Advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice raises body temperature

By | July 19, 2013

Studying ten meditators of Tibetan Buddhism, a recent international research project provides solid evidence for centuries-old reports that through the advanced meditation practice Tummo, often referred to as “Inner Heat” or “Psychic Heat”, the core body temperature can be raised significantly.

The Tummo (also “g-Tummo”) meditation practice is an advanced form of meditation that has been transmitted in the Vajrayana (or Diamond Way) traditions of Tibetan Buddhism for the last 900 years. The spectacular outer sign of this meditation is that adepts are able to significantly raise their body temperature to an extent that they can melt the snow around them or dry wet blankets thrown over their naked body – at least this is how the traditional stories go. Already in the early 1980ies researchers from the Harvard Medical School set out to investigate these claims. Visiting three tummo practitioners in the foothills of the Himalayas, the researchers captured increases of peripheral body temperature (at fingers and toes) during this meditation by as much as 8.3 degree Celsius, apparently confirming the claims. However, later on criticism was raised concerning these results, for instance that the temperature range (22 – 33deg C) was in the normal body temperature range. Furthermore, similar increases have been observed merely as a result of changes to respiration and/or muscle contraction and, in consequence, cannot unequivocally be interpreted as a result of the meditation practice per se.

Recently, an international team of researchers from the US, Singapore and Germany again ventured to the Himalayas to take a fresh and more detailed look at the issue. This time 10 meditators (7 female) from the Nyingma and Kagyu meditation traditions of Tibetan Buddhism took part in the study. By considering two important aspects of this meditation practice, they were able to advance the understanding of this curious effect. Generally, Tummo meditation consists of a mental component, where certain images are called to mind, and a bodily, somatic component, where specific breathing practices, body postures and physical body movements are combined. Furthermore, these breathing practices can either be forceful or gentle. To shed light on what is taking place during this type of meditation, the scientists aimed to distinguishing between these different components. The meditators were asked to go through a sequence of four meditation conditions: 1) forceful breathing exercises without the mental component, 2) gentle breathing exercises without the mental component, 3) forceful breathing exercises combined with the mental meditation component and 4) gentle breathing exercises combined with the mental meditation component. At the same time the scientists recorded the electrical brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) and the peripheral body temperature (at the fifth finger) and core body temperature (in the armpit).

So, what are the main findings? First of all, the study confirmed that the meditators were able to increase their core body temperature (in the armpit) significantly. Also increases of the peripheral temperature at the fingers was observed, but the authors argue that these may merely result from changes in the position of the hand during the practice rather be caused by meditation or breathing techniques. Interestingly, the increase in core body temperature only happened during the forceful breathing periods (with and without meditation), not during gentle breathing. During the latter periods the meditators maintained the increased temperature, though. This observation seems to confirm the explanation provided by the meditators that forceful breathing meditation is used to increase the body temperature, whereas gentle breathing meditation is used to maintain it.

But as there was an increase in core body temperature resulting from the forceful breathing with and without meditation, what’s the purpose of the meditation, of calling certain images to mind? Well, the data also show that the core temperature reached the slightly feverish range (of up to 38.5 C) only when forceful breathing was combined with meditation, whereas during forceful breathing alone temperatures, although elevated, remained in the range of normal body temperature.

The second part of this post will take a look at what happened with the brain activity, while these yogis were meditating.

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Kozhevnikov, M., Elliott, J., Shephard, J., & Gramann, K. (2013). Neurocognitive and somatic components of temperature increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and reality. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058244

Benson, H., Lehmann, J. W., Malhotra, M. S., Goodman, R. F., Hopkins, J., et al. (1982) Body temperature changes during the practice of g-tummo yoga. Nature 295: 234–236. doi: 10.1038/295234a0.

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13 thoughts on “Advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice raises body temperature

  1. Peter Malinowski Post author

    Meditation an exothermic process? Raghav, I think you don’t need to be ‘concerned’. It will depend on the type of meditation you carry out. The tummo practice, described here, is and advanced form of Buddhist Vajrayana/Diamond Way meditation, that uses a combination of physical exercise combined with a mental exercise to achieve this. It is not a regular ‘byproduct’ of meditation per se. However, I didn’t come across any meditation that aim at reducing body temperature. Might be interesting to know if something like this exists, too.

    Reply
  2. Lobma Thundrup

    This has been known for thousands of years. Yes Gtummo does raise the body temperature. It happens with me all of the time I practice it. It does made me smile whenever I come across scientists who ‘verify,’ aspects of Buddhist practice, as it before they give it their seal of approval it was somehow not proper.

    It shows the state of consciousness in the west, they people only accept something when it has been scientifically verified.

    By the way, the main aim of practices such as tummo are not to give the practitioner any sort of physical result, to open their minds to their true nature, so they achieve liberation

    Reply
    1. Peter Malinowski Post author

      yes – it makes me smile, too.

      But every culture has its own way of verifying claims; ours, to a large extent is science.
      I would even say it is exactly what Buddha Sakyamuni encouraged to do: To check carefully, whether what he – or others – claim is true and makes sense.

      It is certainly important to be aware of the limitations of trying to check/confirm/verify an experiential practice by a method that aims to observe “neutrally” from outside. As you point out, the increase in temperature is only an outer sign of hugely more profound goal; liberation and enlightenment.
      The authors, at least, acknowledge this to a certain extent.

      Reply
  3. Lobma Thundrup

    Hello Peter.

    Yes, spot on. Sakyamuni did say that he never expected anyone to take what he said at face value, but to thoroughly test it for themselves.

    I’ve just come across this site, so have no understanding of the people involved in this research or their levels of realisation. But yes trying to understand dharma intellectually is like a limbless man trying to eat dinner with a knife and fork.

    I’ve also noticed they have written about mindfulness here too. Again this is a hot topic in scientific areas right now, but do they realise that eventually the ‘me,’ who is being mindful has to be let go of? The self has to be realised for what it is, a conception of mind.

    Good to meet you.

    Reply
    1. Peter Malinowski Post author

      I started this blog because so many people asked me to share information about the science of meditation. I think my understanding is good enough to distinguish between conceptual understanding and real insight.
      But as long as no realisation has arisen we cannot avoid to also use concepts. It would be smart, though to remember that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.
      Mindfulness is indeed a hot topic and can mean many things to different people. Within the psychological context, where it is now becoming very popular, it is generally understood in more general terms. While being rooted in general buddhist meditation practices it certainly does not go as far and does not really consider the emptiness of self and phenomena.
      Nevertheless there is no doubt that such mindfulness – based psychological approaches are very beneficial and I would think that for some practitioners it will be the starting point into profound buddhist practice. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Lobma Thundrup

    Peter.

    Yes indeed.

    I apologise, I didn’t realise you were apart of the team doing this research. I cannot judge you or anyone else on how awake they are :)Judgement is after all one of the pitfalls of samsaric mind.

    From what I’ve read so far on here, I have to congratulate you, on bringing dharma to a wider audience and doing so with awareness and openness. I see little intellectualisation going on (and that is meant in appositive way)

    Have you or you team studied Raja yoga yet or its allied Buddhist tantric practices? Most of the diseases we encounter on our way are due to imbalances
    which are the natural result of the limited individual mind and
    consciousness field which accompanies an “unawakened” perception
    of reality.

    Most “normal” people are fundamentally out of balance, therefore
    these layers of psycho/physical energy are manifested at a much
    coarser wave-band than could be the case.

    By utilising the energising and rejuvenating principles of Raja Yoga
    we can reverse the breakdown of voluntary and involuntary
    neuro-muscular processes which with the exception of sexually
    transmitted infection is the result of degenerate mental and
    physical habits and a careless diet.

    My old master could, for instance, alter the rate of his heartbeat at will.

    Reply
  5. Peter Malinowski Post author

    Thanks for the positive comments on the content of this site 🙂

    Raja Yoga: my group focuses on meditation practice that are rooted in or related to buddhist practices, because this is where our expertise is. And buddhist practices are so manifold and varied that this is a sufficiently big task for one lifetime.
    I would certainly say that this is where currently the main activity in meditation research is, certainly also due to the mindfulness boom.
    However, there is also a growing body of research concerned with Raja Yoga, for instance related to pranayama practices.
    I’m not sure if there is a good place to read up on the scientific research on it. If you or anybody else knows, let us know.
    Cheers, P

    Reply
  6. Lobma Thundrup

    Ha no that’s ok Peter, all of the science was done and dusted on Raja Yoga, some hundreds of years ago, as it was on the Tibetan tantras. It is just that you scientists with your educated intellectual and analytical minds, refuse to accept the truths of the dharma. You have prodded and analysed every aspect of it to bits.

    What will you do then? Write it all up and have it published in some scientific journal as new information! What a joke. It seems that only when something is accepted as valid scientifically these days is it accepted. You would do well to read up on the life of Mierapa, or get hold of Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Anarika Govinda. Or netter still, drop your intellect into the nearest litter bin, relax and realise the uncreated and unfounded and nature of your pure mind, which is within you, but lies hidden from you by the clouds of confusion and ignorance.

    OM Mani Padme Hum

    Reply
  7. Clare

    Just discovered this post. I’m really interested in Tummo and think your research is fascinating. Thanks for posting this.

    Reply
  8. Clare

    As a researcher on this subject, what other potential benefits does Tummo have other than being able to control body temperature. In other words, what do you think are the benefits of being able to contorol your bodily temperatures?

    Reply
  9. Peter Malinowski Post author

    Hi Clare, a good question, thank you.

    In Tibet where accomplishers (yogis) sometimes lived under rather extreme conditions high up in mountain caves, being able to control body temperature was of obvious benefit. Beyond that it may be understood as a meditation exercise that emphasises the control the mind can have over matter (the body).
    However, I think that the main benefit is not primarily the temperature control but the insights that arise in mind as a result of the intense bliss the practice generates. This point is a little speculative from my side as I never learned this meditation and thus don’t have any valid experience of it.

    Reply
  10. Karma Lodro

    Tumo is in general practiced for the spiriitual and psychological insights.

    In particular, tumo has the potential to reduce the apparent duality between
    the consciousness (” observer” ) and the experience of heat ( the “object” ). In
    tumo the interplay of subject and object becomes more obviously fluid to the
    point eventually of realizing the nonduality of subject and object.

    Reply
  11. maurice

    I know this is an old post but i just stumbled on it today while researching advanced buddhist meditation techniques. Reading it reminded me of an encounter I had with a yogi on my way to Gaumukh (the source of the ganges river in India). He told me the difference between modern scientists and yogis is that modern scientists seek understanding by observing and testing others whereas yogis seek understanding by observing and testing themselves. The proof of the pudding is, after all, in the eating. Just mentioning.

    Reply

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