How to

13 June 2016

How Tibetan Monks Deal with the Extreme Cold of the Himalayas

People from elsewhere in the world go through rigorous training to conquer the harsh, punishing climate of the Himalayas, so it can be easy to forget that people do actually live there, and what’s more, they’ve lived the same simple, rustic lifestyle for centuries with no issue. I’m talking, of course, about Tibetan Buddhist monks.

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Said monks spend most, if not all of their lives in temples high in the mountains. Though in recent years they’ve moved out to areas like Siberia and Tuva, let’s just focus on the Himalayans subset. Not only do they have to come with extreme cold, but also the kind of high altitude that would render most of us sick as dogs, dogs who ate an entire chocolate fudge cake. Just how can they survive this way? Buddhist magic?

Well, kind of, yeah. In a sense, they’re actually mutants. Don’t take that the wrong way, they don’t have extra limbs or a tendency to appear in Bryan Singer films, they have a particular genetic structure which represents the most potent instance of natural selection ever observed in human beings. Said gene controls red blood cell production, and it has developed to allow them a uniquely strong oxygen metabolism, which is good considering that there’s roughly 40% less of it on the Tibetan Plateau. The monks maintain the same red blood cell count regardless of altitude, whereas you or me would start producing more, leading to altitude sickness.

Of course, high altitude is only one part of the problem, there’s also the temperature. While the Himalayan region can get almost subtropical at lower altitudes, the alpine climate has an average temperature of about 0°C during the winter, and it can get as low as -10°C. Get even further up the mountains, where many of the monasteries are, and it’s even colder.

If you’ve ever seen how Tibetan monks dress, you’ll know that The North Face don’t see a lot of business from them. They won’t wear fur, as their religion strictly forbids any form of animal cruelty, and their dwellings aren’t typically availed of any overly sophisticated heating or insulation technology, so how do they keep warm? Well, believe it or not, they use meditation.

After a series of studies conducted with the help of the Dalai Lama in the late 70s and early 80s, it was found that many monks were able to raise their skin temperature by as much as 8.3 °C, whilst keeping their core temperature the same. Other studies have shown that they can actually increase their core temperature as well. This is primarily attributed to a particular meditation technique called Tummo, which involves visualising the human body as a hollow structure of light, and then using a combination of breathing controls methods to slow the heart rate.

This is so effective that monks have actually been documented sleeping on a rocky ledge at over 4,500 metres above sea level, apart from each other with no additional insulation beyond their robes. Allegedly, they didn’t even shiver, and we’re talking about temperatures in the region of -17 °C.

It is still not fully understood how they can do this, beyond the effectiveness of their meditation techniques, but what we do know is that during meditation, their brains show completely different blood flow activity, enabling certain regions to become more active, especially those that regulate blood pressure and metabolism. Some Indo-Tibetan monks in Sikkim were found to be able to lower their metabolism by 64%, and to put that into perspective, our metabolism only lowers by about 15% when we sleep.

These discoveries are so ground breaking that meditation is now being seriously considered as a useful practise for astronauts. Centuries of refinement have enabled monks to understand and regulate their bodies so efficiently that they can actually remain comfortable in conditions that should, by all rights, kill them.  

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.