Prana and pranayama
Author: Article from our student – Bertrand (France)
Prana has many different levels of meaning from breath to the energy of consciousness itself. The following article is aimed at clarifying and (hopefully) simplifying the concepts of prana and pranayama, their own dependancies and links with the vayus and nadis to give a taste of what one can expect of his/her journey when experimenting prana & pranayama.
Prana: The source of life and vital energy
Prana is the vital force that sustains not only the body, but also creation at every level.
The Sanskrit word prana means a force in constant motion.
Scientific research describes prana as a complex energy (1): a combination of electrical, magnetic, electromagnetic, photonic, ocular, thermal and mental energies.
Prana is unique to every human beings. We are born with a certain amount of prana, and we maintain it, increase or decrease it through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the thoughts we think, the actions we perform, our talks, our eyes and the kind of life we lead.
Its quality can be refined and directed.
When prana moves, the mind thinks and the senses perceive their respective objects (2).
By developing sensitivity to prana, one becomes more aware of the subtle forces of the mind, which arise in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions, impressions, etc.
Like a piano artist who plays a piano concerto: he can at the same time observes his fingers and pedals positioning, his music tone, musical phrasing and his alignment with the other instrumentalists.
Pancha prana (the 5 pranas)
The “One primary prana” (3) divides into 5 types (or vayus) according to its movement and direction: Prana, Apana, Udana, Samana, Vyana. In relation to the “One primary prana”, prana vayu is considered the basic vayu from which all the other vayus arise.
“Vayu” means wind or air in Sanskrit. These winds, these different movements of energy within us, are a great big vast ocean of energy. We are these little boats that are floating along in that current of energy.
A part of the skill of the practice of yoga is to tune in to that flow of energy and to learn how to adjust oneself so that one is moving with that flow in a harmonious and balanced way.
The benefits of mastering our prana
Someone who can learn to master prana will experience the bliss of prana in his own consciousness (2). One no longer requires external forms of pleasures / enjoyment (as the one we feel in eating, sex, running, etc.). He is able to gain control over the mind and knows how to enhance vitality, will and strength, cure diseases, boost capability and efficiency, and evolve to a higher consciousness so that the ultimate union with the transcendental reality could be experienced (2).
So, how to expand one’s prana?
This is the aim of pranayama which is a practical method to enhance and guide prana. Pranayama means ” expansion of the vital force” or the control of prana.
A millenarian science
The classical yogic practices of pranayama have been known in India for over 4,000 years. The Bhagavad Gita (4:29) (4) and many Upanishads written in the pre-Buddhist period also refer to techniques of pranayama. However, it is in the hatha yoga texts such as Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika written between the sixth and fifteenth centuries AD, that we find a detailed description of the practices (5).
It is also the fourth of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, as described in the Yoga Sutra (6).
Breath, the key pillar for pranayama
The breath is the key pillar for pranayama. Pranayama is based on the three stages of respiration: inhalation (pooraka), retention (kumbhaka) and exhalation (rechaka). By permuting and directing these three stages, the different practices of pranayama are obtained.
Technically speaking, pranayama is actually only retention.
Maharshi Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras state (2:49): Pranayama is the pause in the movement of inhalation and exhalation when that is secured (6).
Many pranayama techniques are designed to cleanse the energetic channels called nadis allowing for greater movement of prana.
Nadis, the pathways
Indian philosophy describes prana flowing in channels called nadis. The scriptures say there are over 72,000 nadis or pathways of prana in the pranic body (and six main chakras).
The three most important nadis are:
- Ida (left nostril / right side of the brain and left side of the body)
- Pingala (right nostril / left side of the brain and right side of the body)
- Sushumna, each facilitating the flow of Prana vayus throughout the body.
Sushumna is located in the spinal canal (central nervous system) in the physical body. It controls all the functions of various chakras that are placed like lotuses upon it.
The Sushumna is sattvic in nature and becomes activated by the awakened kundalini. Otherwise its energy is very limited (3).
The cleansing of nadis through pranayama
The practices of pranayama clear up the nadis, energy pathways in the body at a pranic level. However, for the average individual, many of these pathways are blocked and the chakras release energy only partially. In other words, we do not utilize our full potential in terms of energy, mind and consciousness.
Where this journey will lead you.
There are planes of existence and areas of consciousness that remain in absolute darkness for the average individual. These planes are much more beautiful and creative than those one lives in now (2). By reaching and illumining them, one is able to experience different states of consciousness, just as one experiences the state of dream or sleep. Then the inner city is illumined and the soul is reborn into a new dimension of existence, a new area of experience.
The practice of yoga, in fact, begins when we come to the pranayama series. With the practice of asanas, we arrive at the state where we are able to work with the energies controlling the body. With pranayama, through the breath, we develop an awareness of the subtle force within the body, and directing the mind to this direction is the beginning of yoga.
This process, however, takes place step by step. First, the body is rendered subtle and pure through yogic practices, and transformed into a yogic body (2). The cells / elements in our body are altered, and the pranic and mental forces operate a radical change. This is achieved through the purification of the nadis, which enables the prana vayus to be awaken. The awakened pranas then slowly illumine the whole consciousness. The awakening of this third force is considered the most important event in pranayama, kriya yoga and kundalini yoga (7).
- The Prana program. Effective & enjoyable evolution. Jasmusheen.
- Prana and Pranayama. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger.
- Yoga and Ayurveda. Self healing and realization. David Frawley. p123, p155,
- Bhagavad-gita As It Is Chapter 4 Verse 29. www.vedabase.net.
- Meditation and mantras by Swami Vishnu Devanand, p84-97