What is prana?

As is the case with many other terms, prana can

have several meanings depending on context. For example some

yogic scriptures instruct you to draw the prana in through the left

nostril and expel it through the right and vice versa. Here, prana

simply means breath.

More often we come across passages that advise us not to let the

prana enter the head, or consciously push it into the arms to gain

strength or direct it into areas of the body that harbour disease. Very

common is also the scriptural advice to move prana into the central

energy channel (sushumna), which, once achieved, produces the

mystical state. In all of these instances prana obviously does not

mean breath but ‘life force’. Breath is the gross expression of the

subtle life force.

In its cosmic form prana is also the manifestation of the Great

Goddess and is then frequently described in a personalised form –

it may be called Shakti when thought of as descending, or Kundalini

when thought of as ascending. Again these two terms are often

interchangeable depending on context.

The Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad identifies prana with the Brahman

(infinite consciousness / deep reality) (Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad III.9.9).

The same is said in the Brahma Sutra (Brahma Sutra I.5). How can the Brahman, which is pure, infinite consciousness,

be the same as the subtle life force, which, although permeating and

moving this entire universe, is still a far cry from pure conscious-

ness? The answer we find in the shanti mantra ‘Sham no mitra’ of

the Taittiriya Upanishad.

In this invocation we find the important passage ‘Namo brah-

mane namaste vayo tvameva pratyaksham bhrahmasi tvameva

pratyaksham brahma vadishyami’, which means ‘I salute you oh

Brahman, I salute you, oh Prana. For you, Prana, are indeed the

directly perceptible Brahman. You alone I shall call the directly

perceptible Brahman.’

The understanding of this passage is very important. The Brahman

is the transcendent aspect of God. Transcendent aspect means it is

not directly perceptible (other than through an act of grace). But it

can be recognised by its immanent aspect, in our case the prana. In

this shanti mantra the prana is called the immanent aspect of Brahman.

The philosophy according to which God is at the same time both

immanent and transcendent is called panentheism. Panentheistic

thought is present in all major religions. In Christianity, for example,

the Father is God transcendent and both Jesus and the Holy Spirit

are God immanent. Interestingly enough, spirit is the translation of

the original pneuma in the Greek New Testament. The term pneuma

derives from the Sanskrit prana and, even in the English inspiration,

the connotation of inhalation and thus breath is still present.

  1. Krishnamacharya also linked prana to consciousness. He ex-

plained that in the waking state prana is projected out to both body

and mind (T. Krishnamacharya, Yoga Makaranda, p. 44). In the dream state it is withdrawn from the body and

extends only out to the mind. In the deep-sleep state, however, prana

is withdrawn from both body and mind and abides in conscious-

ness. That is why dreaming is not truly restful and not really

conducive to health.

It also explains the existence of proverbs in some languages that

say in sleep one goes home to God or in sleep one does not sin. It is

reflective of the fact that prana is absorbed into our spiritual nature

and absolutely no activity is present.

Some scriptural passages identify prana as the prakrti (nature,

material cause) of the Samkhya philosophy, and in this case we simply

look at the cosmic impersonal manifestation of what expresses itself

in the individual as breath and life force. The Shatapatha Brahmana

describes prana as the elixir of immortality (amrita) (Shatapatha Brahmana X.2.6.18)

Amrita more often than not denotes a drug derived from a creeper, but in yoga the

amrita is the reservoir of prana in the centre of the brain, the area of

the third ventricle. When the prana is arrested there, immortality is

gained. This immortality, however, does not necessarily refer to

physical immortality, some schools interpreting it as the realization

of divine consciousness.

Other textual passages say that prana and apana need to be united

in the navel chakra (Manipura). In such contexts, prana refers to only

one of the ten vital airs (vayus) that in themselves are subdivisions

of the broader life force, prana. Prana has two storehouses in the

body, a lunar, mental storehouse in the centre of the brain (Ajna

Chakra) and a solar/physical storehouse in the area of the navel

(Manipura Chakra). Manipura Chakra is also the seat of fire (agni), and

this is why some texts suggest raising Kundalini with fire and air

(prana), but more about that later.

Some older texts also use the term vayu instead of prana (as the

Taittiriya Upanishad above). In this book, if prana is used with the

meaning of life force it will stand by itself. If it is used to denote the

vital up-breath prana vayu, a subdivision of the life-force prana, then

the compound prana vayu is used instead of the simple prana.

The term prana Shakti is also frequently used to denote the efferent

(outgoing) function of the nadi system, i.e. the ability of individuals

to actively express themselves through the body, such as moving it

in space and making it perform actions. Prana Shakti is thought of

as working through the right nostril, and breathing methods that

primarily utilise the right nostril therefore make one extraverted and

active. Opposed to that is manas Shakti, the collective term for afferent

(incoming) nadi signals, which are activated through the left nostril.

Breathing through the left nostril makes one more inactive, intro-

verted and reflective, this being a function of manas Shakti rather

than prana Shakti.

This is covered in more detail in the chapter on nadi balance.

To those who reduce the term prana to merely mean ‘breath’

Swami Ramdev declares that it is not only breath but also invisible

divine energy ( Swami Ramdev, Pranayama Rahasya, Divya Yog Mandir Trust, Hardwar,

2009, p. 15).

Summarizing, prana is thus the body and actions of the Great

Goddess, with which she causes, produces, maintains and destroys

not only the entire world of manifestation but also each and every

individual by means of breath. The downward-moving process of

manifestation of individuals (Shakti) and the upward-surging

process of their spiritual emancipation (Kundalini) are the two

directional manifestations of prana. Prana is the God immanent that

permeates and sustains this entire universe and all beings. Addition-

ally the term prana is used to denote the vital upward current on the

one hand and the efferent (outgoing) currents of the nadi system on

the other. When trying to understand the significance of the term

prana one therefore needs to cast one’s net as widely as possible to

include all of these possible meanings; otherwise certain textual

passages will remain opaque.

This is an excerpt from my book “Pranayama the Breath of Yoga”

© Gregor Maehle 2011

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle began his practice of Raja Yoga in 1978 and added Hatha Yoga a few years later. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
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