Tibetan Yoga: Demystifying The Secret Tantric Tradition Of The Himalayas

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Tibetan Yoga is practiced in both Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) and Tantric Shaivism, yet it is quite different from what many might call yoga today (namely modern postural yoga that hatha traditions have influenced).

In this article, we’ll be looking at the Tibetan Yogas which are based on the Buddhist Tantras and therefore part of the Tantric Buddhist traditions (though Shaivite Tantric traditions share a core essence and have many similarities with Buddhist Tantrism).

It’s worth noting that though the practice is called Tibetan Yoga or Trulkhor, which can be translated as the ‘wheel that purifies illusion’, what we’re really talking about is the yogic and contemplative practices of the whole Himalayan region.

With the potential to be an incredibly dynamic practice, it involves meditation, visualization, and practices for both the body and breath. Let’s dive into:

  • The History Of Tantra In Tibet
  • Secrecy Of Tibetan Yoga
  • The Six Yogas
  • Yantra Yoga
mount kalish
Mount Kalish

The History Of Tantra In Tibet

We know that Tibet has long been a source of ancient wisdom, with influential yogis such as Krishnamacharya spending over 7 years there at the foothills of Mount Kalish.

The history of Tibetan Yoga, however, is in Tantra, a technology that began in India and originated within the Shaivism tradition. It later spread to Tibet alongside other countries such as Bali, Nepal, and China.

It’s thought this Tantric technology of transformation was brought to Tibet through the Mahasiddhas. These were great realized masters, Tantrikas who had attained the ‘siddhi of perfection’.

(Very interestingly, although only 4 of the 84 canonized Mahasiddhas were female, many of the Mahasiddhas gurus were actually female!)

The teachings of the Tantric masters caused a sea change in Buddhism that existed at the time, introducing the Vajrayana tradition to Tibet.

At the time, the Tibetan monastic Buddhist community didn’t welcome the new approach that Tantra brought, as it advocated for a much different approach than the norm.

Followers of Buddhism, including the Buddha himself as far as we can understand, led a very renunciatory and monastic life. Though he spoke of the ‘middle path’, he didn’t live the ‘middle path’ as a Western person may understand it in the 21st century.

Indeed, the Buddha’s view of moderation was still extremely strict.

Tantra transformed this view, encouraging people to see that awakening was not about transcending the body and society, but living in it!

Tantrikas said that humans tend to lose sight of our own innate bliss state and Buddha nature, yet this is something that we can access at any time because it is always a part of us.

We are the macrocosm!

They championed integration over renunciation, which was very different from how Tibetan Buddhists had been living previously.

This led to a clear distinction between the ‘white robes‘, the Tantric Buddhists (Vajrayana/Tantrayana), and ‘red robes‘, Buddhists from the monastic tradition.

Tibetan Buddhism is therefore largely derived from Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism. This is why Tibetan Buddhists, on the whole, advocate for a less renunciatory approach to life that’s based on compassionate interaction with the world around us.

a buddhist monk's hands and robe

The Secrecy of tibetan yoga

The root-source of error among sentient beings is thus unconscious ignorance.

And, in virtue of the power of the Good-Wishes of Me, the Adi-Buddha, may each of them realize the radiant, immaculate mind, innate in every living thing.

The Good-Wishes of the All-Good Buddha Samanta-Bhadia
(Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s Translation)

For a long time, Tibetan Yoga has been a fairly hidden practice that has been reserved for a chosen few. Teachers and practitioners were sworn to secrecy and only permitted to pass the knowledge to students who were initiated by an advanced Tantric master.

Holding back information from the uninitiated was done to protect Tibetan Yoga from being practiced wrongly. Because of the complexities of the practice, it’s likely that many misunderstandings or even misuse of the practice would occur if not guided by a teacher.

This is not only disrespectful to the lineage and masters, but also spreads wrong information and could cause harm to those who are not ready for the teachings.

The masters knew that little knowledge of something was a dangerous thing!

With the increasing knowledge being shared by teachers and scholars such as Ian Baker and Nida Chenagtsang, this is starting to change. The difference, however, is the practice is now being shared with full information and explanation, with the blessings of Tibetan teachers.

In fact, Ian Baker’s work on Tibetan Yoga was a request by his holiness the Dali Lama himself, stating that ‘the time of secrecy is over‘.

Though, I would still strongly encourage you to learn the practices from a Tibetan Yoga teacher, as there are many nuances and layers to the teachings!

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama

The Six Yogas

The Six Yogas are hallmarks of the Tibetan Yoga path which some Tibetan masters say is the fastest method to overcome suffering, clinging, illusion, and ignorance. The practices allow us to access our essence nature.

They all work with an understanding of the vajra body consisting of 3 energy channels, chakras, winds (currents of vital energy), and nuclei.

There are various traditions that all have practices of the Six Yogas, such as Tilopa, Naropa, and Niguma, and for this article, we’ll be looking at the Six Yogas of Naropa.

These were brought to Tibet by the master Marpa Lotsawa, after traveling to India and learning from the great Trantrika and Mahasiddha, Naropa. This began the Tibetan schools of Kagyupa and Gelukpa Buddhism.

According to W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s book, the yoga of heat and the illusory body are the two practices upon which the rest are based.

Four States of the Human Mind

It’s also helpful to understand that these yoga practices are based on the Tibetan Buddhist understanding that there are 4 states of the human mind, these are:

  1. Waking
  2. Dreaming
  3. Dreamless sleep
  4. The ‘fourth state‘ (transient experiences of our clear-light mind)

The fourth state of clear light can be explained below:

Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns; the original nature of your own mind. The natural state of the universe unmanifest.

Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home.

Tibetan Book of the Dead
a woman's hands holding white light

The Practices

1. The Yoga of Heat/Inner-Fire (tummo)

A very dynamic practice that is based on the energy of the fierce feminine.

The philosophy and contemplation behind tummo is that life is dependent upon warmth and heat is necessary for transformation. This practice causes energies within the subtle body to enter the central channel (what you may think of as the sushumna nadi).

This practice engages the body, breath, and mind and is said to lead to a oneness of both bliss and emptiness, it is also said to lead to the realization of dharmakaya.

Tummo requires transmission to students by a qualified teacher and to be initially practiced under their watchful eye.

a woman meditating with a glowing red body

2. The Yoga of the Illusory Body (gyulü)

Also the foundation of this path, this practice helps to realize the ultimate truth, transforming the practitioner’s conceptions of the mundane into the divine and leading to the realization of sambhogakaya.

It’s the contemplation of the illusory nature of reality (what you may understand as Maya).

Some traditions teach practicing this yoga in a mirror, contemplating how everything has an illusory or dream-like quality.

The teaching states that this will allow the yogi to realize that all manifestations have a natural state of Buddhahood (perfect enlightenment), a state which will continue into everyday life.

a woman meditating doing tibetan yoga in a mirror

3. The Yoga of Clear Light/Radiance (ösel)

This yoga is primarily practiced during sleeping states, though it can be used during waking states too, and is thought to reveal the clarity of one’s Buddha nature.

The fourth state of clear light (or luminosity) is the most subtle state of mind in which there is no suffering, delusion, or mental affliction. Over time, this state can be transformed into virtue and taught to recognize the tradition’s view of the emptiness of all phenomena.

Mastering this state can involve visualizing oneself as the Buddha Vajradhara, meditating on the mantra ‘HUM’ in the center of the heart chakra, and the yogi dissolving themselves into the diety.

This leads to the realization of the utmost, primordial wisdom.

a woman sitting down resting with her eyes closed

4. The Yoga Of Dream-State or Forceful Projection (milam)

This is what you may know as the skill of lucid dreaming and, with around one-third of our lives being spent dreaming or sleeping, making use of this time in the Tibetan view leads to mastery of life and death.

In this practice, the first step is for the yogi to know that their dreams are dreams – to ‘wake up’.

Dreams can then be used to practice other types of yogas previously mentioned and for the yogi to recognize luminosity.

Luminosity is described by Pema Karpo as being the clear light we see in the first moments of death, but can be accessed within meditation and other awareness practices.

Dream yoga allows the yogi to gain control of what is usually perceived as passive and master the subconscious. Some of the techniques are also about visiting various parallel dimensions and Buddha fields.

The meditation that is accessed in the dream state is then applied to waking life so we can work with our perception of reality in the conscious state.

a head in the clouds in a dream state

5. The Yoga of Consciousness-Transference (phowa)

In an effort to master the mind-energy so the yogi may die joyously, this is a practice that involves becoming ready to die and transferring one’s consciousness to a Buddha-field, releasing from the cycle of death and rebirth.

A yogi accomplished in this practice can not only forcefully project their own consciousness into another body or ‘the heart of the deity inseparable from the guru‘, but they can also help others who are leaving their bodies.

6. The Yoga of the Bardo/Intermediate State (bardo)

Marpo classifies three bardo states: the state between birth and death (life), the intermediate state of dreams, and the intermediate state of becoming (in between two lives on earth – between death and rebirth).

Tibetan yogis say it’s important to master because a strong reaction to these intermediate states will have a significant impact on our next incarnation or the realm in which we are re-born.

Therefore, this yoga leads to the mastery of the after-death state.

Yantra Yoga

Another Tantric Buddhist practice of yoga is Yantra Yoga, put into writing by Vairocana in the 8th century.

It involves the practice of exercises, postures, breath control, and meditation; Yantra Yoga is based on combining these practices with a focus on movement and rhythm.

Namely, there are 8 movements in Yantra Yoga that have a very specific goal of training the practitioner to hold their breath in four different ways. Through the movements, it also develops the 8 aspects of the breath:

Inhaling slowly, holding open, directing the hold, fast exhalation, fast inhalation, closing the hold, holding with contraction, and exhaling slowly.

The practice guides students on how to inhale and exhale correctly, how to hold their breath, and how to guide the hold.

It’s likely these classes are more accessible than learning the Six Yogas, but it’s essential to practice under a qualified teacher, as their guidance is invaluable when it comes to overseeing the subtle level of prana throughout your body.

More on tibetan yoga

This article has barely scratched the surface of the depths of Tibetan Yoga, if it interests you and you’d like to learn more, I recommend reading the books of Ian Baker or Nida Chenagtsang:

Here are some other YouTube videos for you to watch too!

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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