Buddhist Yoga: Spinning the Magical Wheel

The following article is from the Winter, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.



Introduction Tibetan Yogas

There is a growing interest in Tibetan physical yogas in the West Yoga Journal has published two articles on Tibetan yoga in the last year alone; one on the types of Tibetan yogas that have come to the United States, and another on a book, The Dalai Lama's Secret Temple, which describes the paintings of the secret temple of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, behind the famous Potala Palace. Many of these paintings are poses of Tibetan physical yogas, or trul khor, which translates as magical wheel.

Until recently, Westerners were much more focused on receiving Tibetan teachings that developed the mind, and most of the physical yogas that were taught in the West came from the Hindu traditions. I believe that this bias stemmed from the belief of Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism (including Bon) that the mind practices were more important. Thus, if a lama came s/he was asked for mind-related teachings. Many of the Tibetan lamas supported this view and were either not trained in trul khor or felt that it could lead to problems for the practitioners if not well supervised. This resulted in a lack of information about trul khor, combined with an air of secrecy and mysticism around it, as the Yoga Journal article (May/June 2000) reflected in its title, Into the Mystic. Whatever the case may be, trul khor practices are now being taught in the West, and in addition, different training courses are being offered, and translations of the original texts will be available in the near future.


A trul khor exercise: bob and weave

The three doors: body, speech, and mind

All experience, waking and dreaming, has an energetic basis. This vital energy is called lung in Tibetan, but is better known in the West by its Sanskrit name prana. The underlying structure of any experience is a precise combination of various conditions and causes. If we are able to recognize its mental, physical, and energetic dynamics, then we can reproduce those experiences or alter them. This allows us to generate experiences that support spiritual practice and avoid those that are detrimental.1

Our physical body, speech or energy, and mind are said to be the three doors through which one can practice and eventually realize enlightenment. The energetic body, represented by the prana or vital breath, can be said to be the link between the mind and physical body. Trul khor involves a coordination of physical movement that guides the vital breath, which in turn carries the mind. The Sanskrit word for trul khor is yantra yoga, which is also the name by which the trul khor that comes from the famous eighth century scholar and translator, Vairo- chana, and taught by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche in the West, is known. Both terms, Irul khor and yantra, have the meanings of magical,' machine,' and movement'; while yoga (or neljor in Tibetan) can mean union,' practice' or, in its deepest sense, primordial knowledge' or understanding,' According to Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, nal means original' or authentic,' never changing or modified,' the original condition' [and] jor means having' or discovering this knowledge' or understanding.' So the real meaning of yoga is that we discover our real condition.2

In this way, the body is like a machine or a tool that is available for the practitioner in order to understand one's true nature or real condition. Trul khor practices overtly utilize body, speech and mind in an interrelation that is similar to what is known in the West as mind- body practice. The vital breath is the aspect of speech or energy and it is the basis for trul khor, as the pranayama is crucial for the practice of the different kinds of hatha yoga. In fact, the trul khor practices assume, explicitly or implicitly (depending on the text), that the practitioner is familiar with tsa lung practices. Tsa refers to subtle channels' and lung to the vital breath or prana. In other words, tsa lung is crucial in the training and harmonizing of the vital breath, which is the basis of trul khor.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche has based much of the tsa lung practices he teaches on the ancient Bon text of the Mother Tantra or ma gyu. The five essential tsa lung exercises come from the chapter The Sphere of Elements (jung we tigle) of the Mother Tantra, and familiarize the practitioner with the five kinds of breath. Through simple body movements, the vital breath guides the mind into particular locations, or chakras, opening and harmonizing those locations to experiences that can support one's meditative practice. These locations and experiences also correlate to the five elements and the qualities related to them.

The Mother Tantra uses the metaphor of a wild horse for the vital breath and a rider for the mind. The wild horse is blind so it needs a guide, and the rider is lame so s/he needs help to be carried. They need each other in order to flow together through the paths of the subtle channels. The tsa lung practices help to maintain the mind on the breath which guides it through the different channels so that the practitioner can open and develop the qualities that are beneficial and support his or her practice.

In the Vairochana system that Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche teaches, there are eight movements that purify one's breath (lung sang). These are considered to be very important preparatory movements for yantra yoga.

Trul khor

Having trained the vital breath and subtle channels, the trul khor movements indicate various postures that both alter the flow of the vital breath by manipulating the subtle channels and stabilize the mind together with the vital breath in the central channel. When this occurs, one's awareness of the natural state of mind is awakened.

There are many kinds of trul khor- practices in the different Tibetan traditions, and they are slowly being divulged in the West. The yantra yoga that is taught in Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche's Dzogchen Community is based on a text called the Magical Wheel of the Union of Sun and Moon (trul khor nyida kha jor). The trul khor that is taught in Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche's Ligmin- cha Institute comes from the Quintessential Instructions of the Oral Wisdom of the Magical Wheel from the Great Perfection Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung (dzogpa chenpo zhang zhung nyen gyu le trul khor shel zhe men ngag), and its commentary by the famous meditator and scholar Shardza Tashi Gyalt- sen (1859-rainbow body 1934), who also composed Heart Drops of Dhar- makaya, among many other texts. Shardza Rinpoche's commentary is called Magical Wheel, Channels and Vital Breath of the Oral Tradition of Zhang Zhung (nyen gyu tsa lung trul khor) and is included within his collection of the Great Treasury of Vast Profound Sky (yang zab namkha dzod chen). The trul khor description that follows will be mostly based on the latter. At the end, details on how to get more information on both traditions will also be included.


A trul khor exercise: rolling


Yoga...can mean union,' practice' or, in its deepest sense, primordial knowledge' or understanding.'

Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyu

The trul khor of the Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung contains seven cycles, each containing five to six exercises. Each cycle is ascribed to different teachers of the Zhang Zhung lineage. These masters used the trul khor to stabilize their meditative practice and to remove obstacles that disturbed the practitioner's abiding in the natural state of mind. These movements are also said to strengthen one's physical health and emotional stability. However, trul khor is primarily done to develop one's meditation practice. This is palpable in the opening homage to Kuntu Zangpo or Samantabhadra, who clears the outer and inner obstacles. The trul khor movements that guide the vital breath to root out poisons and let one's primordial wisdom shine through were designed by six different masters, each one designing one (and in one case two) of the seven cycles. These are classified into preliminary (ngondro), root (itsawa), branch (yenla), and special (chedrag) cycles.

Before starting the exercises, one trains the vital breath, plying the subtle channelsparticularly to be able to hold naturally and relaxed in the central channel with a breath that pervades the whole body. In all the exercises, one is advised to hold the breath in that natural manner and then exhale with some force at the end, reinforced by the sounds of Ha and Phat. This helps to remove all obstacles so that one and all sentient beings can be induced to, and remain in, a pure meditative state; the state of buddhahood.

The preliminary cycle starts by applying the training of the breath through exercises that warm up and slightly massage each part of the body. Through these exercises the vital breath is balanced and the subtle channels are cleansed. The root cycles are the main cycles that are practiced to maintain the natural state of mind, also sometimes called exercises that enhance one's meditative practice (bog don). These crucial exercises relate to the five elements, and are said to close the doorway that is the channel to the five poisons and open the channel that is the doorway of primordial wisdom. Thus, the obscurations to the natural state are cleared (geg sel) together with the drowsiness and agitation, which are the main obstacles to remaining in that meditative state. In this way, the mind and vital breath enter the central channel and conceptual formations are liberated. The text states that these exercises also help get rid of different diseases, balance the elements, bring warmth into one's body and even have the power of reversing one's aging process. Other yogic feats are also mentioned.

The exercises of the branch cycles continue the process of eliminating internal and external hindrances and maintaining the unified vital breath in the central channel. The exercises of the special cycles are externally like a deeper focus on each part of the body, internally cutting off dis-ease, allowing clear awareness to arise naturally and immovable wisdom to dawn.

It is said that practicing these trul khor exercises strongly nourishes one's receptivity to moments of non- conceptual awareness and spontaneous self-liberation, which can then be taken into everyday life. In other words, one is to use them when the meditation in the natural state of mind is unclear, unstable or weakened in some. way. They are sometimes prescribed as an aid for the Dzogchen practitioner to get back', stabilize, or clarify his/her meditation in the natural state of mind. In this way, one follows the body instructions of the exercise, and while the breath is naturally held, the mind is held in its state of meditation together with the breath. Then, with the exhalation and the sounds of Ha and Phat, one can break through any concepts and obstacles that persist and can remain steadily in the natural state of mind.

My involvement

I first became acquainted with trul khor almost ten years ago in TVitan Norbutse monastery in Kathmandu, under the supervision of Nyima Wangyal (then khenpo or Abbot of the monastery). At that time, during the morning and evening meditation sessions, the monks would practice the Dzogchen breakthrough or trekchod meditation. Approximately halfway through the session, the leader of the practice would stand up and guide one cycle of this trul khor, and then return to the sitting posture to continue with trekchod until the conclusion with dedication. They would rotate the cycles in each session; i.e., in the morning, the preliminary cycle, at night, one root cycle, next morning, the other root cycle, and so forth. Once a year some would practice trul khor in a 100-day retreat, as prescribed by Shardza Rinpoche, which is now part of their curriculum.

Throughout the years I was able to receive more instructions from Lopon Tenzin Namdak and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche on how trul khor is used as an aid to Dzogchen practice, as well as going over details of the exercises with them, and also with His Holiness Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima, Lopon Tenpa'i Yung-drimg, Geshe Yungdrung Gyaltsen and Ponlop Thinley Nyima. Words cannot express how thankful I am to all of them, for their time, patience, and constant support in helping me share trul khor with others as well.

Ligminchatrul khor training course

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is quite aware of the problem of lack of context and continuity that Westerners sometimes undergo when learning meditative practices, in addition to our unwillingness to get involved in foundational practices and instead looking for higher practices. Thus, at Ligmincha Institute, Rinpoche is designing ways to transmit his tradition to the Western practitioners, taking into account our conditions of body, speech and mind, and creating training courses accordingly.

Last November, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche opened a formal trul khor training course at Ligmincha's main site, Serenity Ridge, near Charlottesville, Virginia. I have the honor of leading this course, composed of four five-day retreats spread out over a year and a half, under Rinpoche's close supervision. The primary purpose of this course is to offer an opportunity to those who are seriously interested in beginning or deepening their understanding of trul khor to have access to a training program of learning and practice. The time between retreats will allow the participants to practice and study what was learned and then apply it to the next level. A secondary purpose is to train future instructors who will be able to share the benefits of this practice with others, and this training is one of the prerequisites be a trul khor instructor in this tradition.

In the words of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche,Trul khor is a wonderful daily practice, especially to control and handle the stress of our modern life in society. It has the power to balance the energies of mind and body and it also helps enormously to support one's meditation practices. I strongly encourage and recommend everyone to come to these retreats, either to learn for yourself or to become instructors.

The second installment of the retreat is scheduled for May 9-13, 2001, and will be open to everyone interested. Accommodations will be made to ensure that the material of the introductory level is mastered. However, as we progress, we will need to limit the participation to those who have attended the previous retreat(s). In this way, those who are seriously interested will have the opportunity to learn and practice, and among them, those who have a mastered a certain level eventually will be able to share it with others.

In each of the retreats, additional cycles of trul khor will be taught and we will deepen the understanding and practice of those previously taught. We will also have time to share experiences of our own practice and discuss skillful ways of learning and instructing.

The third retreat will be October 31-November 4, 2001, and at the fourth retreat (beginning of 2002) Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche will certify those who are ready to teach the entire series. Rinpoche will also give the transmission of the text to the students and will impart teaching and guidance on how to instruct others.

I hope that this will benefit others as it is expressed in the dedication of the practice:

All pure virtue done through the three doors,

I dedicate to the welfare of all sentient beings of the three realms

After having purified from obstacles and obscurations all the three times

May we swiftly achieve complete Buddhahood of the three dimensions.

For more information:

Ligmincha Institute

Conway Dzogchen Community

P.O. Box 1892

(Tsygyal Gar)

Charlottesville, VA 22903


P.O. Box 277

Tel: (804) 977-6161

Conway, MA 01341


1. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, Snow Lion Publications, 1998, p. 42)

2. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, The Eight Movements of Yantra Yoga, Snow Lion Publications, 1999, Shang Shung Edizioni, p. 4] ä_æ



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