Pinch yourself—it’s real. Well, sort of. According to yoga anatomy, the body we can see and touch is one of the five koshas, sometimes described as sheaths or veils. Annamaya kosha, the food body, is the most “real” to us, but the Sanskrit root maya tells us this is an illusion or appearance of reality. The longer we practice yoga the more we become aware of “something more.” Beyond the veil of Annamaya kosha, we can glimpse Pranamaya kosha, the pranic or energy body. To nourish the Annamaya kosha, we exercise and choose healthful foods; to feed the pranic body, we take a more subtle approach.
You could compare Pranamaya kosha to Yoda’s description of “The Force” in Star Wars when he says that “Its energy surrounds us and binds us.” Pranamaya kosha recognizes that the choices we make ripple outward, creating consequences not always apparent in this time or place. Boundaries are often unclear. Every exhalation becomes another’s inhalation. Practicing asana with an awareness of the breath does more than strengthen the muscles and bones of the food body, it enables us to recharge the pranic body. In fact, through pranayama practices, we can directly influence pranamaya kosha.
But there’s more to managing pranic energy than mindful breathing. The nerves and endocrine glands are the physical correlates of the pranic body’s nadis (energy channels) and chakras (energy centers). Holistic medicine suggests that health issues begin at energetic levels before manifesting physically. Thus, learning to direct and regulate prana is important in maintaining health. A few suggestions for working with prana both on and off the mat:
1. Let it go. Just as stuffing yourself doesn’t necessarily nourish the food body, “gorging” on bhastrika pranayama isn’t necessarily the best way to recharge your energy body either. How much can you take in if there’s no room? This is the deeper meaning of exhalation: Releasing what you don’t need is as important as adding what you need. Off the mat, this might be as simple as de-cluttering your home and office … or spending less time on the activities (or relationships) that dim your inner light.
2. Cleaning isn’t cleansing. We can clear spaces of clutter and surface dirt, but sometimes a subtle residue lingers—for example, a chair or room associated with angry words. Through intention and repetition, you can change the energy of your inner and outer environment. Burning sage or incense, rearranging according to vastu shastra or feng shui, using a gong or bell or playing mantras—these can make your surroundings more conducive to increasing and conserving prana. (Think of the charged atmosphere inside a sacred space, like a cathedral or a grove of redwood trees.)
3. What you see isn’t always what you get. The difference between a potato and a potato chip might seem obvious. But what if the potato was sprayed with chemicals and trucked halfway across the country, while the potato chips were freshly made by someone who takes joy in cooking? In an ashram, food is prepared with the awareness that indigestion can result as much from the atmosphere in the kitchen as from the food itself. Try making meals in noble silence (mauna) or while chanting or singing uplifting mantras.
4. Embrace space. We experience the beauty of spaciousness on the mat. Asana creates openness of the muscles and joints. Meditation cleanses the mind. A yoga nidra session can feel like a vacation from the demands of mind and body. Off the mat, the ideal antidote to technological overload or crowded urban spaces is to spend time in nature.
5. Dust off your Sanskrit. Can’t get your mouth around Hasta padangusthasana? Do your best, keeping in mind that intention is important. Sanskrit is an implosive language; when you say Sanskrit words, the sound vibrations influence the nadis and chakras. If you’re unsure of your pronunciation, take a class or listen online.
6. Practice everywhere. When yoga becomes second nature, and your practice follows you off the mat, you begin to notice subtle influences on your energy field. Feeling drained? Mudra (meaning “seal”) joins pranic channels to recirculate energy, and you can practice hand mudras almost anywhere. Feeling scared? Repeat a protective mantra silently or aloud. Breath, posture, mental focus—small changes can have a big impact on your pranic field.
According to Vedanta yoga, the veil of the koshas obscures the true light within. Or as Yoda said it: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” What are some ways you’ve managed prana and increased your luminosity?