Prana: the Universal Life Force

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Zinal, Switzerland, September 1981

In the physical body we have two types of energies. One is known as prana and the other is known as mind or consciousness. That means, in every organ of the body there should be two channels supplying energy. Modern physiology describes two types of nervous systems - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, and these two nervous systems are interconnected in each and every organ of the body. In the same way, every organ is supplied with the energy of prana and the energy of mind.

In yoga, the concept of prana is very scientific. When we speak of prana, we do not mean the breath, air or oxygen. Precisely and scientifically speaking, prana means the original life force.

Prana is a Sanskrit word constructed of the syllables pra and an. 'An' means movement and 'pra' is a prefix meaning constant. Therefore, prana means constant motion. This constant motion commences in the human being as soon as he is conceived in his mother's womb. Prana is therefore a type of energy responsible for the body's life, heat and maintenance.

Nadis, chakras and the distribution of prana

According to yoga, tantra and the science of kundalini, prana is supposed to originate in pingala nadi. Within the framework of the spinal cord, there are three channels known as nadis in yoga. One is called ida, another is pingala and the third is sushumna. Ida nadi represents the mental energy, pingala represents prana or pranic energy and sushumna represents spirit or spiritual awareness. These three nadis originate in mooladhara chakra, which is situated at the perineum or cervix. Pingala nadi flows to the right from mooladhara and continues to cross ida at each chakra all the way up to ajna.

There are six chakras through which pingala nadi passes. The first one is mooladhara chakra from which it originates. The second is swadhisthana where the nadi crosses to the left. The third is manipura chakra where the nadi crosses to the right. And the fourth is anahata where the nadi crosses to the left. The fifth is vishuddhi where the nadi crosses to the right and the sixth is ajna where the nadi terminates from the right. Similarly, ida nadi also crosses at each chakra but in the reverse order. Every sincere yoga aspirant should have a clear understanding of the pathway of these three major nadis.

Pingala nadi is the distributing channel for prana in the body, and from each chakra the pranas are disseminated to every organ of the body. From swadhisthana the pranic energy is distributed to the genito-urinary system. Manipura chakra supplies prana to the digestive system and anahata supplies the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. From vishuddhi, distribution takes place to the ears, eyes, nose and throat, and ajna chakra is the distributor of energy through which man's brain is fed.

The fuel of life

Prana is not merely a philosophical concept; it is in every sense a physical substance. Just as radioactive or electromagnetic waves exist even though we can't see them, in the same way, in this physical body, there are pranic waves and a pranic field. Now, each of us has a certain quantity of prana in our physical body and we utilize this in the course of our day to day activities throughout life. When our prana diminishes, sickness sets in, and when we have plenty of prana, every part of the body is in perfect health. If we have an excess of prana, it can be transmitted to others for healing or magnetism.

The inner prana can be stimulated by the practice of pranayama and thereby increased to a greater quantum. The brain requires maximum prana, and for the practice of meditation, it needs an increased supply. It is for this reason that we practise pranayama before commencing our meditation practice. If we are not able to supply plenty of pranic fuel to the brain, the mind becomes very restless and disturbed.

When the brain is receiving a deficient supply of prana, you suffer from nervous depression or nervous breakdown. Then the whole body perspires, there is trembling in every organ, you can't stand, your mind is unsteady and you are constantly thinking negative thoughts. You can't even sleep and you don't want to talk or think. This state indicates that the brain is only receiving a very small quantity of prana.

Increasing prana

You should not think that just by practising a little pranayama you are sending a lot of prana to the brain. The process of supply and assimilation of prana into the brain is very complicated. The brain is a subtle instrument and it can only be enriched by the subtle form of prana and not the gross form. Therefore, when you practise pranayama, you will have to convert the prana into a subtle force.

Deep breathing alone is not enough to stimulate prana. By breathing deeply, you stimulate your respiratory system and the blood circulation, but if you could examine the brain at that time, you would see that it is least affected. However, when you practise pranayama with concentration, as shown by scientific studies, the brainwaves undergo a significant change and the limbic system is also positively influenced.

Conscious and unconscious breathing

The brain can be split into two parts - the frontal brain and the posterior brain. The posterior brain is the instinctive brain which we have inherited through animal incarnations. The frontal brain is the seat of total consciousness. When you breathe without awareness, the breath is registered in the posterior brain, but when you are aware that you are breathing and you are consciously witnessing the whole process, then it is registered by the conscious brain, the frontal brain.

This difference seems to be very simple, but its effect is very great. Throughout life, you breathe unconsciously, just like animals, children and most other people do, excepting for the few who have started practising yoga. Now, in every case, the pranic flow is being registered in the posterior brain as if in a computer. The moment you become aware of your breathing and you begin to conduct and control the breath in a particular fashion, immediately the frontal brain registers the influence. This fact has been revealed by scientific experiments and has led us to the following conclusion. Conscious breathing has an entirely different effect on the brain than unconscious breathing. Through unconscious breathing we are definitely able to feed the whole body with prana, but we cannot supply the brain with sufficient prana for its evolution and growth.

Conducting prana to the brain

In order to alleviate sicknesses of the brain, in order to develop the latent capacities of the, brain or to initiate evolution of the brain, we cannot just depend on the way we have been breathing in the past. This is precisely the reason why the different forms of pranayama are practised.

When you practise pranayama, the pranas are stimulated in the lower region of the body, but you must have a means of forcing the pranic energy up. Somehow, you have to create a negative force which will push the pranic energy up through the spinal cord. For this reason pranayama should be practised in coordination with specific bandhas. The three bandhas which are incorporated into the practice of pranayama are jalandhara bandha, uddiyana bandha and moola bandha. They create a negative force like the ejecting force used to extract water from a well. There are two forces used for pumping water - the sucking force and the ejecting force. When we practise pranayama with the bandhas, we put an ejecting force into action.

So, through pranayama you generate prana in the lower region of the body, then in order to conduct it up to the brain you must first practise moola bandha, then uddiyana bandha and finally jalandhara bandha. Moola bandha is contraction of the perineum, uddiyana bandha is contraction of the abdominal muscles and jalandhara bandha is the locking of the chin against the sternum. Prana is then conducted to the brain with the help of the subtle circulatory system.

The network of vessels through which the blood circulates is not just an arrangement of hollow tubes. It is a generator and distributor of prana as well. These vessels become charged and polarized as the bloodstream circulates throughout the body. It is as though the whole arterial and venous circulatory trees become magnetized. The flow of blood through the vessels generates a bio-magnetic force just as a forceful flow of water is used to generate hydro electricity. This is how prana shakti is able to permeate and enliven even the most distant cells and tissues of the body.

Under normal conditions a certain quantum of prana is circulating, and this is responsible for our present level of health. However, the importance of pranayama is to enable us to consciously generate a higher voltage of prana and this greater quantum of prana can then be directed into the higher centres of the brain, via the cerebral blood vessels and the cerebrospinal fluid circulating and irrigating the brain's sleeping centres. In this way, pranayama brings a higher reality, experience and dimension to its practitioner. It boosts the level of consciousness by activating and awakening the dormant centres and capacities of the left and right hemispheres of the evolving brain.

Now, another means of conducting prana to the frontal portion of the brain is by the practice of shambhavi mudra. Shambhavi mudra is centralizing the pupils of the eyes at the point between the two eyebrows. This practice is also known as mid-eyebrow centre gazing. When you practise shambhavi mudra, the pranas are sucked up by force to irrigate the frontal area of the brain.

Rejuvenation of the brain

In order to charge the brain with sufficient prana, you will have to practise pranayama very systematically. Pranayama is not just a matter of breathing in and breathing out in a particular way. Kumbhaka, retention of breath, is the actual definition of pranayama. Inhalation and exhalation are just a process. In all the ancient yoga texts, kumbhaka has been highly praised, and today scientists are acknowledging what the texts have claimed.

Retention of breath is done at two points. Firstly, when you have filled your lungs, you hold the breath inside, and secondly, when you empty your lungs, you hold the breath outside. Both forms of kumbhaka are important and they are so powerful that they can completely rejuvenate the whole brain.

Prana vidya

In order to develop prana shakti, certain practices have been formulated in many parts of the world. In India, our ancestors developed the science of prana which we call prana vidya. This is a very ancient and effective science which is still practised in India today.

Some people are born with excess prana, and they are able to transmit that prana out of the body to other people. Although you may not have sufficient prana to be able to do this, you can definitely awaken your own prana and conduct it to any part of the body that requires it. Wherever sickness occurs in the body, there is a deficiency of prana. If you can supply more prana to that part of the body, the process of healing becomes quicker.

I will describe one practice of prana vidya which is not very difficult. While practising pranayama, visualize pingala nadi within the spinal cord. As you inhale, follow the structure of pingala and feel the prana traversing every chakra and finally merging in ajna chakra. In the same way, feel the prana descending within pingala nadi. The colour of pingala is red. So as you inhale and exhale, imagine breathing along a red path. At the end of each inhalation, practise kumbhaka at ajna chakra.

In order to practise this ascending and descending of prana, you have to perfect ujjayi pranayama. Practise sending prana up and down the spinal cord through pingala nadi 40 times. Then start distributing prana from ajna chakra with exhalation. You can send it to any part of the body you choose. If there is a problem with your fingers or your feet or any other part of the body, start sending prana there from ajna chakra. Either with the help of the breath or with the help of your mind, try to push your prana to the affected part of the body. Before long, you will find that healing is taking place.

Uniting with the universal prana

Prana is not only the life force, it is also a very powerful healing force in the body that can even eradicate the most difficult physical problems. Moreover, the prana within us is a part of the universal prana. I am not talking about positive and negative ions now, I am speaking of a metaphysical substance. This is called universal prana and your prana is a part of that. If you can unite yourself with the universal prana, you can draw the required amount of prana whenever you need.

In order to tune yourself to this universal prana, you must be able to reach a high state of meditation. When you control the breath, the mind is also controlled and the awareness becomes one-pointed. That one-pointed awareness is comprehended in the mid-eyebrow centre where the point is seen as a light. The light grows in intensity and becomes bigger and bigger until it completely envelops your consciousness. Then there is illumination all around you, and at this point you can connect yourself with the universal prana.

It is very difficult for us to attune ourselves to the universal prana because our awareness is very limited. Most of us only know about deep breathing, and we think that by breathing deeply fifty to a hundred times, we will get more and more shakti. Of course we do, but we need a finer form of prana shakti which can be used for awakening the brain.

Throughout your body there is a pranic field which is known as pranamaya kosha. You must know how to tune this pranamaya kosha with the universal prana. Your pranamaya kosha can be awakened by practising pranayama correctly, by fasting or eating properly, and by perfecting meditation on the mid-eyebrow centre. Then, when you are able to see that great enveloping light, you become the medium of the universal prana. Thereafter, you can distribute this prana to those who are in short supply.