“All that exists in the three heavens rests in the control of Prana. As a mother her children, oh Prana, protect us and give us splendor and wisdom.”
PRASHNA UPANISHAD II.13
In nature prana is seen and felt as one but yoga divides it into 5 sub-types depending on its movement in our body. We didn’t really understand this till we encountered Tantra. Each of the 5 sub-types has a role to play in the alchemical process of pranayama. On the 8-limb or ashtanga path of Raja Yoga, there is good reason why pranayama ranks after asana, niyama and yama. This is to ensure our mental and physical bodies are capable of transmuting and holding the energies necessary for the more meditative, last 4 stages of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Prana is the thread that runs through all 8 stages and beyond. It is the essential ingredient in spiritual alchemy.
Prana’s vital role
Pranayama is such a vital part of our spiritual ascension that it is often described as the most important component for enlightenment. Yet, unless the body and mind are ready, it can be difficult for the practice of pranayama to bear significant spiritual fruit unless our life is supported by a strong foundation of yama, niyama, and asana. It’s like you can’t put new wine into an old skin bag which would surely burst as the wine matures and gases develop. Because the bag is already old, it has lost its elasticity unlike with a new skin bag.
That and the fact that there are realms within us that we can access only if we do the necessary inner work. It’s like our inner teacher won’t permit it unless we have the right vehicle of both body and mind. The stakes increase as we go further along towards pratyahara. This is by way the toughest mid-stage of the 8-limb path. Progress in pratyahara is really determined by the quality of our foundation. It will then become a natural progression for us to withdraw as our subtle bodies are increasingly refined. The world begins to lose its hold on us through the senses. Instead we get our fulfilment and satisfaction from something that’s deeper and more abiding as we grow in awareness of the divine’s eternal loving presence.
The secret of secrets
Prana is more than breath and more than just the life force. It is the original creative power of the universe. It is the energy of pure consciousness. It is that which high adepts manipulate to produce objects seemingly from thin air or be in two places at the same time. Closer to home, it is the kundalini or yogic fire that we are all born with and which lies dormant for most of us through our life until it awakens at death taking with it all the outstanding samskaras to the next incarnation.
Most of us don’t realise the absolute power that prana has. Everything that we are is prana. What is consciousness? Prana. What is behind the body and mind? Prana. What is the link between yoga and wellbeing? Prana. What is the basic substance without which we have no life? Prana. What holds the entire universe together? Prana. According to the Samkhya Samhita, we can become the master of our universe both within and without once we realise how to work with prana and therefore shakti, the creative life force. This is the secret of all secrets beyond prana and pranayama. It is Tantra.
We may have started with Raja Yoga on our yogic path but over time it has evolved into a form of MahaYoga with the combined practice of Raja, Bhakti, Karma and Jnana together with elements of Tantra and Kriya Yoga. We didn’t think it would evolve in this manner but it is thanks to our good fortune meeting the right teachers at the right time. Everything we do in our yoga sadhana is remains centred on how to work with prana.
Origin of prana
We learn from the Samkhya that prana comes from the gunas as well as the Prakriti or active force of nature as well as from Purusha. In plain English, it means first there was awareness and from this energy of consciousness, or awareness, arises the manifested. In plainer English, it means everything began as an idea which you then feed with energy to bring it to fruition. Just like the creative act of producing a painting or craftwork, all of creation follows this template.
The 5 sub-types of prana or vayus
1.Udana is the upward moving air that dwells in the throat and head region. It is through udana that one can produce sound that becomes speech, music or humming. It has an additional influence over growth of the body, ability to stand, our effort, enthusiasm and will. It helps the aspirant in mantra japa (recitation).
2. Prana is the primary life breath and operates in the heart and lungs. It is in the air constantly moving in and out of our nostrils and provides the positive energy for the other pranas. It helps in swallowing and the movement of food down to the stomach. It creates rhythmic breathing in mantra japa bringing about a state of tranquility.
3. Samana resides in the region between heart and navel. It is the balancing air or vital energy in the navel that influences digestion with the help of digestive juices. It cooks the food and separates the nutrients from waste matter.
4. Apana dwells between navel and rectum and it is the air which moves downwards and out discharging waste material from our system. It governs elimination and reproduction. It’s role in the ascension of the kundalini makes it more important than udana and vyana. This is why your guru might advise that you arise 2 hours before dawn to ensure good bowel movement before you sit for meditation. Ideally, you don’t want apana going up where it doesn’t belong. The hours before dawn and dusk are most conducive for the movement of apana to perform at its best.
5. Vyana dwells in the whole body and is continuously circulating throughout the body through the blood vessels. It is the most important and universal of the 5 pranas because it regulates the 3 most basic systems of the body – circulatory, lymphatic and nervous system. It is the outward moving air and moves food, water and oxygen throughout the body, emotions and thoughts in the heart and mind. It aids in our asanas and withdrawal of the sense in pratyahara.
What does all this mean for aspiring yogis? It is what we do with the prana during pranayama and meditation. More than just techniques, it is the aim of the yoga sadhana. To be able to have sufficient control in order to shape the ultimate vehicle to take us to the ultimate goal of self-realisation. How to do that? Tantra has part of the answer. The 4 yogas have the other. It is now your job to go find the answer for yourself and to experience it.
Nadibhedam tatha pranatattva bhedam tathaiv cha
sushumna mishra bhedam cha yo janati sa-muktigah
One who knows the secrets of the nadis (their operation and effect), of prana, and of
sushumna gets liberated from the cycle of life and death, being totally enlightened.