Perfect Breathing

Stay Warm in Winter with Qi Gong's Tumo

Here's an essay we did wth Heiner Fruehauf, founding professor of the School of Classical Chinese Medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon.

Classic Oriental medicine teaches that we are literally somewhere between heaven and earth. All traditional medicine began as a way of breathing the universal energy (chi) that our bodies are programmed to receive. The universe provides nourishment and breathing is our way of absorbing it.

In Oriental medicine, the organs have a different function than in Western medicine. The lung is the master of chi and that of course involves the breath. There are many types of chi in the body, but breath chi is the most fundamental. The Chinese know that this is very ancient knowledge. They have found texts created around 200 BC that talk about breathing through your pores. The fact that these exercises were compiled and mature at about 200 BC leads scholars to believe that the knowledge was probably developed around 1000 BC and originated around 2000 BC.

One Tibetan exercise that specifically focuses on breathing is Tumo. The Chinese name for it, "Bow Ping Qi," means "precious bottle breath." Tumo is a great exercise for generating tremendous amounts of body heat in a short amount of time using just the breath and visualization. It makes sense that the Tibetans would develop this technique as it is very cold in the winter, and there is not much in the way of artificial heating devices to speak of, so you have to be able to generate body heat at night. The Tibetan monks even have  contests where they are seated by a river on a freezing cold night and are draped with sheets soaked in the river. They must be able to maintain their body temperature [and dry the sheets] under these conditions. It is difficult for the average person to imagine having this power, but if you have the opportunity to study this technique from childhood, eight hours a day, you too would be able to achieve amazing results.

While leading an excursion to the Tibetan region of China I had an opportunity to practice this technique. We were in Hei Lo Go, which is at the base of Mt. Gogo. The glacier comes down to 10,000 feet and it gets quite cool there in the evening. It was the middle of summer and we were dressed in light clothing and were not prepared for the cool weather. A teacher decided to teach us the Tumo technique to keep us warm.

I am not an expert, and there are undoubtably higher levels to this, but I can relate my experience with Tumo:

First you must visualize that you are breathing in through the top of your head and imagine that your body is a precious vessel (such as alabaster), that has a very long and narrow neck and a full round base. Your breath travels down through the neck of the bottle and when it becomes full at the bottom you imaging corking the bottle to keep the breath from escaping for as long as you can. When you come to the end of your endurance, you let the breath out very slowly while at the same time imagining that the Qi is like a mist that separates from the air and settles at the bottom of the bottle. Once you have settled it at the bottom, you uncork the bottle, start breathing in  and begin again.

As you practice, you work your way up to holding your breath for longer intervals (20 seconds, 30, and so on). Within 15 minutes you will get very warm doing this. Even people in our group who had chronically cold hands had hot hands after practicing the Tumo technique and even on the coldest days you can generate enough body heat stay comfortably warm for several hours..

The Tumo practice eventually evolves to just visualization: imagining that in every cell in your body there is a sun shining; that the energy of the universe is warming every cell. At this point you don't need to hold the breath anymore. The important thing with this exercise, which is true of Taoist and traditional Oriental philosophy, is that practice is an attitude. There is an important Taoist saying: "My life is in my hands not in the heavens hands." If you are ill you can get well. If you are hungry you can overcome it even if you do not have food. If you are cold you can become warm. From the Buddhist and Taoist perspective, a lot has to do with faith. The minute you let go, things begin to happen. If you don't have the faith, the breathing serves as a crutch to show you that this is possible. Eventually though, you should be able to let go of the crutch. Just like the food and herbs are a crutch. You take the Ginseng because you need a boost, but you should be able to create the same feeling with a visualization. You can then work your way up to trusting in your own abilities and divinity; you can manifest the energy by just remembering those moments. The more you practice Tumo, the faster the heat will come, and eventually you will not need to do the breathing.

As my teacher says "the best things are always simple", and if you stick to them every day for a long time, some amazing things can happen. 

Don Campbell and Al Lee are the authors of Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath At A Time (Sterling Publishing/2008) and write, speak, train, and blog tirelessly on the subject. Discover more ways you can improve your health, performance, and wellbeing at Reach them at info [at] perfectbreathing [dot] com or call 1-888-317-6718 (toll free).