By Roozbeh Gazdar
Part of the secret rites of Tibetan lamas, a set of five health-boosting exercises that claims to rejuvenate the body and mind, is today claiming avid converts across the world
Kiran Gupta, a housewife, used to suffer from a variety of ailments. A knee problem made it difficult for her to move and emotionally she felt in bad shape. Then she read about a couple, Razia and Rustam Patel, who were helping people attain good health with the Five Tibetans. Three months after practising the exercises, she is a changed person. “Earlier, it was a chore for me even to go down to shop in the neighbourhood; today I travel around the city. My blood pressure has stabilised and emotionally I feel great. I am able to do things that I had only dreamt about,” says Kiran, who recently even joined up for a Tai Chi class.
Rustam and Razia Patel heard about the Five Tibetans from a friend who had suffered three heart attacks. Completely recovered, he credited his transformation to these five ‘rejuvenating rites’. When the couple’s inquiries in Mumbai drew a blank, Razia made use of a trip to America to return armed with books and cassettes on the subject. As a result Rustam saw an improvement in his slip disc and Razia found that her spondylitis got cured. “We started sharing our knowledge with other friends who found it so helpful that we started teaching formally,” recalls Razia, who, besides having students at home, also holds workshops for corporate houses.
So what are the Five Tibetans? Essentially a set of five health boosting exercises that claim to rejuvenate the body and mind, they were first published in 1939 in a book, The Five Rites of Rejuvenation by Peter Kelder. The book is a fantastic account about an enigmatic retired British officer (Kelder calls him Colonel Bradford) who, obsessed with finding the fabled ‘fountain of youth’, lands up in Tibet. There, living in a Buddhist monastery, he is initiated into these exercises—the secret rites that were supposed to keep the lamas in a state of perpetually youthful health.
Kelder reports that Colonel Bradford came back looking so much younger that Kelder did not even recognise him! The Colonel, either due to lack of acumen or perhaps a newly acquired monastic disdain for worldly fortune, taught the exercises only to a few close friends, leaving Kelder to capitalise on the knowledge he had stumbled upon. Selling the promise of eternal youth coupled with the romantic allure of the esoteric East, Kelder’s book caught the attention of the West where the exercises became quite popular.
In the two years since the Patels have been teaching the Five Tibetans, their students seem to bear out Kelder’s claims. Filmmaker Kanika Verma says the exercises help her to beat the stress arising out of a hectic work schedule. “It has a calming effect on me. I feel more energetic and have an increased sense of well-being,” she says. Dr Tripti Jain adds: “The Five Tibetans done along with correct breathing are really effective. It has definitely brought about a change in my back muscles. My spine feels much better and my back pain has gone.” She adds that the paces address flexibility in the spine and joints. A practising psychotherapist, Tripti has also started recommending them to her patients because “emotional problems often have physical components and I find that these exercises have a positive effect on the patients”.
“The feedback from our students was frankly beyond my expectations,” exclaims Rustam. Razia explains that besides weight reduction and hormonal imbalances, arthritis, joint and back pains, menopausal distress in women, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, migraines and even diabetic conditions have shown remarkable improvement among participants in their workshops, which, besides the Five Tibetans, include meditation, pranayam and positive thinking.
Christopher Kilham, a yoga and meditation teacher for over 20 years, also helped to popularise the exercises in the West. In his book The Five Tibetans, he has written: “After practising the Five Tibetans for two years, I was convinced that, at the very least, they were extraordinary… They open up the Body/mind energy system and seem to balance energy in a way that I have not experienced with any other individual yoga method or set of yoga practices.”
These exercises, involving rigorous stretching and bending combined with yogic breathing, would seem to entail a complete body workout—capable of effecting health transformation. However, practitioners ascribe their astounding effects to the role they play in balancing the chakras, the seven vortices of energy through which the prana or life force flows. Razia explains that the chakras revolve at great speed, exactly where the hormone-secreting endocrine glands, which regulate all of the body’s functions and organs, are located. “Ill health and aging are due to one or more of these chakras slowing down and inhibiting the flow of energy. The Five Tibetans start the chakras spinning again,” she claims. Dr Jain also subscribes to the chakra theory: “The exercises improve the spiral quality and speed of the chakras, both of which diminish as one ages.”
Kilham explains that the seven chakras, lying along the spinal column, are connected by the three major energetic pathways, known as Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. He writes: “The Five Tibetans help to balance the lunar and solar forces of Ida and Pingala, and assist in channeling a steady, concentrated flow of energy through Sushumna, the central channel. Energy flows more smoothly… physical health and vitality improve, the mind becomes more powerful, and one can enter into high states of meditation with increasingly greater ease.”
While many come seeking relief from problems, others are attracted by the promise of overall health. “Almost everyone benefits in terms of sound sleep, heightened energy levels, better focus, etc, and couples testify to an improved sex life,” says Razia. Explaining their popularity, she says: “They are so easy to learn and you feel the effects within days. Besides, as the entire routine takes only about 15 minutes, they are just right for today’s schedules.”
Jehangir Palkhivala, a yoga teacher, includes the Five Tibetans in the basic yoga sequence he has evolved for beginners. He says: “I tried them out myself and finding a remarkable change in my overall capacity, started teaching them to my students. They are particularly helpful for people with hormonal imbalances and other physical problems. Starting gradually with the Five Tibetans helps them to attain the more difficult postures.” Explaining that the four of the five rites correspond to certain asanas such as the Urdhva Prasarita, Ustrasana, Purvottanasana and the Urdhvamukha and Adhomukha Svanasana, he says that it is the repetitions that make them so effective. Agrees Reshma Gurnaney, Palkhivala’s student who also teaches under his guidance: “The repetitions involved seem to give a completeness to the yoga sequence.”
The five Tibetans are ideally practised 21 times each. However, beginners should aim at achieving this gradually, giving importance to the ease with which each posture is attained rather than the number of repetitions. Best time to do them is either in the morning or evening on an empty stomach. Palkhivala and the Patels agree that these are very potent exercises and should only be learnt under a knowledgeable teacher.
Before we move on to the actual five exercises, a word about the ‘sixth Tibetan.’ Kelder’s book says that monks use it to control the sexual drive and convert it into spiritual power and so should only be done by celibates. The Patels stick by this and do not teach it. Kilham, however, recommends it, saying that while it does help celibates to deal with accumulated energy, it also benefits the sexually active majority, by strengthening the sex glands and enhancing sexual activity.
The following instructions are extracted from The Five Tibetans by Christopher S. Kilham:
Tibetan # 1
Stand up straight with your arms outstretched to the sides. Fingers are together, palms open and facing downward. Holding this position, spin full circle in a clockwise direction. (If you were to turn your head to the right, that is the direction in which you want to spin.) Repeat the spin 21 times without a break.
When you finish spinning, stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips. Take a full, deep breath, inhaling through the nose. Exhale through the mouth with your lips pursed in an ‘O’. Repeat the inhale and exhale, completing two full breaths. You may experience some dizziness when you first practise this exercise. So, don’t exert. It strengthens the vestibular apparatus, the balance mechanism residing in the inner ear. With regular practice the dizziness will stop and the spin will become easy and fluid, even at fast speeds. This is the same motion practised by Sufi Dervishes who twirl at rapid speeds for long periods of time.
Tibetan # 2
Lie on your back on a mat or rug. Your legs are fully extended, ankles flexed and touching. Arms are by your sides with the palms flat on the floor. Inhale through the nose, lift your legs a little past a 90º angle, and raise your head, tucking your chin into your chest. This is all done in one smooth motion. Your toes point toward the sky; your lower back should remain flat on the ground.
Exhale through either your nose or mouth, bringing your legs and head down to the starting point—flat on the ground. Repeat the entire motion 21 times, inhaling as you raise your legs and head, exhaling as you bring them down.
When you are finished, stand with your feet together and hands on hips. Take two full, deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, with your lips pursed in an ‘O’.
Tibetan # 3
Kneel with the balls of your feet resting on the ground. Your knees are about four inches apart. Place your palms against the back of your thighs just below the buttocks. Your spine is erect, with your chin tucked into the chest.
Inhale through the nose, arching back from the waist. Drop your head as far back as you comfortably can. Your hands will support you as you lean back. Then exhale through either the nose or mouth, as you return to the starting position. Repeat 21 times in a steady, unbroken rhythm.
When you finish, stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips. Take two full, deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, with your lips pursed in an ‘O’.
Tibetan # 4
Sit up straight with your legs outstretched in front of you. Place the palms of your hands flat on the ground beside your hips. Positioning of the hands is important; they must be placed exactly alongside the hips. Tuck your chin into your chest.
Inhaling through the nose, raise your hips as you bend your knees, bringing the soles of your feet flat to the ground and dropping your head all the way back. You will come into a position in which the trunk is parallel to the ground while the arms and legs are perpendicular. Exhale through either the nose or mouth as you come down to the starting position. Repeat 21 times in a steady, unbroken rhythm. Do not let your feet slide. The feet should stay in the same place through this whole exercise. Also, the arms should not bend; the movement is instead accomplished by pivoting at the shoulders. Stand when you are finished, feet together and hands on hips. Take two full breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, with your lips pursed in an ‘O’.
Tibetan # 5
Begin this exercise by supporting yourself on the palms of your hands and balls of your feet. Both the arms and legs are about two feet apart. Your head is up and back. Keeping your arms and legs straight, inhale thought the nose as you raise your buttocks and tuck your chin into your chest, bringing your body up into a perfect triangle. Exhale through either your nose or mouth as you swing back down to the starting position. Except for the palms of your hands and the balls of your feet, your body remains off the ground during the entire exercise, and your arms and legs do not bend at all. Repeat 21 times in a smooth, unbroken rhythm.
Upon finishing, stand with your feet together and hands on hips. Take two full, deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, with your lips pursed in an ‘O’.
When you have finished performing all five exercises, lie down on your back and relax for several minutes. Let the breath be gentle and easy. Notice any new sensations in your body.
Contact: Razia & Rustam Patel
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