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The Tibetan Buddhist breathing technique ‘tummo’ creates inner heat. The practice of similar techniques ...
2020-07-07 09:00:00
healthy living

Monks on Ice
The Miracle of Yogic Heat

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Monks on Ice
Monks on Ice

Some treat extreme cold as an opportunity to test their mental strength, while others derive their mental strength from contact with extreme cold.

Read in 9 minutes

It’s hard to confirm that Alexandra David-Néel really was the first European woman to reach Tibet. But she was definitely the first significant promoter of Tibetan spirituality and the mysterious culture of the roof of the world. Quite clever (let’s recall that she arrived in Lhasa disguised as a beggar – a man) and truly fascinated with Buddhism, more than 100 years ago David-Néel visited Tibet’s capital and the monasteries, where she met lamas and yogis who were intriguing, to say the least. It is thanks to this incredible traveller that the West learned for the first time of the unique qualities of this country, surrounded by mountains. One such quality, which readers could find out about from the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, published in 1929 in France, is tummo.

Tummo means ‘heat’ in Tibetan, but it’s understood in various ways: from banal to varying degrees of exotic. We’re interested here in tummo as a set of practices allowing a ‘supernatural’ increase in the body’s temperature (or maintaining it) by awakening ‘internal energy’. An adept can control their energy primarily by breathing exercises, which strongly stress holding one’s breath, and visualization based on something that can be called mystical physiology. According to David-Néel, the practitioner imagines (e.g. in the region of the navel), holy syllables that are on fire, or the nerve connecting the navel to the head – this nerve burns, gradually becoming larger, until it encompasses the entire world; or the sun on the hands and feet, which are then rubbed together. These imaginings may be exceptionally complicated, but regardless of the precise variation, imagining fire in the body is central. This ‘psychic heat’, in the end, is meant to produce real heat.

David-Néel confirmed that she witnessed how the monks warmed up frozen cloths laid on their backs. This was meant to be the test of tummo ability: on a freezing, windy night, the monks would go to the water; if it was frozen over, they’d make a hole in the ice. They sat on the bank. Cloths dipped in the water quickly froze. The monks laid them on their bodies and had the task of heating them up using tummo. Next the dried cloth was dipped again, and the entire procedure was repeated. After three rounds, the monk was judged to have passed the test. The best could perform the entire process 40 times. Another type of exam consisted of sitting on the snow and melting it – the radius of melted snow around the meditating monk bore witness to the level of his skill.

Such practices have a geographical justification: we all know where Tibet is, and how high it is. Many Buddhist hermits inhabit the snowbound mountain caves. According to David-Néel, tummo practices were something Tibetans were always proud of. Apparently, even when certain lamas visited India, taking a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Buddha, they would poke fun at the yogis lying out in the sun.

Some researchers questioned David-Néel’s account, accusing her of stretching the truth about a land that was inaccessible to others. From the point of view of contemporary knowledge, though, it seems that in the case of tummo the description of these practices was not at all exaggerated.

Accelerated metabolism?

Another important text informing the West about tummo is The Way of White Clouds by Anagarika Govinda (whose original name was Ernst Lothar Hoffmann) – a German who travelled around Tibet in the 1930s and 1940s, even receiving the title of lama. The author describes meetings with lightly-dressed monks in snow-covered mountains, as well as young boys in monastery schools, who in the morning would roll around in the snow (most likely an initial stage of tummo training).

This type of report must have intrigued scientists. The first experiments on tummo took place in January 1981 in Dharamsala (the main centre of Tibetan emigration) and were conducted by a group of researchers from Harvard, led by Herbert Benson. The scientists researched three advanced practitioners, of which each was said to have applied these techniques for at least six years; additionally, all of them had lived for the previous 10 years in stone huts (4 x 7 metres, slate roof, earth floor), unheated and located in mountainous terrain near Dharamsala, at a level of 1800 to 2800 metres above sea level.

The Buddhist monks meditated for almost an hour; the highest jump in temperature was registered on their hands and their toes (by more than 7°C). The hypothesis of an accelerated metabolism supposedly increasing energy in the body was rejected (the monks ate regular food rations); the heart worked at a normal pace. It was suggested that increasing the temperature in the hands and feet was caused by an expansion of the blood vessels, though it was also acknowledged that this was not measured. In brief, no satisfactory explanation was found for the phenomenon, whose existence was officially confirmed.

The last significant research on tummo was conducted by Maria Kozhevnikov (also connected with Harvard Medical School) in 2012. The results of this research, “Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality”, are available free of charge online. Kozhevnikov questioned the methodology of Benson’s 1981 research and conducted two comparative experiments, measuring not only body temperature but also brain waves, using an electroencephalograph. In the first measurement, advanced tummo practitioners from eastern Tibet took part; in the second, Western yoga practitioners were instructed to use only the somatic aspects of tummo, meaning certain breathing exercises combined with tensing particular muscles, without using visualization. The results showed that practising breathing exercises – key in maintaining temperature – turned out to be significantly shorter and more difficult without visualization. The results of these experiments strongly stressed the monks’ concentration: this was said to be the reason why tummo practices are never paired with dynamic movement, in a type of running or even walking, but are limited only to breathing exercises and possibly static isometric exercises. Dynamic movement is too distracting, and maintaining concentration is the most important thing here. Fundamentally, the results confirm that tummo allows greater control of the body temperature, and thus health, as well as increasing cognitive capabilities. The hypothesis of conscious increasing of the temperature was questioned, but it was suggested that the monks can simply maintain a constant body temperature regardless of the conditions (the steaming cloths David-Néel describes would be steaming from the difference in temperature between the skin and the surrounding air).

Let’s note that in all of this, unusual resistance to cold is only one of the elements of the whole sensation surrounding this phenomenon. The issue is not only human resilience and the capabilities of the human body, which usually lie dormant. Perhaps what’s most important in all this is the assumption of the privileged role of the conscious mind in the operation of the body and the potential exercise of influence on its functioning, which had seemed to be beyond all control. The masterful taming of the mind, which Buddhist monks work toward through years of exercises, leads to something that seems like a miracle.

Up Kilimanjaro in shorts

Speaking of miracles, let’s look at the ones that happen in Europe and are almost within arm’s reach – let’s examine the figure of Wim Hof, a Dutchman who has engaged in various activities throughout his life. He has held jobs including that of postman; he has almost always been fascinated by yoga, kung fu, Sufism, Zen and every mystical tradition. But every lesson led to disappointment; he had the idea that he was only reading, at most understanding, but never feeling what he was looking for.

In the winter of 1979, at the age of 20, driven by a sudden and controversial impulse, he entered the icy water of an Amsterdam canal and experienced something along the lines of his longed-for revelation. This touched off a series of experiments and inquiries related to cold and breathing. On his own (he found out about tummo much later) he achieved impressive results.

I’ll mention a few entries from the Guinness World Records that Hof has held: climbing Kilimanjaro wearing nothing but shorts and boots (let’s note his similar, partially successful attempt on Mount Everest); swimming almost 60 metres under ice; a marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking a drop of water; the longest ice bath (a record he beat several times, most often on live television; his record is two hours).

After the tragic death of his wife, Hof changed his activities. Rather than beating more records, he got more engaged in using his knowledge to improve health protection and the rehabilitation of people suffering from autoimmune diseases and mental illness. His late wife, whom he still today says is the love of his life, committed suicide; Hof says cold healed him of the pain after this loss. He maintains that exposure to cold (even just a cold shower) is more beneficial in states of fear or depression: it’s an experience so intense that there’s no other option but returning to yourself and your body.

Hof has quite eagerly subjected himself to various scientific experiments. He himself says he’s able to control his immune system, damping down or stimulating its operation, something that medical textbooks say is impossible. In a well-publicized experiment, in 2011 Peter Pickkers investigated this, injecting him with dead E. coli bacteria (because they were dead, they posed no risk to his health, but his body should react to the threat nonetheless). Other participants in the experiment suffered strong side effects after being injected; Hof felt only a slight headache. Hof is in general a very useful subject for scientists, because he has a twin brother whom he can be compared with anatomically. The brother displays no ‘supernatural’ physical powers, which raises the suspicion that Wim Hof isn’t a freak of nature, and his achievements are strongly related to his programme of exercises and consciousness work.

The basic goal of what Hof does – which he constantly repeats in interviews – is to convince others that anyone can be healthy strong and happy (he is, of course, a huge opponent of the pharmaceutical industry). Hof says he’s able to teach anyone to do what he can. And it seems to be true. He has a home in Poland’s Karkonosze Mountains, where every winter he organizes week-long events that culminate in climbing Mt. Śnieżka wearing only trousers. To take part, no special preparations are required.

The best-known publication about Hof is Scott Carney’s book What Doesn’t Kill Us, which culminates in an ascent of Kilimanjaro including Hof and the author. The journalist had conducted research to find the forecasts for a planned ascent of Africa’s highest peak in two days (acclimatization to the gradual thinning of the air and the risk of altitude sickness usually lasts at least five days). Must people interviewed about the subject (doctors, climbers) said the whole group would die. But they managed, and everyone survived; Scott spent most of the time without a shirt and was sweating, even in temperatures that felt as low as –35°C.

Body work, mind work

Hof’s under-ice swimming record was beaten by Stig Severinsen (72 metres with just a swimming suit and goggles). The Dane has travelled a similar path – he’s a world champion free-diver, who some time ago also started working with war veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and people who have been affected by various psychosomatic illnesses. Severinsen says he achieved his feats and outstanding condition largely thanks to meditation and work on his breathing, which he learned in India (he also has the world record for holding his breath: 24 minutes, the entirety of which can be seen on YouTube). One of his methods, used in rehabilitation and therapy, is diving. This results from the assumption that submerging yourself in water forces a different operation of your body, most of all by your brain, which Severinsen says begins to behave in a way close to the states achieved in deep meditation.

To sum up, combining the work of body and mind can deliver incredible results. This sufficiently documented fact isn’t important only for athletes. In today’s world, the role of consciousness in building our resilience, and in general in maintaining health, seems worthy of particular attention. But passing over the ‘superhuman’ achievements of monks and eccentric record-holders, it’s worth considering whether the comfortable conditions of contemporary life haven’t excessively weakened our bodies, which we no longer expose to any ‘environmental training’, cutting them off from the invigorating effect of the elements. Our bodies were made to live in nature. Let’s also recall that our Palaeolithic ancestors, from whom we don’t differ physically, didn’t wear puffy coats or long underwear, nor did they have central heating.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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