A Breathing and Hand Technique to Raise Body Heat
It was said that Tibetan Buddist monks who practised g-tummo breathing produced body heat that was sufficiently hot to steam and dry wet towels placed on their shoulders.
Such a feat was confirmed in a piece of official news from Harvard, based on the research of Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, professor of medicine, and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School, who also spent about a decade with the Tibetan monks in the 1970s.
G-tummo breathing is also called vase breathing. A person first holds their breath and then contracts the abdominal and pelvic muscles, so that the belly looks like a vase, for 5–15 seconds. This is done in a static sitting position. There is also a mental imagery aspect, in which one visualizes flame in the body’s core that later spreads out. A more detailed stepwise account can be found here.
What Older Studies Have Found
The first scientific study on this topic, “Body Temperature Changes During the Practice of g Tum-mo Yoga,” was published in Nature in 1982. Prof. Benson and co-workers measured the body temperature of three Tibetan monks when practising g-tummo breathing in a cold environment — i.e., in an uninsulated stone hut at altitudes of 1800–2800m. “We found that these subjects exhibited the capacity to increase the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 8.3°C,” the authors wrote.
Later in 1990, the same team published another study in Behavioral Medicine. They showed that three Tibetan monks on g-tummo breathing had a 61% increase in metabolic rate (measured by VO2 max; i.e., maximal oxygen consumption). And their metabolism can drop by up to 64% at post-breathing, indicating a compensatory mechanism at play.
In a 2000 study, Prof. Benson and team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see what was happening in the brains of five Tibetan monks engaged in g-tummo breathing. Results revealed greater brain activities in “neural structures involved in attention (frontal and parietal cortex) and arousal/autonomic control (pregenual anterior cingulate, amygdala, midbrain and hypothalamus).” The team then theorized that the monks could direct their attention to the control of the autonomic nervous system.
Research shows that g-tummo breathing produces body heat by increasing metabolism and the brain’s control of autonomic nervous system.
(Autonomic nervous system coordinates involuntary bodily functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and temperature regulation.)
Insights From a Newer Study
G-tummo breathing has two components — the body (vase breathing) and mind (mental visualization). Vase breathing involves abdominal and pelvic muscles contraction while holding the breath in a static position. And the metal visualization entails the imagery flame in the body.
Which one is responsible for the increased body heat? A 2013 paper of Maria Kozhevnikov, an associate professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore, and colleagues wanted to find out. The paper’s title gives a good overview: “Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality,”
The study measured the body temperatures and brain activities of ten Tibet monks and 11 non-monks. The non-monks only did vase breathing, and not the mental imagery part, for as long as they feel comfortable (max 10 minutes).
Results #1. Core Body Temperatures (CBTs)
For Tibet monks, their average CBTs rose from 36.6°C to 36.9°C, although three exceptional monks managed to raise it to the point of fever (≥37.6°C). For non-Tibet participants, their average CBTs also rose from 36.38°C to 36.99, but no one turned feverish.
To put into context, the elevated CBTs were equivalent to hyperthermia induction (i.e., heating a patient’s body such as by immersing into hot water to increase CBT for treatment purposes).
You do not have to be a monk to perform g-tummo breathing to generate body heat equivalent to hyperthermia induction.
This shows that g-tummo breathing “brings about significant increases in CBTs not only in meditators but also in those individuals who do not have any prior experience in meditation,” stated the authors. But they also admitted that the overall increase was small and within the range of normal physiology.
Results #2: The Mental Imagery
The study found that, in the monks, the duration of apnea (breathing cessation) and brain alpha waves correlated with increased CBTs. The brain alpha waves further correlated with how long the monks can sustain the elevated CBTs. The literature has suggested that brain alpha waves represent the “internalization of attention,” a feature of focus and mediation.
The authors then posited that vase breathing creates heat while the mental imagery sustains the heat.
Result #3: Finger Temperatures
The monks’ finger temperatures also went up by 1.2°C to 6.8°C, which the researchers attributed to the hand positioning during the g-tummo breathing. The hand muscles were tensed and fists pressed against the inguinal crease (the crease between the torso and thigh; see figure). Unfortunately, finger temperature was not measured in the non-monks.
The rise in finger temperature is credited to vasodilation from a hand positioning technique.
As the researchers explained: “This suggests that the peripheral temperature increases are primarily the result of increased peripheral blood flow due to peripheral muscular action (and proximity of the femoral artery) rather than a result of psychological (caused by meditation) or physiological (caused by breathing or isometric techniques) states.”
Prof. Benson pioneered the science of g-tummo breathing in the late 20th century. Tibetan monks using this breathing technique generated body heat; some even turned feverish. This heat production seemingly stems from increased metabolism and the brain’s control of the autonomic nervous system. In 2013, a different research team showed that non-monks could do it too, but not to the extent of the fever.
- So, the next time you feel cold, try holding your breath and then tensing the abdominal and pelvic muscles to make the protruding belly looks like a vase. This vase breathing can be done as to how one feels comfortable.
- The mental visualization part is not mandatory but might help in sustaining the generated body heat.
- To increase finger temperature, try to tense the hand muscles while pressing the fists against the inguinal crease as depicted in the figure.