PRANA - Our Vital Life Force Energy

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PRANA - Our Vital Life Force Energy

PRANA, The Breath and Our Vital Life Force Energy

© by Marsha Silvestri

What is Prana? In yoga, prana is associated with the breath, but it is much more than the function of breathing.

Prana is a vital life energy that functions on many levels, including the physical breath, the subtle energy systems, the spirit, and pure consciousness.

PRANAYAMA translated from Sanskrit: PRANA means spirit; PRA means first, primordial, constant, or primary energy; AN means motion, to breathe or move; AYAMA means life force or expansion, and YAMA means to control, regulation or discipline.

Pranayama defined is the science of using the breath to control and sustain the movement of pranic energy as the essential vital life force.

In most yoga practices, pranayamas (aka breathing exercises), are used for purification of the lungs, blood and body, to generate vital energy and stimulate balanced flows through the subtle channels (aka nadis) and the chakras (subtle energy centers). Like the chakras, we can't actually see pranic energy, however scientists and philosophers throughout the ages have recognized the existence of some mysterious force responsible and necessary for the existence of life.

Prana is not unique to yoga. Recognized in many cultures, we find similar concepts and interpretations: The Chinese call it Chi, Qi or Hun; in Japan Ki, or Reiki, and in Egypt it is known as Ka or Hike. In ancient Hawaiian, Polynesian and Maori cultures it's called Mana. Hebrew / Jewish Kabbalah translations refer to Ruach, Yesod, El or Manna. Islamic, Persian, Sufi and Arabic cultures call it Baraka, Anima Mundi, Rooh or Nafs. Native American Iroquois used the terms Orenda or Oki; Navaho used Digin; Hopi: Massau'u. A few from African cultures include: Ndu, N-um, Nyama, Mungo, Ngal, Mulungu, Elima and Axé/Ashe/Asé. Several Greek translations include: Pneuma, Haigion, Anemos, Dynamis, Nous, Psyche, Logos and Arche. In Christianity it is known as The Holy Spirit from the Latin: Spiritus. And in Sanskrit: Atman, Kundalini, Maruta, Virya, Ojas, Shakti and Prana are all associated terms. In these, and many more traditions, there is a common belief that some spiritual or subtle energy essential to life exists beyond the physical or material realms. 

 The Koshas 5 Psychic Sheaths

Artwork Pancha Koshas © by Marsha Silvestri - available as posters in 3 sizes:  + Adapted for t-shirts in multiple styles, colors and sizes. 

THE KOSHAS

The subtle body (the auric energy field which surrounds, encompasses and protects the physical body) consists of several layers, each associated with a specific life aspect or function. These are known as the koshas (aka the five psychic sheaths). They include:

  1. The food sheath (anamaya kosha) functions on the material plane through the physical body.
  2. The vital sheath (pranamaya) is where the aura, the vayus and the chakras exist.
  3. The mental sheath (manomaya) functions at the level of emotions, sensory perceptions and impressions.
  4. The intellect sheath (vijnanamaya) is where our ideas, talents, creativity and mental intelligence reside.
  5. And the bliss sheath (anandamaya) represents the deeper subliminal mind or superconscious.

The pranamaya sheath is also associated with the personality, deep-seated urges, impulses, the energy or driving force to accomplish ones aspirations, to overcome obstacles, the ability to be effective in life, to have an impact or influence on others.

A newborn baby after the umbilical cord is severed, is not considered living until the first breath is taken. When a person dies, and takes their last breath, it is then that the life force quickly exits the body; the heart stops beating; all systems shut down as the brain no longer sends out signals to sustain life.

Yogis believe that each person is born with a predetermined number of breaths. To extend life, the practice of pranayama (breath control) employs various techniques to modify, slow or suspend the breath in an effort to to conserve or preserve this essential energy that keeps one alive. With a decreased respiratory rate, the heart requires less effort to pump the blood, and the metabolism slows down resulting in a conservation of energy. Slower deeper breathing also increases oxygen absorption. Conversely, a higher resting heart rate has been associated with an earlier or greater risk of mortality.

Breathing is automatic. We need not do anything to will ourselves to breathe, but we can do things to improve the quality and function of our breath, and to increase the strength, function and capacity of the lungs. Without food one can survive a few weeks, without water a few days, but without oxygen we could not survive more than a few minutes. Experienced divers can train their ability to extend their time underwater without breathing. The world record for holding ones breath underwater was 11 minutes 35 seconds. There have been rare cases of people reported coming back to life hours after being declared clinically dead, however the average person risks brain damage and death without oxygen for longer than 3 minutes. Even with severe brain damage, a comatose person may be kept “alive” by the artificial “breath” of a ventilator, but when the life support is removed, usually the patient expires rapidly. 

Most people breathe quickly and shallowly, about 12–25 breaths per minute. After practicing yoga and meditation for several decades, whenever I meditate and consciously count my breaths, I'm usually in the 4–6 breaths per minute range, and able to slow my breaths down to 1–2 per minute without much effort. If winded from working out, or from certain activities (such as during sex) my breathing rate is increased, but in normal relaxed states, I tend to breathe very slow. That may be the secret to how I manage to stay calm when surrounded by chaos. In my younger days, before I began practicing yoga, I would frequently suffer from “breath hunger”, where I'd be gasping or yawning, unable to get enough air. I actually worried at one point that I could be suffering from emphysema.

To achieve a one-minute breath takes some practice, 20 seconds of inhale, 20 seconds holding the breath and 20 seconds to exhale. The technique helps to calm the mind, balance the brain hemispheres, reduce fear, worry or anxiety, and helps develop intuition.

To quote kundalini yoga master Yogi Bhajan; “On average, you breathe twenty to twenty-five breaths per minute. In good health you breathe ten times a minute, and a mentally balanced person breathes seven to nine breaths per minute. Fewer than that and you are a yogi.”

"A person who can breathe one breath a minute can multiply life fifteen times—no matter what your disease or state of affairs is."

PRANAYAMS - SOLAR & LUNAR BREATHS

The Solar and Lunar energy currents are represented in the ida and pingala nadis. When one breathes through the left nostril, prana flows through the ida nadi, associated with the feminine, cool, negative Lunar energy known as Chandra. Breathing through the right nostril circulates the hot, masculine, positive, Sun or Surya energy through the pingala nadi. Sometimes breath may flow equally through both nostrils. It is then that the central channel, the shushumna is activated. If one understands these breath patterns, functions and qualities, pranayamas can be used to consciously alter the flow of breath through each of the nostrils, thus activating a particular type of energy, function or result. One practical example is with sleep. If one has insomnia, or the mind is racing, left nostril breathing can help the body relax and calm down to promote or induce better sleep.

Our nose was designed to purify the incoming breath resulting in 10–20% higher oxygen intake than mouth breathing. Unless one has a blockage or condition restricting normal breathing, about every 2–4 hours throughout the day the breath flows more predominantly though one of the nostrils, and then automatically switches to the other nostril for the next 2 hours. If one or both of the nostrils are blocked, due to nasal congestion, inflammation or some other issue such as a deviated septum, imbalances of normal prana flows could cause reduced physical energy or imbalanced brain function. 

Pranayama techniques like alternate nostril breathing not only help to balance the right and left hemisphere of the brain, they also help balance all the different vital airs or “vayus” of the body.

THE VAYUS

According to yogic philosophy, there are five major types of pranas, forces or “vital airs” known as the “vauys”, each having specific qualities, energy frequencies, directional flow and functions.

  • The Prana Vayu is associated with the air element. It is the inward energy of inhalation through the nose into the lungs. It controls the heart center region of the chest from the throat down to below the diaphragm. It is responsible for the functions of the heart, the lungs and respiration.
  • Apana represents a downward outward energy that controls the organs and forces of elimination and excretion, the kidneys, bladder, bowels, the reproductive functions and organs, and the earth and water elements. Apana controls the pelvic region from below the navel down to the root chakra and also the lower limbs, legs and feet.
  • Samana is a horizontal balancing energy flow of the abdominal region from the periphery of the body inwards towards the navel center. It is associated with functions of digestion, assimilation, metabolism, turning food into energy, the stomach, liver, pancreas, the GI tract and small intestine. Its element is fire.
  • Udana represents an upward out-breath that governs movement of ascending energy to and through the throat and head regions. It regulates functions of sleep, speech, the voice, growth and evolving to higher consciousness. It's associated with projection and the element of ether. 
  • Vyana represents a circular breath that combines prana and apana's movement through the nadis and flow of energy through the entire body. It controls the nervous system, muscles, joints, the lymphatic system, circulation, and the balance and coordination of all the systems.   

If any vayus are weak or imbalanced, one may experience dysfunction in the related areas of life or health. Imbalances may manifest as physical, mental or emotional issues. For example: someone with weak samana energy may experience digestive problems, poor metabolism, or have trouble maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships (a common navel chakra issue). If apana is weak, blocked or imbalanced, one may experience constipation, issues with clutter, hoarding or an inability to let go of things. 

When the vayus are balanced and flowing properly, the different energies mix together to allow the awakening and flow of the energy known as kundalini. When one inhales prana to the solar plexus from the heart center, and pulls up apana from the root center, these 2 forces mix at the navel. This creates a pressure or heat that forces the kundalini energy to circulate through the 3 main nadis and rise up through the chakras.

Kundalini Yoga teaches a number of breathing techniques that provide a wide range of physical, mental and emotional benefits or effects.

Controlling the breath is essential for controlling the mind. Techniques such as Long Deep Breathing help promote relaxation, calm the body, reduces stress, and promote healthy flows of prana.

Sitali Pranayam is a cooling relaxing breath that can help reduce fevers or lower the body temperature. Specific breathing techniques can be used to induce sleep, stimulate different areas of the brain or help fight addictions. In India pranayama has been used to treat medical conditions such as asthma, heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

Different paths and traditions teach a variety of breathing techniques that may vary slightly from one to another or be identified by different terms or languages. For example: a common confusion among many yoga students is understanding the differences between Breath of Fire (as taught in kundalini yoga), Kapalbhati and Bhastrika (as taught in Hatha and most Hindu-based yoga systems). Each are dynamic, stimulating, detoxifying breaths powered from the navel that raise energy and stimulate increased oxygen levels to the blood. The main difference between them is the length, emphasis and nature of the inhale and exhale. Breath of Fire and Bhastrika emphasizes both the inhalation and exhalation. Kapalbhati emphasizes the force of the exhalation where the inhale is passive.

Breath of Fire (agni pran) is a rhythmic light sniffing through the nose powered by the pumping of the navel, at about 60 breaths per minute. This breath can be sustained for short periods or up to 30 minutes or longer. It can also be practiced during specific exercises and postures to intensify their benefit. Breath of Fire is cleansing, stimulating, increases endurance and boosts the immune system. It creates heat in the body that helps purify and oxygenates the blood delivering oxygen to the brain and body to burn away disease. It also helps strengthen the nervous system and the electromagnetic field. 

Kapalbhati (aka skull shining breath), according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is not considered a pranayam on its own, but rather is technically one of a series of six cleansing kriyas. The breath is through both nostrils powered by contracting the middle and lower abdomen. It is usually practiced in rounds. The force emphasis is on the exhalation, where the inhale is spontaneous or passive. This powerful breath functions to clear the nasal passages and sinuses and purify the head region to stimulate prana and oxygen flow to the brain. It is said to be able to clear the cobwebs from the mind, thus the term “skull shining breath”.

Bhastrika (aka bellows breath) is a pranayama exercise that uses quick strong breaths, usually through the nostrils, powered by the force of the abdomen and diaphragm muscles to actively pump the air in and out. After 10–20 breaths the breath is retained and then released slowly. The sequence can be repeated 2 or more times up to 5 rounds.

There are many additional pranayamas beyond the few I've described. From Hatha and Ashtanga Yoga practices listed below are 14 techniques. I won't go into explaining each in detail here, as that could fill an entire book. Basically each one plays a unique role having specific purposes, functions, benefits or effects in the cultivation or preservation of prana

  1. Natural Breathing
  2. Basic abdominal breathing
  3. Thoracic breathing
  4. Clavicular breathing
  5. Yogic breathing
  6. Deep breathing with ratios
  7. Fast breathing
  8. Viloma (interrupted breathing)
  9. AnulomVilom (alternate nostril breathing)
  10. Cooling Breath (Sheetali, Sitkari, Kaki mudra)
  11. Ujjayi (victorious or ocean breath, sometimes jokingly referred to as the Darth Vadar breath)
  12. Bhramari (humming bee breath)
  13. Bhastrika (bellow’s breath)
  14. Surya Bhedan (right nostril breathing)

 

Kundalini yoga teaches similar breath-work plus different techniques. Several KY basics include:

  1. Simple natural breathing
  2. Long deep breathing (abdominal/lower, chest/middle, & clavicular/upper breathing)
  3. Breath of fire
  4. Breath suspension
  5. Alternate nostril breathing
  6. Breath ratios
  7. Nadi cleansing U-breathing
  8. Left & right nostril breathing
  9. Cannon breath
  10. Lion breath
  11. Dog breath (breath of fire panting through the mouth)
  12. Segmented breath
  13. Circular breath
  14. “O” breath
  15. Whistle breath
  16. Sitali pranayam
  17. Sitkari pranayam
  18. Varskar pranayam

To note: Although many pranayamas can be practiced exclusively or individually, some (like Kapalbhati) are more effective and powerful when practiced as part of a kriya (set or series of exercises, breaths or actions), with meditations, utilizing specific mudras (hand positions), bandhas (body locks), or during certain exercises. One example is breath of fire, when added to an exercise or posture can reduce the time it takes for the exercise to be effective. But pranayama breathwork is not the only method to enhance ones prana.

In Ayurvedic health systems, it is believed that prana can be enhanced or cultivated through oxygen in the air, exposure to sunlight, exercise and the ingestion of foods or nutrients taken into the body. Pranayama is used in Ayurveda to help balance mental and emotional states as well as physical bodily processes, such as digestion, elimination, heart rate and circulation.

A pure, natural (organic) balanced diet, alignment with nature, use of mantras, meditations, exercise and other disciplines, such as Bhalkti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), Dyana Yoga (meditation & mindfulness), Karma Yoga (selfless service), Japa, Mantra, Nada and Laya Yoga (singing or chanting sacred sound currents), and physical exercises as practiced in Hatha, Ashtanga Yoga, plus many other forms of yoga can help to increase or strengthen ones vital life energy. A healthy lifestyle combined with these life-enhancing practices, can slow or help prevent the loss of vital energy.

Many additional forms or schools of yoga teach variations within each tradition or path, along with newer hybrid styles emerging from yoga's surge in popularity. All styles of yoga share a focus on stimulating and balancing vital pranic energy as a means of enhancing and extending life and elevating consciousness.

If you're new to yoga or unfamiliar with pranayama, I'd highly recommend taking a class or getting proper instruction on the correct techniques before practicing them on your own. If you can't get to a class, there are plenty of DVDs and you-tube videos that teach a variety of breathing techniques recommended for various purposes and levels of practice. 

TO LIFE - May the PRANA be with you!

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All text and art images © 2018 by Marsha Silvestri, all rights reserved.

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