Prana is life force. It comes from the roots “Pra” (meaning forward) + “an” (to breathe, to live). Manorama states that “Pra” as a prefix “intensifies the root”. Therefore Prana means a perfected state of breathing, living- or aliveness. Prana is the source of life. It is what animates us in this body. By controlling this energy (prana shakti) we control the mind and vice versa. Therefore, prana is at the root of hatha yoga. Prakriti without prana is mere inanimate matter.
According to Sankhya and yoga prakriti exists for the experience of the purusha. Therefore, the quality of our prana is directly linked to this experience and the capacity we have for health and for yoga practice. The Yoga Yajnavalkya describes a yogi as one whose prana is all within their system (in balance). Someone who is of the lower states of mind (ksipta/broken, mudha/covered, viksipta/waivering) is described as having more prana outside their body than within. Think about it… when we are sad, tired, depressed, exhausted we often describe our state as “drained.” The prana is traveling out/“draining” here through the senses and their objects. It isn’t lost to us, it is merely not serving our highest good hovering out there. When we are drained there is little resource for mental and physical wellbeing. Yoga helps us to bring focus inside so we can then return prana withing, for greater health and stability. According to hatha yoga when the pranas are in balance and flowing freely, no longer detered by obstruction (granthis-knots) in the nadis, that person is a yogi. Otherwise, at the time of death, the prana is said to leave the body bound to unresolved karma and continues along the path of samsara to another birth. Therefore, for the aim of kaivalya (liberation from samsara), it is not only important to purify the mind through contemplation but also to purify the energetic channels within the body…of course we understand by now that they are intricately linked.
those who glow with the light of the Self
are freed from life even while they live.
But fools add knots by the hundreds
to the tangled net of the world~Lal Ded (translated by Ranjit Hoskote)
Prana is therefore an overarching principle of life. Additionally prana is the term used for one of 5 particular agents within the body known as the pancha pranas or pancha vayus ** (5 winds) which collectively make up the overarching principle. These 5 pranas or vayus move through the body via nadis in varying patterns. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad describes this network of nadis as containing 72,000 channels of which 3 are primary (ida on the left, pingala on the right and susumna in the center). When the mind is agitated by external objects via the senses then physical body also shows signs of imbalance and agitation. An understanding of the 5 pranas helps us to assess where the imbalance is. The Shiva Samhita* lays out the model of prana succintly.
In the 3rd chapter, the heart is described as housing a illuminated lotus containing 12 petals each adorned with a particular sanskrit sound between k to th. Inside the lotus of the heart lives prana (pranasthana). This prana is attached to particular desires (raga) and aversions (dvesa) actions and their results (karma) in a package of sorts bound by ego/identity. From that prana various modifications are produced. The Shiva Samhita lists 10 (saying there are countless) and of those 10 describes 5 as the leaders of the show: prana, apana, samana, udana, vyana. All of the 5 have “seats” in various parts of the body (like prana has a seat in the heart) and are the managers of specific biological activities.
- prana: forward moving wind: The seat of prana is again the heart. It is related to the lungs and the cardiac plexus, our emotions and mental state. Additionally prana vayu governs the energy we take in. Yama, niyama, pranayama, pratyahara, mitahara and mitabhasyam all support prana.
- apana: wind that moves away/down: The seat of apana is the anus/below the navel. It is this vayu that governs both elimination and reproduction. Proper elimination is key to health. Practices such as the mulabandha and attention to the quality of exhalation and lower kumbhaka in pranayama are beneficial to apana vayu. Additionally maintaining proper bhava towards external forces (pratipaksa bhavanam) helps us to eliminate unhelpful anger, hatred, greed, lust (emotional toxins) from our system and prevent us from taking in more through prana vayu.
- samana: the balancing wind: The seat of samana is the region above the navel. Samana moves in a spherical pattern and governs digestion. Therefore what we consume AND how we digest it directly effects the quality of our life force. Thus sattvic food in moderation (mitahara) is encouraged for the yogabhyasi to improve physical health and mental focus. Uddiyana bandha is famously helpful for samana vayu as is nauli kriya (when practiced under proper guidance).
- udana: The upward wind: the seat of udana is the throat or between the heart and the head and is responsible for upper level consciousness, communication and memory. When udana flows freely in conjunction with the rest we can express ourselves wisely and freely; mitabhasya (moderate and effective speech) becomes effortless. Practices such as the jalandhara bandha, viparita karani mudra and sarvangasdana for example work with udana vayu.
- vyana: the outward flowing wind: the seat of vyana is pervasive. Vyana moves all over the body (through all nadis) and therefore is the governing force for the nervous system. The beauty of the vinyasa krama with it’s slow movements with long smooth breaths helps to nourish the nerves and bring overall balance. Pranayama ( especially nadi shodhana and ujjayi variations) are particularly beneficial as well.
The associated techniques above are not an exhaustive list for each vayu and there is crossover. These are merely examples. For example pranayama (yama “to control” prana “life force”) practice is important for a balance in all the vayus due to it’s effect on the primary nadis and their offshoots. Overall hatha yoga (bahiranga of ashtanga) comprehensively brings balance to the system so we can take up higher states of mind. Approached with attention to individual needs, surely the vayus and the gunas can be brought under control for the benefit of the practitioner.
An aim of hatha yoga is the remove obstructions along the path of the nadis via kriya (cleansing techniques), asana, bandha, mudra and pranayama so that the pancha pranas can flow freely and efficiently. The relationship of prana vayu and apana vayu are of particular interest to the hatha yogabhyasi as the aim of hatha yoga is to join prana and apana in the central channel (susumna nadi). When there is disturbance in the prana (prana and apana in particular) Patañjali says that it shows up in 4 ways…
- dukha: pain, suffering physically and/or mentally
- daurmanasya: sorrow, depression
- angamejaytva: trembling limbs
- svasa prasvasa: disturbances in breathing
Therefore we have clear signs to observe in our system when things are a bit “out of whack” and means by which to address them (kriya yoga and the 8 fold path). So often when these signs prevail we are tempted to act recklessly/without attention to the parameters of yoga -or- to not act at all. Here yoga practice is also preventative- we carve out a new path early on ideally when these signs are not so loud so that we do not waiver if they present themselves. Honoring Patanjali’s assertion that practice only becomes firmly rooted when done for a long time, with steadfast faith, and without interruption.
In this way hatha yoga (as stated in the hatha yoga pradika) “like a staircase leads the aspirant to the high pinnacled Raja Yoga.” (HYP 1.1)…i.e. it’s the preparation that allows raja yoga to be possible. Raja deepti, a shiner of light. Hatha yoga (bahiranga) refines the body and Raja yoga (antaranga sadhana) refines the mind through discernment. As sir often insinuates… raja yoga without hatha yoga is virtually impossible and hatha yoga without raja yoga…what’s the point?
Honor prana. Practice yoga 🙂
See you tomorrow,
*(a 17th century text on hatha yoga regarded as one of three important texts on the subject alongside the Gheranda Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika)
** Vayu is depicted as the god of the winds and is an important diety in the hindu pantheon. Vayu is Hanuman father, the fabled Monkey god who leapt over the Himalayas to Sri Lanka to save Sita and bring her home