Primal Energy Exercises of Tibetan Dzogchen
Interview with Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen
Dzogchen presents every human as being animated by moving patterns of energy – rich, vivid, and powerful. We can discover these subtle landscapes of energy within ourselves. We can experience their depth, and resonate with their vibrant harmonies. Awareness of the space of this resonance enables us to encounter dimensions of vitality that are extraordinary. Although these landscapes of internal energy were familiar territory to Dzogchen practitioners, they are not beyond our scope. Anyone who is seriously interested, and committed to an hour of daily physical exercise and meditation, can discover glimpses of the vast horizon of brilliance and presence that Dzogchen affords.
Dzogchen means ‘utter totality’, and refers to the natural liberated condition of the individual. This state of innate enlightenment is always there, in its utter totality – simply waiting to be uncovered.
Dzogchen is the innermost of the three inner Tantras, and differs significantly from the ritualistic, liturgical form of the other Tantras. Some methods taught by Lamas who specialise in Dzogchen have much in common with Hatha Yoga, but there are also physical exercises which bear no similarity to any Eastern or Western exercise.
One such cycle of Dzogchen psycho-physical exercises is sKu-mNyé (pronounced koo mnyay). sKu-mNyé means ‘massage of the energy body’. The ‘energy body’ is called the rTsa rLung system. rTsa rLung is a system unique to the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet. The rTsa rLung system is made up of ‘nerves,’ called rTsa, and the currents of energy they carry, called rLung.
There are several systems of sKu-mNyé in the Tibetan Buddhist schools, but the sKu-mNyé of Aro Lingma is the only one connected with Dzogchen. Khyungchen Aro Lingma (1886-1923) was a female Lama of the Nyingma tradition. She was a Tértön, a visionary Lama who received her revelations directly from Yeshé Tsogyel as a child. Yeshé Tsogyel is the female Buddha whose emanations have appeared in Tibet from the 9th century down to the present day. One of the visionary revelations of Aro Lingma is the sKu-mNyé system currently taught by Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen – a married teaching couple of the Nyingma Tradition of Vajrayana who live in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales. It is described in detail in Khandro Déchen’s book Moving Being.
Questioner Is the sKu-mNyé of Aro Lingma similar to the sKu-mNyé that has become known through Tarthang Tulku’s books Kum Nye Relaxation?
Khandro Déchen No, it’s really quite different. That may sound a little surprising, but there are various systems of sKu-mNyé. For example Ngak’chang Rinpoche knows of one that exists in the Gélug School of Tibetan Buddhism, which is quite like a combination of Hatha Yoga and pranayama. This is also very different from the system taught by Tarthang Tulku. It is likely that all the schools have forms of sKu-mNyé.
Q But they all have the same principle.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche You would think so, but no. The word sKu-mNyé is actually both a highly precise term, and a term which covers a whole range of bio-energetic work. It is like the word rigpa. Rigpa can simply mean knowledge or intelligence – as in zo-rigpa, which means the knowledge associated with art – or in terms of Dzogchen it means presence of awareness in the continuity of Mind – through the arising and dissolution of that which arises in Mind. This is the definition of rigpa according to Dzogchen. Tarthang Tulku’s Kum-nye is based in the medical Tantras, whereas the sKu-mNyé of Aro Lingma is based in Dzogchen long-dé. The principles are thus fundamentally different. The principle of Dzogchen is self-liberation and the principle of Tantra is transformation.
KD ...so when we use the word sKu-mNyé, it’s like using the word ‘exercise’. If someone says they perform physical exercises, you cannot really be sure what kind of exercises they intend. It could be ærobic dance, gymnastics, weight-lifting, or whatever. sKu-mNyé, as the word is used in Aro , refers to the Dzogchen principle of generating profound experiences of the essence of the elements. To describe the principle and function of this within Dzogchen long-dé would become enormously technical for our present discussion, but I would say that the other forms of sKu-mNyé are connected more with breath regulation as a means of stabilising the conceptual mind. These are practices connected with Tantra. The sKu-mNyé of Aro Lingma is part of the Dzogchen long-dé cycle, and completely bypasses the functioning of the conceptual mind.
Q Could you give some sense of what sKu-mNyé is like?
KD It’s remarkably varied. It contains some exercises which are physically very gentle, and some which are so extraordinarily ærobic that they would tax someone who was quite athletic. For some exercises, you require considerable strength and agility, but for most, average fitness is sufficient. There are even some that are so undemanding that almost anyone could practise them without undue strain. Some sKu-mNyé are simple seated postures in which the movements are very slow and even. Others require surprising co-ordination, and quite an advanced sense of balance. Some are really so unusual that it would be quite hard to describe them. I would say that there are sKu-mNyé exercises suited to an extraordinarily broad range of body types and levels of suppleness. This makes them highly versatile, in terms of one being able to continue in the exercises throughout one’s life. They are certainly quite different from other physical exercises. The best way of introducing you to them is perhaps to demonstrate them. (See the examples at the end of this page.)
Q It’s hard to imagine something that could be so different from other forms of physical movement. Is there anything that is even remotely similar? Would the question of balance make it anything like T’ai Chi?
NR No, it is not like T’ai Chi... We have taught people with experience of T’ai Chi, and have discovered that sKu-mNyé requires a different sense of balance.
QYou’re saying that the sense of balance that is required for different disciplines is not the same?
NRYes. Well, at least in terms of sKu-mNyé and T’ai Chi.
Q Would you also say that of sKu-mNyé and Hatha Yoga?
NRI do not know. We have never taught people with much experience of Hatha Yoga. I do not know what accounts for this difference, because I have never practised T’ai Chi, but I would say that it might lie in the fact that sKu-mNyé generates physical disorientation, whereas that does not seem to be present in T’ai Chi. However... someone told me that aspects of sKu-mNyé were like Chi-gung with regard to physical co-ordination. But, from what I have seen of Chi-gung, I would say that concepts of similarity are largely unhelpful. I think that it is better to keep these different systems as discrete areas. Finding similarities between different systems can actually distort understanding – especially if the understanding is immature. In sKu-mNyé there is great emphasis on the eyes. This is the case with many practices of Dzogchen. The eyes are kept wide open and unmoving whilst engaged in the exercise, and in the meditation that follows. Sweeping movements of the torso, arms, and legs are quite characteristic; but the most unusual aspect is ‘circling’ the head.
QI believe there’s head rotation in Hatha Yoga?
KD Yes, but the head circling in sKu-mNyé is kept extremely small. If you imagine tracing a circle with your nose – the circumference should not be more than an inch (2.54cm). It’s difficult to keep it that small, because the tendency is to make larger circles. Unmoving eyes in conjunction with circling takes time to perfect, but it’s made easier by the ability to focus in space. Focusing in space needs to be explained. It does not mean going ‘out of focus’. Focusing in space means you are in focus, but that there is no tangible object or surface to act as a reference point upon which your focus rests.
QThat sounds really quite difficult. I imagine that you would have to spend a long time in training to be able to do that. What purpose does circling have in sKu-mNyé?
KD There are two active principles involved with circling. Firstly there is the Dzogchen gaze. The method of Dzogchen gazing disorientates the conceptual mind. Secondly, there’s circling. Circling massages the rTsa, the spatial nerves, but it does so through movement rather than through control of the breath. When conceptual mind is disorientated, we become open to perceiving extraordinary experiences, which are released through massaging the rTsa. There are numerous rTsa in the neck that connect with the eyes – so circling activates the rTsa and opens up a subtle dimension of visionary experience at the same time.
Q So you might start to see in an unusual way?
KD Possibly, but in terms of Dzogchen the word ‘vision’ applies to all the senses. Initially there would be tactile visions. Then the other sense fields would gradually follow until visual experiences began to occur. It might sound difficult, but anyone can experience their rTsa rLung energy if they have enthusiasm and application. You do have to push through sensations of dizziness and vertigo – but these sensations tend only to arise when you’re not focused in space. Learning to focus in space is crucial to sKu-mNyé, so it’s very important to practise the gaze first. You have to do that in order to keep your eyes from seeking forms upon which they tend to settle.
QThis must be a valuable aspect of Dzogchen.
KD Yes. This is something which is central to Dzogchen long-dé. The eyes are important in all the Dzogchen systems. The eyes always relate to what is happening at the level of mind and the nature of Mind. You see, it’s not really the eyes that seek out forms – it’s the conceptual mind that seeks them out. In fact, the conceptual mind seeks out forms through all the senses.
Q ‘Mind’ and ‘nature of mind’? Could you explain that? What is the difference?
KD In terms of Dzogchen, mind, or little-‘m’ mind, is the level of conceptuality – that is the ‘mind’ we know – the thoughts and patterns, the collections of habit patterns. All that is sem or little-‘m’ mind. Big-‘M’ Mind, sem-nyid, or ‘the nature of Mind,’ is the beginningless, endless, unbounded space of Mind. Mind, or sem, is actually no different in its nature from the nature of Mind or sem-nyid – it is merely a smaller space within a vast space. Enlightenment is when the two come to have the same taste. That is the essential purpose of Aro sKu-mNyé.
Q Do you have to let go of thought?
KD Yes. That is one aspect of practice. It would certainly be useful in the practice of sKu-mNyé if you could allow thoughts to settle out, but that tends to happen anyway. With sKu-mNyé, ‘thoughts’ aren’t really an issue. The exercises tend to blast conceptuality out of existence anyway.
NRIn terms of Dzogchen, we train through the senses and the sense-fields rather than through trying to let go of thought. We learn to fix the senses. We keep the senses unmoving in relation to the external world. We employ the natural phenomena around us to become part of the process that leads to the dissolution of reference points. We accomplish this through the Dzogchen practices of integration with the moving elements: water, fire, and air.
KDThis is because we are always attaching to reference points. We grasp at reference points in order to feel real; but this actually saps the vitality of our being and obscures the vividness of our perception.
Q So how would I practise this integration with the moving elements, say, with the water element?
KDYou would sit by the sea. Or you would sit by a river. You would focus on the surface detail of the water, so that you saw it very clearly and crisply. You would then fix your gaze. You would achieve that by keeping your eyes from moving. The eye muscles habitually track movements by flicking backwards and forwards along the line of movement. This is what stops everything from becoming a blur when you look out of the side window of a car.
QYes! I’ve seen that! When you look at someone who’s looking out of the window of a car, their eyes dart rhythmically. They seem to hop forward in the direction the car is taking, and then flash back again. And that’s obviously completely unconscious, isn’t it?
KD Yes. But with sKu-mNyé that habit is brought into consciousness. You become aware of that darting movement, and you continually attempt to freeze it – to fix your gaze. You know when your gaze is fixed because the water blurs – the scenery from the car window blurs.
QSo you could practise this on the way to work every day.
NRBut it is especially important to remember that the blur is a speed blur and not an ‘out of focus blur’. So, in terms to gazing into the water, the water would blur because your eyes were fixed.
KD This wouldn’t be because you weren’t focussing on the surface of the water. It would happen because your eyes were not moving. This is a specific of many Dzogchen practices.
NRThe impression you would receive would be like a photograph taken at a slow shutter speed. This is one of the best ways to train in fixing the gaze.
KDThe way to train in focusing in space, in terms of Dzogchen, is to learn to feel comfortable when your eyes have no object of focus. This seems challenging at first, but it is by no means difficult. It is, in fact, easier than learning how to fix the gaze. There is a fairly simple method. You stretch out your arm and focus on your index finger. Then, when you have settled your focus, you lower your arm and maintain the gaze. Every time you find your eyes settling on distant objects, simply raise your arm again and re-focus on your finger. You just keep repeating this process until focussing in space becomes a simple muscular reflex.
Q Could that ever be bad for the eyes?
KD [laughs] No, it is actually very good exercise for the eye muscles.
NR Especially when you develop the ability to fix the gaze and focus in space. In sKu-mNyé you do both at once, so it is good to practise both before attempting circling.
Q It sounds as if it could be quite disturbing for some people to do these exercises.
KDYes. It could be, but only to someone who persisted in the exercises without instruction from a teacher. This is even important at a purely physical level.
NRI remember when Khandro Déchen and I once taught sKu-mNyé in Ohio. There was one lady, a dance teacher, who had trained in ballet and contemporary dance. She had also trained in Hatha Yoga, T’ai Chi, and Chi-gung. She had practised Western ærobics, athletics, and ‘Callanetics’ – she was muscular, supple, and extremely fit. She was excited to learn a new physical system, especially as it originated in Dzogchen long-dé, and attended a retreat. She learnt sKu-mNyé quickly and easily. At the end of the retreat she was enthusiastic to practise, but she became carried away by her enthusiasm. She came to see us a few days later with aches and pains. We had told her that she would really have to proceed cautiously with the sKu-mNyé, because it would work muscles that she had never worked before. She was really quite surprised by that. She had imagined that she was so fit and supple, that she could push the exercises beyond the limits we had advised.
Q So you really do have to be very careful with them indeed.
KDYes. And you have to have some awareness – but that is always central with Dzogchen. You need to treat the exercises with respect. There is nothing to be gained by assuming that if you are fit and supple that you can advance very quickly. Naturally, if you are in good shape, it helps – but anyone can practise them as long as they are relatively gentle with themselves. The lady in question assumed that she would have no problem with sKu-mNyé exercises because of the variety of body work that she had done. I think that is something worth remembering, whatever new physical system you take up.
NR Yes. I would imagine it would be the same for a sKu-mNyé practitioner taking up Hatha Yoga as a new discipline. You have to proceed with awareness, and with the guidance of a teacher – this is true of any practice within Dzogchen or Tantra. We cannot stress that too much, especially as far as sKu-mNyé is concerned. It is also important to incorporate the period of meditation that follows each exercise. The period of lying down in the meditation posture should last three times as long as the period of sKu-mNyé movements.
Q Does sKu-mNyé have a structure that you could describe in simple terms?
KD There are 111 exercises in all. They are divided into animal categories, and the animals relate with the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. The exercises are not particularly imitative of animal movements, although occasionally the similarity is apparent. They’re divided into five sets of 21 – 21 for each of the five animals. The animals are not all animals with which Tibetans would be familiar; and three are definitely visionary animals. The lion series are connected with the earth element; vulture with water; tiger with fire; eagle with air; and khyung with space.
KD Khyung is one of the visionary animals. People are maybe more familiar with the Sanskrit term ‘garuda.’ It’s actually relatively well-known as the symbol of Indonesian Airways. The khyung is the space-eagle – it’s a multicoloured bird which has horns and arms. The lion is the visionary snow-lion – a white creature with a flowing green mane. The eagle, also, is a visionary animal. It should really be called khalding, which means prana-eagle.
NRPrana, or rLung in Tibetan, is the subtle breath or ‘spatial wind’ that flows in the ‘spatial nerves’ of the subtle energetic body. These ‘spatial nerves’ or rTsa form a pattern that spreads throughout the body.
KDThere are rTsa all over the body: in the armpits; the ‘elbow pits’; the inside of the wrists; the palms of the hands; between the fingers; the soles of the feet; behind the knees; the inner thighs; the stomach; the neck; and in general, in all the areas described as erogenous zones.
QAre rTsa like acupuncture meridians?
KD Yes, in some ways, but the pattern is sometimes very different from that of the acupuncture meridians, and functions in different ways. sKu-mNyé stimulates the rTsa and causes stagnant rLung to move. When rLung begins to move, people tend to come alive or wake up in surprising ways. To use the analogy of acupuncture meridians, you could say that sKu-mNyé was like a system of acupressure. Rhythmic physical movements affect the meridians, rather than pressure.
Q Khandro Déchen, you said that there were 111 exercises...
KDYes, and you can only count 105 from five sets of 21?
Q Yes. So there are others?
KDYes. The hidden exercises. . . the six dragons.
Q Why are the dragons called hidden exercises?
KDThe dragon exercises are only ever taught to students who have learnt the other 105 exercises. The dragons combine all the elements according to configurations that mirror the relationship styles of the six Tantras.
Q What are they?
KDKriya-Tantra, Upa-Tantra, Yoga-Tantra, Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga or Dzogchen. The dragon exercises are hidden until students have taken the other 105 to a point where their energy systems have been experienced with some accuracy. This is actually very useful as a safeguard, because only those who reach the stage of learning the dragon exercises are given authority to teach. We do not intend to allow anyone to teach these exercises unless they really understand the full spectrum of what can manifest with sKu-mNyé.
Q Is there anything general you can say about the dragons that would give an indication of how they might differ from the other sKu-mNyé exercises?
NRYes, the dragons are practised by male / female couples who are experienced in the sKu-mNyé practices. They are not sexual in the usual sense of the word, but they do operate at a level where male and female energies sparkle with each other.
Five sKu-mNyé animal exercises
lie on your back / legs splayed as far apart as comfortable / arms 90 degrees to your body / palms upwards / eyes closed / simultaneously (with a quick movement) raise your torso and legs (legs straight and locked at the knee) / simultaneously clap feet together and hands together (arms are straight and locked at the elbow) / in the moment of clapping, open eyes wide and shout Ra! (roll the ‘R’ to enunciate fiercely) / when clapping feet and hands, eyes, hands, and feet should be at the same height – feet and hands meet at the same level as your eyes; and at this point your bottom is all that is touching the floor / it is important that the back is kept absolutely straight / try to achieve an angle of 45 degrees to the floor, but NOT by bending your back – bending the back will result in injury! / relax back into the starting position and repeat
vulture hanging on the wind
stand comfortably / knees slightly flexed / feet shoulder’s width apart / weight on the balls of your feet / breathe softly and evenly / eyes wide open / focussed in space / to position arms correctly, imagine a broomstick across the back of your neck – hook your wrists over it, allowing your hands and elbows to hang down / gently shake fingers / then allow movement into your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders / shaking is rhythmic and vigorous, coming from the shoulders / make shoulders move to such an extent that it affects the whole body / shake fingers and hands fast enough to hear their movement / begin to move head from side to side – slowly and evenly – move head as far towards each shoulder as comfortable / count one each time your head reaches the right shoulder / after 7 sweeps of the head, allow it (in mid-sweep) to sink toward the chest – raising it to meet each shoulder (a rolling movement) / after 7 sweeps, lie down in the meditation position
feet and hands on the floor / hands take the weight of your upper body / arms and legs locked at the knees and elbows / spine is also locked (hips higher than shoulders) / eyes focussed in space / downward gaze / rotate hips in horizontal circles / simultaneously trace 1 inch (2.45cm) circles with your nose, in a horizontal plane, but in the opposite direction (if hips are rotating clockwise then your nose should trace counter clockwise) / whilst rotating hips, keep arms, legs, and spine locked / whilst making these movements, repeat the sounds ‘Ra Sa Ra’ continuously as a ‘harsh whisper’
eagle taking to the air
crouching position / place hands on thighs / fingers face backwards (towards stomach) / upper arms parallel to thighs / gaze straight ahead / eyes focussed in space / rise from crouching position by 12 inches (30cm) / circle right foot clockwise / replace right foot on the floor and return to the crouching position / rise again, circling left foot counter-clockwise / as feet alternately circle, the nose alternately circles in the same direction as the feet, but in the vertical plane / to maintain balance, rhythm and sufficient speed are essential / one circle with each foot counts as one repetition of the exercise
Each exercise is repeated 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 21, 27, 49, 54 or 111 times, depending on fitness and experience with sKu-mNyé.
sKu-mNyé should be practised without clothing to allow sensations beyond the surface of the skin to be fully experienced. Clothing particularly inhibits sensitivity to the energetic atmosphere around the body. But if you are practising sKu-mNyé simply to improve posture, suppleness or fitness, clothing suitable for rigorous exercise (without constricting waistbands) can be worn. Repeat each exercise in sets of three, then lie down and experience the sensations that arise, trying to avoid mental comments on them.
After each exercise assume the meditation posture:
lie on your back / legs just far enough apart for your inner thighs not to be touching / arms outward with the hands slightly higher than the shoulders / palms upwards / fingers splayed open / eyes focussed in space / tongue suspended (not touching upper or lower palate)
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