Prana is the energy at the basis of all creation. Everything that exists, animate and inanimate, is a manifestation of prana in one form or another. At the macrocosmic level, prana is called Maha Shakti, which means ‘great power’ (maha = great, shakti = power).
Within the microcosm of living beings, MahaShakti manifests as prana shakti. Whereas Maha Shakti is responsible for all creation, animate and inanimate, prana shakti is the source of all sentient life.
Prana is your life-force or vital energy, your inner power and strength. It is the energy that powers growth, change and your ability to engage with life. Prana empowers both the gross physical and the subtle dimensions of your being, for example, prana powers your intelligence and intuition.
The word prana can also be translated as breath. At the subtlest and most refined level, it is the energy that powers your spiritual essence.
The term prana, therefore, has multiple meanings depending on the context. For example, Maha Prāna is macrocosmic prana, prana shakti is microcosmic, and prana vayu is the term used to describe a sub-prana (which will be explained in more detail in part 2 of this article), which lies in the chest. The fact that each of these areas shares the name prana, points to the fact that it is via the chest, the heart and the lungs that we can connect our individual prāna and consciousness heart to cosmic prāna and consciousness.
The Yoga Chūdāmani Upanishad (v. 90) states:
“As long as prana is retained in the body the individual soul does not leave the body. The departure of prana from the body is death. Therefore, prana should be controlled.’
This is why yogis practice pranayama and prana yoga; to control and stabilize prana, improve health and increase longevity.
All life pulsates. Prana, when healthy, constantly flows and pulsates, contracts and relaxes, for example, the beat of your heart and the rhythmic inflation and deflation of your lungs. When the body or a part of the body is full of healthy, balanced prana you feel good. You feel that life is flowing smoothly within you. There is a sense of strength, warmth and being nourished. Prana is the basis of this warm glowing feeling.
Excessive tension and contraction and an inability to relax, whether muscular, mental or emotional, cause prana to become imbalanced.
Over-stimulated or undercharged prana stops pulsating in certain parts of the body. Under stress and tension, your breath may become erratic and even stop altogether for moments, negatively impacting every part of your body. Your heart rate might increase to an uncomfortable level, and in more extreme circumstances, the rhythm of the heart can become damaged causing arrhythmia. An example of an excessive prana is diarrhea, while constipation occurs when prana is diminished. Disturbance in the smooth flow of prana causes blockages and stagnation, allowing toxic substances to build up in the body. When flow and pulsation are disturbed, prana cannot nourish and strengthen you. Rather, dysfunction and disease follow.
At the microcosmic level, prana is a very complex phenomenon. Its nature is subtle, constantly moving and highly changeable. In Chinese medicine, prana is called Qi or Chi and is described as a vapor that can suddenly appear and then disappear, and then undergo major alterations in the next moment.
Prana manifests in the body as vata dosha, which means wind, or the wanderer. Vata is a term used in Ayurveda, Indian traditional medicine. It is a manifestation of prana when it is acting under the influence of the space and air elements in the subtle body. Like air, wind, and space, vata has the characteristics of being cold, dry, subtle, rough and erratic.
Vata controls all movements and changes in the body and mind.
It is easy to lose prana and aggravate vata if you do not look after yourself, especially in a busy modern life. Vata increases and becomes excessive and deranged when you are holding a lot of stress, having to cope with too many demands, dealing with unexpected changes or working too hard. This is exacerbated by a poor diet and an erratic lifestyle. Deranged vata makes you feel exhausted, dry, shaky, ungrounded and anxious. Sleep issues and memory disturbances are common symptoms of deranged vata, as are general feelings of weakness and insecurity.
Prana and vata have an intimate relationship. By strengthening prana you pacify vata and prevent illness from forming in the body and mind. By pacifying vata with various lifestyle modifications or yoga-meditation practices and sometimes herbs you increase prana. Yoga provides us with the means to improve the flow and pulsation of prana and the function of vata in your body and mind because strong healthy flowing prana is required to power your journey to higher consciousness.
Your Pranic Bank Account
Each one of us is given a prana bank account at birth. You can squander your inheritance over your lifetime, or you can build on it. If you squander it, you degenerate at an early age. If you build on it, you become more vital as you age and are better able to use the collective experiences of your life for a good purpose.
Prana is a precious gift that can be consciously grown or carelessly depleted.
To remain healthy in your old age, you need to learn about your prana, what it is, how to manage it, how to use it properly, and how to create more when you need it. You need to maintain balance for true health and strength. It is so easy for the body and mind to be disturbed and for you to waste prana if you are not careful, especially during stressful or difficult times.
If your pranic bank account is in the red, your prana is low or imbalanced, you become prone to illness. You will be unable to use your body, mind, and intellect to their full capacity. When your pranic bank account is growing, because you are living a balanced life, resting well and saving energy, you feel strong, powerful and creative, balanced and in tune with nature. You are able to power up all your physical and mental organs so that they function at an optimal level.
Prana is the life force, and life feeds on life. The main function of prana is to maintain itself, to keep you alive. To generate prana in your body you need to extract energy from the world, for example in the form of food, water, and oxygen, and use this energy to generate more energy within you.
To reach your greater pranic potential you need to fill yourself with the best quality of fuel at all levels of your being, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
You produce physical energy in mitochondria, little powerhouses that exist within the cells of the body. Healthy mitochondria are the physical basis of prana in your body. You have approximately 37 trillion cells in your body, and approximately 1,000 mitochondria in each cell – a lot!
All activity (all karma) uses prana. This includes movement, speech, thought, and emotion.
Healthy forms of exercise both use and generate more prana by stimulating the growth of mitochondria in your muscles. Certain activities use excessive amounts of prana, for example, worry or emotional distress, leaving you feeling depleted and exhausted, while poor diet and lifestyle can damage prana. Whereas negative emotions and depression deplete prana, loving experiences create prana.
You take in energy in the form of food and liquids, and from the air, you breathe. The more alive a substance is, that is, the more prāna it has, the more life force you can extract from that substance.
Generation of prana also occurs through stillness and deep rest. Deep restful sleep and meditation are the two best ways of generating prana. Though sleep is designed to restore energy, it is not always efficient, especially if you go to bed exhausted or full of worry and tension. This is why relaxation and meditation practices are the more efficient form of rest, allowing you to calm the mind and emotions and to deeply replenish yourself with energy. You can actually use meditation to tune into and access your prana at a very deep level of being.
Generate, Store and Utilize Prana
Yoga and meditation enable you to delve into the mystery of the life force via an exploration of the relationship between the breath and prana. You do this by utilizing physical postures, breathing techniques, and specific mental visualizations. These techniques provide a profound and systematic approach to sense what prāna feels like, how to generate and store it, and how you use it to your best advantage.
Yoga and meditation enable an authentic experience of prana.
You discover what lack of prana feels like and can feel where it is flowing and where it is blocked. You can then liberate the energy blocked and trapped within tensions, contractions, and negative patterns, thereby reducing the degenerative effects of aging and support healthy flow. You can actually influence the smooth flow of prana using techniques such as ujjayi pranayama, throat breathing, which is taught on several of Big Shakti’s meditation training programs.
As you develop pranic awareness you are tuned into, and become more sensitive to your body’s needs. You intuitively sense what makes you strong and healthy, and what makes you weak and sick.
The Breath and Prana
The key to the knowledge of prana and how to control it lies in the breath. There are two levels of the breath, the gross breath, and the subtle prānic breath. The subtle breath is the prāna itself.
1. The gross breath which takes oxygen into the body and removes waste gases. It has three phases: inhalation, exhalation and the pause or space between the breaths. Inhalation and exhalation have completely different characteristics. Inhalation is an active process. Energy is required to contract the breathing muscles, the diaphragm, and the ribs, in order to pull air into the lungs. Normal relaxed exhalation is passive; no muscular contraction is required. Exhalation can be made more forceful by muscular contraction, for example, in coughing and sneezing. Both inhalation and exhalation can also be slowed through conscious muscular control.
2. The subtle pranic breath can only be understood by experience. The gross breath and prana move in opposite directions. As you inhale the gross breath takes air down into the lungs, at the same time when you are tuned into your prana you can feel prana move upwards. When you exhale air moves up inside the body before it’s expelled from the body and at the same time you can feel that prana moves downwards.
The MP3 series Prana and Pranic Healing is systematic training in sensing and utilizing prana. This series of meditations on prana teach you how to experience these two levels of the breath and use them for health and wellbeing.
The meditation technique Ajapa Japa also utilizes these two breaths to integrate body, mind, and spirit. See the MP3 Ajapa Japa on Big Shakti.
The Pranic Body
The next step on the path to cultivating and refining your perception of and ability to utilize prana is to become aware of the pranic sheath, called the pranamaya kosha. A kosha is a term used in Yoga Philosophy to describe the five sheaths (layers) of existence, from the gross physical sheath to the energy (pranic), mental, psychic and spiritual sheaths.
The pranamaya kosha is comprised of 5 divisions of prana, called sub-pranas or vayus. It also consists of the channels that distribute prana in the body.
Each sub-prana is ruled by one of the five elements, earth, water, fire, air and space, and governs the growth and function of certain areas of the body. For example, prana combined with the earth element is called apana vayu (or just apana) and governs the pelvis and excretion as well as certain psychic functions such as a feeling of being secure. Prana combined with water is called samana vayu and governs digestion, with fire, prana vayu (a subset of prana shakti) which governs the heart and lungs, with air udana vayu which controls the head, and with space vyana vayu, which coordinates the other sub-pranas (vayus).
Pranayama, yoga breathing techniques, enable you to control the pranic sheath, either an individual sub-prana or the whole system. The most useful method of balancing prāna is ujjayi pranayama, throat breathing, which is the foundation of Pranic and Pranic Healing and Ajapa Japa techniques mentioned above.
Image by Okan Caliskan