What is Prana?

Prana is sometimes translated as ‘breath’ and that the action of breathing enables prana to enter the body. However this is just one of the many manifestations of prana in the human body. Prana is a theoretical concept of a subtle, invisible energy rather than a tangible system or object and as such it is quite difficult to find an all-encompassing definition of prana.

One of the most straightforward descriptions of prana comes from page 127 of ‘The Complete Idiots Guide to Yoga with Kids’:

“Yoga has a name for the life force energy in our bodies. This energy flows in and out of us, moving through certain channels (according to Yogic thought), and also fills our environments. Yoga calls this energy ‘prana’. The theory goes that we take in prana when we inhale, suffusing our bodies with this energy. We release prana when we exhale, letting it carry with it negative energies and impurities. The movment of prana in and out of our body is akin to a kind of purification system and when prana gets blocked in the body, or we don’t take in enough, our bodies become unbalanced and don’t work as well.”

BKS Iyengar gives a comprehensive definition of Prana on page 12 of ‘Light on Pranayama’:

“prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy. All vibrating energies are prana. All physical energies such as heat, light, gravity, magnetism, and electricity are also prana.” He goes on to say “vigour, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of prana”.

Georg Feuerstein gives prana three definitions in the glossary of ‘The Yoga Tradition’ (Pg 458):

“i) Life in general

  ii) the life force sustaining the body, which has five principle forms;     prana, apana, samana, udana and vydna.

  iii) The breath as the external manifestation of the life force.”

In the ‘Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga’ Feuerstein explains that “In secular contexts prana denotes ‘air’. However in the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, prana almost invariably signifies ‘Universal life force, which is a psychophysical energy similar to the ‘pneuma’ of the Ancient Greeks.”

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika Chapter 2 Verse 3 continues this theme: “As long as the Vayu (air and prana) remains in the body, that is called life. Death is when it leaves the body. Therefore retain Vayu.”

 In this case the vayu means air but it actually indicates pranic air. Prana Vayu moves throughout the whole body like waves of energy, likened to an electromagnetic field where the energy is in constant motion.

The theme that Prana is a life giving force continues in the commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Commenting on the above verse (ch2 v3) Swami Muktibodhananda explains on pg156 “When prana leaves the body there is no force left to animate it. As long as prana is retained the body will not die. Life is generated with inhalation; and with exhalation there is loss of prana. When the breath is held, the prana does not move out or in, it becomes stabilized.”

Pranic absorption takes place on a major scale in the thoracic region and is a function of the prana vayu. In the Upanishads, prana vayu is also called the ‘in-breath’, apana the ‘out breath’, samana the ‘middle breath’ and Udana the ‘up breath’. The linking of the concept of prana with the breath is succinctly put by Swami Muktibodhananda on pg 156: “Prana is the basis of life and can be directly controlled by the breath”.

 Patanjali describes Prana as “Vital energy” in Chapter1 verse 34 and Chapter 2 verse 50.

Swami Muktibodhananda states on pg 157 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, that : “Prana is the physical manifestation of the highest self. Hatha Yoga uses prana as the key to expand the awareness of consciousness and realise the self”.

Prana in the Ancient Texts

The Taittiriya Upanishad

One of the oldest Upanishads is the Taittiriya Upanishads, the wisdom of which goes back to the teacher Tittiri (Who’s name means Partridge). The Taittiriya Upanishad explains the mystical implications of the Vedic chants and sacrificial rituals.

The Kaushitaki Upanishad

The Kaushitaki Upanishad is named after the old Brahmin family Kaushitaki and contains details about rebirth and the path to the ‘World of the Absolute (Brahma-Loka). There is a lot of discussion about Prana, including a long disclosure on the ‘life force’ being identical with the ‘Absolute’.

Chapter 3 verse 2 describes prana thus:

“Life is prana, prana is life. So long as prana remains in the body, so long as there is life. Through prana, one obtains, even in this world, immortality”.

In chapter 3 verse 3 Prana is equated with consciousness (Pranja) as Feuerstein explains on page 133 of ‘The Yoga Tradition’:

“It is by means of consciousness that a person acquires the resolve (salya-samkalpa), the whole body desire to transcend the finite world and thence achieve immortality. Thus through the cultivation of the conscious life force, the sage attains the universal prana, which is immortal and utterly joyous”.

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad

Shveta – ashva – tara is the title given to a person whose senses are completely purified and under control. This Upanishad recommends and describes meditation. Here the Upanishad explains that when the prana in the body has been quietened down, conscious breathing should begin as a prelude to mental concentration.

Prana as energy

The term ‘Hatha’ is made up from two Sanskrit roots, ‘Ha’ which means Sun and represents prana, the vital force and vitality, and ‘Tha’ which means moon and represents the mind or mental energy of Chitta. Hatha Yoga therefore means the union of the pranic and mental forces, the outcome of which is described by Swami Muktibodhananda on Page 7 of the ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’ : “When Union between the pranic and mental forces takes place, then a great event occurs in man. This is the awakening of higher consciousness”. He continues: “The practice of Hatha Yoga enables the fluctuations between these two energies to become harmonious and unified into one force.

Pranic energy travels through Pingala nadi and this governs the right side of the body. Chitta (mental energy) travels through Ida Nadi and governs the left side. If the two separate flowing energies of prana and Chitta are unified, this creates a suitable condition for Kundalini (spiritual energy) to awaken and ascend through the middle, Nadi known as Sushumna.

Bharti Vayas gives a description of prana in the ayurvedic sense in her book ‘Simply Ayurveda (pg 11) “Ayurveda identifies 107 points in an energy matrix throughout the whole body, through which ‘prana’ – the life force – flows. They are known as ‘marmas’ and are also akin to the acupuncture points in Chinese medicine…herbal packs, massage and steam at specific marma points break down the blockages that they (Ayurvedic practitioners) sense in their patient. The belief is that without this intervention the blockages will cause physical and mental symptoms including bowel problems, skin complaints, anxiety, immune dysfunction, chronic fatigue and insomnia.”

The effects of Prana

Swami Muktibodhananda explains on Page 149 of the ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’ that “Whatever is manifest is the sthula roopa’ or ‘gross form’ of the subtle, cosmic energy, known as prana”. I interpret this to mean that you are what you eat, drink, do, say, etc.

Prana and Pranayama

Pranayama which means ‘pranic capacity or length’, is practised in order to understand and control the pranic processes in the body. Swami Muktibodhananda explains on Page 149 of the ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’ that “Breathing is a direct means of absorbing prana and the manner in which we breath sets off pranic vibrations which influence our entire being.”

In Hatha Yoga the theory is that if you can control prana, the mind is automatically controlled. This is the opposite to Raja Yoga which states that you should control the mind and this will automatically control prana. Both are paths to enlightenment, and show that prana and the mind exert an influence over each other. When the prana is restless it affects the mind and vice versa.

Swami Muktibodhananda explains on Page 11 of the ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’ that “Prana can never be motionless. The pranas are always moving, and the mind is ever changing as well.” These two highly mobile energies have to be brought into a steady state and this concentration and steadiness is extremely difficult.

“Concentration is unbroken awareness of one point at all times like one line stretching into the far distance…one idea, no other idea, no other thought. That is concentration and it should happen by itself.” (Swami Muktibodhananda, ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’ pg 11)

When pranayama is practised and the pranic energy is aroused it is circulated through the body, mind and spirit. “Then the inner city is illuminated and man is reborn into a new dimension of existence, a new area of experience” (Swami Muktibodhananda , ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’, pg 17.)

Bibliography

BKS Iyengar ‘Light on Pranayama’, The Aquarian Press, 1992.

Bharti Vayas, ‘Simply Ayurveda’, Thorsons, 2000.

Georg Feuerstein ‘The Yoga Tradition’, Hohm Press, 2001.

Georg Feuerstein ‘Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga’ Unwin Paperbacks, 1990.

Swami Muktibodhananda ‘Hatha Yoga Padipika of Swatmarama’, Yoga Publications Trust, 1993.

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, ‘The Practices of Yoga for the Digestive System’, The Bihar School of Yoga, 1993.

Charaka Samhita

Dr Francoise Barbira Freedman,‘Baby Yoga’, Barrons, 2000.

Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads, Arakana (Penguin Books), 1988.

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