Secrets of the
By David Frawley
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.
To change something we must alter the
energy which creates it. This fact is true in the practice of Yoga. To
bring about positive changes in body and mind we must understand the
energy through which they work. This is called Prana in Sanskrit,
meaning primary energy. It is sometimes translated as breath or vital
force, though it is more than these.
While the subject of Prana is common in
Yogic thought and while different forms of Prana may be introduced, the
subject of Prana and its different subtypes is seldom examined in depth.
For this reason the entire science of Prana, which is vast and profound,
is rarely understood. In this article we will look into this vast
subject, that we might be awakened to the great expanse of Prana in all
of its manifestations.
There is an old Vedic story about Prana
that we find in various Upanishads. The five main faculties of our
nature - the mind, breath (prana), speech, ear and eye - were arguing
with each other as to which one of them was the best and most important.
This reflects the ordinary human state in which our faculties are not
integrated but fight with each other, competing for their rule over our
attention. To resolve this dispute they decided that each would leave
the body and see whose absence was most missed.
First speech left the body but the body
continued though mute. Next the eye left but the body continued though
blind. Next the ear left but the body continued though deaf. Mind left
but the body continued though unconscious. Finally the Prana began to
leave and the body began to die and all the other faculties began to
lose their energy. So all they all rushed to Prana and told it to stay,
lauding its supremacy. Clearly Prana won the argument. Prana gives
energy to all our faculties, without which they cannot function. Without
honoring Prana first there is nothing else we can do and no energy with
which to do anything. The moral of this story is that to control our
faculties the key is the control of Prana.
Prana has many levels of meaning from
the breath to the energy of consciousness itself. Prana is not only the
basic life-force, it is the master form of all energy working on the
level of mind, life and body. Indeed the entire universe is a
manifestation of Prana, which is the original creative power. Even
Kundalini Shakti, the serpent power or inner power that transforms
consciousness, develops from the awakened Prana.
On a cosmic level there are two basic
aspects of Prana. The first is the unmanifest aspect of Prana, which is
the energy of Pure Consciousness that transcends all creation. The
second or manifest Prana is the force of creation itself. Prana arises
from the quality (guna) of rajas, the active force of Nature (Prakriti).
Nature herself consists of three gunas: sattva or harmony, which gives
rise to the mind, rajas or movement, which gives rise to the prana, and
tamas or inertia that gives rise to the body.
Indeed it could be argued that
or Nature is primarily Prana or rajas. Nature is an active energy or Shakti. According to the pull or attraction of the higher Self or pure
consciousness (Purusha) this energy becomes sattvic. By the inertia of
ignorance this energy becomes tamasic.
However even the Purusha or higher Self
can be said to be unmanifest Prana because it is a form of energy of
consciousness (Devatma Shakti or Citi Shakti). From the unmanifest Prana
of Pure Awareness comes the manifest Prana of creation, through which
the entire universe comes into being.
Relative to our physical existence,
Prana or vital energy is a modification of the air element, primarily
the oxygen we breathe that allows us to live. Yet as air originates in
ether or space, Prana arises in space and remains closely connected to
it. Wherever we create space there energy or Prana must arise
The element of air relates to the sense
of touch in the Yogic system. Air on a subtle level is touch. Through
touch we feel alive and can transmit our life-force to others. Yet as
air arises in space, so does touch arises from sound, which is the sense
quality that corresponds to the element of ether. Through sound we
awaken and feel our broader connections with life as a whole. On a
subtle level Prana arises from the touch and sound qualities that are
inherent in consciousness. In fact Prana has its own sheath or body.
The human being consists of five koshas
- Annamaya kosha - food - physical -
the five elements
- Pranamaya kosha - breath -
vital - the five pranas
- Manomaya kosha - impressions -
outer mind - the five kinds of sensory impressions
- Vijnanamaya kosha - ideas -
intelligence - directed mental activity
- Anandamaya kosha - experiences -
deeper mind - memory, subliminal and superconscious mind
The Pranamaya Kosha is the sphere of
our vital life energies. This sheath mediates between the body on one
side and the three sheaths of the mind (outer mind, intelligence and
inner mind) on the other and has an action on both levels. It meditates
between the five gross elements and the five sensory impressions.
The best English term for the Pranamaya
kosha is probably the "vital sheath" or "vital body," to use a term from
Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga. Pranamaya kosha consists of our vital
urges of survival, reproduction, movement and self-expression, being
mainly connected to the five motor organs (excretory, urino-genital,
feet, hands, and vocal organ).
Most of us are dominated by the vital
body and its deep-seated urges that are necessary for us to remain
alive. It is also the home of the vital or subconscious ego which holds
the various fears, desires and attachments which afflict us. We most of
our spend our time in life seeking enjoyment through the vital in the
form of sensory enjoyment and acquisition of material objects.
A person with a strong vital nature
becomes prominent in life and is able to impress their personality upon
the world. Those with a weak vital lack the power to accomplish much of
anything and have little effect upon life, usually remaining in a
subordinate position. Generally people with strong and egoistic vitals
run the world, while those with weak vitals follow them. Such a strong
egoistic vital is one of the greatest obstacles to the spiritual path.
A strong vital or Pranamaya kosha,
however, is important for the spiritual path as well, but this is very
different than the egoistic or desire oriented vital. It derives its
strength not from our personal power but from surrender to the Divine
and its great energy. Without a strong spiritual vital we lack the power
to do our practices and not fall under worldly influences. In Hindu
mythology this higher Prana is symbolized by the monkey God Hanuman, the
son of the Wind, who surrendered to the Divine in the form of Sita-Rama,
can become as large or small as he wishes, can overcome all enemies and
obstacles, and accomplish the miraculous. Such a spiritual vital has
energy, curiosity and enthusiasm in life along with a control of the
senses and vital urges, with their subordination to a higher will and
The Five Pranas
Pranamaya kosha is composed of the five
Pranas. The one primary Prana divides into five types according to its
movement and direction. This is an important subject in Ayurvedic
medicine as well as Yogic thought.
Prana, literally the "forward
moving air," moves inward and governs reception of all types from
the eating of food, drinking of water, and inhalation of air, to the
reception of sensory impressions and mental experiences. It is
propulsive in nature, setting things in motion and guiding them. It
provides the basic energy that drives us in life.
Apana, literally the "air that
moves away," moves downward and outward and governs all forms of
elimination and reproduction (which also has a downward movement).
It governs the elimination of the stool and the urine, the expelling
of semen, menstrual fluid and the fetus, and the elimination of
carbon dioxide through the breath. On a deeper level it rules the
elimination of negative sensory, emotional and mental experiences.
It is the basis of our immune function on all levels.
Udana, literally the "upward moving
air," moves upward and qualitative or transformative movements of
the life-energy. It governs growth of the body, the ability to
stand, speech, effort, enthusiasm and will. It is our main positive
energy in life through which we can develop our different bodies and
evolve in consciousness.
Samana, literally the "balancing
air," moves from the periphery to the center, through a churning and
discerning action. It aids in digestion on all levels. It works in
the gastrointestinal tract to digest food, in the lungs to digest
air or absorb oxygen, and in the mind to homogenize and digest
experiences, whether sensory, emotional or mental.
Vyana, literally the "outward
moving air," moves from the center to the periphery. It governs
circulation on all levels. It moves the food, water and oxygen
throughout the body, and keeps our emotions and thoughts circulating
in the mind, imparting movement and providing strength. In doing so
it assists all the other Pranas in their work.
The five Pranas are energies and
processes that occur on several levels. However we can localize them in
a few key ways. Prana Vayu governs the movement of energy from the head
down to the navel, which is the Pranic center in the physical body.
Apana Vayu governs the movement of energy from the navel down to the
root chakra. Samana Vayu governs the movement of energy from the entire
body back to the navel. Vyana Vayu governs the movement of energy out
from the navel throughout the entire body. Udana governs the movement of
energy from the navel up to the head
As a simple summary we could say that
Prana governs the intake of substances. Samana governs their digestion.
Vyana governs the circulation of nutrients. Udana governs the release of
positive energy. Apana governs the elimination of waste-materials.
This is much like the working of a
machine. Prana brings in the fuel, Samana converts this fuel to energy,
Vyana circulates the energy to the various work sites. Apana releases
the waste materials or by products of the conversion process. Udana
governs the positive energy created in the process and determines the
work that the machine is able to do.
The key to health and well-being is to
keep our Pranas in harmony. When one Prana becomes imbalanced, the
others tend to become imbalanced as well because they are all linked
together. Generally Prana and Udana work opposite to Apana as the forces
of energization versus those of elimination. Similarly Vyana and Samana
are opposites as expansion and contraction.
How Prana Creates The Physical Body
Without Prana the physical body is no
more than a lump of clay. Prana sculpts this gelatinous mass into
various limbs and organs. It does this by creating various channels or
Nadis, through which it can operate and energize gross matter into
various tissues and organs.
Prana Vayu creates the openings and
channels in the head and brain down to the heart. There are seven
openings in the head, the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and mouth.
These are called the seven Pranas or seven Rishis in Vedic thought.
Udana assists Prana in creating the openings in the upper part of the
body, particularly those of the mouth and vocal organs. The mouth, after
all, is the main opening in the head and in the entire body. It could be
said that the entire physical body is an extension of the mouth, which
is the main organ of physical activity, eating and self-expression.
Apana Vayu creates the openings in the
lower part of the body, those of the urino-genital and excretory
systems. Samana Vayu creates the openings in the middle part of the
body, those of the digestive system, centered in the navel. It opens out
the channels of the intestines and the organs, like the liver and
pancreas, which secrete into it. Vyana Vayu creates the channels going
to the peripheral parts of the body, the arms and legs. It creates the
veins and arteries and also the muscles, sinews, joints and bones.
In summary, Samana Vayu creates the
trunk of the body (which is dominated by the gastro-intestinal tract),
while Vyana Vayu creates the limbs. Prana and Udana create the upper
openings or bodily orifices, while Apana creates those below.
Prana however exists not just on a
physical level. The navel is the main vital center for the physical
body. The heart is the main center for the Pranamaya Kosha. The head is
the main center for Manomaya kosha.
Prana and the Breath
Breathing is the main form of Pranic
activity in the body. Prana governs inhalation. Samana governs
absorption of oxygen that occurs mainly during retention of the breath.
Vyana governs its circulation. Apana governs exhalation and the release
of carbon dioxide. Udana governs exhalation and the release of positive
energy through the breath, including speech that occurs via the outgoing
Prana and the Mind
The mind also has its energy and Prana.
This derives from food, breath and impressions externally. Prana governs
the intake of sensory impressions. Samana governs mental digestion.
Vyana governs mental circulation. Apana governs the elimination of toxic
ideas and negative emotions. Udana governs positive mental energy,
strength and enthusiasm.
On a psychological level, Prana governs
our receptivity to positive sources of nourishment, feeling and
knowledge through the mind and senses. When deranged it causes wrong
desire and insatiable craving. We become misguided, misdirected and
generally out of balance.
Apana on a psychological level governs
our ability to eliminate negative thoughts and emotions. When deranged
it causes depression and we get clogged up with undigested experience
that weighs us down in life, making us fearful, suppressed and weak.
Samana Vayu gives us nourishment,
contentment and balance in the mind. When deranged it brings about
attachment and greed. We cling to things and become possessive in our
Vyana Vayu gives us free movement and
independence in the mind. When deranged it causes isolation, hatred, and
alienation. We are unable to unite with others or remain connected in
what we do.
Udana gives us joy and enthusiasm and
helps awaken our higher spiritual and creative potentials. When deranged
it causes pride and arrogance. We become ungrounded, trying to go to
high and lose track of our roots.
Spiritual Aspects of the Pranas
The Pranas have many special actions in
Yogic practices. On a spiritual level, Samana Vayu governs the space
within the heart (antar hridyakasha) in which the true Self, the Atman
dwells as a fire with seven flames, governs the central internal space
or antariksha. Samana regulates Agni with fuel, which must burn evenly.
Without the peace and balance of Samana we cannot return to the core of
our being or concentrate the mind.
Vyana governs the movement of Prana
through the Nadis, keeping them open, clear, clean and even in their
functioning. Apana protects us from negative astral influences and false
teachers. Prana itself gives us the proper aspiration for our spiritual
Udana governs our growth in
consciousness and takes the mind into the state of sleep and into the
after death realms. Udana also governs the movement up the shushumna.
The mind moves with Udana Vayu. This
takes us to the states of dream and deep sleep. After death it leads the
soul to the astral and causal planes. Udana is often the most important
Prana for spiritual growth.
As we practice Yoga the subtle aspects
of these Pranas begin to awaken. This may cause various unusual
movements of energy in body and mind, including the occurrence of
various spontaneous movements or kriyas. We may feel new expanses of
energy (subtle Vyana), great peace (subtle Samana), a sense of lightness
or levitation (subtle Udana), deep groundedness and stability (subtle
Apana), or just heightened vitality and sensitivity (subtle Prana).
Working On Prana
Proper nutrition brings about the
increase of Prana on a physical level. This also requires proper
elimination. In Ayurvedic thought the Prana from the food is absorbed in
the large intestine, particularly in the upper two-thirds of this organ,
which is not simply an organ of elimination. For this reason Apana Vayu
is the most important Prana for physical health.
The Vedas say that mortals eat food
with Apana, while the Gods eat food with Prana. The mortals are the
physical tissues. The immortals are the senses. These take in food via
Prana itself. Right food sustains Apana. Right impressions support Prana.
For this not only outer factors like contact with nature, but also
practices like rituals and visualizations are important, as well as
sensory therapies involving color, sounds or aromas.
The main method for working on Prana is
Pranayama or Yogic breathing exercises. Yoga emphasizes purification of
the body (deha suddhi) and purification of the mind (citta suddhi) as
the means to Self-realization. For this reason Yoga emphasizes a
vegetarian diet rich in Prana or foods full of the life-force and a mind
rooted in ethical values like truthfulness and non-violence. An impure,
toxic or disturbed body and mind cannot realize the higher Self. However
the key to purifying body and mind is prana. For this purpose the main
method is purification of the nadis or channels through which Prana
While all Pranayama aids in this
regard, the most important is alternate nostril breathing, which aids in
the balance of the right and left Prana currents. According to the Yogic
system the body and all of its channels follow a right or left
predominance. The right side of the body is masculine or solar in
nature. The left side is feminine or lunar in nature. The left or the
lunar nadi, is Kapha or water predominant, and increases energy on the
left side of the body. It aids in such activities as rest, sleep,
relaxation. The right or solar nadi is
Pitta or fire predominant and
increases energy on the right side. It aids in such activities as
digestion, work, and concentration.
Regular alternate nostril breathing is
the most important method for keeping our Pranas or energies in balance.
Another method is uniting Prana and Apana. Apana, which is aligned with
the force of gravity, usually moves downward resulting not only in
disease and death but in the downward movement of consciousness. Prana,
on the other hand, tends to disperse upward through the mind and senses,
as it is our opening to the energies above.
Yogic practices require bringing Apana
up. Prana must be brought down to unite with Apana. This helps unite and
balance all the Pranas. In doing so the inner fire or Kundalini gets
enkindled in the region of the navel. Mula Bandha is an important
practice in this regard.
Mantra and Meditation
Breathing practices work with Pranamaya
Kosha. However the Pranas or energies in the mind can be dealt with
directly as well. Color and sound (music) are important ways to direct
energy in the mind. The best technique is mantra, particularly single
syllable or bija mantras like OM, which create vibrations (nada) that
can help direct energy into the subconscious.
Meditation itself, creating space in
the mind, serves to create more Prana in the mind. When the mind is
brought to a silent and receptive condition, like the expanse of the
sky, a new energy comes into being within it that brings about great
Indeed all the paths of Yoga are based
upon Prana. Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of Devotion brings about Pranic
transformation by uniting us with the Divine Will and Divine Prana. All
Karma Yoga or service is based upon alignment with the Divine Will as
well. This also gives us more Prana, not only to act outwardly but for
Classical Yoga or Raja Yoga is based
upon the control of mental activities (Citta-vrittis). The vibration of
the mind (Citta-spanda) follows the vibration of Prana (Prana-spanda).
Therefore Pranayama helps control the mind. It also helps control the
senses (Pratyahara) because it withdraws our awareness inward from the
senses. Hatha Yoga itself is mainly concerned with Prana and even Asana
occurs as an expression of Prana. Many great Yogis did not learn Asana
through mechanical practice but were taught Asana by the power of their
Even Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of
Knowledge depends upon a strong will and concentration. Without a
well-developed Udana Vayu it cannot succeed. In the Yoga of Knowledge
the Prana of inquiry must be created, which is to inquire into our true
nature not merely mentally but in all of our daily activities. This
requires that inquiry occurs through Prana and not simply through the
Indeed as the Vedas say we are all
under the control of Prana. Prana is said to be the Sun that imparts
life and light to all and dwells within the heart as the Self of all
creatures. Prana in us makes us live and allows us to act. It is not the
puny little ego, ascribing Prana's effects to its own power, that really
does anything. We must learn to be open to and welcome this greater
force of Prana and seek to bring it into our life and action. This is
one of the great secrets of Yoga.