Prâna: History, Traditions, and Philosophy
By: Nils Thomas
“There is an energy created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the universe together… Let go of your unconscious self, stretch out with your feelings.” Ben Kenobi
Some of the earliest known writings, mnemonics, and orations from India allegorically and directly refer to Prana.
It is first mentioned in the Vedas, cir. 4500-1500 B.C.E. and arises continuously throughout later writings religious, philosophical and medicinal with strikingly similar parallels across diverse cultural and geographical divides, the world over. It is something we hear spoken of in our daily practices, see written about in yoga articles, and are vaguely aware that this is a key for accessing a deeper level in general asana and meditation practice. Yet, though most yogis know the word, I have often received a variety of different responses when asking people their thoughts on what exactly they think of as “Prana.”
Prana is difficult to define at the outset and nearly impossible to quantify without experiencing it, so we must excuse a bit of poetic license in resulting to similes at the beginning, as indeed the ancient sages did. It is similar to love, like the feeling we get in the pit of our stomach, butterflies and grins. It blossoms like a flower, flows as does water, and like sunlight which embraces all, is in itself whole, whilst growing, evolving and being content within the process.
Described repeatedly as one’s life-force, soul, or transcendental self, yet even this seems limited as Prana is also described as the life energy of the universe. While commonly likened with breath, Prana is sometimes erroneously defined as breath. This is, at the core, really a misnomer. It is subtly associated with the in-breath specifically, but as we look deeper into the texts, it is actually “vital life energy” that is referred to as being inhaled, circulated throughout the body and absorbed.
From Macrocosmic to Microcosm
The universe is expanding outward, swelling with cosmic, orgasmic energy.
Science finds that we are made up of masses of flowing energy molecules within a very narrow spectrum of physical manifestation. Outside of this spectrum, we would not recognize the physical form but only bundles of vibrating energy, part of a broader energy yet the same energy that makes up the planet we live on, our solar system, galaxy, and the universe it is in. Georg Feuerstein writes in The Yoga Tradition: “Some states of consciousness go beyond the body, and it is precisely these states that the yoga adepts seek to cultivate. Enlightenment or liberation itself is definitely a body-transcending condition. Here the entire universe becomes a ‘body’ for the liberated being.”
Early Vedic texts state that before all, before the universe as we perceive it, there was simply supra-consciousness and Prana, blissfully static in an embrace of symbiosis. Out of this union sprang forth conscious will, and with it the universe was created with Prana expanding outward in search of manifestation.
This balance of the subtle supra-consciousness and life energy is seen throughout the natural world as dichotomies of male and female, winter and summer, the phases of the moon, birth and death; this balance is further symbolised throughout human philosophy as light and dark, attachment and non-attachment, yin and yang. One cannot exist without the other, as in the simple balance of the two, one defines and gives meaning to the other.
Thusly, Prana permeates all things to varying levels of degree. However, Prana is not conscious, nor consciousness, it simply is. This reality is a continuum that we ourselves divide up into a multitude of discrete phenomena, and we do so by means of language. Our attempts at naming things in a way, reifies them, which has of course an immense practical value. However it can also become a handicap, setting up barriers that block understanding and stifle insight. Nevertheless, so long as we remember that words are not always identical to the reality they are meant to denote, they can be useful.
The Sanskrit word Prana is a combination of two syllables, ‘pra’ and ‘na’, which denotes constancy, a force in constant motion. Thus it assumes a quality of livingness, in which the entire cosmos is alive, throbbing with Prana. Prana exists in sentient beings as the energy that drives every action, voluntary and involuntary, every thought, every level of the mind and body. Scientific research describes Prana as a complex multidimensional energy: a combination of electrical, magnetic, electromagnetic, photonic, ocular, thermal, and mental energies.
Gary Zukav writes in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: “Quantum mechanics, for example, shows us that we are not as separate from the rest of the world as we once thought. Particle physics shows us that the ‘rest of the world’ does not sit idly ‘out there.’ It is a sparkling realm of continual creation, transformation, and annihilation.
The ideas of the new physics, when wholly grasped, can produce extraordinary experiences. The study of relativity theory, for example, can produce the remarkable experience that space and time are only mental constructions.”
At CERN scientific research institute in Switzerland, tests have been done on energy molecules in a controlled environment (quantum mechanics, double-slit experiments), which record that the reactions of protons and electrons are directly affected by nothing more than simple observation! This is showing that even the basic act of thinking about something can access and affect it.
The ancient yogis were very wise to have made so many insights into this, believing that the vibration of sound in the form of chants would help to access and provide a reminder, millennia before science and mathematics were able to prove it. Even now, when one takes the time to connect, as they had, with nature, being wholly undistracted by the whirlings of our thoughts, or the machinations of a modern society, then it is indeed easier to feel a connection where one is all, and all is simply one.
As populations grew, cultures expanded, and societies developed, it became necessary to write these chanted sound vibrations as a script, which could be accessed by a greater community. By so doing, we get a glimpse into the history of defining Prana, with regard to the different philosophies, traditions and varieties of references.
Insights to the Infinite
Composed between 4500-1500 B.C.E., the Vedic philosophy is comprised of hymnodies and rituals that originate back many generations into the earliest Proto-Indo-Europeans.
At the dawn of what we would call civilization, people lived in relative harmony with themselves and nature. They had what could be called a pre-egoic outlook on life, living in closer symbiosis with the natural world around them. Because the mind was ultimately undistracted by anything more than survival, the expressions of acknowledgment for these philosophical insights took the form of outward ritual. Most common in this time was the fire ritual. This is not surprising as most early civilizations had some form of fire and sun worship, recognizing the life-giving properties of sunshine on the natural world around them. The charting of seasonal shifts and the sun’s progression in relation to this has indeed been the basis of almost all modern religions, whose strikingly similar basic mythologies and even outright plagiarisms have undergone slow metamorphoses with time.
The early ritual of contained fire was a powerful elemental symbol of this.
Vedic fire rituals made especial note to the place of Prana in this most significant of rites, assigning it symbolically as the base of altars, or from whence the fire drew its power.
As language developed, a gradual interiorization of these external rites to inner/mental rites grew. Hymns were composed in appreciation of life, our bodies, and the earth we live on, the earliest compiled now known as the Rig-Veda, some of the oldest written literature in the history of humankind.
A poignant excerpt from the Rig-Veda, the Gayatri-mantra (3:62:11), also referred to as the Mother of the Vedas, states:
“Om tatsaviturvarenyam Bhargo devasya dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat”
Which can be translated as: “Om. We meditate on the divine light of that adorable Sun of spiritual consciousness. May it stimulate our power of spiritual perception.”
Throughout the Vedas it is said time and again, “Om is Nada; Gayatri is Prana.”
Some believe that the Gayatri mantra is directed towards the external sun, but ultimately it is directed towards the brilliance of the internal sun. The internal sun must shine so that the consciousness becomes enlightened.
The Atharva-Veda assign’s Prana an entire sukta (11:4) including statements: “Reverence to Prana, to whom all this universe is subject, on whom all is supported” and “Prana clothes the creatures… Prana, truly, is lord of all, of all that breathes, and does not breathe.” Also, harkening in reference to one’s life-force/transcendental self, “Prana, thou shalt not be other than myself, do bind to me, that I may live.”
As an ever-increasing population created a distance between the direct experience of accessing one’s own innate connection with the natural world, people sought out ways of understanding their roles in accordance with the common good of a greater community. The Upanishads attempted to organize the individual ceremonies in a more structured way.
In an expansion on the previous insights by the Vedas, the Kaushitaki-Upanishad includes a long discourse on the life force being identical with the absolute… “I am Prana, meditate on me as the conscious self, as life… life is Prana, Prana is life. What is Prana, that is Prajna (consciousness); what is Prajna, that is Prana…” (3.2,3)
Spanning several hundred years, the Upanishads and subsequent teachings eventually became more and more pedantic in their leanings, emphasising doctrine over individual insight. This lead to a break with traditional following of orthodox dictum, and around 500 B.C.E. a new philosophy of Buddhism emerged and grew.
The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha have a lot to say about the essence of transcendental reality, especially in states of meditative contemplation.
The philosophies of Buddhism believe it is the mental activity of each individual, whether expressed in action or not, that alone determines his or her future through the moral law of causation inherent in the universe. This could be understood as when one’s karma is in harmony with the greater universal energy Prana is abundant and enlightenment ensues. Buddhism stresses the dangers of disillusionment regarding the ego connection within the individual, especially the aspects of body, sensation, perception, mental activity, and consciousness, believing that these must be transcended in order to reach a unity with the absolute. It is telling that one of the most highly-regarded sutra’s attributed to the original teachings of Gautama Buddha, namely the “Heart Sutra,” gives particular reverence to Prajna. As we have seen from earlier Upanishadic doctrines, Prajna correlates to Prana.
One of the most sacred chants in Buddhism, the Prajnâ-pâramitâ, seems to express the stages of transcending perception:
“Om. Gate gate para-gate para-samgate bodhi svâhâ” translates as,
“Om. Gone, gone, gone beyond, fully gone beyond, enlightenment, svaha.”
At roughly the same time as Gautama was meditating under a bodhi fig tree, 2,500 miles away in China, Lao-Tzu was compiling and writing poetry of much older holistic philosophies, with which to address a population grown detached from their connection to an intrinsic divine.
Through current archeological evidence, we can see that Taoism has its roots based in early Neolithic Chinese matriarchal shamanism, which prescribed a balance between female and male roles to bring about an increase in transcendental energy and thusly a liberation through recognition of unity with nature.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu touched upon the same insights as the early Vedas, of a universal transcendental energy being the substance of all existence, a vast Oneness that precedes and generates the endlessly diverse forms of the world. Ultimately, the Tao Te Ching stresses, Tao lies beyond the power of language to describe, though the text employs a number of highly suggestive terms and similes to allude to it, poetry for the ineffable, as it were, that serve to suggest at least something of its nature and immensity. For, unknowable as the Tao may be in essence, one must learn to sense its presence and movement in order to bring one’s own life and movements into harmony with it. Lao-Tzu wrote:
“TAO is empty, its use never exhausted.
Bottomless, the origin of all things.
Deeply subsistent... It is older than the ancestor.”
“Something unformed and complete.
Before heaven and earth were born, pervading all things without limit,
the mother of all, better call it TAO.”
“The great TAO overflows.
All beings owe their life to it and do not depart from it. it acts without a name.
It clothes and nourishes all beings but does not become their master.
Enduring without desire, all beings return to it, but it does not become their master.
It may be called immense.
By not making itself great, it can do great things.”
As Buddhism started to inspire more and more people throughout India and abroad, a blend of much earlier mysticism and newer philosophy grew into a composite structure aimed at recognizing the balance of female and male energies in action. As with Taoism, Tantra too has its roots well-evident in much earlier pre-Vedic Indus-Valley ritualism.
In Tantra, we begin to see more insight to the way in which Prana flows and grows in the human body, tuning into energy fields of chakras, and harkening to references in Ayur-Veda of channels or “nadis.”
Tantric teachings contend that we have an “auric” or subtle body as well as a physical body. Normally the various life energies in the body generate a kind of subtle “field” or aura, which can be seen by sensitives. The aura changes colour and shape in resonance to the emotions and general physical condition, also contracting and expanding. These auras are energy vibrations given off by what are called chakras.
The pranic body is sustained by the chakras, or psychic centres, which are subtle yet high-powered, areas of energy in the body. Located along the spinal column, each chakra vibrates at a particular rate and velocity.
The different systems of yoga, especially hatha yoga, systematically purify, rebalance and awaken the chakras individually and also as a whole. When the chakras are properly prepared by such practices, the pranic level is higher and more stable, and there is little difficulty in awakening and experiencing the transmission of Prana.
Chakras are given their energy and resonance by channels of energy interweaving throughout the body. These energy channels are called “nadis” and are experienced as the rush of energy or intelligence into the different areas of the body when the mind/body connection is awakened. Out of the thousands of nadis in the body, three are the most important. These are ida, pingala, and sushumna. Starting from the base root, or “mooladhara” chakra, of the pranic body, they travel upwards toward the “ajna” chakra or centre of the mind/awareness in the pranic body. Sushumna travels straight up the spine and represents the spiritual channel. Coiling around this main channel are ida and pingala. This is yet another example of the polar balance between energies. As ida spirals to the left, it represents the mental channel. Pingala, spiralling to the right, represents the vital channel. Together they are the three main channels for the distribution of energy throughout the entire pranic network.
Where ida and pingala cross sushumna, a stronger energy centre is created which is manifested into the chakras. This can be more easily understood if we consider the visualizations of ida and pingala as rotating coils in three dimensions.
The conscious drawing of energy up these channels allows for subsequent states of enlightened perception culminating when the ajna centre is allowed to flow freely into sahasrara, or the seat of supreme consciousness located at the crown of the head. “Sahasrara is the totality, the absolute, the highest point of human evolution, which results from the merging of cosmic consciousness with cosmic Prana.”
The drawing up of Prana through these energy channels can be experienced through intensive introspection in deep states of meditation, visualizing the rising, cleansing, and balancing of the chakras in order. Yet in keeping with the important point of balance between the mind and body, there are also essential areas of the physical body which must be prepared and toned in order for the free-flowing benefits of an awakened pranic force to be experienced and controlled healthily. This is known as bandha.
Accessing the Subtle
In a recent full weekend of workshops with John Scott, a direct student of Gurujii Shri Pattabhi Jois and his Astanga yoga system, I witnessed some inspiring demonstrations of bandha’s use to channel Prana, the seemingly effortless grace in lifting from tittibhasana into full handstand, the smooth flow with the breath between urdhva dhanurasana into uttanasana and back repeatedly. These were not muscular accomplishments; on the contrary, when practicing this myself, I found that an inner focus and concentration on the movement of Prana took the weight out of the body, and similar actions became effortless.
Let us explore the subtle connection between bandha and using those connections to access the flow of Prana.
The word “bandha” means to “hold”, “valve”, or “lock”. These definitions describe the physical action involved in the bandha practices and their effect on the pranic body. Bandha redirects and stores Prana by acting as a valve to the flow of energy in certain areas of the body, thus forcing it to flow or accumulate in other areas.
During the practices, specific parts of the body are contracted. This action also massages, stimulates, and influences the muscles, organs, glands and nerves associated with that area. There are three bandhas: moola, uddiyana, and jalandhara. A fourth, maha bandha, is a combination of all three. These bandhas contract the regions of the pelvic floor, abdomen, and throat, respectively. When Prana is stimulated, one must have a means of forcing this energy up towards the higher centres. Therefore, one needs to create a pressure which will push the pranic energy up through the spinal cord. Bandhas create such a pressure. They control the flow of pranic energy, which in unconscious practice flows mostly outwards through the sense organs, and serve to redirect it upwards to the higher brain centres. Bandha is also a means to expand and increase the strength of the pranic field, which is concentrated around the chakras.
The Sanskrit word “moola” means “root”. In this context it refers to the root of the spine or the perineum where mooladhara chakra, the primal energy, is located. Moola bandha is effective in locating and awakening mooladhara chakra.
It is engaged through the contraction of certain muscles in the pelvic floor. It does not contract the whole perineum. In the male body the area of contraction lies between the anus and the testes. In the female body, the point of contraction is behind the cervix. On the subtle level it is the energising of mooladhara chakra. The perineal body, which is the convergence point of many muscles in the groin, acts as a trigger point for the location of mooladhara chakra. Moola bandha awakens the storehouse of pranic energy and sends it upwards along sushumna. When this is stirred, the whole central nervous system becomes active and charged with energy.
In Sanskrit, “jalandhara” can be broken down into several subtle definitions, all of which address the stimulation and flow of energies in the neck region.
Described as a throat contraction or lock, it is the easiest bandha to engage. By simply dropping the chin towards the chest and constricting the throat, it assists in engaging the flow of Prana into the higher chakra centres.
This bandha actively accesses the many major nerve fibres that pass through the neck, in addition to the thyroid and parathyroid glands, allowing the secretion of hormones throughout the body to balance and metabolize more productively.
The Sanskrit word “uddiyana” means ‘to rise up’ or ‘to fly upward’, this is because the physical lock applied to the body causes the diaphragm to rise towards the chest. Uddiyana is therefore often translated as the “stomach lift”. Another meaning is that the physical lock helps to direct Prana into sushumna nadi so that it flows upward to sahasrara chakra.
Uddiyana bandha must always be practiced on an empty stomach, and preferably empty bowels. Inhale through the nose slowly and deeply, then with a strong exhale through the mouth, engage a spontaneous jalandhara bandha where the chin drops towards the chest. Draw the abdominal muscles in and up on the end of the exhalation. When ready, slowly release the abdominal muscles, release jalandhara bandha, and allow the diaphragm to assist with a gentle inhalation through the nose.
Uddiyana bandha stimulates the solar plexus, which has many subtle influences on the distribution of energy throughout the body.
Uddiyana Bandha creates a suction pressure, directing the flow of Prana in an explosion of subtle force, which travels upward through sushumna nadi. The practice is considered the most powerful of all the bandhas and its beneficial effects are manifold. The active stimulation of internal organs and the subsequent “squeezing and soaking” of these, leads to a sense of increased vitality and a “slowing down” of the ageing process.
The Sanskrit word “maha” means “great”. Maha bandha is called the “great lock” as it combines all three bandhas in one practice.
There are many techniques for establishing a state of equilibrium and union between mind and body; the most effective is said to be the combination of these three bandhas.
Maha bandha is the culmination of asana, pranayama, mudra, and bandha. When one has achieved an internal focus on the drawing up of Prana through the different chakras and using bandha to channel that energy, then a state of perfect equanimity is induced, which unfolds into pratyahara, and a energetic lightness is felt both in the physical body and also the mind.
* It is essential to note that all texts stress the importance of performing these practices only under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Bandhas can raise energy very quickly, and may not be appropriate for some people, especially depending on certain health conditions and general mind/body awareness.
What amazing beings we are, to be able to reason, communicate, be mobile, create, feel and evolve… everyone has this in them; it is the nature of life.
If our brains are like powerful organic electromagnets, then our thoughts, daydreams, fears, and ideas are all radiating energy out into the universe like radios.
When we recognize or perceive this, then the energy of our spirit is part of and in symbiosis with the energy of the planet and the universe, and we reach a sense that our thoughts and actions have a direct effect on our lives and the life around us.
As our thoughts are energy vibrations and they have been proven to affect the flow of energy around us, then what we think and what we feel, we are actually creating, even as we picture it. The thought, the feeling, is the creation, which we don’t seem to perceive immediately on the physical spectrum. However, we do, because the energy wants to be created, we live in a physical reality, so that energy seeks out ways of manifesting into a physical aspect.
Perceiving life with a spirit of biocentrism, while recognizing the uniqueness, beauty and power of our individual selves, brings those elements of Prana to us in abundance because growing and evolving is life, and this planet is all about growth and life.
We can’t control our every thought, and life gives us lessons to help us evolve. I think the point is to just love, be loved, and radiate love, in all we do.
Then we truly are nature, and also, nature’s children.