What is Prana?

Prana is a hard thing to get your head around when you’re new to yoga. In fact, yoga is a hard thing to get your head around when you’re new to yoga! The more you practice, the deeper you go into understanding the intricate network that is yoga science.

In yoga we use our breath. It is our key to safe practice. In every posture you should be able to breathe in deeply and exhale completely. If you can’t do this, you need to release slightly from the posture to the point where you are able to breathe deeply and comfortably.

But how does breath relate to Prana?

Prana is our energy, our vital life force that flows through the body. It takes various paths to move into every area of the body (more on this here). You can move your Prana by directing your breath. So when a yoga teacher says ‘Send the breath to your feet’, they are actually saying feel as if you are breathing down into your feet and this visualisation, and possibly sensation, is your Prana moving to that area. You can guide your Prana with your breath. Your Prana sits on your breath but is not your breath. Your breath is the vehicle, your Prana the passenger.

Retention of breath is also a way to control the Prana in the body. Pranayama (the general term for the breathing exercises yogis practice) means to control the energy (Prana = energy, yama = to control). Pranayama always contains retention of the breath. This holding of the breath builds the energy within the body. There is no breath escaping through the nostrils or mouth and thus the Prana is retained, just as the breath is. Yogis see speech as a form of losing Prana. This is why they practice speaking the truth and only speaking when essential. Many gurus practice ‘Mouna’, periods of silence, for this reason.

Prana and the breath - the difference

The distinction between Prana and the breath becomes apparent at the time of death. This year has been quite traumatic for me as I’ve watched two close family members pass away. But these experiences have made my understanding of Prana so clear.

When someone takes their last breath, it isn’t just the breath that leaves the body. As they become still and free from pain, you can see their Prana leave too. When someone holds their breath, they don’t look lifeless. But when someone passes, their whole facial expressions change, their body almost becomes a foreign object to look at. You don’t recognise them anymore. You are staring not at the person you love but at a body. It’s the first time I’ve looked at a body and thought, ‘It’s just skin and bones. Where are they? Who is this I’m looking at?’ The things you miss are their smile, their jokes, their laughter. The lifeless body without the gleam in their eyes doesn’t offer you those things. Their life force had gone. They had left their body.

My personal definition of Prana

Prana for me is personality, vibrancy, enthusiasm and it’s even the times when we’re low, sad or lethargic. It’s the bit of us that makes us, us. We all have breath but that doesn’t mean we have vibrancy. Breath is one of the most fundamental things the body needs in order to be alive but to be fully, spiritually alive, we have to look after our Prana. We have to vibrate at a higher frequency. We have to love, laugh and share. Yoga helps us to check in with our Prana. It lets us move in ways to free any blockages we may have (these blockages usually come out in physical problems; lower back pain, neck pain, sore shoulder – you get the idea). It gives us a chance to stop and reflect in order to make better life choices. And these life choices are normally made because we know deep down that something is wrong with our flow of Prana. You’ll feel it in your body first – those headaches, back aches – they are all signs that your flow of energy is blocked in some way.

Next time you’re on your mat, try and move with your Prana in mind. Yoga is about freeing the body from discomfort and bringing it into balance. What does your Prana need in order to feel balanced?

Savasana - an active posture?

You love going to your weekly yoga class. You love the thrill it gives you. You love how peaceful yet awake you feel after. But what you might not like is that period of time where you aren't moving and your intellectual mind starts to kick back in...

The dreaded relaxation at the end where you lie in Savasana completely still with only your breath producing movement in your abdomen. This is most people's idea of hell after some form of exercise. This became especially apparent to me when I taught in gyms. People would become very fidgety all of a sudden, even if they had held the most graceful warrior, as still as a statue.

What is it about lying down completely still that we just don't like? 

In my own experience, if I have had a particularly stressful or worrisome day, my yoga practice has been my saviour. The physical movement energising me, the focus on my breath drawing my mind away from my troubles and the feeling of accomplishment I get when I manage that difficult posture, all helping to bring me back to the present moment. But I have also found Savasana to be the most difficult on those days. My mind may behave while doing the asanas but as soon as I lay down to relax, my mind starts again. Those same repetitive thoughts, going over and over in my head. And no matter what I do, I can't seem to switch them off. 

So how do you achieve the calm Savasana where your mind stays as quiet as it has during the physical side of your practice? 

One way to overcome the mind-body battle in Savasana is to see it as an inclusive part of your practice. This is not something separate from your practice - it is complimentary to it. By viewing Savasana as another posture, it can help to keep the mind peaceful. It's not like slouching on your sofa. It is an active asana. Just as you would guide your body with your breath in any other asana, you can do the same in Savasana. I find it helps to settle myself into it by taking 5-10 deep breaths before scanning the body. These 5-10 breaths are my equivalent of when I hold a standing, balancing or seated posture. It's the same principle. My body is in a certain, still position and my focus is on my breath.  

Another way to keep your mind from becoming overloaded in Savasana is to give it something to focus on. As soon as you lie still and have nothing to pull the mind back to, it will drift off to your everyday worries and concerns. Try counting your breaths, focusing on the individual parts of your body or even tensing and releasing your body parts to draw the awareness further into yourself.

Not only do we seem to struggle with staying still (probably because we live in a society where being constantly busy and on the go is seen as a path to success), we seem to lack the understanding about what this posture does to the body after your practice.

With any form of exercise, if you don't warm up before or cool down after you will likely end up with an injury - think of runners. Your Savasana is your final cool down. It's the time you give yourself to allow the body and it's energies to come back to a normal state, to re-balance. Your yoga practice wakes up all sorts of things in your body; it stimulates hormones, lowers blood pressure, increases circulation (to name a few). By finishing in a relaxation posture, your body can return to its normal temperature (particularly important if you've done a heated yoga class or vinyasa for example).  Without ending in Savasana you aren't allowing your body to readjust and find it's new balance. 

Savasana isn't just there as a physical check in at the end of your practice; it's there as a mental one too. Although most people seem to find Savasana hard to accomplish, it's important to allow yourself that quiet time to notice where your mind is now at. We might enter our practice with lots of energy and consequently, a slightly overworked, agitated mind. Savasana gives you 5-10 minutes to capture that difference. It allows you to realise exactly what effect your practice has on your body and mind. 

My advice is to not skip your Savasana. Use it as your final posture. Your restoration. Your closure. Have 2 minutes or 10 but whatever happens, delight in it. If the mind is still busy, let it be busy. If it's quiet, capture that moment and know that that quiet, calm place is always inside you. It's always there. Use your Savasana to capture the pure essence within.