Prana and Pranayama Demystified

Throughout the universe there pulsates a universal energy known as Pra’n’a.

This fundamental energy pervades and controls every living organism and organizes its vital functions.

What is Pra'n'a?

Just as the universe is built up of five fundamental factors – ether, air, luminous (fire), liquid and solid, the human body is bult up of the same factors.

These five factors have not always existed but have gradually evolved through a process that yogis know as the Brahmacakra, the evolution of Brahma, the evolution of the universe, or more precisely, the evolution of the infinite supreme consciousness.

Before the universe came about there was only Brahma – pure consciousness. This consciousness has through the process of Brahmacakra metamorphosed some part of itself first into a cosmic mind, then some parts of that cosmic mind into ether, then air and so on, until it reached the ultimate density we know as solid factor.

Liquid is not just of one kind but can be of variations such as water, milk or blood. In the same way, air can be of different grades.

The aerial factor in various parts of the universe is the same aerial factor we find in the human body but of a subtler grade than the air that we breathe. This subtle form of air is in sanskrit known as vayu or pra’n’a vayu or just pra’n’a.

Pra’n’a is distributed throughout the body via very subtle streams or channels known as the nadiis. Some call it the ‘psychic nervous system’. The word ‘psychic’ is used because these are too subtle for any instruments to detect. They are not part of the nervous system but are closely related. It is the work of the various chakras to distribute pra’n’a to where it is needed, hence the chakras are located at very strategic spots.

Prana-&-Pranayama

This distribution of pra’n’a is highly important for the function and maintenance of the physical body. If there is any ‘malfunction’ of the nucleus of the chakra, which is located in the spine, the distribution and flow of pra’n’a may be hampered. This manifests itself as physical and/or psychic lethargy, ‘low energy’, and various disorders and diseases may set in.

The important nadiis for spiritual elevation and progress are known as Ida, Piungala, and Sushumna nadi and are located in the spinal cord. Vigorous physical activities, sleep, digestion, and sexual relation all affect the flow and direction of the pra’n’a.

Thoughts and emotions also influence its movement and can direct it towards the lower chakras . This increases the activity of the lower chakras which in turn stimulates the glands to secrete hormones producing emotions such as fear, anger, and lust.

On the contrary, if the pra’n’a moving in Ida, Piungala, and Sushumna is directed towards the higher chakras, it helps us control these emotions and helps us develop more elevated states of mind. For spiritual elevation the pra’n’a must flow through the sushumna nadi in the centre of the spinal cord towards the highest chakra in the brain known as the sahasrara chakra. To achieve this one needs to gain control over the movement of the pra’n’a. The process of controlling the flow of the prana is known as pra’n’ayama.

Pranayama

Pranayama is the fourth limb in Patanjalis’ Ashtanga yoga. Many think pranayama is a just a process of breath control, but on a deeper level it controls the direction and flow of the pra’n’a which helps to regulate many physiological functions.

“When the Prana has become controlled, then we shall immediately find that all the other actions of the Prana in the body will slowly come under control”. 1

According to where in the body the pra’n’a operates it has different names. There are ten pra’n’a (also known as vayu or pra’n’a vayus’) in the human body: five internal and five external.

The Five Internal Pra’n’a Vayus:
  1. PRA’N’A: This vayu is situated between the navel point and the throat. It helps with respiratory functions and the circulation of vital energy.
  2. APA’NA: This vayu function from the navel down. It helps in the excretion of urine and stool.
  3. SAMNA: Samana is situated in the navel region and maintain equilibrium between Pra’n’a and Apa’na.
  4. UDA’NA: Situated in the throat and helps in vocalization and expression of thought.
  5. VYA’NA: The vyana vayu functions throughout the body. It helps in circulation of vital fluids such as lymph and blood, and in the perception and non-perception of experience.
The Five External Pra’n’a Vayus:
  1. NA’GA: This vayu resides in the joints and helps with contraction and expansion of muscles such as jumping and running.
  2. KU’RMA: Is found in the different glands in the body and helps with the action of contraction.
  3. KRKARA: Krkara vayu is scattered throughout the body. It expresses itself in the increase or decrease (regulation) of air pressure. Krkara vayu helps in yawning and stretching. Ordinarily, yawning happens right before falling asleep and stretching, right after waking up.
  4. DEVADATTA: Devadatta vayu bases its action on the increased or decreased pressure of food and water in the stomach. Devadatta vayu rouses thirst and hunger.
  5. DHANAINJAYA: As a result of internal or external labor, the body feels the need for sleep. The feeling of sleep or drowsiness comes from this dhanainjaya vayu that pervades the body.

The controlling point of the Indriyas (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin), and the motor organs (hands, feet, vocal cords, genitals, and excretory organs) is in the brain. The Indriyas is only the gateway that receives tanmatras (smell, taste, sight, sound, and touch). The activity of the pra’n’a is pulsating and flows with the breath; there is a flow (inhale/exhale) and a pause. When there is a pause, the mind does not get any impulses from the sensory or the motor organs, and the mind becomes completely silent.

Through Pranayama we influence the pra’n’a and the mind to be in a state of pause from all its normal fluctuations and simultaneously direct the mind towards its spiritual goal.

As such, “Control of Pra’n’a means control of mind. Mind cannot operate without the help of Pra’n’a. The vibrations of Pra’n’a produce thoughts in the mind. It is Pra’n’a that moves the mind. It is Pra’n’a that sets the mind in motion.” 2 “The definition of pranayama is: Tasmin sati shvasa prashvasayoh gativicchedah pranayama. That is, “Pranayama is the process of breath control along with the imposition of the ideation of Supreme Consciousness.” It helps the mind in concentration and meditation.” 3

To generalize, “There are two main types of pranayama: Hatha yogica pranayama and Yudhisthira pranayama. When pranayama is done without fixing the mind on a particular given point (chakra) of concentration, and without imbibing an elevated supreme ideation, it is called Hata yogica pranayama. But when pranayama is performed with the mind fixed on a particular point along with a spiritual ideation, it is called Yudhisthira pranayama.”3

The spirit of pranayama is: “Pranan yamayati esah pranayamah. That is, the word pranayama literally means, “controlling the pra’n’a”. The philosophy behind the practice of pranayama is that the spiritual aspirant tries to let the pranendriyah (pra’n’a) remain in a state of pause so that the paused mind will merge into the ocean of consciousness.” 3

Hence pranayama is a practice developed for enhance spirituality. The calm and focused mind achieved from this practice helps develop strong will power. Therefore practitioners of pranayama should have achieved a certain level of control over the mind (vrttis) by asana practice and diet so the strong mind can be used in a benevolent way. For the same reason it is also necessary to put an effort to follow the moral guidelines of ‘Yama and Niyama’ given by Patanjali in the two first parts of his system of Ashtanga Yoga.

If the person has negative thoughts or any negative issues in the mind during and even after the practice of pranayama, the mind gets strongly focused on those negativities and the person will become more negative-minded. There is also a danger that the strength of the mind achieved from this practice will be misused for selfish and material development. This will divert the person from his/her spiritual goal. From time to time we have witnessed the downfall of many great yogis.

Lastly, if the manipulation of the movements of the pra’n’a is not done very systematically under the guidance of a competent teacher who understands the movement of the various pra’n’a vayus’, it can be very harmful. It may lead to insomnia, depressions, increased blood pressure, heart failure, and even death just to mention a few. That’s why BKS Iyengar states in his book Light on Pranayama  “…. Pranayama is essentially to be learned at the feet of a Guru,…” 4 which means under the guidance of a competent teacher.

The main scripture for hatha yoga; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika also gives a warning; “As a trainer tames a lion, and elephant or a tiger gradually, so should the sadhaka (yogi) acquire control over his breath gradually, otherwise it will kill him. 5.

In Ananda Marga’s system of Yoga, pranayama can only be learned from an experienced Acarya that has undergone years of intensive yogic training.

Article written by Acarya Shankar San Ananda of Ananda Marga Yoga Academy


Bibliography

1. Swami Vivekananda: Raja Yoga. Published by Swami Bodhasarananda 2009.
2. Sri Swami Sivananda: The science Pranayama. Divine Life Society Publication 1935.
3. Shrii Shrii Anandamurti: Yoga psychology: Q&A on meditation. Ananda Marga publication 2008.
4. BKS Iyeagar: Light on Pranayama – Preface. HarperCollins Publishers, London 1992.
5. Swatmarama: Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Chapter 2:15.

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