This was a difficult post for me to write – I couldn’t find a clear way to express my experience of Prana. Prana is one of the Vedic concepts that I internalized (and continue to clarify) through years of practice. My initial attempts to collect my thoughts and express them in writing fell short of the actual experience and perception I have of it. So I put if off for many weeks. I then did some research into the Vedic roots of Prana and see what they have to say.
Why is there Prana?
I found what I was looking for in the Prasna Upanishad which is made of up 6 questions from 6 different students answered by one teacher. Questions 2 & 3 are about the nature, origin and function of Prana. But I found a pearl of inspiration in the sixth question and I would like to start with that:
Q6.3: “The Purusha reflected: ‘What is it by whose departure I shall depart and by whose staying I shall stay?'”
Q6.4: “He created prana, from prana faith, space, air, fire, water, earth…”
It seems that Purusa (spirit) wanted to get around – it was sitting there with infinite potential but nothing was happening. It wanted to reach out, create & experience, so it came up with Prana – a means for it to manifest. Then, before anything else manifested, from Prana came faith. I hope to one day gain more perspective on this subtle point. For now I am inspired by this suggestion that faith came before everything else.
What is Prana?
In the second question Q2.3 – we find that:
- Prana is that which supports and upholds the body.
- Prana manifests before ether, the subtle elements and the senses (suggested in Q2.2)
- Prana is divided into 5.
- Of the 5 pranas, Prana (the first) is the dominant one (Q2.4) : “when it rose upward all the others rose … and when it settled down they all settled down with it”.
Where does Prana come from?
The explanation offered in Q3.3 about the origin of Prana took my breath away. It is a wonderful example of Vedic wisdom.
Q3.3: “As a shadow is cast by a person, so this prana is by Atman.”
To gain some insight into this concise statement we need to call on some terms we’ve mentioned in passing. Purusa (spirit) & Prakrti (matter) are, according to Samkhya philosophy, the source of everything. Purusa (spirit) also goes by the name Brahman. While Atman, you may recall, is the individuated manifestation of Brahman that resides in all living things.
The text here suggests that Prana is the shadow that is cast by Atman. After carrying this image around with me for some time, I asked myself “Where is this shadow of Atman cast?”. The answer that I came up with is Prakrti. Spirit (Purusa) casts a shadow onto Prakrti (Matter), that shadow is Prana and it is what supports and upholds us.
How does Prana function?
- Prana engages other pranas in different parts of the body (Q3.4). It resides in the mouth, nose, eyes and ears (Q3.5). It is associated with processes of intake (food, water, air, impressions, experiences, etc.) – it is the basic energy that drives us.
- Apana resides in the organs of excretion and generation (Q3.5). It is associated with processes of elimination (bodily wastes, semen, menstrual fluid, fetus, carbon dioxide, etc.). It has purifying and immunization qualities.
- Samana is in the middle and distributes that which is offered to the fire (Q3.5). It is associated with processes of distribution (digested food, absorbed oxygen, experiences, etc.). It has a nourishing quality.
- Vyana moves through the nadis (Q3.6). It is associated with processes of circulation from the center to the periphery (food, water, oxygen, emotions, thoughts).
- Udana ascends upwards and conducts the departing soul (Q3.7). It is associated with transformation process of life (growth, will, consciousness, expression, etc.).
Some things to know about Prana
- You cannot have “more or less” Prana, you can have “collected & diffused” Prana.
- Prana affects and is affected by lifestyle (eating, socializing, physical activity, etc.).
- Dominant qualities of Prana vary in different stages of life (childhood, adulthood, old age).
- Asana (physical yoga postures) are used to awaken & activate Prana.
- Pranayama is used to improve the flow of Prana – it’s not about the air you inhale or exhale, it is about clearing the channels (nadis) in which Prana flows so it may flow better.
- Mudra & Bandhas are used to manipulate and direct Prana internally.
- The ultimate goal of Hatha Yoga is to remove barriers that obstruct Prana from flowing into the central Sushumna Channel.