Into the Mystic
Still largely cloaked in mystery, ancient Tibetan yoga practices are slowly being introduced in the West, but teachers remain cautious about revealing their secrets.
While the Chinese occupation of Tibet has stirred the outrage of the world’s spiritual community, it has also brought many of Tibet’s religious secrets into the light of day. Tibetan spiritual masters have carried their knowledge and traditions to the West, capturing the imaginations of mystics, seekers, and scholars everywhere. In fact, stories that began to trickle out of Tibet in the first half of the twentieth century were no less than fantastic—yogis who could generate immense inner heat, enough to survive unclothed in the harsh and freezing Tibetan landscape, who could literally open the tops of their heads and transfer consciousness to another, and who could transport themselves effortlessly across vast distances at superhuman speed.
A growing body of knowledge about Tibetan spiritual arts and beliefs, utterly magical and almost hallucinatory in their drama and complexity, has begun to articulate the meditation and visualization practices that helped generate these powers and, more importantly, the states of mind and spirit that made them possible. But there have been frustratingly few specifics about physical movement practices that are Tibetan in origin. Though tantalizing hints are woven into texts describing the meditation and pranayama practices of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism and other Tibetan teachings, most of the references are general and vague, with reminders of the extremely clandestine nature of these practices. But movement practices do indeed exist, and in fact play an important role in the trinity of body, mind, and spirit that grounds Tibetan theology.
Until very recently, Westerners have had few clues in the search for knowledge of these Tibetan yogic paths. In the past few years, however, select teachers from two Tibetan spiritual communities now centered in the West have begun to share their long-secret, carefully guarded movement practices. Both of these practices are forms of what is called, in Tibetan, ‘phrul ‘khor, pronounced “trul-khor.” Trul-khor is the generic name for Tibetan movement practices, and today, two forms of trul-khor are being taught in the West.
The first form is called Yantra Yoga (not the yantra yoga of India, which is associated with geometric images) and is taught by Chˆgyal Namkhai Norbu, leader of the Dzogchen meditation community based in Naples, Italy, and Conway, Massachusetts. Norbu, who is beginning to make the practice more widely available, was born in Tibet in 1938 and recognized as the incarnation of a great Dzogchen master at the age of 2; he recently retired after serving 28 years as a professor of Tibetan and Mongolian language and literature at the Oriental Institute of the University of Naples. He is a living holder of the Yantra Yoga teaching, which stems from an ancient text called The Unification of the Sun and Moon and which descended through the famous Tibetan translator Vairochana and a lineage of Tibetan masters, according to Snow Lion Publications, which publishes an extensive catalog of Buddhist books and other materials.
The second form was brought to the West by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a master of the Bˆn school of the Dzogchen meditative tradition. In 1992, he founded the Ligmincha Institute, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, with branches in Texas, California, Poland, and Mexico; its aim, according to Ligmincha literature, is to “introduce to the West the wisdom traditions of the Bonpo which are concerned with the harmonious integration of internal and external energies.” One part of these wisdom traditions is the Tibetan yoga practice that Ligmincha practitioners call Trul-Khor. (In this story, the capitalized term “Trul-Khor” refers to the movement practice taught by the Ligmincha Institute’s authorized teachers; the lowercase “trul-khor” is a generic term referring to Tibetan movement practices in general.)
Both Yantra Yoga and Trul-Khor are forms that have been kept intact through centuries, and that are designed to create a state of “natural mind” for the devoted disciple. With newly available workshops, classes, instructional videotapes, and soon-to-be-published books, Tibetan yoga is bound to attract the interest of Westerners. Those who know the practices say they hope these yogas will not be diluted or modified as hatha yoga has been. Powerful and demanding when fully engaged in, these disciplines will probably never find their way into the class schedule of every health club in America. The serious seeker who finds this path, however, will discover the magic of an ancient tradition still intact.
The Magical Wheel
“Trul-khor” means “magical wheel,” says Alejandro Chaoul-Reich, a teacher associated with the Ligmincha Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at Rice University in Houston. Chaoul-Reich learned Trul-Khor, a set of seven cycles with a total of 38 movements, at Tritan Norbutse Bˆn monastery in Kathmandu, and was then able to verify the movements against an original Tibetan text with his teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.
The form known as Yantra Yoga has 108 movements in all (a number considered auspicious because it echoes the 108 canonical texts of the Buddha). Yantra Yoga is one of the few trul-khor practices of the Buddhist tradition that authorized teachers will transmit, at least in part, to students who are not engaged in the traditional three-year retreat process, and who have not completed a lengthy series of prostrations, meditations, and mantras.
The Eight Movements of Yantra Yoga, a recently released videotape from Snow Lion Publications, represents a remarkable breakthrough in making Tibetan movement practice universally available. “It’s out now because Namkhai Norbu is willing for it to be made public,” says Jeff Cox, president of Snow Lion. “Norbu is concerned that people do these movements properly, and with the release of this video, I think he’s making a statement that he thinks enough people will be able to learn and benefit from it.” The eight movements demonstrated on the videotape can be considered a preparatory method for balancing one’s energy system, Cox says; a book with extensive instructions for the full system of Yantra Yoga is being translated from Tibetan by Adriano Clemente of Italy, a student of Norbu’s, and will be published by Snow Lion.
Fabio Andrico, also of Italy, is the tape’s instructor; originally a student of hatha yoga, as were many trul-khor practitioners, he met Norbu Rinpoche in 1977. “I met Yantra Yoga and my teacher after having studied hatha yoga for several months in southern India,” says Andrico. “A friend of mine told me that a Tibetan teacher was giving teachings on an advanced form of yoga which deepened particularly the aspect of the breathing, so I decided to go to the retreat in southern Italy.” More than 20 years later, Andrico is helping to disseminate the teachings he calls “subtle and powerful.”
When asked to compare trul-khor to hatha yoga, Andrico notes that Tibetan yogas vary; just as there is a wide range of schools and traditions in hatha yoga, the same is true in the lineage-specific forms of trul-khor. “But to make a generalization,” Andrico says, “the principle difference is that in Yantra Yoga we have a continuous sequence of movement while in hatha yoga there is more emphasis on static forms. In Yantra Yoga, you do not stay in a position for a long time—the position is only a moment in the sequence of movement, ruled by the rhythm of the breathing and the application of one of the five kinds of breath retention.”
Chˆgyal Namkhai Norbu expands on these differences in his introduction to The Eight Movements of Yantra Yoga. “In Yantra Yoga there are many positions similar to those of hatha yoga, but the way of getting into the positions, the main point of the practice and the consideration, or point of view, of the practice of Yantra Yoga is different,” Norbu says. “In Yantra Yoga the asana, or position, is one of the important points but not the main one. Movement is more important. For example, in order to get into an asana, breathing and movement are linked and applied gradually. The [hatha yoga] movement is also limited by time, which is divided into periods consisting of four beats each: a period to get into the position, a certain period to remain in the position, and then a period to finish the position. Everything is related in Yantra Yoga. The overall movement is important, not only the asana. This is a very important point.”
Michael Katz, author of The White Dolphin (Psychology Help Publications, 1999) and editor of Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light by Namkhai Norbu (Snow Lion Publications, 1992), has been practicing Yantra Yoga since 1981 and teaches in various locations, including New York City’s Open Center, through the Conway, Massachusetts-based Dzogchen community. He agrees that the focus on breath is a primary point of difference between Yantra Yoga and hatha yoga as it’s taught today in the West. “Yantra Yoga seems more active, movement-oriented—at first blush that’s the distinction,” Katz says. “I think there’s a very strong emphasis on the breathing process, and a lot of the exercises that are presented in the form of yoga are designed toward developing advanced breathing exercises.”
The Trul-Khor taught by Chaoul-Reich shares this emphasis on movement and breath. “One of the more obvious distinctions with hatha yoga is that in Trul-Khor the postures are not fixed asanas, but are in continuous movement, some very vigorous,” Chaoul-Reich says. “Another peculiarity of Trul-Khor is that one is holding the breath during the entire movement and only releasing it at the end of the posture. Some say that because of its forceful nature, Trul-Khor is similar to what is called Kundalini Yoga in the West,” he adds.
The Tang of Tibet
Another series of movements said to be Tibetan in origin is known as “The Five Rites of Rejuvenation” or “The Five Tibetans.” These unusual, rhythmic movements, which have circulated for decades among yogis but are finding new popularity today, have been credited with the ability to heal the body, balance the chakras, and reverse the aging process in just minutes a day. Legend says that a British explorer learned them in a Himalayan monastery from Tibetan monks who were living in good health far beyond normal lifespans. Skeptics say that no Tibetan has ever recognized these practices as authentically Tibetan, however beneficial they may be.
Yoga teacher Chris Kilham, whose book The Five Tibetans (Healing Arts Press, 1994) has contributed to the practice’s current popularity, makes no claims of certainty about the series’ origins. “Whether or not the Five Tibetans are in fact Tibetan in origin is something we may never ascertain,” Kilham writes. “Perhaps they come from Nepal or northern India…As the story has it, they were shared by Tibetan lamas; beyond that I know nothing of their history. Personally, I think these exercises are most likely Tibetan in origin. The issue at hand, though, is not the lineage of the Five Tibetans. The point is [their] immense potential value for those who will clear 10 minutes a day to practice.”
Kilham believes the Five Rites have “the tang of Tibet,” and others agree that there are similarities to Tibetan yogas. “I personally don’t know if they’re for real,” says Andrico. “Oddly, some of the five movements—one especially—resembles one of the eight movements of Yantra Yoga, but it’s done without any knowledge of integrating the breathing with the movement, which is a fundamental point in the practice of Yantra.”
Whatever their origin, the Five Tibetans/Five Rites share both method and potential madness with trul-khor practices. “These exercises seem to speed the flow of energy or prana up the spine and through the chakras,” says Jeff Migdow, M.D., a contributor to Ancient Secret of the Fountain of Youth, Book 2 (Doubleday, 1998), director of the Prana Yoga Teacher Training course at the Open Center in New York City, and a physician in holistic practice with an office at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. Furthermore, the Five Rites are potent in their intensity. “If people do them incorrectly, they may experience dizziness or nausea,” Migdow says. “The exercises are deceptively simple but very powerful.”
“The Five Tibetans combine posture, breath, and motion to create a dynamic energetic effect,” Kilham says. “They do not require either exceptional strength or flexibility, but with a minimum of both, they can generate significant energetic power, which is then used in meditation to shatter the cognitive boundaries of the mind and achieve a transcendent state.”
Whatever the provenance or effects of the Five Rites/Five Tibetans, it seems clear that the practices of Yantra Yoga and Trul-Khor are keeping ancient, secret traditions alive and intact in a way that hatha yoga, perhaps, can no longer claim. “I think [Yantra Yoga] is very much as it was when it was first introduced. There’s an unbroken lineage,” Katz says. “It’s rarely presented to the public, which limits the likelihood of the distortion of the lineage. This may not be the case with some hatha yoga traditions, where there are various interpretations. I think the lineage in this particular tradition is very strong.”
Chaoul-Reich echoes this reflection on the adaptation of hatha yoga traditions, agreeing that teachers of Tibetan yoga must weigh the risks of compromising tradition against the risks of losing these practices altogether if they are not taught more widely. “Through the years we’ve seen many kinds of yogas, which were originally from Hindu sources, that seem to have been adapted for the Western mind, body, and lifestyle. Today we even see hatha yoga courses in gyms which seem to be just stretching exercises,” Chaoul-Reich says. “Don’t get me wrong—I believe it’s a way that these traditions can reach more interested people that would probably not come if the methods were not adapted. I believe it’s a challenge, too, to be able to instruct without corrupting the teachings, yet acknowledging the audience.”
“I do have concerns that the complexity [of Yantra Yoga] will disappear,” Katz says, “But I’ve come to the conclusion that Norbu Rinpoche, who is the guardian of this tradition, has the bird’s-eye view. If he feels it’s more important that it be practiced more accurately by a very few, he’ll make the call. All the Tibetan teachers want to make sure these traditions are not lost, and so would like people to practice. At the same time, if it’s not practiced as accurately as they would like, they have a strong feeling it’s not worth it.” The jury’s still out, Katz says, on how much Tibetan yoga will be revealed in a much more public way.
Is It Magic?
If it seems startling that any tradition could remain so mysterious and little-known today, when virtually every culture and every corner of the world has been explored, it may reflect the power that these practices are said to have. As mentioned above, early Western visitors to Tibet reported yogis with phenomenal, almost unbelievable, powers. While trul-khor practices may have been only a small part of the spiritual landscape—and lifetime devotion—that made these feats possible, the movements are nonetheless considered to be powerful. While holding unlimited potential for healing and balancing the body, mind, and spirit, these movements were and are also considered possibly dangerous to those who use them recklessly or without adequate instruction. In the West, however, the current level of teachings available will not take students to dangerous extremes.
Theoretically it’s possible to develop these powers through the practice of trul-khor and, in particular, the “unification of the sun and moon,” Katz says. “I’m not aware of any current Western practitioners who have taken it to that level…but I do believe these practices are profound. Someone who was to devote his life, in retreat, to these practices could develop these kinds of capacities,” Katz adds.
Most Westerners are, instead, at what Katz calls a “spiritual beginner” level, which limits our capacity for such extraordinary feats. Moreover, trul-khor can have negative consequences if performed improperly or with arrogance. “It’s been described as a ‘sharp path,’ meaning it can cause negative health problems if it’s done incorrectly,” Katz says. “It really can’t be done frivolously.”
Those potential negative health effects that can result from misuse of these movements are making teachers all the more cautious, adding to the mystique and the secrecy of the teachings. The dangers are more subtle than sprained ankles or sore muscles. “Breathing is intimately connected with energy,” says Snow Lion’s Cox. “Breathing can affect a person’s energy system more deeply than movement. So there are usually warnings not to overdo or try to force things, like holding the breath too long or doing too many repetitions,” he adds.
“You’re playing with some of the energies of the body, the internal circulation of air,” agrees Katz. “If you direct or force the internal airs into the wrong channels, you can disrupt the natural processes of the body. These are quite powerful exercises, and doing them improperly even for a short time can result in insomnia, digestive problems, whatever—or, in the extreme, if you were to abuse the practice, you could have mental problems such as anxiety or depression,” he says.
Healing & Purifying
Done correctly, these movements can be equally powerful as agents of healing and balancing the body and mind, beyond the extremes of supernatural abilities or destructive forces.
In fact, the trul-khor systems are intricately designed to maximize positive effects on the body and mind. Ancient Tibetan medicine identifies five elements—space, air, fire, earth, and water—which correlate to organs in the body and to emotions, both positive and negative. Chaoul-Reich says that the Bˆn tradition, in particular, explores the elements, though the system is also used in Tantra, Tibetan shamanism, and Dzogchen, and is similar (but not identical) to the five elements in traditional Chinese medicine. In the Trul-Khor of the Bˆn tradition, the first, or preliminary, cycle of movements is an introduction to the breath. The second, more vigorous, cycle specifically balances the five elements and their corresponding afflictions.
The 108 movements of Yantra Yoga also address the body’s “channels,” says Andrico. “There are three families of preparatory exercises apart from the eight movements [shown in the video]. There are five movements to mobilize the joints and five movements to control the channels. Before that we practice a breathing exercise designed to expel the impure prana.” In the complete system, these are followed by 25 positions, called yantras, with two variations of each for a total of 75 movements divided into five groups. Finally, says Andrico, there is a series called the vajra wave, designed “to correct any possible obstruction of the flowing of prana created by distraction during the practice.”
Ultimately, the intention of both Yantra Yoga and Trul-Khor is to clear all of the qualities identified as unwanted obstructions, imbalances, distractions, or afflictions, including negative emotions. In this state of purification, the student can begin to experience “the natural mind.”
“The basic goal is to be able to continue in a state of relaxation—a natural state without tensions, but in the full presence of our potentiality,” Andrico says. For both Yantra Yoga and Trul-Khor, meditation is an integral part of the practice; the bodily movements are designed to be experienced with the meditations that are part of each tradition’s lineage. “Yantra Yoga is meant to be done in conjunction with meditation, particularly from the Dzogchen and Vajrayana tradition,” Michael Katz says. “It’s good for people who are particularly oriented toward balancing their yoga practice with a very intact spiritual tradition.” Yet here in the West, those people seem to be a rare breed, and in fact hatha yoga is often presented as only a physical pursuit. “Tibetan Yoga is little known and practiced exactly because it is so doggedly focused on conscious training and liberation,” says Chris Kilham.
Buddhism, on the other hand, is often presented as a meditative and intellectual religious practice without a physical component. For this reason, says Katz, Westerners have been relatively slower to seek out traditional Tibetan yoga practices than to adopt Buddhism’s more ethereal components.
“Buddhism tends to be presented in a rather sedentary and intellectual manner in the United States,” Katz says. “It’s unbalanced, with an insufficient emphasis on the physical body. [Trul-khor] is a way to balance out that problem.” Although Tibetan yoga may have been somewhat overlooked, the fact remains that a cloak of secrecy has surrounded it.
For Namkhai Norbu and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, releasing these teachings is a matter of necessity—to preserve the traditions—as well as one of generosity, in sharing what they believe can be a beneficial practice leading to spiritual awakening.
But it’s also an act of courage, as they send their ancient, closely guarded traditions into a modern world that is likely to change them.
Yet if these teachings can make a successful transition to Western culture in the eyes of Tibetan spiritual elders, it’s likely to propel even more of Tibet’s secrets into the open.
Tsegyalgar, the U.S. center for the teachings of Namkhai Norbu, in Conway, Massachusetts: (413) 369-4153; e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.3dsite.com/n/sites/dzogchen.
The Eight Movements of Yantra Yoga: An Ancient Tibetan Tradition (videotape), by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, with Fabio Andrico, instructor. Snow Lion Publications: (800) 950-0313; http://www.snowlionpub.com.Ligmincha Institute, led by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: (804) 977-6161; e-mail: Ligmincha@aol.com; http://www.ligmincha.org.