The foundation of all life, of the whole universe, is the subtle life force energy that yogis call prana. You can’t see it, or touch it or taste it, but most yogis have had an experience of prana, the subtle energy that flows through our bodies. This mystical energy moves through our bodies and animates our every action–from gross physical movements to minute biochemical processes. Creating an understanding and awareness of prana is important for yogis to understand the purpose of many hatha yoga exercises.
The Sanskrit word prana was first referenced in the 3,000-year-old Chandogya Upanishad text and was further refined and described in later Upanishads. The traditional texts of Ayurveda, Tantra Yoga, and Hatha Yoga further developed and elaborated on prana and the energetic anatomy that supports it.
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What is prana?
Prana can be translated from Sanskrit as “life force energy,” “vital energy,” “breath of life,” “spirit-energy,” or “vital principle.” This term is used in yogic teachings as a general reference to the manifest energy of the entire universe. This original creative power is constantly flowing around us and inside of us. The breath is considered to be the most subtle form of prana in our bodies, thus it is most often described in yoga’s breathing exercises. Prana forms the energy of our consciousness, but it also is responsible for regulating all of our body’s physical functions.
The functions of prana
Prana is the source of all movement in the body. It regulates all of our conscious and unconscious bodily functions like our breath, digestion, blood flow, elimination, and cellular growth and healing. The flow of prana distributes its energy through the body based on the quality and capacity of the nadis energy channels and the chakras energy centers. Prana also animates and affects the quality of our thoughts, emotions, and consciousness. Our overall health and well being is tied directly to the quantity and circulation of prana in our body.
The importance of prana in yoga
There are several reasons why a yoga practitioner should work at understanding and creating a sensitivity to their vital energy. Since many of the yogic practices create or change the energy in our body, it is thus important to have a feedback system to know how and when to adjust or change these practices. There are many reasons to practice becoming more aware and sensitive to our energy as we practice:
- It informs the physical alignment and more subtle adjustments in yoga poses.
- It creates vitality and strength to physically and mentally engage in yoga asanas and other yoga practices.
- It provides feedback on the effects of a sequence of poses and can guide our selection of poses to perform.
- It creates the ability for healing and wellbeing
- It is the foundation for pranayama breathing exercises and provides feedback on the efficacy of these techniques.
- It can inform us of our success in creating and maintaining a yogic lifestyle.
- It helps root our awareness in the present moment.
- It affects the quality and quantity of our thoughts and thus impacts our ability to meditate.
Manifestations of prana
Beginner and intermediate yoga students need not know all of the different types and manifestations of prana, but more advanced students will find this knowledge helpful. What is most important is knowing that prana is usually used as a general term as the primary energy that can be subdivided into different and specific types of energy in the body.
- Prana can be subdivided into smaller energetic parts called Vayus (winds). These five Vayus have very subtle yet distinct energetic qualities, including specific functions and directions of flow. These five currents of vital force are Prana-Vayu, Apana-Vayu, Samana-Vayu, Udana-Vayu, and Vyana-Vayu.
- Kundalini is the dormant spiritual energy that is coiled at the base of the spine. Kundalini is a source of potential energy that only becomes activated with intense yogic practices. Kundalini is considered a type of shakti energy.
- Shakti is a more dense form of universal energy and has a stronger effect on our physical body and environment. The complementary force to Shakti is Shiva, the energy of universal consciousness.
How prana flows through the body
Prana comes into the body from the food we eat, the air we breathe, and from absorbing the energies of the earth and heavens. Prana travels through thousands of tiny channels called nadis to every cell in the body. The three main nadis in the body are the ida, pingala and sushumna, which all start at the base of the spine and travel upwards to the head. The ida and pingala nadis crisscross each other as they spiral upwards and connect to opposite nostrils, while the sushumna travels straight up the spine to the crown of the head. The chakras are located where the ida and pingala cross each other and intersect with the sushumna. The chakras connect with the thousands of minor nadis and are thus responsible for the distribution and circulation of prana throughout the whole body.
Normally, prana is restricted from flowing through the sushumna by locks above each chakra. These locks primarily function to stop the activation and flow of kundalini from entering the sushumna and rising to the crown chakra.
To feel and experience prana, our awareness needs to be drawn into the subtle energy body, or Pranamaya kosha. The five koshas are imagined as sheaths or layers that veil the light of our True Self. The Yoga technique of pratyahara is the most efficient tool to bring our awareness from the physical sheath of Annamaya kosha into the Pranamaya kosha.
The movement of our vital energy is connected with the position and movement of the body. For example, if you are hunched over, your breathing and energy channels are constricted, and the flow of prana through your body is diminished. Thus, if you have poor posture, this will dull and constrict the flow of your prana. Also, when you stand up, energy generally travels upwards toward your head. When you sit down, your energy flows down towards your feet.
The movement of our vital energy is also connected with the breath. As you inhale the energy is drawn upwards and as you exhale energy flows downward. If you link these two (inhale to standing and exhale to sitting), you will feel a stronger sensation of energy.
Increasing and controlling prana
Hatha yoga was developed to circulate, cultivate, and control prana, and to activate and channel kundalini up the sushumna nadi to the crown chakra. Asana cultivates and circulates the energy in the body and strengthens the nadis. Pranayama, the use of various breathing techniques, controls and cultivates the vital energy and purifies the nadis. Bandhas are energetic locks that contain the prana in the torso and concentrate it in the three main nadis. Mudras regulate and channel prana into the chakras and arouse the kundalini shakti. By cultivating, controlling, and activating prana and kundalini, hatha yoga aims to liberate the mind and expand consciousness.
Using breathwork or pranayama techniques will be the most efficient way of increasing prana. Experiment with the following pranayamas to notice how they change and increase the energy in the body:
- Dirga Pranayama or three-part breath
- Nadi Sodhana Pranayama or alternate nostril breathing
- Kapalabhati Pranayama or breath of fire
Prana and the mind
The quality and amount of prana in our body has a strong effect on our ability to focus and concentrate. Yogic philosophy describes a connection between the fluctuations of thoughts (chitta vritti) and the fluctuations of energy. When our mental energy is still and calm, so is our experience of our mind. Thus, if one has mastered the control of prana one can master the control of the mind’s thoughts and become proficient at meditation.
As Swami Sivananda tells us, “If you know how to control the little waves of Prana working through the mind, then the secret of subjugating universal Prana will be known to you. The yogi who becomes an expert in the knowledge of this secret, will have no fear from any power, because he has mastery over all the manifestations of powers in the universe.”