Body and soul are one—Tibetan yoga proves it best. Ancient exercises of breath and movement will improve anyone’s wellbeing.
The five core tsa lung exercises described below come from the teachings of the Ma Gyu, or Mother Tantra—the essential cycle of Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition Jungdrung Bön. They are a guide to working with five types of breathing. As Alejandro Chaoul-Reich, a disciple of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, explains, “Through simple body movements, the vital breath guides the mind into particular locations, or chakras, opening and harmonizing those locations to experiences that can support one's meditative practice.”
Thus, these exercises are performed as an introduction to further meditation practice. Each of the chakras corresponds to the five elements and their associated features. In addition, Tibetan yoga also includes trul khor, or magic circle, also known as yantra yoga. Without going into too much detail, physical practices are an aid during mental practices here, as they help to balance and enhance meditation, as well as maintain a natural state of mind.
Breathing is Key
Breathing technique in Tibetan yoga is compared to horseback riding. Only cooperation between the rider and the horse will lead them to their goal, as the former—symbolizing the mind—is legless, and the latter—symbolizing the breath—is without eyes. The combination of mind and breath in tsa lung enables its healing powers to restore the body and emotions.
In Tibetan, tsa means “channel,” and lung means “breath” or “wind.” Proper focus and synchronization of the mind, breath, and physical exercises, activates specific energy centers of the body, and removes blockages that prevent access to the space of pure existence. Integrating this state into our consciousness allows us to identify the positive qualities of life.
Tibetans believe and practice the above, while Westerners value empirical data. It’s worth noting that in the United States, yoga is a subject of research conducted on behalf of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A group of scholars from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center led by Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, a professor in Clinical Cancer Prevention and director of the Integrative Medicine Program, and the aforementioned Chaoul-Reich are studying the impact of Tibetan yoga on cancer patients at Texas Medical Center in Houston.
Benefits for the Body and Soul
It is difficult to describe precisely the benefits of these exercises. Everyone feels differently in their body; not everyone has come to terms with it, although the hope for all is to understand that what happens to our body is an inseparable element of our wellbeing. Without a healthy body, our soul cannot feel good, and without the wellbeing of the soul, the body won’t be healed.
An unquestionable advantage of the set of exercises described below is their simple and straightforward nature that makes practicing accessible to nearly anyone, regardless of shape and form. These can be performed in a sitting position, preferably on the floor, on a meditation pillow or a folded blanket. People with a small or limited range of motion can sit up straight on a chair, without leaning back, legs crossed at the ankles. The chin should be pointed slightly downwards.
Before starting, it is a good idea to sink into silence and stillness. It is also common to think about the obstacles or problems one wishes to overcome.
What to Know
First, it is helpful to visualize the flows within us. The basic principle of Tibetan medicine is that there are three channels in the body. The middle, or central, blue channel is about the width of a thumb, begins approximately two inches below the navel, runs upwards through the center of the body and opens at the top of the head. On the left side, is the red channel, and on the right, the white one, and both are slightly smaller in diameter than the central channel. The lateral channels are luminous, and merge below the navel. At the top, they pass behind the eye sockets and exit through the nostrils. Visualizing the channels and their colors is not necessary to do the exercises, but it can make it easier if one doesn’t focus solely on the breath.
For accurate execution of the routine, each breath should be divided into stages. Inhale, hold the breath in for a moment, without exhaling, inhale again and rotate the torso, hold the breath a little longer, exhale. Between inhaling and exhaling, particular movements are performed.
Purify Your Inner Self
It’s best to practice in the morning, or twice a day, in the evening, as well. Each time the exercise can last between twenty and forty minutes, depending on how many times one repeats a given tsa lung.
Harmony of body and soul is the goal of existence, and the teachings emphasize the desired effortlessness of pursuits and actions. In a Western culture that values effort and hard work for achieving our goals, this ideal may seem contradictory. However, a different kind of effortlessness is at stake here. This is not the only instance where concepts or their definitions get lost in a sea of translations, interpretations, or simple misunderstandings. It’s apt to compare tsa lung exercises to clearing out a space: we get rid of unwanted stuff, and make room for what’s desired.
The exercises described below are suitable for anyone, but an important element of Tibetan teachings is preservation of the lineage, which means that students should receive instructions directly from the teacher—both in case of individual practice, as well as broader teachings. Following the pandemic, there has been a breakthrough in this regard, and now you can find a teacher who will do it online.
Unblock Your Energy
Tsa Lung Number One
Upward Clearing Wind, associated with the throat and head chakra. It belongs to the element of earth and the color yellow.
Inhale and hold the air in your throat, breathe in a little more. Tilt your head slightly forward and start turning to the left in a smooth motion. Make five full circles, then switch direction and do five more to the right. The movements are to be loose and circular. After ten, exhale.
Repeat this exercise three or five times, allowing a few calm breaths between each series—this does not need to be done continuously. If thoughts, problems, or obstacles arise, imagine they are being released with each exhalation. Feel the head and throat chakra become open and clear.
Tsa Lung Number Two
Life-force Clearing Wind, associated with the heart chakra. It belongs to the element of space and the color white.
Inhale and hold it at chest level in the heart area. Breathe in and imagine that the air is spreading throughout that space. Extend the right arm and start circling to the left, swinging it above the head. Complete this motion five times, then switch to the right arm and repeat for five more.
Place your hands on your hips and, without moving them, rotate the right arm backwards. Repeat five times, then switch sides and do five more. Exhale, imagining the air leaving through all three channels, along with the obstacles that have appeared in your life.
If the air retention time is too long on the first attempts, repeat three times instead of five. After a few attempts, you should be able to hold your breath throughout the full number of rotations.
Tsa Lung Number Three
Fire-like Wind, associated with the navel chakra and internal organs. It belongs to the element of fire and the color red.
In a sitting position, place your hands on your hips—as in the previous two exercises. Inhale and hold your breath at the level of the navel. Breathe in a little more and start rotating your torso: five turns to the right and five to the left. Exhale through the nostrils and feel an opening in the navel chakra. Repeat this routine five times.
Tsa Lung Number Four
Pervasive Wind encompasses the entire body, and belongs to the element of air and the color green.
Spread your arms and place your hands on your knees, palms up. Breathe in and feel the air permeate the entire body, especially in places where energy is blocked. Raise your hands above your head, clap then rub them against each other, and then the body from the top of your head through the shoulders and torso to the legs—as if you wanted to warm it up.
While holding your breath in, make movements with your hands similar to shooting a bow—five times to the right and five times to the left. Exhale. Calm your breath and repeat five times.
Tsa Lung Number Five
Downward Clearing Wind, associated with the secret chakra, sex organs, and the groin. It belongs to the element of water and the color blue.
Performing this exercise involves forming the basket-hold position by pulling up the rectal muscles and pelvic base. Place your right leg in front of the left, and rest your hands on your knees. Inhale and direct the breath to the base of the central channel, in place of the secret chakra. Holding the right knee with both hands, rotate the torso five times to the left. Then, holding the left knee, rotate the torso five times to the right. Next, holding both knees, rotate the torso five times to the left.
This exercise requires practice for two reasons—keeping your pelvic muscles taut the whole time and releasing only to exhale. Initially, it might be difficult to perform the exercise in one inhalation, as it takes longer than the previous ones.
If you feel that you would like to give it a try, I recommend watching Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s tutorials on YouTube. These are simple exercises that are difficult to describe in words.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel
This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on December 22, 2022.
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