are applied with degrees of variation   in distinct tantric systems, and you'll  find in meditation manuals and in different   living traditions different presentations  and instructions on tummo. For instance,  

tummo is integral to the tantric systems, most  famously perhaps is the Six Yogas of Naropa,   but there's also Six Yogas of Niguma, and you see  a painting of Niguma here, the Lamdre, Six Yogas   or Six Vajrayogas of the Kalacakra Completion  Stage, Guhyasamaja Completion Stage Yogas, etc.   You'll also find tummo in the post-tantric  systems of Dzogchen and Mahamudra. There's a discourse within Vajrayana about whether  the body or the mind are primary and predominant,   and in fact, depending on the tradition and the  sort of series of teachings that you're receiving,   one will place the body or the mind, or the  cognitive or somatic processes as predominant.  

Here, this 13th century Tibetan Yogin Yangonpa  says "If you don't understand the actual abiding   nature of the body, you don't understand the  vital point of the meaning of meditation".   So clearly here, Yangonpa, and this is in a book  that he wrote, a text on the subtle body, is   placing the body at the center of the discourse.  So in order to understand tummo we have to have   some understanding of the anatomy of the subtle  body within tantric physiology. The philosophy   of tummo is that life depends on warmth. So heat  is volitionally mobilized to transform the person.   It's very important that there's an  understanding that at the primal basis of life   there is warmth or heat, and there are models of  the gestation of the human body that begin with   warmth at its core. Tummo is a practice that  harnesses this warmth in order to transform life.  

Tummo practice is based on the tantric  physiology and an understanding of how to   manipulate the underlying flows and mechanisms of  the subtle body. Within tantric models of the body   you'll find a typical three-fold orientation;  a coarse or physical body, a subtle,   and an extremely subtle body, that is  to say shintu lu and a shintu trawai lu,   subtle and extremely subtle. The subtle  is a visceral body, it's a felt body,   it's a body with affect, and can be manipulated  and mobilized via interoceptive methods.   It's also referred to in the literature  as a vajra body or an adamantine body, and   typically when we're discussing this vajra body  or the subtle body we'd say it's constituent of   rtsa rlung thig le, the channels, the winds,  and these nuclei. A subset of the channels   are the chakras. Channels are three tube-like  pathways that run vertically from the brainstem  

to the perineum, that is the space between the  anus and the genitals, the base of the spine,   and align parallel to the spinal cord. There are  subsidiary channels throughout the body as well   but these are three primary channels, and along  the central channel or tube are chakras, which are   vitality centers or wheels that rotate clockwise,  and in some traditions counterclockwise, along the   central axis of the body at the crown, the throat,  the heart, the navel, and the genitals. Again,   there are different placements in different  tantric systems and different numbers of chakras,   four, and six, and so forth. Winds or what we  might call wind-breath are currents of breath   and vital energy that circulate and flow up and  down the channels, so these are the movements,   the currents. The nuclei are refined seminal  essences that resemble the shape of liquid drops,  

sometimes these are translated as drops. Here we have two photos of 20th century Tibetan  exemplars, the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje,   and Dilgo Khyentse, both seated  in these yogic postures, holding   these positions associated with tummo practice. There are a series of different postures and yogic  exercises performed with all of the completion   stage yogas and tummo specifically. These are  called in different traditions tsa lung, or trul   khor, the magical devices, and are practices or  exercises for training the physical body, lu jong. It's important to keep in mind also  that tummo is a contemplative practice,   and it's really a formal practice. The  practice of tummo mobilizes vital winds   and energies within the subtle body to enter  into the central channel, and this is the   primary theory of tummo practice, to mobilize the  vital winds and energies into the central channel,   enabling these currents to be harnessed for  transformation, for transformative ends.  

So principles of this practice that are  important to keep in mind are that this is   a formal practice, there's a time, a setting, a  location, a posture, an intent that is set, this   isn't practiced in an ad hoc fashion, sort of on  the fly or off the cuff. Tummo follows a scripted   sequential technique that engages the body, the  breath, and the mind, and that there's a formula   to the practice. Although there may be variations,  it is formulaic. It involves monitoring one's   experiences and making adjustments to emergent  experiences, to signs and measures that may be   described in the literature or by one's teacher,  but also pitfalls and obstacles that might arise.   Tummo is practiced in sessions that  are measured by temporal durations and   framed within time, within frequency and the  regularity of practice, as all practices are. There's an imperative to practice under  the supervision of a qualified teacher   who can be responsive to emergent experiences,  to falling into pitfalls for instance, to   signs that might emerge that might not make sense  to a novice practitioner, and this is critical.  

Though we have the literature and instructions and  descriptions on how to practice these practices,   all of that accumulatively, all the  practice instructions in the world   don't add up to the value of a living teacher  who can be responsive to one's experiences.   The outcome of this practice is the coalescence  of bliss and emptiness, a kind of non-dual   experience. As we talk about heat and the arousal  of yogic heat, this is important to keep in mind. So with that as background and a kind of frame  of the anatomy of the yogic body and some of the   associated practices that make up tummo  as a kind of modular contemplative   practice, let's now look at a  specific instruction from a meditation   manual. This is written by Thangtong  Gyalpo who's a late 14th/15th century   yogin in Tibet who wrote this instruction on  the Six Yogas of Naropa. Thangtong Gyalpo is   famous for building iron bridges across Tibet  and Bhutan and for introducing Tibetan opera,   and in his instruction text here on tummo  he writes, "after slowly clearing out   the stale air, slowly inhale equally [into both  nostrils] while drawing the winds in and down.  

Slowly draw up the lower wind, joining the upper  and the lower winds at the navel". So the winds   from the brain and the winds from the perineum  or the base of the spine at the navel. "By that,   the lower winds move, causing a fire to blaze  up [to ignite this fire] below the navel   in a shape like a porcupine's quill".  So the flames are lighting up now   like a porcupine's quill. "Breathing  again makes it blaze up to the navel.  

"At the third retention of the breath it  arrives at the heart and its heat causes   drops", these nuclei, "from the ham letter  in the head to fall like a string of pearls.   Imagine these drops striking the fire at the heart   with a sizzling sound. The fire  does not go out, nor does it flicker   -these profound points are very important".  Thangtong Gyalpo goes on and says, "through this  

process, first warmth will arise, then bliss, then  the meditative absorption of bliss- emptiness". Here, in a slightly different system, we have  a model in this illustration here from the   Six Yogas of Naropa of these syllables at the  chakras, as mentioned, the flow of these three   channels from the base of the spine up to the  crown of the head, and you see the network of the   subtle body here and it's kind of  anatomical structure as induced by tummo. Yogic heat is induced through  sequences of breath retention   and forceful breathing, physical exercises,  moving and striking the body, and visualization.   Practices of tummo induce thermogenesis, that  is to say, the process of generating bodily heat   without shivering, and the typical bodily  mechanism for thermogenesis is to shiver.   If you get cold, in extreme cold the body  shivers to generate heat. Bodily heat is a   symptom of the practice, however, it is  not the purpose of the practice per se.  

The purpose of the practice is inducing  yogic heat to experience the warmth of bliss   fused with emptiness. Now we have a famous  poem by Milarepa who finds himself in   a blizzard climbing the slopes of a mountain in  which he finds a meditation cave and describes   the size of the snowballs like cotton balls  falling from the sky, and the winds blowing,   and he describes this experience that he  has at Lachi Mountain in western Tibet   as being a frigid blizzard in which he finds  solace in this mountain, and then he generates   this inner heat of tummo to keep his body warm.  It's important to keep in mind that we have these   poems and sort of autobiographical accounts of  yogis generating heat to keep themselves warm   in the frigid cold of the Himalayas, however, the  purpose from these teachings is not warmth per se   but this experience of induced blissful warmth.   These practices of tummo are historically  practiced with sexual yoga in some tantric   context, and we'll often find tummo  and sexual yoga described together   in the meditation manuals. There are debates and  divergent views about whether a yogin engages   with an actual or an imagined consort, and  this goes back at least to Naropa, who in his   commentary called the Sekkodesha on the Kalachakra  he is making reference to whether you use   an actual consort or an imagined consort in these  practices and associated sexual yoga practices.  

Tummo mimics the intense blissful excitation  from sexual orgasm but redirects experiential   flows of orgasmic bliss to stimulate a  state of bliss infused consciousness.   Physiologically sexual intercourse redirects  blood flow from the genitals to increase   blood flow in the brain. Interestingly  enough, a similar hemodynamic paradigm   is at play in the performance of  tummo. So we find here a kind of   parallel paradigm between tummo and sexual  yoga, as far as the blood flow from the brain   to the genitals. Here's a wall mural, the Lukang  in Lhasa, adjacent to the Potala Palace, in which   we have a depiction of a yogi practicing these  subtle body somatic yogas of generating heat. Tummo in the modern imagination emerges in the  early 20th century, and we have this figure,   Alexander David-Neel, who is a Belgian-French  explorer and author of numerous books on Tibet.  

She traveled extensively throughout Tibet,  sometimes disguised as a Tibetan nomad.   Between 1912 and 1916 she learned tummo  from Lachen Gomchen Rrinpoche and practiced   in a cave in Sikkim, so she actually practiced  these under the supervision of Gomchen Rinpoche.   In 1924, Alexander David-Neel was the first  European woman to visit Lhasa when foreigners   were forbidden there. In 1929 she published  "Magic and Mystery in Tibet", originally in   French and soon after translated into English,  that described tummo and other yogic practices as   "psychic sports" and "breathing gymnastics".  In her description of tummo as a breathing  

gymnastic or psychic sport she writes, "upon a  frosty winter night, those who think themselves   capable of victoriously enduring the test  are led to the shore of a river or a lake.   If all the streams are frozen in the region,  a hole is made in the ice. A moonlight night,   with a hard wind blowing, is chosen. Such nights  are not rare in Tibet during the winter months.   The neophytes sit on the ground, cross-legged  and naked. Sheets are dipped in the icy water,   each man wraps himself in one of them and must  dry it on his body. As soon as the sheet has  

become dry, it is again dipped in the water and  placed in the novices' body to be dried as before.   The operation goes on in that way until  daybreak. Then he who has dried the largest   number of sheets is acknowledged the winner of the  competition". Now this sheet drying competition   as she says is not a myth or something  that she made up or imagined, there are   sheet drying ceremonies in Tibet, they go  on to this day. Here's a photograph of one   happening at Nangzhig Monastery in Tibet, and  this account by Alexander David-Neel really   set the stage for associating tummo with sheet  drying and this sort of extraordinary phenomenon.  

You find different expressions  of this within popular culture.   For instance, here we have a cartoon, the first  slide reads "when you are able to dry these wet   robes with only your own body heat, return to  me", the teacher says to his novice disciple.   In the second frame the disciple goes off with  these wet sheets, wraps himself, you see the   steam start to rise off the body of the meditator,  and once he's dried he brings it back, and in the   third frame we have the disciple giving his sheet  back to his teachers and his teacher responding   "you are ready", and the final frame, the  punch line is you can go to the laundromat   for 25 cents a piece for the monks to dry your  laundry. So we have these popular depictions and   popularizations of tummo, and starting certainly  by the 1920s and 1930s with Alexander David-Neel,   Evans-Wentz translates some works that include  tummo, and we have now popularizations of tummo   where people are practicing tummo or practicing  derivatives, claimed-to-be derivatives of tummo.  

If you go for instance to YouTube and and put  in the word "tummo" you'll find all sorts of   practices and instructions  by all sorts of folks who are   eager to teach tummo. One of those associated with  this has become Wim Hof and the Wim Hof Method.   However, on the Wim Hof method web  page they have a disclaimer that says,   "some people say Wim Hof is a practitioner  of tummo, but the Wim Hof method and tummo   are comparable but different techniques".  So here you have a clear distancing,   yet close language saying that they're  comparable yet different. You will find certainly  

students or people who have studied with Wim  Hof making claims that they're teaching tummo. So I now shift to the scientific research that's  been done on tummo, and we have several cases.   This begins with Herbert Benson's research,  who's a cardiologist at Harvard University and   was one of the first scientists to seriously  study meditation, and began with studying   T.M or transcendental meditation in the 1970s  and then the first really to study Vajrayana   contemplative practices. In 1981 he conducted  the first study of Tibetan monks practicing  

tummo. The study demonstrated intentional  regulation of body heat for the first time.   Two of the three Tibetan tummo practitioners  in this study demonstrated activation of   the sympathetic nervous system, evidenced by  increased metabolism and oxygen consumption,   and at this time this was a radical  breakthrough of understanding that there can be   volitional or voluntary manipulation and  change of the sympathetic nervous system. Kozhevnikov, Maria Kozhevnikov and her colleagues  in 2013 conducted another study that found tummo   increases core body temperature and elicits an  arousal response, again confirming the findings   of Benson. They measured tummo practitioners  to voluntarily raise both peripheral,   that is to say, heat on the fingertips and in  the toes, and core body temperature. The study   demonstrated that activity of the sympathetic  nervous system significantly increases.   Thermogenesis induced during tummo raised body  temperature above the normal range into the   fever zone, that is to say almost 101 degrees  Fahrenheit, and if you see the chart here,   it's really off the charts, the body temperature.  Visualization is found to be critical to override  

the threshold of the fever zone, and  this is a very interesting finding by   Kozhevnikov et al., that practitioners  can raise their core body temperature   to the fever zone without visualization and only  breathwork, but can only override the fever zone   with visualization. So this shows influence  of the kinesthetic imagery and the cognitive   mechanisms underlying the practice, that it  isn't mere manipulation of the physical body   but that there are these visual and cognitive   dynamics at play that are just as instrumental  and influential. There are stunning differences  

between those who have practiced tummo under  cold exposure and those not practicing tummo.   In particular, profound vasa, or blood vessel  dilation, and blood flow to different organs,   profound increase in cerebral blood flow, which is  a significant marker because cerebral blood flow   usually doesn't change dramatically except in  shock states. For instance, you can stand on   your head for significant duration and there will  not be dramatic change in blood flow to the head   or cerebral blood flow. Drying wet sheets,  practitioners showed vasa dilation indicating hot   internal blood flow to peripheral body and brain.  It is an open question however, I'll contend and   would like to pose as a kind of worthy experiment  to scientists interested in this, about whether   brain regions activated during tummo correspond  to the same brain regions activated during sexual   orgasm, and we've made the correlation or  have observed the correlation made within the   literature and the tradition between sexual yoga  and tummo, so it's an open question whether there   are correlations in the brain. The redirection of  blood flow may direct blood to different regions  

of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex or  other regions associated with enhanced cognition. So in conclusion here I'd like to talk   and reflect about working with technologies of  breath, and summarize some of the points here.   Breathing techniques including breath  retention, forceful and gentle breathwork,   ecstatic breathing, and so forth are integral to  Buddhist contemplative practices. The context of   tummo practice is a broader contemplative practice  curriculum of Vajrayana completion stage yogas   that cultivate complementary skills of attention,  imagination, embodiment, that is to say, tummo and   these other associated or affiliated practices are  embedded within a larger curriculum and context.   Numerous derivative practices and  popularizations have emerged about   tummo in the modern Buddhist imagination and  popular spirituality over the last century.  

This is not limited to North America, but I  would argue is a global phenomena, and many   of these have origins in the sensationalization  of tummo starting in the early 20th century. Research shows tummo can be a kind of  intentional shock method to the body that   activates arousal of the sympathetic nervous  system and increases cerebral blood flow.   However, this can be injurious. It may even cause  death under certain conditions, that is to say,   one must be wary of practicing tummo unless  it is under the supervision of an experienced   practitioner, that one does not go off like  a rhinoceros, so they say, to practice tummo. Future research might elucidate further  what brain regions light up and where   there is increase of blood flow, which  studies have not measured well to date.

So with that I'll share some recommended readings,   also sources that I've cited  throughout this discussion today,   and my own contact information if people would  like to get in touch with me with questions or   have discussion, I'm most open  to that. So thank you so much.

2021-09-08 12:22

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