Yangyel Lhaden

Chamber Number 14, National Traditional Medicine Hospital, Thimphu. It’s more an altar room than luejong (fitness) hall. If you expect to see things like pressure monitor, stethoscope or a treadmill, you’ve come to the wrong place. Instead, high up on the altar sit the statues of Sangay Menlha (Medicine Buddha), Ugyen Menlha (Guru Rinpoche of Medicine), and Yuthok Yonten Gonpo (Tibetan doctor credited with composing the Four Medical Tantras, a four-book treatise on Traditional Tibetan Medicine which forms the main course of study in the Tibetan medical tradition).

For many patients, though, Chamber Number 14, is their last hope. They, patients with mostly mental health issues, come here after trying therapies and modern medicine for a long time. Chamber number 14, is a centre for Sorig Zhiney and Luejong— mindfulness and yoga practice based on Buddhist traditional medicine system, Sowa Rigpa, the ancient science of healing based on Buddhist philosophy and psychology.

It is also a referral centre.

Sorig Zhiney and Luejong focuses on keeping the mind and body together, because when one departs the other what results is generally termed mental illness.

Tashi Dema has been feeling depressed. She thinks relationship problems led to it. She tried modern medicine for last two years but her health condition saw little improvement. Her friends then suggested her to try yoga. Her sister encouraged her to try traditional yoga and mindfulness.

“I really did not have a choice. I had to try,” says Tashi Dema. It’s just  been five days since she practiced Sorig Zhiney and Luejong. “I can already feel the difference. I feel light and at peace when I practice yoga.”

As per the data maintained by the health ministry, between 2015 to 2019, the highest number of cases recorded were anxiety (7,500), followed by mental disorders due to alcohol use (5,748), depression (3,377), psychosis (1,634) and mental disorders due to substance use (1,342). More than 8,800 mental health-related cases were documented during the same period.

Between 2016 and until June 2021, about 1,000 patients were referred to Chamber number 14.

Tuesday, June 29. Six women are practicing mindfulness in Chamber Number 14. They are seated in a seven-point meditation posture, visualising and chanting Sangay Menlha mantra. They are told to visualise alphabet Ah on the heart.

Drungtsho Karma Ugyen said people could focus on any subject but letter Ah according to Buddhism had greater benefit because it represents the sound of emptiness. “All these worldly sufferings are temporary. If we visualise Ah it can calm the mind.”

Dawa Dema is a beginner. She finds visualising Ah, on the heart, difficult. “But I can do it with a little more practice and effort.”

Sonam Dema came all the way from Samtse to find a cure for her mental condition. She said as Sorig Zhiney and Luejong was based on Bhuddhism, she could also gain spiritual and emotional strength.

“The ambience is important,” says Drungtsho Ugyen Phuntsho, a trainer. The smell of incense, butter lamp, wide and open windows and water offerings add to a serene environment to calm the mind.

Sorig Zhiney and Luejong has 32 steps—a two-step warm-up, an eight-step yoga for mental health and healthy person, a 13-step disease-related yoga and one step mindfulness practice.

Every step of luejong has to be performed by holding one’s breath which is a unique aspect of Bhuddhist Yoga.  Drungtsho Karma Ugyen said holding the breath was to enhance concentration and to heat up the body more for greater benefits.

She said that Bhuddhist yoga was different from others, as it has deep spiritual roots.

Drungtsho Phurba Tshering, 67, is the man behind introducing Bhuddhist yoga in the country. In 2014, a colleague asked him whether Sowa Rigpa had Bhuddhist yoga.

Drungtsho Phurpa said he encountered many such Zhiney and Luejong practices in Yuthok Yonten Gonpo’s teaching and other religious books but was sceptical as to whether a layperson could perform. He said that only drupthops and naljorpas performed yoga for spiritual benefit after ngo.

But then he found that some steps could be performed by ordinary people and began jotting them down which later became a two-page Zhiney and Luejong guide. Intrigued by his finding, he began consulting with his Tibetan  drungtsho friends.

Drungtsho Phurba learnt how to practically perform these yogas through videos shared by his Tibetan drungtshos in WeChat group. He shared them with other drungtshos and menpas.  He compiled 24 Sorig Zhiney and Luejong steps—yoga for healthy people, for diseases, mindfulness, and warming up.

Drungtsho Karma Ugyen learnt eight steps of general yoga from a Buddhist practitioner from abroad who had come to Bhutan. She found a deeper co-relation between these eight steps and Sowa Rigpa’s treatment for mental illness. They are today used to cure mental health diseases.

Drungtsho Karma, however, said that one could do any form of yoga for their curative but also preventive benefits. “Each step for mental- and disease-related yoga takes about a minute while yoga for healthy person takes 30 minutes.”

Chamber Number 14 has not only served as a Sorig Zhiney and Luejong hall but it is also a place where the patients meet with their friends with similar problems. They find each other’s support critically important.

One Nima Dema consults Drungtsho Ugyen Phuntsho at the end of the session. “Where do I go where I can practise the whole Buddhist yoga?”

Drungtsho Ugyen Phuntsho is kind and helpful.

“You can come here anytime. I will teach you. We can do it together.”

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk