Yoga has fully stepped down out of the temple halls of Eastern esotericism into Western mainstream culture. Yoga has outlasted it's passing, trendy-fad stage, and would seem not only to be here to stay, but indeed to be growing in recognition, practice, and popularity. Another mystic, ritual practice to make its way down out of the misty heights of the Himalayas and into gyms and rec rooms across America are the Five Tibetan Rites.
While its origins are shrouded in mysterious circumstances, this system of meditative exercises purports to rival yoga's stronghold on American gym class dockets nationwide.
But yoga has a well-documented history of mental and physical benefit as well as increasing emotional well-being. A 2011 study conducted by Dr. Catherine Woodyard at the University of Mississippi reviewed all the current research on yoga's medical benefits.
Yoga's Proven Health Benefits
Dr. Woodyard found that "yogic practices enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, promote recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduce stress, (and thus lower risk for the plethora of stress-related diseases), anxiety, depression, and chronic structural, physiological, emotional and spiritual pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life."
Dr. Woodyard also reported that sustained practice also leads to changes in life perspective, self-awareness, and facilitates characteristics of friendliness, compassion, and greater self-control, while cultivating a sense of calmness and well-being.
It's no wonder then that this veritable panacea is sweeping across the nation. So can the pretender usurp the champ? Before we get into comparing the two, lets begin by diving into just what these Tibetan Rites actually are.
The Eye of Revelation
The Western world has a book called "The Eye of Revelation", written by Peter Kelder in 1939 to thank for exposure to the Five Tibetan Rites.
Little is known of Kelder, nor his British Colonel, adding to the mystique surrounding the origins of the Five Rites.
In the book, Kelder describes a chance encounter with a retired British Army soldier, a Colonel Bradford. While stationed in India, Colonel Bradford encountered a group of Lamas (Buddhist priests, or gurus; think the Dalai Lama) who were inexplicably healthy, strong and full of vigor and virility for their old age.
According to Kelder, the Colonel then went to live with the Lamas where they taught him five exercises, which they called Rites.
The Lamas described seven spinning psychic vortexes within the body: two are located in the brain, one at the base of the throat, one near the liver, one in the reproductive organ, and one in each knee.
Kelder then explains that as we age, the vortexes begin to spin slower, resulting in poor health. But by practicing the Five Rites daily, we can increase the rate of spin of the vortexes again and improve our health.
The Five Tibetan Rites
Kelder goes on to describe each Rite in turn.
The First Rite: "Stand erect with arms outstretched, horizontal with the shoulders. Now spin around until you become slightly dizzy. There is only one caution: you must turn from left to right". Kelder warns that you must spin clockwise for the Rite to be performed correctly.
The Second Rite: " Lie full length (on your back) on rug or bed. Place the hands flat down alongside of the hips. Raise the feet until the legs are straight up. If possible let the feet extend back a bit over the body toward the head, but do not let the knees bend. While the feet and legs are being raised it is a good idea also to raise the head, then while the feet and legs are being lowered to the floor lower the head at the same time. Hold this position for a moment or two and then slowly lower the feet to the floor, and for the next several moments allow all of the muscles in the entire body to relax completely. Then perform the rite all over again. "
The Third Rite: "Kneel on a rug or mat with hands at sides, palms flat against the side of legs. Then lean forward as far as possible, bending at the waist, with head well forward - chin on chest. The second position of this Rite is to lean backward as far as possible. Cause the head to move still further backward. The hands are always kept against the side of the legs. Next come to an erect (kneeling) position, relax as much as possible for a moment, and perform the Rite all over again."
The Fourth Rite: "Sit erect on rug or carpet with feet stretched out in front. The legs must be perfectly straight - back of knees must be well down or close to the rug. Place the hands flat on the rug, fingers together, and the hands pointing outward slightly. Chin should be on chest - head forward."
"Now gently raise the body, at the same time bend the knees so that the legs from the knees down are practically straight up and down. The arms, too, will also be vertical while the body from shoulders to knees will be horizontal. As the body is raised upward allow the head gently to fall backward so that the head hangs backward as far as possible when the body is fully horizontal. Hold this position for a few moments, tense every muscle in the body, return to first position, and relax for a few moments before performing the Rite again."
The Fifth Rite: "Place the hands on the floor about two feet apart. Then, with the legs stretched out to the rear with the feet also about two feet apart, push the body, and especially the hips, up as far as possible, rising on the toes and hands. At the same time the head should be brought so far down that the chin comes up against the chest. Next, allow the body to come slowly down to a 'sagging' position. Bring the head up, causing it to be drawn as far back as possible. The muscles should be tensed for a moment when the body is at the highest point, and again at the lowest point."
That's it! The manual instructs to repeat each Rite 21 times. Depending on your pace, it shouldn't take any longer than 15-20 minutes. So the question lingers: do they actually work?
Kelder's Colonel Bradford claimed to have been miraculously transformed by practicing the Rites, from a stooped old man with a cane to a vigorous, straight-backed man in his prime.
For his part, Kelder also cites testimonials from apocryphal practitioners who claimed that the Rites improve memory, potency, eyesight, and a complete restoration of hair color and growth.
Other anecdotal testimonies circulating in the rumor mill include that the Rites will smooth your wrinkles, and transform your face, hair, strength, and vitality to those of a 25 year old! Stuff of miracles? Sounds like the fountain of youth itself! If these claims were true, then it'd be hard to argue with the results: not only would the Five Tibetan Rites be more effective than yoga, they would be more powerful than most of modern medicine!
Separating Fact and Fiction
Unlike yoga, which has been getting a lot of attention lately from scientific research, the Five Tibetans have yet to be scrutinized by clinical research, and there is no scientific evidence backing the Lamas' theory of the psychic spinning vortexes.
In the absence of clinical research then, how do we substantiate these seemingly wild rumors? For one, we might turn to the people who actually practice it on a routine basis, to see if they have indeed grown 25 years younger.
Carolinda Witt, a long-time practitioner and instructor of and blogger about the Five Tibetans, has authored two books on the subject: T5T: The Tibetan Exercise Rites; and The 10-Minute Rejuvenation Plan.
Ms. Witt endeavors to temper some of the more, let us say, enthusiastic rumors swirling about the Five Tibetans: "Claims for the benefits of performing the Rites have proliferated over the web, becoming increasingly exaggerated to a point where they have been made to sound like a 'miracle cure'- an ancient, secret snake oil medicine! People are led to believe that the Rites will completely halt their aging, help them lose enormous amounts of weight, fix their cancer, heart disease, fibroid cysts, and as a result their expectations are set incredibly high before they even practice."
Ms. Witt then speculates as to whether these expectations play a part in perpetuating these rumors, via the placebo effect: "Colonel Bradford himself says that the monks told him that you need to invest a strong amount of faith and belief in the Rites to maximize their benefit. If you think old, you become old. He suggests people stride instead of hobble for example".
For her part, Ms. Witt relies on old fashioned, direct observation and years of experience in practicing and teaching the Rites, - observation of her own personal experience, and observation of her students - to determine what benefits they provide.
She claims that better posture, good core strength, muscle gain and toning on the arms, stomach, hips, legs, and back, better flexibility and less stiffness, improved breathing, better sleep, weight loss, and improved mental clarity and an increased sense of calm are all real benefits to practicing the Five Tibetans. All of these combined result in an overall improvement to health and well-being.
Not quite the Fountain of Youth that we might have been led to believe, but these benefits are still nothing to sneeze at. So how does this stack up to yoga?
Well, in addition to the findings of Dr. Woodyard's study above, another study conducted by Dr. A. Ross et al., at the University of Maryland in 2010 compared the benefits of yoga to other forms of exercise; Dr. Ross and his colleagues found that yoga had profound effects on physical and mental health via down-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, and the sympathetic nervous system, such that they concluded that yoga interventions were equal or superior to other forms of exercise in nearly every outcome measured except actual physical fitness.
This is not to say however that the Five Tibetan Rites don't have their merits. Yoga, with its dozens of forms and the discipline, patience, flexibility and coordination required to learn and perfect the nuances of those forms, can be a daunting and time-consuming task.
On the other hand, the Tibetan Rites are shorter, much less complicated, and require no more than 15 minutes to perform.
They can be a good supplement or substitute to yoga, if one doesn't have the time or ability to add yoga to their schedule.
In any case, the distinction between yoga and the Five Tibetan Rites might not be so sharp after all.
And even though the Rites emphasize dynamic movement rather than the static postures common to yoga, according to the Vajrayana Research Resource, an organization devoted to the study and scholarship of Vajrayana Buddhism, "the Rites fit the general conceptual framework of Tibetan Yoga" and "the Rites and Tibetan yoga have the same intended purpose and are done with the same motivation" which is to "promote physical health and spiritual growth, extend life-span, and to benefit all sentient beings everywhere in the world."
So whether you prefer the calming and rejuvenating stillness of yoga or the more dynamic movements of the Five Tibetan Rites, its undeniable that Eastern traditions have real tangible health benefits, and we should take advantage.