HJ: Prana is the energy of life — we extract it from the air we breath and it nourishes and fuels our body, mind and spirit as it is expressed on the physical plane. It permeates our cells as well as the cells of every other living being on the planet. It also permeates those things which we typically consider as inanimate such as rocks or even clothes. It is the energy which drives existence at the subatomic level — which is responsible for the movement of electrons in the atom, which generate the force which literally binds the universe together and can create any shape or form imaginable.
The ancient Rishis and mystics in India developed a highly powerful system of working with Prana known as Pranayama or ‘breath work’. By becoming consciously aware of our intake of Prana through breathing techniques, meditations and guided visualizations, we can concentrate and direct this energy to various parts of the body and mind for profound healing, rejuvenation, and elevation of consciousness.
Prana is an auto-energizing force which creates a magnetic field in the form of the Universe and plays with it, both to maintain, and to destroy for further creation. It permeates each individual as well as the Universe at all levels.
It acts as physical energy, mental energy, where the mind gathers information; and as intellectual energy, where information is examined and filtered. Prana also acts as sexual energy, spiritual energy and cosmic energy.
All that vibrates in this Universe is prana: heat, light, gravity, magnetism, vigor, power, vitality, electricity, life and spirit are all forms of prana. It is the cosmic personality, potent in all beings and non-beings. It is the prime mover of all activity. It is the wealth of life.
This self-energizing force is the principle of life and consciousness. It is the creation of all beings in the Universe. All beings are born through it and live by it. When they die, their individual breath dissolves into the cosmic breath.
Prana is not only the hub of the wheel of life, but also of yoga. Everything is established in it. It permeates life, creating the sun, the moon, the clouds, the wind, the rain, the earth and all forms of matter. It is both being (sat) and non-being (asat). Each and every thing, or being, including man, takes shelter under it. Prana is the fundamental energy and the source of all knowledge.
Prana and Consciousness
Prana and citta are in constant contact with each other. They are like twins. Prana become focussed where citta is, and citta, where prana is. Yoga suggests that as long as the breath is still, prana is still, and hence citta is still.
All types of vibrations and fluxuations come to a standstill when prana and citta are steady and silent. Because of this connection between breath and consciousness, yoga has devised pranayama to stabilize energy and consciousness.
With reference to yoga prana can be described as something that flows continuously from somewhere inside us, filling us and keeping us alive: it is vitality. In this image, the prana streams out from the center through the whole body.
Pranayama is the measuring, control, and directing of the breath, and thus of energy within the organism, in order to restore and maintain health and to promote evolution.
When you are troubled, restless, or confused, you have more prana outside the body than within. When you feel unwell; the quality of prana and its density within the body is reduced. Too little prana in the body can be expressed as a feeling of being stuck or restricted.
It can also show as a lack of drive or motivation to do anything; you are listless or even depressed. We may suffer from physical ailments when prana is lacking in the body. Yoga Sutra mentions disturbances in the breath, which can take very different forms.
On the other hand, the more peaceful and well-balanced we are, the less our prana is dispersed outside the body. And if all the prana is within the body, we are free of these symptoms.
If prana does not find sufficient room in the body there can be only one reason: it is being forced out by something that really does not belong there-such as blockages caused by rubbish. When we practice pranayama, we try to reduce this rubbish and replace it with more and more prana within the body.
Our state of mind is closely linked to the quality of prana within. The more content a person is and the better he or she feels, the more prana is inside. The more disturbed a person is, the more prana is dissipated and lost.
Because we can influence the flow of prana through the flow of our breath, the quality of our breath influences our state of mind and vice versa. In yoga we are trying to make use of these connections so that prana concentrates and can freely flow within us.
One definition of the word yogi is “one whose prana is all within his body.” In pranayama we want to reduce the amount of prana outside the body until there is none leaking out.
Prana is power. Proper acts of breathing are ways of harnessing that power. It gives control of breathing processes and control of vital force. Even though, in breathing, fresh air from outside the body enters the body and foul air leaves, mystical pranayama conceives appropriation of power as a bringing to conscious manifestation an omnipresent cosmic power which exists already latent within oneself as a particular expression of cosmic being.
When a person attains a feeling of oneness with the rest of the universe, his anxiety tends to disappear. When the in-flowing breath is neutralized or joined with the out-flowing breath, then perfect relaxation and balance of body activities are realized. In yoga, we are concerned with balancing the flows of vital forces, then directing them inward to the chakra system and upward to the crown chakra or thousand petalled lotus (sahasara).
When one acquires an intuitive apprehension of ultimate power and of his own identity with it, he loses his fear of external powers and develops a trust which is conducive to confident living.
Whatever happens in the mind influences the breath; the breath becomes quicker when we are excited and deeper and quieter when we relax. In order to influence our prana we must be able to influence the mind.
Our actions often disturb the mind, causing prana to exude from the body. Through daily pranayama practice we reverse this process, as a change in the breathing pattern influences the mind.
The idea of prana existing within or beyond the body can be understood as a symbol for our state of mind. When the mind is as clear as transparent glass there is nothing that could disturb the body; there is no rubbish lying about. On the other hand, if we notice hesitancy, discontent, fear of doing something because it might be inappropriate, and so forth, we can assume that there are blockages in the system.
These blockages do not just occur in the physical body; they exist even more in the mind, in consciousness. Every kind of rubbish we find in ourselves was originally produced by incorrect knowledge.
The link between mind and breath is most significant. The Yoga Sutra says that when we practice pranayama the veil is gradually drawn away from the mind and there is growing clarity. The mind becomes ready for deep meditations.
Thus, pranayama is first and foremost awareness of the breath. Here, we focus our attention on the breath. In the practice of pranayama it is therefore very important to keep an alert mind, for the processes that are being observed are very subtle.
There is no visible movement of the body as in asana practice; we must acutely sense and feel the movement of the breath within. The only dynamic process is breathing. Patanjali makes a few practical suggestions for keeping our attention on the breath.
For example, we can focus on where it enters and leaves the body at the nostrils. It is also possible to listen to the breath, especially if you make a slight noise by gently contracting the vocal chords, a pranayama technique known as ujjayi. Or we can follow the areas through which the air passes through.
The goal of pranayama is not to bring the inhalation and exhalation into a certain relationship with each other, or to establish a particular length of breath. The various practices of pranayama gives us many different possibilities for following the breath.
When you follow the breath, the mind will be drawn into the activities of the breath. In this way pranayama prepares us for the stillness of meditation.
The breath relates directly to the mind and to our prana. Prana enters the body in the moment when there is a positive change in the mind. It is true that our state of mind does not alter with every in-breath or out-breath.
The change occurs over a long period of time. If we are practicing pranayama and notice a change of mind, then prana has long before entered the body. The proof of the pudding is in our relationships with others. It tells us whether we had a positive changes in the mind and whether we actually understand ourselves better.
Without prana there is no life. We can imagine that prana flows into us as we inhale, but prana is also the power behind breathing out. As well, prana is transformed in the body into various powers, and is involved in processes that ensure that we rid ourselves of what we no longer need. Out breath is a very important part of the body’s elimination processes. We can use out breath as a mechanism to free the mind from blocks and thereby lead us to greater clarity.
Pranayama or breathing technique is very important in yoga. It goes hand in hand with the asana or pose. In the Yoga Sutras, the practices of pranayama and asana are considered to be the highest form of purification and self discipline for the mind and the body, respectively.
The practices produce the actual physical sensation of heat, called tapas, or the inner fire of purification. It is taught that this heat is part of the process of purifying the nadis, or subtle nerve channels of the body. This allows a more healthful state to be experienced and allows the mind to become more calm.
In pranayama we focus our attention on the breath. In the practice of pranayama it is therefore very important to keep an alert mind, for the processes that are being observed are very subtle.
There is no visible movement of the body as in asana practice; we must acutely sense and feel the movement of the breath within. The only dynamic process is breathing. Patanjali makes a few practical suggestions for keeping our attention on the breath. For example, we can focus on a place in the body where we can feel or hear the breath.
Or we can try to follow the movement of the breath in the body, feeling the inhalation from the center of the collarbone, down through the rib cage to the diaphragm, and following the exhale upward from the abdomen. Another means for paying attention to the breath is to feel where it enters and leaves the body at the nostrils.
It is also possible to listen to the breath, especially if you make a slight noise by gently contracting the vocal chords, a pranayama technique known as ujjayi.
Suggestions like these help us keep our attention on the breath and prevent our practice from becoming merely mechanical. The goal of pranayama is not to bring the inhalation and exhalation into a certain relationship with each other, or to establish a particular length of breath.
If exercises such as these help us concentrate on our pranayama, that is wonderful. But the true aim of the various techniques and breath ratios of breathing in pranayama is first and foremost to give us many different possibilities for following the breath. When we follow the breath, the mind will be drawn into the activities of the breath. In this way pranayama prepares us for the stillness of meditation.
The breath relates directly to the mind and to our prana, but we should not therefore imagine that as we inhale, prana simply flows into us. This is not the case. Prana enters the body in the moment when there is a positive change in the mind.
Of course, our state of mind does not alter with every in-breath or outbreath; change occurs over a long period of time. If we are practicing pranayama and notice a change of mind, then prana has long before entered the body. Changes of mind can be observed primarily in our relationships with other people. Relationships are the real test of whether we actually understand ourselves better.