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?

The Vital Energies

Leading on from my last blog post, I wanted to give you a bit more detail about the pranamaya kosha and the vital energies within that sheath. 

The information is adapted from the book 'Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha' by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (pages 371-372). 

The pranamaya kosha is the energy sheath. It consists of five vital energies; prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana. These five vital energies help the body function as each looks after a certain area of the body and its organs.

Prana 

In this context it refers to energy within the body rather than the overarching cosmic prana of the universe (the vital life force). It is concentrating on the flow of energy in the thoracic area between the larynx and the top of the diaphragm. It governs the heart and respiratory organs along with the muscles and nerves that activate them. It can be thought of as the force in which the breath is drawn inside.

Apana

The apana energy flow looks after the abdomen, below the belly button. It provides energy for the large intestine, kidneys, anus and genitals. It controls the expulsion of waste from the body. It's the force that forces out the breath.

Samana

Samana focuses on the space between the heart and the navel, the main part of the torso. It looks after the digestive system and the function of the liver, intestines, pancreas and stomach. Samana controls the assimilation and distribution of nutrients throughout the body.

Udana

We moved to the top part of the body with the udana energy flow. Udana is in charge of the head and neck, leading it to control the sensory receptors like the eyes, nose and ears. Because the udana energy flow governs the sensory receptors it makes sense that it is responsible for the erect posture of the body and consequently our ability to respond to the outer world.

Vyana

Vyana is the concluding energy. It pervades the whole body, regulating all movement. Vyana coordinates the other pranas and is the reserve force for the other pranas.

You can remember these in a more logical order working from the bottom of the body, up; apana, samana, prana, udana and vyana. Or from the top to the bottom; udana, prana, samana, apana and vyana.

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