What powers the vital processes that bring your physical body alive, giving it the dynamism to move and breathe? What regulates your senses and the way you perceive, think and act? Ancient yoga texts tell us it is a subtle energy known as prana. This is not physical energy—prana is quite different from the electrical impulses in your nervous system—yet it flows through your body and manifests itself through your breath. By changing your breathing, you can direct this vital energy force.
What is Prana?
The Sanskrit word prana is usually translated as “vital air”, “life-force” or “vital energy”, but none of these descriptions really explain it. We can’t translate the word into English, or any Western language, because until recently our culture lacked the concept. The Chinese word chi (as in tai chi) or the Japanese word ki (as in reiki) are exact translations. People who practice acupuncture, reflexology and most martial arts understand and work with prana energy. Your prana is divided into five categories each “governing” aspects of your body, mind and breath. Each main chapter of this book reveals how one of them works.
Your Energy Highway: The Nadis
Prana energy flows through your body in subtle energy channels called nadis. Approximately 72,000 crisscross your body (see image opposite)—you might like to think of them as roads on an energy highway system. The traffic on the roads is your prana. When traffic flows freely the system works well, but if a nadi becomes blocked, the flow of prana energy to that region of the body is reduced or even cut off. Without the nourishment of vital energy, that part of the body may weaken or become sick. For your body to be vibrantly healthy, an unimpeded flow of prana is necessary. One way to encourage this is to practice prana breathing exercises.
The Main Nadis
Of your 72,000 energy lines, or nadis, three are of particular interest in our exploration of prana breathing. The ida nadi channel flows to the left of your spine, the pingala nadi channel to the right, and the central nadi channel, which approximates your spine, is known as the sushumna. The left and right channels are associated with qualities of mind, and when your breath flows through one of these channels it develops these qualities in you. Various pranyama breathing exercises can guide your breath through the left and right nadi channels. The only time your breath flows evenly is during pranayama meditation, when it enters the central nadi energy channel and both sides of your brain are balanced. In order to achieve a state of meditation, ancient yogis developed breathing techniques referred to as pranayama. Practicing pranayama breathing is one of the main disciplines within hatha yoga.
Your Vitalizing Breath: Understanding Prana
The first of the five forms of prana—the energy, or driving force, behind all energy—that flows through your body is, rather confusingly, also known as prana. Yoga teachers will tell you that every time you breathe in, you draw in this vital energy along with the air you inhale. Just as you need physical oxygen to vitalize your body, you need prana energy to enliven your mind and emotions.
In the following paragraphs, you will discover how this vitalizing prana breath enables you not only to inhale air into your lungs, but to take in stimuli of all forms—from sights, sounds and smells to feelings, ideas and knowledge. For prana energy provides the basic stimulus that sets all things in motion. In doing so, it enhances your appreciation of, and zest for, life, and opens your heart and mind to new possibilities of every kind—from your personal creativity and productivity at work to your relationships with others and your environment.
Your Dynamic Life-Force
If you imagine that your body is a factory, your prana is the person in charge. As the chief of the five forms of energy in your body, your incoming breath is responsible for authorizing all acquisitions and overseeing the intake of all raw materials. When prana stops doing its job, the factory closes down.
Prana is the root source of all the energy in the universe. Whether this energy manifests itself as heat, the sun, rushing water or the wind, all forces of nature are manifestations of prana energy. Within your body, the strongest influence of this vitalizing prana breath extends from your lungs and heart up to your nose. Prana endows your lungs with their ability to draw in all forms of prana, giving your eyes their energy to see, ears their ability to hear and mind its power to make sense of the world; prana energy nourishes your brain as it supervises the workings of your nervous system.
If you frequently feel stressed or exhausted, you may not be taking in enough prana through breathing. Alternatively, you may be wasting your prana energy, perhaps by overworking or allowing it to drain away as you spend long hours in front of a computer or a television, or sit in air-conditioned rooms or use a microwave. All of these activities deplete prana. Compare how tired and drained you feel in these situations with how energized you feel standing in a place rich in prana energy, such as near the ocean.
Ancient yoga texts state that the symptoms of any illness are the manifestation of a decreased flow of prana to particular parts of the body, usually due to lack of proper pranayamic breathing.
Working with Prana Energy
As you use the prana breathing techniques, ask yourself the following questions. They can help you to see how you are depleting your prana and find ways in which you rebalance it.
+ Do I breathe deeply and fully, using my full lung capacity?
+ Do I nourish my body and mind with prana in the form of clean air, healthy prana-rich food and stimulating ideas?
+ Am I able to absorb the beauty around me? How does it strengthen me?
+ Do I tend to “bite off more than I can chew”? Does this deplete my prana energy?
+ Is my life chaotic? Is this because I am unable to direct my energy?
+ Do I permit people to drain me emotionally? Or do I drain other people’s prana by making unreasonable demands on them?
+ Do I waste time by being unfocused? Or do I allow others to waste my time?
+ Am I overly negative and self-critical? Is this because I allow people to deprive me of my independence and free will?
Although such a depletion is usually gradual, the effects of a sudden lack of prana energy can sometimes be obvious. If you experience a shock, for example, you may begin losing weight rapidly, see your hair turn grey overnight, or find that an internal organ ceases to function—for example in a heart attack.
Through practicing the prana breathing techniques in this article, you can become conscious of the flow of prana energy within your body. By breathing with concerted awareness, you may find that you can extract more life-energy and deliberately direct it wherever it is required, whenever it is needed. As you become familiar with the pranayama breathing exercises and practice them regularly, you may notice changes in the way your body functions and the fullness with which you live life. You may even notice your appearance changing, making you appear more alive, fresh-faced and youthful.