Preliminary Practices

Hello all,

we’ve been putting off this topic for a wee while, and now it is probably a good time to talk about our thoughts on Preliminary Practices.

  •  Different traditions have different energy practices

First of all, for those of you that are not very familiar with other spiritual traditions, you should know that one can find many instances of energy cultivation around the world. This should make sense, since this energy we talk about is nothing but part of human nature, and often it even arises spontaneously for some people. So one would expect different cultures from the world talking about similar phenomena.

Some of the most important traditions that work with this energy, however, can be more or less traced back to India. This is indeed the case with Tummo. Marpa learned Tummo from an Indian yogi called Naropa (hence the name of The Six Yogas of Naropa, the first of which is Tummo) and then taught it to his students in Tibet.

For someone that has studied and practiced some yoga from a Hindu tradition, it soon becomes fairly obvious that Tibetans were doing similar things. In particular the pranayama bit, in which you hold your breath (Kumbhaka) at the same time that you hold some muscles tight (Bandhas).

Having this in mind, it can be very interesting to look at the practices that were prescribed before learning Tummo (or Tummo-like techniques) in different traditions.

  •  Let’s start with Tibetan Buddhism.

Traditionally, in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions in which Tummo is taught (such as Kagyu, or Gelupa), one has to go through the following practices before Tummo can be learned:

The four ordinary preliminary practices

  1. Appreciating human life and how lucky we are.
  2. Reflecting on Impermanence.
  3. Reflecting on Karma.
  4. Reflecting on Samsara

The four special preliminary practices (Ngondro). Different Tibetan traditions show differences in the Ngondro, but generally look like:

  1. Taking refuge and Bodichitta
  2. Vajrasattva (purifcation)
  3. Mandala Offering
  4. Guru Yoga

Each of which imply a sadana, or reading outloud a text and following its instrucions (protrations, visualizations, hand movements, chanting mantras and offering stuff, etc.) and each of which has to be done 100.000 times.

There is a great little book about both ordinary and special preliminary practices by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche called The Ngondro.

– After you are done with your Ngondro, and upon empowerment of the right deity, like Heruka, or Vajrayogini, one starts the Generation Stage, in which one sees oneself as the deity, and visualices the inner channels, chakras, winds, etc.

– Finnaly, one can start with the Completion Practices, the first of which is Tummo, and then you do the rest of the Six Yogas of Naropa.

On the general path of Tibetan Buddhism we find Bruce Newman’s book A Beginners Guide to Tibetan Buddhism very good.

To get to the point where you can actually practice Tummo, if you’re a monk and can afford to go on retreat, can take a few years. If you are a layperson, and follow the traditional way, expect to spend a good 10 or 15 years practicing preliminaries. And that is one the reasons some teachers have been teaching Tummo more openly to westerners.

Also it should be said that Tummo is not one thing. It is a bunch of techniques that generally include the Vase Breath (you can find instructions on-line), and some exercises called Trul Khor and Tsa Lung, some of which can be seen in Lama Surya Das’ Tibetan Enery Yoga video, in the Yantra Yoga videos in Namkhai Norbu’s school, or in Wangyal Rinpoche’s Awakening the Sacred Body (see links below).

Let’s look at another tradition, to see what their approach to preparation for Tummo. Here is where things turn more interesting…

  • Looking at Hindu traditions

If you spend some time reading and exploring some yogic hindu traditions and teachers (Satyananda, Yogani, Swami Maheshewarananda) you will find that they give you details of the exact techniques, including advanced pranayama (Tummo). Also, they lay out the system in front of you saying “here’s the whole set of teachings. Start here, and when you feel confortable with the new teaching go to the next.”

Attention, spoiler : The main technique of Tummo is something pretty much identical to Maha Bandha (Mula Bandha with Uddiyana Bandha and Jalandara Bandha) plus Kumbakha .

What do the preparations for Tummo-like look like?

I suggest you go to look at the sources and find exactly for yourself, but in general you do meditation, asanas, and then start working with basic pranayama, to which you go adding things like bandhas and mudras and maybe visualizations etc. and soon enough you are doing something very similar to what you do in Tummo. Then you do other fun things like Kechari Mudra (the sensitive readers be careful if you go to youtube to check this out…)

Probably in the old times things were not as approachable in those traditions as they are today, but that is how they have evolved and are taught by legitimate teachers.

  •  Comparing the two traditions

Comparing these two approaches, it might be difficult to avoid the temptation of skipping 10-15 years of prostations and looking for empowerments.

We are not saying that the traditional Tibetan Buddhist approach is bad, or that these preliminaries are not useful. Everybody that does them says that these practices are fantastic for you and provide great benefit. The Hindu approach however seems more doable to us.

One other difference between traditions might be of emphasis. The Tibetan approach tend to be more forceful: longer retentions and sometimes less care for the body (jumping and landing on your buttocks, like can be seen the video above) . And there probably are many things we are missing or cannot appreciate yet.

In fact, there is one more choice – learning Tummo from a none-traditional source, which could be on-line, books or friends or from one of the few Tibetan Buddhism Masters that teach Tummo more openly and don’t require you to do all the traditional prelimiaries. We have been extermely lucky and have had the opportunity to find one of those teachers.

So there you have some information. We don’t claim anything is better than anything else. We have chosen our approach, and we might change our mind in the future, who knows?

Oh, and remember, we might be wrong, so please feel free to comment on this post and tell us what you think!

Tibetan Material

Wangyal Rinpoche’s Awakening the Sacred Body

Lama Surya Das’ Tibetan Enery Yoga

Yantra Yoga

Non-Tibetan Material



Swami Maheshewarananda

Note: You can read on-line that there is a version of Tummo in some Taoist traditions called Kan and Li, but we haven’t had the chance to see that one in action. Wikipedia has an outline of the progress.


8 thoughts on “Preliminary Practices

  1. The traditional Tibetan texts (that I’m aware of) emphasize mainly the visualization, rather than the pranayama and trulkhor. When I’ve had tummo transmission (from several different lamas), the explanation has mainly been of the visualization. The impression I got was that the visualization is considered sufficient in itself, with the physical stuff being a useful supplement. However, people who specialize in tummo do seem to become proficient in the trulkhor. So I’m not sure how this works out in practice. (Despite having had the transmission, I’ve never seriously attempted the practice, and I’ve also not discussed it in detail with any of the lamas.)

    I’d be curious to hear, maybe toward the end of your experiment, how you think about the relationship between the visualization and the physical practice, and their relative importance.

    • Thanks for your comment David. Here are some comments:

      – Often in other traditions that include energy work, they teach you visualisations first. And for some people these do ignite the process, but these people seem to be very sensitive.
      – I’ve heard from some people that not many lamas know the complete package (trul khor, tsa lung…) knowing only the visualisations. I’m not sure I believe that, though. Someone told me that even if lamas know the whole thing they will not teach it to you until you serve them for many years, or teach it bit by bit very slowly to keep students coming. You know, people say many things, but who knows.

      From the more elaborate visualisations that you can read in some books, you can see that what you are visualising is what is supposed to be the process that should take place once the fire is properly created. Almost as if you were telling your energy body what it has to do once it happens. Or fake it until you make it style.

      So far, visualisations don’t seem to have any effect, but we’ll see how things develop and will make a special point about it in the future.

      Thanks for reading and writting!

  2. Hi, I have been practicing Yoga, pranayama and meditation since 2000 and have recently started experimenting with Tummo, as described in the few resources that are available.

    I don’t see the similarity with Mahabandha. Mahabandha, as you are aware already is the combination of Mulabandha, Uddiyana and Jalandhara. Uddiyana is an pulling in of the lower abdomen.

    In Tummo however it is not a pulling in, but a pressing down of the lower abdomen, while pulling up of the pelvic floor (Mulabandha). This has the effect of “bottling up”
    prana and apana, allowing them to remain together and mix. The Six Yogas refer to this as the “Mystic Kiss”.

    As this is done the hands are in Varja Fist mudra – the thumb touching the ring finger inside the palm and other fingers folded over into a fist. This mudra has the effect of “restraining” the energies to the lower part of the body, and also contribute to keeping the energies inside the body – contributing to the accumulation of warmth.

    Visualizations are more important that one might think at first. Specifically the AH sound, mentally chanted repeatedly, or visualizing it symbol, has the property of again directing the energies to the lower abdomen. The science of mantra is a very powerful tool of Tantra. It activates certain energies or redirects energy, prana or consciousness into particular areas of the body (or even outside of the body).

    So again, the energy of the AH vibrates the energy already compressed in the abdomen by the pressing down of the abdomen and pulling up of the pelvic floor and it is this vibration that mixes the apana and prana together in a kind of fusion- this process creates a kind of fluid which I supposed is what they refer to as the bindu.

    The next step, which is a forceful exhalation then pushes all of that to the back of the spine and upwards into the central channel – hence the name “shooting up”.

    I will be able to write abit more about this process and what happens next when I am able to repeat and confirm what happens and corroberate it with the instructions from the Six Yogas, in the section on Tummo.

    However my last few sessions seem to indicate that once the fluid (bindu) makes itsway up to the head, it then makes its way down the front of the body and back down back into the lower abdomen. After a while ALL the channels open up and the bindu gets circulated throughout the entire nadi system. This is not theoretical, but based on my repeatable experience. Using Taoist or Hindu yogic methods I have never been able to gets results like these. I suppose this is akin to what the taoists refer to as the microcosmic and macrocosmic orbits.

    A session for me lasts no longer than 20-30 minutes and these results are usually obtained within this time. This being a a few sessions of 10 retentions with visualisations and mentally chanted mantra AH. For the retention I count about 10-15 heart pulses before “shooting” the breath.

    Since there are many things to do and visualize at the same time, I have only been doing the first step and only using the AH, mentally chanted at the location specified in the text. As I get more proficient in the method, I will then incorporate the others, the HUM, the HAM etc… for directing and restraining the consciousness, energy and pranas and bindus at the other locations.

    • Hello! Would be interested to hear more of your reviews if you continue and make more observations. I have learned the practice somewhat like, however as I have been told the important thing is the (breath) retention part and the still focus on LDT (navel area) while doing this. Also it is enough to tuck in stomach, the left and right channel pranas will meet eventually in the LDT.
      I usually hold the breath for about 60-100 pulses or (about 1-1:30 min) (by the way, measured in Tibetan terms this is a short time – not even near the beginners 36 counts – each with 3 legtaps and 6 fingersnaps). (Just side note: of course you should not do this immediately but train slowly your breath retention capacity every now and the during day.. within some weeks you will have progressed a lot). After a while it gives a wave of heat, later on some trembling and if you can resist, wave of bliss. However the Daoist method is much more natural in that it don’t forces the breath and locks in any way, but it seems also much slower using shen / attention as source of internal fire.

  3. Wow, thanks for that great reply!

    Some comments:

    Regarding the pressing down instead of Uddiyana bandha, I’ve encountered different opinions. It is true that most often in the books you’ll find it described as pressing down, and that is how in our case feels better. But I heard one very advanced practitioner saying how that was a mistake and one has to press the stomach in as opposed to down, as in Uddiyana bandha (he was deeply into Tibetan Buddhism, not a kriya yoga fan trying to impose his oppinion or anything). Also, Wangyal Rinpoche gives both techniques in his Tsa Lung book for different exercises, which doesn’t help! What in you experience are the differences, have you tried both and got very different results?

    As for hand position, we’ve been taught how to do the vase breath retention in four different positions, only one of which is holding the vajra fists with the index finger stretched, like this yogi over here . The other ones are: standing, one sitting on your butt while hugging your knees (holding them folded close to your chest) and one holding your feet instead of holding your knees. Not sure what the differences are, we will hopefully find out as time goes by!

    Thanks again for writing that post, please feel free to comment more soon and keep us updated!

  4. The difference between the two traditions is the motivation.
    Tantric Mahayana goes through all the preparation as a way of cultivating and preparing/purifying the mind to the ultimate intention of freeing all living beings from suffering permanently. Completion stage can still be practiced in conjunction with Lamrim and generation stage and before completing the 4 great preliminaries.
    Personally, I practice pranayma everyday, I don’t bother with trulkhor. It’s enough to purify the channels and understand the body and train it for breath retention for meditational purposes.
    Buddhism also deals with the inner body mandala and a process by which the drops are purified and certain deities are within the body, this stablizes the flow of the energy winds.

  5. Can you provide the contact details of the Tibetan Buddhism Master that you learned from? I would like to see if he knows of someone in my area.

  6. Hi! I’ve been doing yoga, pranyama and meditation for over a year. When I do pranayama with mahabandha, I can feel the energy waiting to explode at the navel and finally explode with inhalation. It does not go all the way up but almost! Started trying tummo recently but does not feel as intense as with pranayama…wonder what you and others feel about it…

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