The Samkhya lists 5 pranas which in essence form the ingredient for the alchemical process of pranayama. On the 8-fold or ashtanga path of Raja Yoga, pranayama ranks after asana, niyama and yama. There is a good reason why our mental and physical bodies must be readied to hold the energies of pranayama.
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
Pranayama is such a vital part of our spiritual ascension that it is often described as more important than asanas. Yet, unless the body is ready, it can be difficult for the practice of pranayama to bear fruits. Personally, I am of this view. In my own experience, the yama, niyama, and asana that precedes pranayama on the 8-fold or ashtanga path of Raja Yoga are super important. But it is the practice of pranayama after the body and mental attitudes have been readied that has brought me to spaces in the mind that are necessary but not easily available. It’s like doors won’t reveal themselves until you are found ready.
There are realms that we must transcend, transform, and transmute to make progress and we can’t do that unless we have the right vehicle which is the mind. Once we have the body up to an optimum then our focus needs to shift away from asanas which is no longer the main vehicle to get us where we need to go on our path but rather the mind. A healthy and fit body is still necessary but to control the energies associated with the mind is really where pranayama comes into its own.
Let’s consider these questions and we will see a common link. What is consciousness? Prana. What is the building block behind the body and mind? Prana. What is the link between yoga and health? Prana. What is the basic substance without which we have no life? Prana. What holds the entire universe together? Prana. Therefore it is quite obvious that the ability to control prana means we can become the master of our universe both within and without.
What is prana
The Samkhya describes prana as more than our breath and certainly more than just a 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 we seek.
Where does it arise from
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 is awareness and from this energy of consciousnes 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.
What are the 5 pranas
The 5 pranas or vayus are really different aspects of the one primary prana or life force that sustains us. They are categorized as 5 different ‘pranas’ due to their role in the movement of processes in the body. It makes it easier to see how different functions in the body are aided or blocked.
a) Prana or the forward moving air and provides the positive energy for the other pranas. It governs digestion and inhalation.
b) Apana is the air which moves downwards and out. It governs elimination and reproduction.
c) Udana is the upward moving air and it governs speech but more than that, growth of our body, ability to stand, effort, enthusiasm and will.
d) Samana is the balancing air or vital energy in the navel. It has a role to play in digestion and absorption of oxygen in the lungs.
e) Vyana is the outward moving air and moves food, water and oxygen throughout the body, emotions and thoughts in the heart and mind.
What’s in it for me
The most important takeover from this would be to encourage you to take your yoga practice to the next level by paying careful attention to your pranayama. There is good reason why learning to breathe properly is so important that we always begin by teaching our students the yogic breath – to breathe with the abdomen. We place a small soft toy on their belly while they are in savasanna and ask them to feel its rise and fall.
When we chant AUM, we teach them to start with the breath for A in the navel, U in the mid-chest, and M in the throat and then finally let the vibration sing in the head. Why? Because we want them to learn how to entice the energy to move upwards.
If you are ready and your teacher knows it, she will take you further along the path and teach you how to do the microcosmic orbit, where you circulate the prana or energy up your spine and down your front and repeat the process again with certain mudras in place. Why? To teach you to be sensitive to the movement of the different pranas so that you can consciously control these energies. In a sense, you could say to make something grow or change you need to be able to change its fundamental substance. For us, that would be prana.
~ ॐ ~