The beginnings of dream practices in China are lost in the depths of antiquity. It is said that the emperors of the Shang Dynasty some 3500 years ago had attached to their court a category of ritual performers called Zhan Meng in charge of interpreting dreams and facilitating dream divination. These dream specialists worked together with the shamans and other ritual specialists interpreting omens which appeared either in the clouds, natural events or in dreams so as to chart the best human course of action for the emperor and other government officials.
The interest in the experiences which took place in dream state were not only confined to the government. There was a group of individuals who in the inaccessible recesses of the sacred mountains, far removed from ordinary human interaction, explored the infinite potential of dream state. These practitioners were those who followed the way of nature back to its origins living a simple life in accordance with the rhythms of nature. They were called Taoists, from the word Tao meaning path or natural way of living.
Like the ancestry of the dream practices, there have been Taoists in China for over 4000 years of recorded history. Very little is known about these Taoists, even in China, because they carried out their practices in utmost secrecy. Not because their practices were dangerous and had to be hidden, but simply because one very important aspect of their self cultivation was withdrawal from ordinary society so as a to cultivate a point of view radically different from most people.
Over the centuries the Taoists developed a highly efficient and coherent system of practices aimed at realizing the full potential of human beings. The Taoists were not content with having good health, and living a quiet life. Their practices were aimed at developing not only the physical aspect of their being but most specially the subtle and invisible aspects called the energy body.
The Way of Energy
A fundamental aspect of Taoist practices is the concept of energy or life force. Energy was understood as a vital force which is at the foundation of all phenomena, both physical and subtle. This energy which they chose to call QI manifests in a wide spectrum of variable intensities or frequencies. From the most subtle which is invisible to the eyes and can only be perceived with the most refined sensitivities in states of mental calm and heightened awareness, to increasingly denser aspects which we begin to perceive as emotional states to the densest aspects as solid matter. A modern analogy would be from radiation which we are unable to sense consciously, through electricity which gives a good shock to a stone which is easily felt as very hard. The ancient Taoists would sense all these states not as separate but rather as a spectrum of variable intensities.
Constantly aware of this energy which animates everything the Taoists went on to explore the non-physical aspects of the life force in their own bodies. The physical body we all can touch and feel is only the densest aspect of the life force, the grossest aspect of the energy spectrum. There are increasingly subtle aspects of the spectrum where the life force never reaches densification.
Every time a Taoist sits down to calm the mind and meditate something very peculiar takes place. The focus of the five senses and the mental attention begins to shift gradually from the dense physical to the more subtle aspects of the body. The longer the practitioner is able to remain calm without distracting thoughts arising or getting drowsy the more refined the sensitivity to the life force becomes. Some ancient Taoists by remaining focused on the subtle energy for hours day after day were able to sense the life force circulating through their bodies. After years of practice they were able to chart the flows of the life force in their subtle bodies with precision through what is called the energy meridians.
The discovery of the energy meridians brought a level of refinement to the Taoists practices where soon it began to have a profound effect on healing the body. Illness was understood as arising when the circulation of the energy was blocked from reaching organs and glands. It was observed that from the blockages at the subtle level of circulation, in time a physical malady would appear precisely in those areas affected by poor circulation.
In order to keep energy circulation at an optimum level the Taoists created a large variety of exercises, dietary practices and meditations. However good circulation is not enough to maintain good health. The Taoists noticed that our emotional states have a profound effect on the quality of the life force circulating through the meridians. If a person is very angry there is an increase in the heart beat and the circulation of the blood. The rate of breathing changes, often accelerating. Body temperature and muscle tone also increases accordingly. The body is literally boiling over with energy. However the quality of the energy boiling over is very poor due to the negative effect of anger.
It was noticed in antiquity that if a person goes to sleep with a tremendous amount of unresolved anger, first of all falling sleep becomes extremely difficult. There is mental agitation and the person is talking internally for hours. Then when eventually fatigue overcomes the body and the person falls asleep, there is invariably a succession of dreams where anger predominates.
In their refined exploring of the subtle energies the Taoists were able to feel where the emotions, both positive and negative, arise in the body. In the case of anger it was noticed that profound changes took place in the liver. This organ not only became more hot, but it could also become constricted and blocked so much that the circulation of the life force required so much effort that pain was felt on the side of the liver.
With the discovery of the profound effect that emotions have upon the quality and circulation of the life force the Taoists created an entire branch of practices to refine the emotions. One of the simplest practices discovered was that of the Inner Smile, whereby the practitioner sends a smile of appreciation to any part of the body along with a continuous wave of positive feelings. Another very powerful practice which developed was that of the Six Healing Sounds, where certain sounds are made which induce the vital organs to vibrate more harmoniously thus releasing tensions and blocked emotions in the organs.
The Emotions And Dreaming
One of the great insights of ancient practitioners was the fact that, if a daily regimen of energy practices is maintained-specially refining the emotions-the quality and quantity of dreams changes. If a person goes to bed after having cleared the vital organs from unresolved emotions the amount of emotional dreams and nightmares dramatically decreases, sometimes to the point that they disappear completely. This does not mean that the person ceases to have dreams, but rather that the quality of the dream shifts from restless to harmonious and pleasant.
One of the greatest insights gained exploring the connection between dreams and energy practices was that dreams are experiences taking place at the level of the subtle bodies. In other words, as a person begins to fall asleep and the senses gradually disconnect from the physical world, they turn inward. A process akin to having a good meditation. As the senses turn inward, the consciousness which was focused on the physical world through the senses also turns inward-in the direction of the subtle energy body.
The Taoists consider falling asleep as a process no different from entering into a meditative state. Just as in deep states of meditation if the body is fatigued the practitioner may fall asleep and go unconscious, so going to sleep has to take place, paradoxically, when one is not fatigued. For the Taoists falling asleep is an open door for playing fully conscious with the subtle energy body and carrying out energy practices without the limitations of the physical body.
Every time we let go into sleep our consciousness shifts its focus from the physical dense body to the subtle energy body at the other end of the spectrum. If we speak of sleep then it is of the physical body, since the subtle aspects never falls asleep. The subtle energy aspect operates 24 hours through our lives. We may not be consciously aware when we shift our conscious focus to the subtle body, however we all do that many times during our waking hours. For example we all had the experience when we were children in school of sitting bored through an uninteresting class. Then as the teacher continued talking we gradually began to go with our minds somewhere else. We began to dream with the eyes open about doing something far more enjoyable at that moment. Our conscious focus was far away from the classroom and the teacher. If this day dreaming went on for a long time, and all of a sudden the teacher asked us a question, we had to forcefully bring back our mental focus to the teacher, with predictable inability to answer the question properly. Ordinarily we say we were fantasizing at that moment, doing something which was not real in a physical sense. The Taoist would not call it fantasizing but rather shifting attention from the physical to the subtle, just as when we are dreaming in bed.
Dreaming is not an action which is confined to falling asleep. We dream 24 hours a day. A part of our consciousness which is not fully engaged in the physical plane dealing with day to day problems is focused on the subtle aspects of the body. Many times a day we shift conscious focus from physical reality to subtle reality. Our awareness at that moment may be focused on a friend that is at the other side of the planet. Sometimes if our focusing is intense enough something unexpected may happen: the phone rings! It is our friend calling from the other side of the planet to tell us they were thinking of us just at that moment. Has this happened to you? Ordinarily we call these happenings `coincidence’. A word for labeling the unexplainable. For the Taoists familiar with the full spectrum of the life force this is not something unexplainable. When we shift our mental focus onto someone far away at that instant we are in direct contact with the subtle body of that person. The geographical distance is irrelevant.
One of the insights which opens as one begins to consciously shift mental focus from the physical to the subtle is that the life force is not limited by physical reality. It could not be because the physical is just one aspect of the energy spectrum. There is the rest of the spectrum operating simultaneously beyond the physical. So energy is not limited by space, nor time which is also a function of space.
Every time we place the head on the pillow and fall asleep our consciousness focuses its gaze upon a dimension which is not limited by time or space. A dimension which is extremely fluid and efficient because it is not limited by time or the constraints of distance. In dream we have all experienced how in the fraction of an instant we can change from walking to flying across the landscape or being here and then on the other side of the moon.
The practices developed by the ancient Taoists around dream state were designed to tap into the inexhaustible reservoir of possibilities that transcending time and space offers. One essential notion they got rid of was the ordinary belief that dreams are fantasies with no basis on reality. A dream may not have any basis on physical reality, but then physical existence is not the only realm of experience there is. What we ordinarily call reality is limited to physical experience and is just a fragment of the totality of being. Dreams, intuitions, feelings we dismiss into the dust bin of the not-real. The Taoists would call that a fragmented vision.
The Practice of Dynamic Sleep
A fundamental goal of Taoist dream practices is the ability to enter dream state deliberately, as an act of will, fully conscious. Ordinarily as we begin to fall asleep and relax our senses disconnect one by one we become progressively unconscious, entering a twilight zone which rapidly eclipses into total darkness. From that moment on until we finally awaken several hours later we lose awareness of where we are or that we are asleep.
In Taoist dream practice one of the first things the practitioner does is make a firm decision to remain conscious as one enters dream state. This initial step is done by voicing a mental command of what one intends to practice or experience during that sleep session.
The sleep command is a powerful expression of willpower which is usually voiced over and over as the practitioner prepares to sleep. This repetition of the sleep command, like all energy practices is to be done with complete awareness and mindfulness, rather than mechanically or unconscious. As one begins to enter the twilight state of drowsiness the sleep command begins to function like a beacon guiding the consciousness across the threshold of the unconscious.
The sleep command however is not the initial step in dream practice. Dream practices are not isolated from other modalities of Taoist exercises. Usually a novice in the Taoist system will begin by learning to open communication with the life force through a series of exercises designed to open the flow of the energy meridians. Only when the meridian system is circulating properly and a degree of physical and emotional balance has been attained does one begins dream exercises.
It has been discovered since ancient times that if the circulation of the life force is not balanced, the resulting imbalance manifests very clearly in the quality of one’s dreams. Generally as the meridians are opened and one learns to regulate the emotions through specific energy practices, there is a reduction of ordinary dreams. One begins to have less and less of turbulent emotional dreams which originate from congested organs and in its place the luminous dreams of profound experiences begin to manifest from time to time. A practitioner, who for example has been keeping dream journals for several years, after a months of intense meridian exercises and meditations usually report very infrequent dreams that are very widely spaced apart. After some time they also begin to experience greater clarity in dream state. Dreams are more vivid, the images more powerful carrying a sense of transcendence.
In Taoist practice it is said that as we improve energy circulation and begin to harmonize the emotions in the organs there is a change in the quality of one’s energy from a gross state to a refined one. This is reflected as better health both physically and mentally. As the quality changes one can also say that the potential of the individual changes. The nervous system, the brain, the glands, the vital organs are all able to function at a greater degree of harmony. Instead of investing a great part of their vitality fighting illness and trying to maintain balance in the midst of fatigue and emotional upheavals, the organism is operating in an energy surplus mode.
The state of energy abundance is fundamental for the unfolding of dream practices. A Taoist invests years of constant effort bringing about such state. If dream practices are attempted otherwise when the body is tired and fighting imbalances, then one discovers that nothing happens, because the body needs the sleep for the basic function of resting the nervous system and the brain and repairing damaged tissues.
The Foundation of Calming The Mind
Preliminary to dream practices are also the states of mental calmness brought about by long meditations. When the senses turn inward in deep practice, the brain changes waves from active Beta to Alpha, deep Alpha and in experienced meditators to Theta and even Delta. This sequence of changes is very similar to that taking place as we fall asleep. The brain moves from polarization in Beta to greater integration in Alpha, Theta and Delta. This means that a regular meditator has learned to `fall asleep’ consciously seated quietly in a cushion.
We need to sleep in order to integrate the hemispheres of the brain and allow the nervous system to rest and repair itself. This essential step is accomplished in the hours of the night when we cease activities and turn the senses inward like a meditator. So if a person is meditating daily and able to integrate the hemispheres of the brain to some degree there is a resulting change in sleep patterns. Most experienced meditators need less sleep than people who do not practice. As their practice progresses is not unusual to begin sleeping an hour less after a few months. Some advanced practitioners get by with only three to four hours and in the Tao system there have been many great sages who eventually transcended the need to sleep at all. A sign of such people would be the absence of a bed in their house!
The Sharping of Mental Focus
If a practitioner has reached the level where the sleep pattern is changing through practices of concentration and circulation of energy then there is also an increase in the ability to focus the intention for long periods of time.
In meditation when the senses are turned inward the attention is focused on something such as the breath, an energy center or the circulation of life force in a meridian. As the years go by the practitioner automatically develops greater capacity to remain focused without distractions when the attention is placed on something. This is an increase in mental power and also an intensification of the will or intention.
In dream practice the intention which has been strengthened in sitting practice is then developed further in dream state. The Taoist aims at entering the normally unconscious states of sleep fully conscious, carrying forth the awareness and the intention like a candle in the wind.
The sleep command being voiced as one falls asleep is the first stage in training the intention to remain sharply focused through the ocean of the unconscious. This simple gesture opens the possibility of extending consciousness into areas where normally we go blank. The Taoists view dream practice as an opportunity to train the intention and the will in conjunction with the subtle aspects of the body. In other words consciousness which is used to being active only when awake in the physical learns to be awake in the subtle also. This is the subtle dimension which is operating 24 hours of the day.
The Breath And Calmness
Ancient Taoists discovered that as the mind becomes calm during meditation a similar process of calmness takes place in the way we breathe. The breath and consciousness are intimately connected and the change in brain waves that accompany a good meditation are in fact facilitated by a corresponding change in the gross breath passing through the nostrils.
Agitated states of mind are generated when the left hemisphere of the brain is most active. This is when we generate Beta waves. At the same time that the left hemisphere activates there is a predominance of breathing through the right nostril.
Our breathing alternates from nostril to nostril throughout the day. Generally we breathe through the right nostril from 45 to 90 minutes and activate the left hemisphere of the brain becoming more active. Then for a brief period of 3 to 5 minutes we breathe through both nostrils as the left nostril eventually takes over activating the right hemisphere of the brain. When the right hemisphere of the brain is active we enter into a more relaxed mental state with less activity and less agitation.
In meditation in order to enter into a state of calmness a change in the breathing pattern has to take place. If the practitioner is activating the left hemisphere through the right nostril breath then the first change will be to switch it to the left nostril, inducing calmer states to manifest. Eventually as the practice deepens and the brain becomes more integrated the breath takes place through both nostrils at the same time. This is the state where Alpha, Theta and Delta waves begin to manifest.
The Sleeping Tiger
In dream practice the practitioner aims at entering calm states of mind as quickly as possible. Taoists have traditionally brought about such changes by adopting the position known as `The Sleeping Tiger’.
In the Sleeping Tiger position one lays on the right side of the body. The right hand may be cupped around the right ear or under the pillow. The left arm is extended resting on the left side. The right leg is slightly bent at the knees, supporting the body, and the left leg is extended without making it totally straight. The purpose of this posture is to press on the right side of the ribs upon certain acupuncture points which induce a rapid change of the breath from the right nostril to the left. In this posture the road is open to enter the calmer states of mind and eventually induce simultaneous nostril breathing.
The posture of the Sleeping Tiger was not confined to practitioners in China only. The same posture is adopted by dream practitioners in Tibet and India. The same posture has been found in a sculpture of the sleeping priestess or goddess in the Hypogeum in the island of Malta dating from 3800-3600 BC. The Hypogeum is believed to have been used for receiving prophetic healing dreams by practitioners who spend the night within its precincts.
The Sleeping Tiger posture is not only used for entering dream practice it is also the ideal posture for entering death. In Asian art the Buddha at the moment of death is always shown lying on the right side with the right hand cupped around the right ear.
The Practice of Deliberateness
A novice after adopting the Sleeping Tiger posture and voicing the dream command will then have a long and rocky road still ahead. at the beginning usually nothing happens. One goes unconscious as usual or if too anxious to accomplish the goal of the practice have difficulty falling asleep. Worse yet some practitioners keep waking up over and over without having a restful night of sleep. What is lacking is a key ingredient of the practice which is going to sleep with deliberateness.
Normally we go to sleep without clarity of purpose, we simply cannot go on from fatigue and exhaustion so we lay down and close the eyes. Whatever happens next is beyond our conscious control. In dream practice the scenario is totally different. The practitioner has a clear goal and is carefully creating the right conditions to fulfill it. But not everything is tight control, there is also the conscious ability to let go into the unknown with the same deliberateness of a swimmer who jumps from a diving board.
One lets go into the unknown voicing the command ready to accept whatever happens.
The Stages of Dream Pracice
If the desire to succeed in the practice is excessively strong then, the ancient Taoists warn, one is headed for trouble. First because frustration and impatience is going to develop as we fail to reach our goal. Second because excessive force is a quality which has to be balance with yielding in order to develop the energy practices to their highest potential.
It is suggested in dream practice that we begin with the simple command to have a restful sleep regardless of how many hours we sleep. From that one follows with the command to remember dreams or simply to awaken at a certain time without alarm clocks. From those simple commands then one can eventually build up to the monumental task of becoming conscious within the dream that one is asleep.
The ability to become conscious that one is asleep in the middle of a dream requires that the awareness focuses with such intensity that it is not only possible to maintain the thread of the dream but also at the same time step back to realize that one is dreaming. This is made possibly because there is a surplus of energy and sleep is not being used primarily to rest and repair the body.
The body has to be rested and balanced for dream practice to unfold. If one is fatigued or carrying a heavy burden of unfinished emotional situations then progress will be very very slow. The body will be mainly occupied with maintenance without a surplus to `play in the clouds’ as the Taoists would say.
Power Naps of The Sleeping Tiger
It is generally assumed that dream practice is best done at night time when the day is done. Taoists dream practitioners are not content to have only one opportunity per day at entering dream state consciously so the practice of power naps was developed early on.
Power naps consist in taking short naps several times a day, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The frequency of power naps allows the practitioner to develop the necessary skills at entering dream practice very rapidly. A by product of power naps is that the body is truly rested so sleep is truly deliberate and not out of fatigue.
One of the greatest Taoist dream practitioner of the past was Master Chen Tuan of Henan province in China. He lived during the 10th century and practiced power naps in a cave at the sacred mountain of Hua Shan in west China. It is said that visitors had often to wait while the master completed power naps. Chen Tuan is said to have realized the highest levels of Taoist practices in dream state, spending months at a time in deep conscious sleep. Beyond the constraints of time and space in a dimension that it extremely fluid.
The Realm of Fluidity
The physical dimension is the portion of the energy spectrum most affected by time and space. It is a dimension where there is a tremendous gap between wish and fulfillment of the wish, or between imagination and realization. It is a dimension where anything we do is limited by time and at the same time takes time to accomplish. One of the direct experiences which arises out of consistent dream practice is that time and space have no influence whatsoever in the subtle energy dimensions. Time and space are not a limiting factor and play no role whatsoever in phenomena. It is extremely hard for physical beings to imagine the state beyond time and space, specially if we have no direct experiences of subtle energy in our bodies or consciousness.
We all have experienced in our sleep the extremely fluid nature of dreams. We are able to fly, move great distances, transform ourselves into something else, become objects or simply turn into pure consciousness without a body. These are all random experiences of transcending physical corporeality.
As mentioned before dream practices are not truly aimed at working with ordinary dreams arising from unresolved emotional states or poor energy circulation. And Taoist dream practices have nothing to do with dream interpretation. The ability to remain conscious in dream state is for learning to play in the dimensions without time and space. Dimension where imagination and reality are one and there are no limits.
Master Chen Tuan during his long naps learned to transcends the mental limitations of time and space. One very common problem practitioners have to overcome is the unconscious projection of physicality into the non-physical dimensions.
When describing dreams or talking to ourselves in dreams we are limited by the language of time and space. We speak of `going somewhere’, `hurrying up’ and `coming back tomorrow’ and so on. One of the habits the dream practitioner learns is to be present all the times speaking the language of the instant that has no past or future, just eternal now.
In conscious dream state anything that is imagined is experienced simultaneously as dream reality. If one thinks of a house, there is a house instantly. This is totally different from the dense physical dimension where the thought of a house, and the mental image of a house does not manifest a physical house right away. As we all know the thought of a house might take years of effort to manifest. This is why Taoist say that the physical dimension is very dense and very inefficient when it comes to manifesting reality. There is a tremendous gap between imagination and manifestation.
In the fluid state of conscious dreaming it is possible to have direct experiences in an instant. Experiences which are as real and powerful as physical reality. If in a dream we have a very strong experience of loving someone, as we awaken into the physical dimension we still carry the emotional impressions of that love experience throughout the day. If dream state was pure fantasy there would be no powerful impressions to carry during the day and no emotional residue to recall.
The ability to remain focused in conscious dreaming is made possible by the cultivation of mental power and increased vitality. Beginners who are able to awaken within the dream do so for very brief instants before either awakening fully into the physical or going unconscious into deeper sleep. Sustaining focus is very much like learning to ride a bicycle. One has to maintain a crucial balance for indefinite time, which in this case is not awakening into the physical or going unconscious, and at the same time carry out the numerous exercises for developing the use of the will and the intention.
As we grew up we learned to focus our attention in the physical world through all of the physical tasks such as learning to walk, talk and memorize in school. As babies our attention span for concentrating on anything was very limited and could not be sustained for more than a few seconds. As we entered school we learned more and more to use our mental focus for longer and longer uninterrupted periods. Usually the best students are those who from very early learned to focus their attention with intensity for long periods of time. A great teacher would be one who is able to keep the attention of the students fully engaged for long periods of time also. So in the physical dimension we become skillful at sustaining focus of the consciousness for long periods of time.
In dream practice the ability to sustain focus is a skill that develops gradually with much difficulty and many set backs. This is so because sustaining focus in the physical dimension requires only a fraction of the energy it takes for doing so in the fluid dimensions beyond time and space. A good analogy would be the difference between trying to run underwater and on the ground.
The fuel for dream practice is surplus energy-not only abundance of vitality but specifically a surplus of vitality to be invested in learning to sustain conscious focus in dream state. The preliminary energy practices mentioned before lay the foundation for starting dream work but they are not enough. At some point the practitioner has to dig deeper into the available resources and learn to utilize them more and more efficiently.
The obstacles and lack of progress encountered in dream practice serve as a mirror revealing where the weak points and blockages are in one’s overall energy structure. There is usually a deepening work in the area of the emotions, which is where a large portion of the available vitality is trapped in unresolved issues. There is also a process of harnessing the energy outwardly spent through the senses. Fluidity in both the physical and mental state is cultivated through movement exercises such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong. So there is a progressive movement towards excellence and efficiency that gradually transforms the individual into a new being.
The Mastery of Timing
One of the crowning insights of the ancient Taoists is the awareness that we are at the most fluid and efficient when we are operating at the right moment. If we carry out some action during the wrong timing then a monumental amount of energy is required to produce results and sometimes even that is not enough. In contrast when the action is riding the river of the right timing there is a minimum of effort needed to accomplish extraordinary things.
One of the deciding factors in all energy practices is the recognition of the right timing. In dream practice it means that one learns to listen to the body and the life force. Listening for that moment when the totality of one’s being points in one direction with uncompromising power.
Listening to the right timing means that the Taoist is totally committed and available to the practice whenever it calls. This is the result of a decision taken fully conscious at some point in the past. Without a strong decision and a definite commitment there is no way to begin directing the life force in the direction we want to go.
Ultimate Purpose of Dream Practice
The development of the intention and the will, the ability to sustain focus through the subtle dimensions, the harnessing of one’s vitality and the ability to become fluid and abandoned at the right timing are all directed at one important experience. That is the transition of consciousness at the moment of death from the physical to the subtle body.
Dream practice is the training ground for learning to utilize the intention, the will and consciousness in conjunction with the subtle energy body. At the moment of death there is a separation of the consciousness from the physical body into the subtle energy body. A crossing from time and space into the ocean of infinity.
The dream practitioner is someone who through sustained effort has learned to swim in the ocean of infinity without tiring or becoming scared. Someone who is consciously at home in the complete energy spectrum of the life force. Someone who is no longer fixed on the physical dimension as the sole reality worth exploring.
For the Taoists the ability to embrace the full spectrum of the life force is the most important task a human being can accomplish in this lifetime. It is said that `If one realizes the Way in the morning one can die at peace in the evening’.
The great insight of the ancient Taoists went even beyond life and death. So detaching the consciousness from the physical into the subtle dimensions is not an end in itself. It is simply a beginning of another cycle of being. A new cycle which continues under different conditions from the physical and yet carries a precious gift from the world. The gift is the `luminous pearl’ of indestructible insight condensed through the alchemy of refining the intention and the will. The traveller takes only that from the crossing through this world.
BIOGRAPHY OF JUAN LI: Was born in 1946 in Cuba from Cuban and Chinese parents. In 1969 became interested in the dream work of Carl Gustav Jung and upon graduation from the University in 1970 came to Zurich to study at the Jung Institute. Since 1969 he began to keep a daily record of his dreams, some of which he illustrated in watercolors. From Zurich he went to India where he began to study yoga, eventually becoming acquainted with the Hindu dream practices. After 1971 he began to reside in Nepal where he continued his yoga studies with several Tibetan teachers. It was there that he became aquainted with the Tibetan dream practices. In 1982 he met the Taoist master Mantak Chia who introduced him to the inner teachings of Taoism and the internal energy work. By 1985 enough changes had taken place in the energy meridians and the organs that the entries in his dream diaries became very few and widely spaced apart. Ordinary dreams were reduced to a minimum and instead conscious dreaming began to take place with regularity.
In 1988 Master Chia asked Juan Li to begin assisting in teaching the Taoist system in Europe. From that time on he spends the greater part of the year conducting classes in several countries of western Europe. Among his classes one is dedicated to the dream practices. Juan Li and his wife Renu Li reside now in Santa Fe in the Southwestern United States.
Breathing in and out, exhaling and inhaling, they get rid of the old to absorb the new. They swing like bears and stretch like birds – all this they do in order to have long life. They are Daoyin disciples, people who nourish their form seeking for longevity like Pengzu.
Many different interpretations were given to the word “daoyin” during the ages. The following two are the most reliable:
daoqi yinti – guide the qi and stretch the body
daoqi yinliao – guide the qi to obtain a healing effect
Both interpretations describe important aspects of the exercise and are not contradictory to each other. The first describes briefly the technique while the second refers to one goal of the exercise; actually with daoyin we guide the qi and move our body in order to obtain a beneficial effect to our health.
China has an ancient and deep tradition of body-mind care. According to historical documents already during the feudal age (770-221 BC) the so-called “life-nourishing ways” (yangsheng zhi dao) gained great importance. They were methods aimed at enhancing a long, healthy and good life, by means of dietetic regime, herbal preparations, gymnastic exercises and spiritual cultivation (such as study, poetry, meditation, etc.).
Many famous thinkers of this time argued heatedly on these issues, proposing their own “ways” and discussing those of their colleagues. Among the various “life-nourishing ways”, the physical exercise was almost universally regarded as necessary and very effective. As “physical exercise” we have to think here something much deeper and articulated than what we mean today. It was an exercise involving body and mind in a great potentially unlimited effort of self-purification. The ascetics of that time practiced and taught these techniques in order to reach long life and immortality.
The concept of “qi” (ch’i – according to Wade-Giles transcription) has no equivalent in today’s western culture. In the oldest Chinese sources it is seen as the vital element that generates and unifies all the universe. It is often translated as “energy”, “vital energy ” or “breath”, “vital breath”.
According to ancient Chinese physical concepts, the qi pervades and animates all creatures. The whole universe is alive, starting from Heaven and Earth, the parents of all beings. The human being lives, as do all of the other creatures, between Heaven and Earth, and is their evident fruit. Its head is round like the vault of Heaven, its feet are flat like the Earth’s surface. The head points to the sky, and the feet hold him up resting on the earth. Among all creatures man is regarded as the most perfect because he bears the symbols of Heaven and Earth, he combines the natures of Heaven and Earth.
Man lives thanks to his inner qi (yuanqi – original vital energy) that he gets from his parents and loses with the death. Zhuangzi describes this concept so:
Man comes into the world by a qi condensing. It is this qi that, when it condenses, gives birth to the life and this same qi that, when it dissipates, brings death.
(Liou Kia-hway. Zhuangzi, Adelphi, 1982)
The human qi gets nourishment and circulates thanks to breathing, eating and physical and mental activity. Through the breathing we absorb the pure qi of the air (qingqi) and expel the dirty qi (zhuoqi). From the food we eat we absorb the nourishing qi of several natural elements.
Beside these “nourishments” coming from outside, the man can help himself in keeping his qi healthy by suitable physical activity that can allow him to avoid blocks and stagnations. Actually the qi is not stationary within the body but it circulates steadily, like the blood and the lymph. If there are blocks, stagnations or if it doesn’t circulates in a proper way, we have a pathological situation.
The main meanings of the world qi in Chinese life nourishing and gymnastic techniques are the following:
2. human vital energy
3. universe vital energy
These meanings are often not separated, on the contrary, most of the time they are present together.
The world “gong” means “ability, work”; “qigong” (ch’i-kung according to Wade-Giles phonetic transcription) is the “work on qi“, as well as the ability resulting from this work.
The Chinese also ascribe to qi many uncommon phenomena like Prana therapy, invulnerability to blades, glasses, fire, electric current, or the ability to break bricks, bend iron bars, etc. All of these faculties, and many others, are listed by the Chinese under “qi abilities” rather than qigong.
The oldest traces of the word qigong go back to Tang dynasty (618-905) Taoist books, such as Taiqing tiaoqi jing (Supreme Purity qi regulation Classic), describe breathing, visualization, or meditation techniques, aimed at purifying oneself in an attempt to reach immortality.
In the martial arts qigong – or better said neigong (“inner work”) – is used to strengthen the vital energy and, widely the body and the mind. All Chinese traditional martial art schools (wushu) have specific neigong exercises. Some of them, so-called “inner schools” (neijia), have melted together such exercises with the martial technique, originating an integrated whole. The most famous inner schools are Taijiquan, Baguazhang e Xinyiquan.
With reference to health promoting techniques, the term “qigong” seems to appear not earlier than 1910 and only at the end of the 1950’s it started to be used on large scale. Today it has a much bigger diffusion than the more correct world daoyin, especially outside China.
Daoyin works on three different but always combined levels.
1. body level yundong daoyin (motor guiding)
guiding the body to the required positions and movements
2. breath level huxi daoyin (breath guiding)
controlling and guiding the respiration according to the required ways and rhythms
3. mind level yinian daoyin (mind guiding)
controlling and guiding the body to the required positions and movements and the respiration according to the required ways and rhythms, by mental focusing. At the same time, focusing the mind also on certain specific points and coordinating all these operations in one single integrated and complete action.
The roots of this triple action are to be found in the so-called 3 regulations (santiao), axe-principle of every traditional daoyin exercise. The “3 regulations” are:
– regulate the body (tiaoshen)
– regulate the breath (tiaoxi)
– regulate the mind (tiaoxin)
According to classical Chinese physiology, body and mind are a whole that cannot be divided. The mind lives thanks to the body and vice versa, both depend on each other. Ruling and cultivating properly the body cannot be done without using the mind, neither could it be possible to rule the mind and obtain the best concentration without a correct use of the body and the respiration. The respiration cannot be controlled without using the correct positions and a proper mind focusing. All the deepest oriental body disciplines acknowledge these principles.
Daoyin yangshenggong (Daoyin life nourishing exercises) is the result of a long and deep research on ancient daoyin techniques carried out by professor Zhang Guangde of Beijing Physical Education University.
Its soft, fluent and harmonious movements are aimed at improving energy circulation within the whole body, to loosen the joints, tone up and oxygenate the muscles and to relax the nervous system.
Several clinical tests made in China and examinations done by medical specialists and researchers from all over the world, have proved Daoyin yangshenggong to be effective in improving the health, preventing and healing many acute and chronic diseases without showing any side effect.
Daoyin doesn’t restrict itself to the health aspect. Thanks to its deep and meticulous work on concentration, respiration and movements, daoyin is also a wonderful method for self-cultivation and inner growth. With daoyin we can establish a close connection between body and mind and restore the inner harmony that so often gets damaged in our stressful daily life.
Zhang Guangde was born in 1932 in Tangshan, Hebei province, the town where in 1955 the first Qigong Clinic was established. Coming from a medical family background, in 1955 Zhang Guangde was enrolled in the Wushu Dept. of the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, where he graduated in 1959 becoming first teacher and then Senior Professor.
In the 70’s he devoted himself to daoyin research, ending with the development of the Daoyin yangshenggong system that today is practised by more than 4 million people spread in all the five continents.
Today Zhang Guangde is Professor and Researcher of Beijing University of Physical Education Wushu Dept, Honorary General Director of “Zhang Guangde’s Daoyin Yangshenggong Centre” , Permanent Member and Vice-Secretary of the Chinese Wushu Research Association.
Untiring in his devotion to daoyin cause, he decided to travel the world in order to introduce daoyin benefits to the greatest number of people. He has been invited to hold classes and seminars in Universities in France, at Oldenburg University (Germany), at Tokyo University and at the Japan Sport University.
Daoyin yangshenggong is based on the so-called “Five Natures” (wuxing) and “Three Hearts” (sanxin).
The “Five Natures” are:
1. systematic nature xitongxing
2. scientific nature kexuexing
3. effectiveness shixiaoxing
4. artistic expression yishuxing
5. great spread guangfan shiyingxing
The “Three Hearts ” are:
1. pure heart zhenxin
2. enthusiastic heart rexin
3. patient heart naixin
The “Five Natures” refer to the criteria that lead to the construction of the exercises.
Daoyin yangshenggong is a complete system of training, it isn’t restricted to a single exercise pattern or to a single aim. The construction of every exercise has been carried out in a “systematic” way, considering several aspects. As far as possible nothing has been neglected in building-up the daoyin routines.
It has a “scientific nature” because the creator, by composing the single routines, did not just passively transmit the old tradition but also had a great concern for researching and testing the scientific principles of the exercises.
“Effectiveness” because the exercises formulated by professor Zhang were based upon objective principles that proved to be effective also according to modern scientific knowledge.
“Artistic expression” because the different forms have not only a pragmatic aim but play a significant role as well as an aesthetic and artistic model in spiritual and physical expression.
“Great spread” means that the creator strove to reach a possible compromise between technical, pedagogical and diffusion needs, composing exercises that are not boring, repetitive and complicated but relatively simple, varied, elegant, beautiful, and appropriate in length and intensity.
The “Three Hearts ” refer to the mind attitude of Daoyin devotees.
“Pure Heart” means that the practitioner should have a pure and unpolluted approach towards the discipline and the training; he has to get rid of any conditioning, worry, suspect or doubt. This is the best condition to learn. A pure heart and a sincere mind allow for a better life with ourselves and with others, as well the opportunity to absorb quickly the teaching.
“Enthusiastic Heart” means enthusiasm towards study, practice and learning. Enthusiasm is a wonderful motor for learning, it enriches our life and our person making it more active and dynamic, and it helps us to overcome the difficult moments too.
“Patient Heart” is an essential requirement to learn any discipline and even more to learn a demanding art like Daoyin. “Patience” means to be patient with ourselves and with others. Daoyin characteristics force us to cultivate patience, a very necessary and often mistreated virtue in today society.
Daoyin yangshenggong system provides sitting and standing, static and dynamic symmetric exercises, with various degrees of difficulty, to be performed also with specific musical excerpts in order to help concentration and relaxation.
The exercises are aimed towards special goals and have distinctive features, but every single exercise is at the same time quite complete in itself and enough for personal training.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.