Tummo Breathing: The Ancient Tibetan Practice for Boosting Your Health and Well-Being

April 13, 2022
Filipe Bastos

Every breath you take sends crucial information to your brain, heart, and lungs via the autonomic nervous system, which manages bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and blood pressure. A lot of us take this process for granted, but the truth is, if we spend more time focusing on the amazing power of breathwork, we can raise the functioning of our bodies and minds to new levels. As the famous Vietnamese monk and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh said, “To master the breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds.”

There are loads of breathwork techniques out there, and they all affect us in different ways; some exercises can relieve stress, some help with conditions like insomnia or sleep apnea, while others can fill us with energy. When it comes to Tummo Breathing, the aim is clear — to generate inner warmth and boost our mental and physical health as a result. So how exactly does this process work, and where did it come from?

What is Tummo Breathing?

Translating as “Inner Fire”, Tummo Breathing is an ancient form of Tibetan Buddhist breathwork practice designed to boost feelings of inner heat and produce a variety of other physical and mental health benefits. It involves raising the normal body temperature to new levels using a combination of visualisation, breathwork, and muscle tensing. This technique can be used in a variety of practical contexts, for instance in an ice bath or cold shower, or when outside in cold weather conditions. However, it can also be used as a form of quiet meditation on the amazing power of the human body.

The practice is also often referred to as G-Tummo Breathing, or G-Tummo Meditation, so if you see those terms being thrown around, it’s worth knowing that they refer to the same form of meditation practice. We’ll get into the specifics of how to practise Tummo breathing shortly, but first, let’s take a quick look at where this ancient technique originated.

Origins of the practice

The G-Tummo technique dates back to sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts of the 8th century. Given the extreme conditions of the Tibetan plateau, in which temperatures often drop below zero due to high altitude, it’s no surprise that this process of raising bodily heat was devised. Also sometimes referred to as Chandali Yoga, the practice is designed to awaken the body’s inner fire and allow meditators to better focus and relax as a result.

Breathwork teacher Gwen Dittmar describes Tummo breathing as “an ancient tantric meditation that uses bioenergetic breathing plus visualization to increase your inner fire.” Breathing practices like this can help establish a deeper connection between mind and body — but we’ll explore the various benefits of Tummo breathing soon. Before we do that, it’s time to explain exactly how to employ this powerful exercise.

How to Practise Tummo Breathing

Tummo Breathing consists of three key steps, each one of them crucial to the efficacy of the practice. Let’s break it down and explore how you can use the power of these physical and mental techniques to increase your core body temperature and access a new kind of state.

Step 1: Visualisation

Visualise a fire burning inside your stomach. Place your hands on your stomach and visualise yourself as a large, hollow balloon with a small source of warmth at the centre. Feel the heat in your stomach and maintain this fire visualisation at all times throughout the rest of the practice.

Step 2: Breathe in and fuel the fire

The next step is all about manipulating the body by practising a specific breathing technique named ‘vase breathing’. Breathe in, moving your body back, and imagine the oxygen you’re taking in fanning the flames of the fire in your belly. Exhale strongly and slowly through your mouth with rounded lips, as if you were blowing through a straw. Perform a slow, gentle rocking motion as you inhale and exhale breaths. This kind of dynamic movement helps you build a rhythm; and as you perform this routine, try to notice the heat building inside you.

Step 3: Base belly hold

On your 5th inhale, hold and swallow, which will push the breath down into your belly. As you swallow down, simultaneously pull up using your abdominal and pelvic muscles (these are the muscles you use to stop a stream of urine, so just pretend you’re doing that). Hold for a good few seconds, and feel the fire inside your belly as you do so. Don’t push yourself too hard, because you could end up feeling faint or light-headed. When you start to feel as though you can’t hold in that breath much longer, exhale slowly.

Once you’ve performed this 3-step process, repeat it straight away. Continue to work on building the warmth in your belly through visualisation, deep breathing, and muscle tensing. While it may seem difficult or complicated at first, over time, this form of psychic heat generation will become more natural and easy to experience.

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How long does Tummo breathing take?

This can vary depending on the individual; however, within each Tummo session, you should try to complete at least 2-3 rounds of the 3-step process, if not more. Some more advanced meditators may practise Tummo breathing for an extended period of time, say 30-45 minutes, but that’s not always necessary, particularly if you’re a beginner. It’s also worth considering what time of day you choose to try out Tummo breathing. This exercise can seriously increase your energy levels and psych you up, so it’s best not to do it just before bed. The ideal time to practise is probably first thing in the morning.

The science behind ‘Inner Fire’

Although Tummo Breathing was originally developed by Tibetan Buddhist monks, as mindfulness and meditation have gained increased traction in the West, scientists have begun to study the effects of this technique. In the 1980s, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson conducted a study into the effects of Tummo breathing on Buddhist monks. Using electroencephalography (EEG) recordings and temperature measures, he found that the practice could lead to serious core body temperature increases, from the normal body temperature of 98.6°F (36.6°C) up to 101°F (38.3° C). Even in conditions of extreme cold, with Tibetan monks meditating outside wearing nothing but some basic woollen robes, they were able to maintain remarkable levels of body heat.

Herbert Benson’s research also found that this breathing exercise can lower metabolic rates by 64%, so you’d be wrong to think that all “Inner Fire” encourages is limited temperature increases. A 2013 study entitled ‘Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during G-Tummo Meditation’ reinforced this earlier research, showing that Tummo breathing could have significant effects on the core body temperature, finger temperature, and mental imagery of participants. And crucially, scientists have found that the temperature increase provided by the vase breathing technique is minimal without the visualisation component of Tummo practice. So how can we use this exercise to our advantage? Let’s look into the practical benefits of Tummo breathing in some more detail.  

The Benefits of Tummo

Like many other breathwork exercises, Tibetan Tummo meditation has a range of health benefits, many of which are linked to stress reduction and anxiety management. Paying focused attention to the breath can help beginner and expert meditators alike by bringing them back to the present moment and reducing the volume of the monkey mind.

Regular practice, even over a fairly limited time frame, can help meditators cultivate a clearer, more honest, and more open mind. Within Tummo meditation’s spiritual context, Tibetan monks often use this technique to get rid of sinful thoughts. In this sense, Tummo has plenty of common with various other compassion-based meditation exercises, such as sympathetic joy or Tonglen Meditation. As well as helping to boost happiness levels and combat negative thoughts and emotions, Tummo can also reduce the impact of stress-related health problems such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and cardiac irregularities.

Tummo breathing can also have a positive effect on cognitive performance and help practitioners develop a reduced sense of ego and an enhanced sense of personal power. These changes to cognitive performance and the inner workings of the mind can help facilitate deeper forms of meditation. You might be thinking that Tummo seems to share several benefits and practical points with Wim Hof’s famous breathing method, which has allowed him to complete a number of world records related to cold exposure and endurance. So what are the differences?

Are the effects similar to that of the Wim Hof Method?

Many people compare Tummo Breath to the Wim Hof method, and there are indeed some key similarities. However, it’s important to note that these are two distinct practices. For one, Wim Hof describes his method as relating primarily to “cold hard nature”, whereas Tummo has deep spiritual roots and strong ties to the Buddhist tradition. One of the key distinctions is the fire visualisation that represents such an essential part of Tummo.

Before We Go

You should now have a good idea of what Tummo breathing entails, as well as where the practice originated and the kinds of benefits it can produce. Using the visualisation, breathing pattern, and muscle contraction of the Tummo technique can help us increase our normal body temperature, manage external and internal pressures, reduce negative thoughts and emotions and access new modes of thinking.

Before we leave you to give this method a try, let’s recap some key points to consider and add a couple of extra tips to bear in mind.

  • Remember the three steps of Tummo: Visualisation, the Vase Breathing Technique, and the Base Belly Hold.
  • Consider that spiritual practices like Tibetan Buddhist Tummo breath are fuelled by a desire to reduce negative or ‘sinful’ thoughts and feelings and increase compassion.
  • This breathwork exercise is best practised on an empty stomach. Because practitioners need to contract the abdomen and breathe deeply into the stomach, it’s much more comfortable if you don’t have a belly full of food.
  • Practise with a guide first. Building your practical knowledge by learning from expert meditators and breathwork practitioners will make you more confident practising on your own.
  • There are a few physical and medical conditions that can make this practice potentially risky, so seek medical advice before practising if you are pregnant, have epilepsy, or suffer from high blood pressure or heart disease. If in doubt, check with a doctor first.

If you keep these simple tips and tricks in mind, it’s possible that Tummo breathing could provide you with a really powerful experience. Boosting your sense of inner body heat can help you deal with cold exposure and reduce stress and anxiety, along with various other benefits. Crucially, it’s backed up by reliable scientific research, as are many practices within the world of mindfulness and meditation. If you want to find out more about the links between science and spirituality, check out our article on the definition of mindfulness according to psychology.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What’s the difference between Wim Hof and Tummo Breathing?

‘Ice Man’ Wim Hof has become famous for remarkable endurance-based achievements such as climbing Mount Everest in shorts and running half a marathon in the snow on bare feet. His targeted breathing method allows practitioners to go beyond the normal limits of the body and withstand extremely cold conditions.

How can breathing be used to calm the body and mind?

Breathwork techniques such as Box Breathing and Balanced Breathing can help to calm the body and mind by ensuring we have a healthy balance between CO2 and oxygen in our bodies. Our article on how breathwork can supercharge your meditation practice explores the science of breathwork in more detail.

What other breathing techniques are there?

G-Tummo Meditation is one of many breathing exercises you can use to alter your mind and body. Whether you want to experience a burst of energy, calm down mental anxieties and worries, or create some kind of impactful visualisation, there’s something for you. Our article on Meditation vs Breathwork dives into this subject in plenty of depth.

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