Author: Timea Fleury
The introduction to the Yoga Teacher’s Handbook begins with a quote from Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “The body is used to access the mind. Prana is used to access awareness and consciousness. Yoga is used to access inner spiritual harmony and balance.”
Prana, a Sanskrit word mostly unfamiliar to the western world, represents the energy required to sustain life; the cosmic energy within each of us. Energy, however, is a word that is very familiar and has a wide variety of uses. Those who study science or engineering in University will spend hours learning formulas and developing equations to quantify and classify this property. Measuring, calculating and estimating energy as it changes forms from thermal, chemical, mechanical, electrical, magnetic, elastic, radiant, nuclear, sound and luminous. In geology, continental drift, mountain ranges, volcanoes and earthquakes are phenomena that can be explained in terms of energy transformation in the Earth’s interior. Wind, rain, hail, snow, lightening, tornados and hurricanes are meteorological phenomena brought on by solar energy on the Earth’s atmosphere.
These phenomena have laws and theories, but whichever the branch of modern western science you study, there is no word that explains the flow of energy required for creativity, emotions and conscious thought of the human mind. In order to gain insight into this form of energy you have to travel to more ancient times. In traditional Chinese culture, qi is considered the “lifeforce” or “energy flow” and is literally translated as air or breathe. The ancient Chinese believed qi permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. By understanding the rhythm and the flow of the qi, they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity.
This description is comparable to what is known in the yogic sciences as prana, which all living beings are comprised of and which gives them life and existence. Although this living energy flow has no analytical measurement or mathematical equation to quantify it, you would be hard pressed to find a person in the modern world who does not feel it or speak of its presence. It is felt in the revitalizing effect of being in nature, mountains or the sunlight and around animals or people you love. It is discussed after spending some time around a person and then needing to get away to prevent them from “draining your energy”. So there is no doubt that prana, vital energy, exists but where does it come from and how do we increase in ourselves?
According to Hatha Yoga, the source of prana has a history very similar to the Big Bang Theory. Cosmic prana, also called mahaprana, came into being at the time of creation. At the beginning, there was nothing but prana waiting, absorbed as potential and in a state of equilibrium. From nothing, there came a movement, a desire, Ekoham bahusym “I am one, let me become many.” This movement, this awakening of the mahaprana was the separation of energy from consciousness, prana from chitta, Shakti from Shiva. The first projection of self, of “I-ness”, that caused a ripple in space time and expanded the universe, determining the nature of everything. All living things are kept by a portion of this cosmic prana, like a string holding together the beads of a necklace. Prana gives life and when it leaves the body, the physical manifestation of self slowly turns to dust.
Every being is born with a certain amount of prana but the quantity and quality will change throughout one’s life. On a mental level, prana is generated through positive thought and diminished by negativity, worry and regret. Prana may also be conserved when sexual energy is sublimated and transformed.
On a physical level, prana is received from the environment, food, water, sun and air. Not all forms prana are equally beneficial however, as it depends on the quality of prana one is exposed to. According to the modern science of bioenergetics, the external sources of energy required for human life are a combination of air and food molecules. The quality of air one breathes can directly affect one’s energy level. This is observed through the exhilaration and vitality felt when standing near high mountains or the rush of a waterfall. The scientific explanation for this affect has to do with the amount of negatively charged ions available at these sources. Negative ions make absorption of oxygen into the blood more efficient and therefore have a “feel good” result in the body. The opposite feeling is experienced when too much time is spent in an enclosed space, with recirculated air, where the concentration of positive ions is much higher than the negative ions. Some companies even manufacture and sell water ionizers touting the beneficial effects.
The energy value of food is something that modern science measures in calories. Unfortunately, the conversion from calories to energy in living organisms is very inefficient and also the caloric value of food has little to do with health effects they have on the body. In yoga science, Andre Simonetion developed a method for establishing the pranic value of food. Using a simple pendulum on a string, he measured the subtle radiations emitted by organic matter. The speed and arc of the pendulum was greatest (signifying a high level of prana) in foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, ocean fish and shell fish. The next level of prana contained eggs, peanut oil, wine, boiled vegetables, sugar cane and cooked fish. Those foods with low energy where the pendulum moved very slowly or not at all were cooked meats, coffee, tea, chocolate, jam, processed cheeses and white bread.
Although the environment, food, water and air are sources of prana, they do not directly equate to utilization of this prana in the body for health and vitality. A severely depressed person can eat only foods of high pranic value and move to the mountains without increasing their prana or positive energy. This is where the science of yoga plays an important role. Hatha yoga is the science of body purification and awakening of pranic energy. According to this science, the human body contains energy channels called nadis which the prana has to flow through. Forms of disease, both physical and mental, are caused by blockages in these energy channels. The aim of Hatha yoga is to purify these nadis.
Purification of the nadi begins with the purification of the physical body through practice of a yogic diet, cleansing techniques (shatkarmas) and body postures (asanas). Once the physical body is prepared, a technique called pranayama is utilized to extend and control the pranic energy. This is accomplished using the only system in the body that is controlled both automatically and by conscious thought; the breath. Breath, or air, is also energy. Life in this physical body begins with the first inhale and ends with our last breath out. The prana leaves, the string snaps, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Pranayama means control of breathe and it is used in combination with pranic energy locks (bandhas) to control prana and therefore all of the functions of the body and mind. For a new practitioner, pranayama is used to remove energy blocks in order to receive the full benefit of health and vitality from prana. A more advanced practice of pranayama can awaken the higher prana, or Kundalini energy and eventually lead to awareness of higher self.
Prana, cosmic energy, exists throughout the universe, on earth, around us and within us. There may not be a scientific measurement for its value and movement but there are many things in this world which we have yet to fully understand. Even if reaching a higher self or getting closer to God is not your goal in life, yoga will give you a conscious awareness of your own energy and the energy around you. Regardless of your history, culture, religion or situation, if more people had the heart of a yogi, the world would be a better place.
“Teach yoga, heal everyone, help them, and when one realizes the self, everything happens.” Swami Satyananda Saraswati
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