Prana - The Universal Life Force
Yoga Darshan 3, January 15, 2015
Why do we feel better when we practice yoga?
Life transforming nature of yoga, to gain physical and mental benefits, has come to be acknowledged by people across numerous nations, crossing cultural and religious boarders. The UN resolution of World Yoga Day is a testament to the universal benefits of Yoga. Every practitioner has experienced the positive effects of the physical postures, breathing and relaxation up to a certain level. Bestowed to us as precious gifts from the enlightened Indian yogis of the past, yoga is relevant to us now as it was to people 5,000 years ago to help us excel in our lives. In ancient times, yoga was an oral tradition taught from a guru to his disciples. Inevitably, each disciple interpreted their guru’s teachings in his own way and relayed yogic practices to their students, causing variations in practices. On one hand, the varieties of yoga lineages give diversity to the yogic path, but on the other hand, they cause confusion and misinterpretation about yoga. In order to cut through the misconceptions of yoga and to better benefit from this ancient wisdom, it is important to understand that yoga is an applied science and all practices are aimed at creating a balanced flow of the universal life force, the prana. Yoga is the science of inner experience where 99% is practice. Nevertheless, only when we understand the rest, 1% yogic theory, can we deepen our experiential practices.
What is Prana?
Prana is the universal energy or life force. It is the collective total of all energy in the universe, including manifest and dormant energies in nature. Prana remains subtle and motionless in a static state, but is dynamic when activated by vibration and manifests as heat, light, electricity and magnetism. The word prana comes from the Sanskrit prefix, pra, meaning constant and the root word, an, meaning movement. The etymology of the word, “constant movement”, refers to the vibrational characteristics of energy. The Universe is made of matter and energy. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution suggests that all life originated from the same source and diversity of species was a result of adapting to various environments. In the same way, energy is the source of all life, which manifests into matter, to create the rich contrasts in the world. We live in the physical world where dualities propel creation such as the concepts of the moon and sun, yin and yang, Shakti and Shiva and ida and pingla. Prana is found in all living things and, conversely, when prana departs the physical body, death takes place.
Modern science has helped validate the concept of prana. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, E=MC2, expressed matter and energy are the same physical entity which can be changed into each other. In other words, the universe is created by energy, including us humans. More recent findings in quantum physics, such as the String Theory and Higgs Field, only reinforce the concept of prana.
How does prana work in our bodies?
Without prana, we would have no consciousness. It is the building blocks of our existence. A fetus shares its mother’s prana and exists as part of the universal consciousness until its fourth month. From there on forward, it begins to form its own consciousness and develops into its individual prana unit. All activities expend energy. We use prana when we move, speak, think, perceive with our senses and to exist. A healthy person is full of vitality and has a good flow of prana. Diseases are caused by improper distribution of prana due to blockage in energy centers and channels. Prana is fueled and replenished by our intake of food, water, solar energy and, most importantly, air. A basic understanding of the distribution of prana in our bodies is crucial in appreciating how yoga balances our bodies, minds and spirits. The awareness of the flow of prana in our bodies amplifies the benefits of the yogic practices.
Distribution of Energy via Nadis from Chakras (See diagram)
Prana is distributed to every cell in the body through a complex system of 72,000 energy channels called nadis, sourcing energy from the muladhara, root chakra, located at the base of the spine. The word nadis comes from the Sanskrit word, na, meaning flow, indicating the purpose of the channels to flow through prana. Among the many energy channels, there are three major nadis which acts as prana’s main highways to distribute energy to the different organs and parts of the body. From these major nadis, minor nadis branch out to reach every corner of the body.
Three Major Nadis
1) Pingala Nadi, which correlates with the sympathetic nervous system, emanates from muladhara chakra and starts on the right side of the spine, then curves and passes through the other six chakras. This nadi ends at the right side of ajna, third eye chakra, where energy is collected for further distribution. Pingala nadi conducts prana shakti, the energy which governs the physical functions and is associated with the solar and positive energy.
2) Ida Nadi emanates from the muladhara chakra and starts from the left side of the spine, then curves and passes through the other six chakras. Ida Nadi ends at the left side of ajna, third eye chakra, where energy is collected for further distribution. It is like the mirror opposite to the pingala nadi. Ida nadi conducts chitta shakti, the energy which governs the mental functions and is associated with the moon and negative energy.
3) Sushumna Nadi eminates from the muladhara chakra and runs straight up the spine ending at sahasrara, crown chakra. It conducts the atma shakti, spiritual energy, which connects us to higher consciousness. The Pingala and ida nadis spiral in and out of the sushumna nadi, highlighting how a balanced and unhindered flow of prana in all three major nadis is necessary for spiritual awakening.
Hatha yoga practices aims at balancing and to ensure the smooth flow of the energy currents in the pingala and ida nadis. The word hatha means sun and the moon, reflecting pingala’s solar and ida’s moon association. Therefore, the purpose of asana practices is to promote prana flow.
The Breath – Carrier of Prana
Pranayama is the fastest and most efficient way to recharge the pranic system and, by doing so, relaxes the body and mind. When yogic breathing practices are done with awareness, prana can be directed to the point of focus. The word pranayama is a compound word composed of prana, energy, and yama, direction. Therefore, pranayama is a practice of directing energy through the breath. Pranayama is an advanced yoga practice aimed at controlling the breath to be deeper and longer. As the inhalation and exhalation become slower, the breath becomes longer and thus extends life as opposed to when breath is shorter.
The breath reflects the state of mind of a person. When the breath is short and shallow, a person is angry, fearful or sad. Just by controlling the breath to be longer, a person can quickly shift his or her emotion and become relaxed and achieve a more balanced state of mind. Thus controlling the breath is the key to changing your personality. Negative thoughts drain energy, where as positive thoughts gain and conserve energy.
Yoga allows us to evolve our minds to maximize our untapped potential. Our personalities are composed of five sheaths or layers, which covers our true self (see koshas diagram). Through practicing pranayama, the prana-maya-kosha, second sheath and vital energy body, is purified and de-blocked and unleashes our potential through the efficient use of prana. Because the brain uses 25% of the oxygen consumed, the body must be trained to relax so that energy can be used efficiently. Regular pranayama practice is crucial in achieving a relaxed state of body and mind.
5 Prana Vayus
There are 5 prana vayus, divisions of prana by movement and function, which govern different areas of the body, both physical and subtle. Vayu means wind, suggesting the flow of energy.
1) Prana is seated in the heart but is responsible for providing energy to all glands between anahata (heart) and visuddha (throat) chakras. It propels respiration and blood circulation. The movement of the prana is upward. Lack of flow of this type of prana can be corrected through practicing pranayama, backward bending and opening of the chest, especially beneficial to women with tendencies of emotional imbalances. It is particularly important for women to open up the chest since the weight of their breasts pulls their shoulders forwards rather than out.
2) Apana is seated at the base of the spine but is responsible for all glands between muladahara (root) and svadishthana (sacral) chakras. Its function is excretion and movement is downward. All pelvic asana practices are beneficial for this prana vayu.
3) Samana is in the region of the navel and performs digestion and provides prana to the adrenal gland. The movement of the energy is twisting around the torso. Asanas of twisting the body activates samana and are beneficial to reduce body fat and control diabetes.
4) Udana is in the throat and is responsible for swallowing,balancing the thyroid gland, allowing sleep and separates the spirit from the body at death. Movement is upward. Rotation practices are beneficial for this energy.
5) Vyana is the reserve energy and is responsible for blood circulation. Its movement is outward in a circular motion.
There 5 sub-pranas responsible for specific physical functions.
1) Naga (burping and hiccupping)
2) Koorma (blinking the eyes)
3) Krikara (triggering sense of hunger and thirst)
4) Devadatta (yawning)
5) Dhananjaya (decomposing the body after death)
Relationship between the Chakras, Senses and Flow of Prana
The main circuit running in the body is the spine. It connects the brain to all the other parts of the body through the 7 main chakras, energy centers, located along the spine (See Chakra diagram). These energy centers connects us with our sense organs. In yogic science there are 7 senses. Along with the commonly known 5 senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, there are senses of balance, controlled by ears, and emotion, seated at the heart. The senses connect our outer and inner worlds.
The 7 chakras is a sequential roadmap to our evolution. The root chakra, muladhara, is the lowest of human chakras but is the highest in the animal kingdom. This energy center is responsible for all human actions necessary for survival. As humans, we must move beyond basic life sustenance and strive towards activating the highest chakra, sahasrara, in order to reunite with the divine source. Consequently, this chakra, located in the crown, is the base energy center for Gods. The third eye chakra, ajna, is the point in which the pingala and the ida nadi meet and a balanced union of prana from both circuits creates steadiness and stillness in the body and mind. Stronger will power, clarity of mind and awareness of subtle energy in the body can are manifested as a result of the balance between the energy flow in the two channels. Opening of ajna results in great mental focus and concentration, access to the 6th sense and expansion of awareness, allowing access to the guidance of universal consciousness. Achieving this state of awareness through practicing yoga allows us to live in happiness, maximize life span and navigate life with discernment.
Each chakra is responsible for providing energy to specific glands and associated with particular emotions. Unblocked and balanced energy centers manifest positive attributes where as the contrary will result in negative aspects.
Yoga is a tool to help us realize our own strengths. For example, a physically disabled person may not have all three major nadis in optimal condition. However, the body is capable of adapting to compromised situations and yoga hastens the process for minor nadis to step in as replacement energy channel. World-renowned theoretical physicist, Steve Hawkins, who suffers from a rare degenerative disease and only communicates using his cheek muscles, is an inspirational example of how the body continues to accommodate the flow of prana to live life to the fullest.
The mind is storage of past experiences, memories and all the emotions and impressions that accompanies them. These thoughts clutter our minds to prevent us from being in the present moment, where opportunity and creativity lie. Integral yoga practices must become a daily routine in order for us to live more of our day in the present moment. Besides, asana and pranayama practices, meditation practice is necessary to bring stillness to the mind. The practice of visualizing a flame at the eyebrow center during meditation is an effective practice to bring a deep sense of relaxation. The flame represents our soul. By keeping our focus on our soul, rather than our mind, stillness comes to the forefront and thoughts fades into the background. The mind gives off measurable brain waves indicating the various levels of state of mind. The beta wave represents the conscious state, alpha wave indicates deep relaxation, and theta wave represents the meditative and pointed focus state. By meditating, we can consciously shift our brain waves from beta to theta. The clarity of mind experienced through meditation is the best time to make important decisions, undisturbed by emotional swings.
In eagerness to gain awakening, some misguided yogis have promoted the headstand as a way to use gravitational force to direct prana to the crown chakra. Headstands may be enjoyed as a physical practice but not as a shortcut to evolving the mind. We must be discerning about the practices we chose and understand the purpose of the practices in order for them to be beneficial. For example, the dog breathing helps us to become more alert and brings our attention to the present. People who experience dizziness doing the child pose should elevate their heads higher by resting their foreheads on their fists.
Through yoga, we can learn to control and balance our prana flow and to become our own healers. As practitioners we are experiencing the benefits of yoga in our health, mind and soul. Over 2,000 years ago, Patanjali, bestowed upon us the wisdom of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, a step-by-step approach to how to live our lives to its full potential. It is time for us to give back to society by sharing the values of yoga with others so that they may also evolve. Plant Patanjali’s tree for others so that they may reap the fruits of yoga.