We breathe in air. If we dont, we would die. Fact. So breathing and breath is important. Critical really.
Yoga isn’t just about postures (AKA asanas). It also includes breathing practices. These are called Pranayama. Prana means life force. Yama means extension. The breathing practices are about extending the life force within you. Prana is not only ‘life force’ it is vital energy. It is all around us, in everything, as well as within the air we breathe.
While prana is usually translated as ‘breath’, according to many texts and gurus, this is only of its many manifestations in the human body. All functions of the body are performed by five types of vital energy known as prana vayus. Iyengar says that although these are five types, they are specific aspects of one vital cosmic force or ‘wind’ which is the primeval principle of existence.
The five types of prana are; prana, apana, samana, udana, and vyana.
Prana moves in the thoracic region and controls breathing. It absorbs vital atmospheric energy. Apana moves in the lower abdomen and controls the elimination of urine, faeces and semen. Samana stokes the gastric fires aiding digestion and maintaining the harmonious functioning of the abdominal organs. It integrates the whole of the human gross body. Udana, working through the throat (the pharynx and the larynx), controls the vocal chords and the intake of air and food. Vyana pervades the entire body, distributing energy derived from food and breath through the arteries, veins and nerves.
There are five subsidiary vayus known as upapranas or upavayus, these are Naga (which is manifest in belching), Kurma (which controls the movements of the eye-lids, and the size of the irises), and Krkara which prevents substances passing up the nasal passages or down the throat, by encouraging sneezing or coughing. Devadatta causes yawning and induces sleep. Dhanarhjaya produces phlegm, nourishes and remains in the body even after death.
By practicing pranayama (the breathing exercises), we are bringing prana (vital energy) into our bodies. The prana vayus (energy winds) work like this: Prana brings in the energy, samana converts the energy for use in the body, vyana circulates this energy to all parts of the body, apana eliminates any waste and udana provides base and positive energy”.
The Yoga Sutra describes the flow of prana as water which is channelled and dyked in a farmers field, where the farmer works to move the channel of water to various parts of the field (Yoga Sutra, 4.3). Desikachar (Heart of Yoga) and Iyengar (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) refer to this metaphor as an apt description of prana following the breath, flowing by itself into the cleared spaces, cleared by asana and pranayama and other yoga practices.
A very english yogi is if anything a man who likes to balance mysticism with science, intuition with practicalities. My take on the energy that is prana – is this. Science tells us that in the air are molecules. Air itself is made up of mostly oxygen and nitrogen with smaller amounts of other molecules. All molecules, including oxygen and nitrogen are made up of atoms. Within atoms there are electrons, neutrons, protons and a nucleus. Quantum physics suggests that as you go deeper and deeper into the workings of an atom, the result is that there is nothing there – just energy waves. The suggestion is that an atom can be typified as an energy field, which emits waves of electrical energy. As the universe is completely composed of atoms, including you and I, it is conceivable that the prana of the yogis was in effect the working of atoms that we breath in, and use. It’s certainly a compelling connection, and food for thought.
One of the facets of yoga that I am continuously drawn to, and which I draw on in my teaching practice is the growing science and evidence base that is showing how yoga practices can help people, from a health, psychological or philosophical perspective. An example of this is that there is now significant research evidence that certain asana practices can help people with various health problems, such as chronic lower back pain, and that pranayama practices can assist people with respiratory problems such as asthma. Furthermore, there is a strong research evidence base that meditation practices can reduce many health problems such as anxiety and depression and can help people feel in control of their lives, helping with self-esteem, focus and concentration. Coupled with this growing research evidence base, there is also, in parallel a significantly growing knowledge base arising from quantum physics, biology and other sciences which suggests that our understanding of the world and phenomena are changing rapidly. I referred to the recognition that quantum physics has identified that molecules are effectively now seen as entities of energy. While there appears to be no evidence to suggest that atoms within molecules are the modern day equivalent of prana, there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that this may be so.
You can do no better than starting by simply observing your breath. Inhale and exhale through your nostrils, keep you mouth closed. For each inhale/exhale consider this is one cycle. Try this to a count of 10 cycles. Don’t judge, just observe. How is it? What is creating or affecting its rhythm? How do you feel after simply focusing on your breath? Did your monkey mind leap from one thought to another or were you able to get to the 10th cycle just keeping a focus on your breath? Give it a go. Let me and others know how it went – or what you think of my ideas about atoms and prana – I’d love to learn what you think!