These notes relate to the Hatha Yoga course at Soldiers Beach S.L.S.C. Term 1, 2017. If you are interested in joining the next term then go to www.sravan.com.au/class-info.
What is Prana?
Prana is the universal principle of energy or force. It is vital force. It is all pervading.
“The force which pulsates through your body and nerves is not different from the force which vibrates through the universe. ” (Ref 1)
Prana is all around us, it is in the air we breathe, the pen i am holding, if the ocean and nature. It is all pervading.
Prana is a force on every place of being from the simplest single cell life form to complex organisms such as our selves.
Prana is responsible for electricity, magnetism, movement, heat. It includes our bodily functions an movements such as;
- blinking of eyes
- digestion and excretion
- heart beating and pumping of blood around the body
- digestions and metabolism
- inspiration and expiration
- on the mental plane as thought
Thoughts are one the most subtle forms of Prana and life force and through the practice if yoga we can start to tune into this energy. Just like when you find a radio station you tune the radio to get the strongest signal, this is the same for us when can tune our body and mind to the more subtle vibrations and energy then we are tapping into a massive energy source.
In the psychic body there are over 72,000 channels that convey Prana. Of these there are 3 important channels being the energy in the left and right side of the body and the spinal cord channel. For more information go to http://www.yogajournal.com/article/philosophy/balancing-act-2/. The Aim of Hatha Yoga is to balance the male (right side – pingala) and female (left side – ida) energy so that is then flows through the central spinal passage (shusumna).
According to the Yogis and ancient Sages Prana is the vital energy that is within each of us but also throughout the galaxies and it is responsible for the expanding universe. When we are born it is said the cosmic Prana manifests in our being and when we die the Prana that was working on the physical body is withdrawn into the astral body.
It was mentioned in Week 2 that Prana is responsible for our bodily functions such as digestion, excretion, contracting of muscles, manufacture of hormones, blinking etc etc. Someone who is physically strong and who is vibrant and healthy is someone who has an abundance of Prana. When there is stagnation in the body and blockages of Prana this results in disease and illness. The is similar view in Chinese Medicine where Chi energy represent life force and the therapies such as acupressure and acupuncture work on freeing stagnate energy. In Hatha Yoga a number of different cleansing practices are used to help remove pranic blockages and boost the flow of Prana in the body (for information on cleanse practices go to http://www.sravan.com.au/yoga/)
Yoga asanas and pranayama increase Prana in our body, or more correctly it attunes us to the more subtle nature and vibration of Prana. Other sources of Prana include nature such as the bush or rainforests, and the ocean. Food is an important source of Prana which is found in fresh, organic produce and food that has minimal processing. In a supermarket around 90% of the food is dead meaning it has none of very little Prana.
Activities that decrease or inhibit our Prana include; exercise and movement, digestion, talking, mental activity. Our Prana can be also reduced through eating processed/frozen food, spening alot of time in urban and city and air conditioned environments/offices, and overuse of electronic devices and screens.
So if you want to recharge yourself then spend some time alone, go on a retreat or into nature, meditate!
Various breathing techniques used in yoga aim to control the Prana. These practices manipulate and strengthen the breath. The basic breathing methods that will be covered in the 10 week course include; natural breath awareness, abdominal breathing, thoracic breathing, clavicular breathing and full yoga breathing. These practices are the foundation of Pranayama practice from which the aspirant can then progress into the many other pranayamas.
There are two quotes from Swami Sivananda which nicely capture the essence of pranayama. (Ref 1).
” Through the practice of asana (postures) you can control the physical body and through pranayama , you can control the sublte, astral body.”
“By controlling the motion of the lung or respiratory organs, we can control the prana that is vibrating inside.”
So don’t forget breath deeply!!!!
Let’s examine a bit more closely the function of breathing. Involuntary breathing or breathing without awareness is an action that originates from the old part of the brain, located at the back of the head at the brain stem. This is known as the primitive brain as thus it makes us similar to animals in that the process of breathing is involuntary i.e. we don’t have to think about it.
Conscious breathing, or breathing with awareness, engages the cerebral cortex which is the front part of the brain. This stimulates the more evolved areas of the brain. Conscious breath awareness gives us that ability to control the breath and harmonise the body and mind. In yoga is said the breath provides a bridge between the body and mind. The amazing thing is the yogis knew this a long time ago before we had the proof with brain imaging.
The physiology of breathing explains that under “normal” conditions proper breathing will be 70% in the abdominal cavity and 30% in the thoracic cavity. When you do exercise or your “fight and flight” is activated then the breath in the chest is >30%. Dysfunctional breathing patterns result in reduced abdominal capacity and at times increased chest movement, this creates tension.
Abdominal breathing is the most efficient way to breath i.e. it requires the least expenditure of energy. The principle muscle involved in abdominal breathing is the diaphragm. See image below for an illustration of how the diaphragm is involved in breathing.
If you have ever watched a baby or child breath, then you will see a lovely uninhibited abdominal breath. I have captured this on baby daughter – see this video link. When we get older we tend to develop peculiar and even dysfunctional breathing patterns – another reason why yoga is so beneficial in bringing our body back into balance and natural function.
By controlling the motion of the lungs, we can start to control the prana that is vibrating inside us so let’s look a bit more closely at the function of breathing.
Abdominal breathing, otherwise known as diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient way to breath i.e. it requires the least expenditure of energy. On the contrary, chest or thoracic breathing requires more effort and it has more of a stimulating effect on the body and mind.
This phenomenon relates to our autonomic nervous system where the abdominal breath activates the “rest-and-digest” function in our body and the thoracic breath stimulates the body which is part of the “fight-and-flight” function in our body. So you can see there is a whole science behind breathing and good health.
So at a normal resting state, when we are not in danger or under stress, our breath should be predominantly in the abdomen. Dysfunctional breathing occurs when people breath shallow and through the mouth, or when we are under continual stress for extended periods of time e.g. working in a busy & stressful office. People then breath more in the chest, even when the “stress-full” situation passes. When this becomes chronic over many years then the person’s health is effected and illness or disease is more likely to occur. Good news is that YOGA corrects dysfunction breathing so your body has the good balance between “rest-and-digest” and “flight-and-flight”.
By controlling the motion of the lungs, we can control the prana that is vibrating inside us. When we do this, we are doing what the yogis call, pranayama practice. This Sanskrit word translates as “the expansion or extension of prana”.
Pranayama practice is one of the 8 limbs of yoga as postulated by Patanjali. This system of Yoga provides a systematic way of bringing harmony to the body and mind with the ultimate aim of achieving Samadhi or a “state of oneness”. The final stage is a very high state of being where there is a merging with the divine spirit or force and for most of us we may only experience the previous stages.
The 8 limbs of yoga are listed below and from this it can be seen how pranayama provides a bridge from the body to the mind.
|1||Yama||Rules of moral conduct.Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint, non-covertness|
|2||Niyama||Rules of personal behaviour.Purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, devotion/faith|
|3||Asana||Yoga postures which channel prana and remove energy blocks. Preparation for pranayama|
|4||Pranayama||Yoga breathing techniques which increase the pranic capacity|
|5||Pratyahara||Withdrawal of the senses, just like a tortoise withdraws its limbs. This is learnt in Yoga Nidra|
|7||Dhyana||Meditation or one-pointedness|
|8||Samadhi||State of oneness, merging with the divine & pure consciousness|
There are four categories of pranayama practice; balancing, energizing, sensitizing and tranquilizing. The practices covered in this 10 week course are the foundation practises which then allows the aspirant to progress with other pranayama practices from the different categories. It is important to note that the aspirant should systematically progress their capacity for pranayama – there is no skipping stages as it requires an evolving of the mind and one’s awareness.
The discussion continues with breathing – if you have done yoga before you will know this is the fundamental element in the practice of yoga and it is considered the key to the mind.
The breath is the most vital function on the body. Each cell in our body requires oxygen which we get from breathing and the brain requires considerable oxygen. Oxygen is also vital when converting glucose into energy which is needed for metabolism and so we can move and function.
The unfortunate thing is most people breathe incorrectly, using only a small part of their lung capacity. Breathing for these people is generally then shallow which deprives the body of oxygen and prana. The practices covered in this 10 week term greatly help to induce correct breathing habits. In yoga we develop rhythmic, deep and slow respiration, this translates as calm and content states of mind.
Irregular breathing disrupts the rhythms of the brain which causes physical, emotional and mental blocks. The aim in yoga is to return back to the natural and relaxed rhythms of the mind.
Another way to understand the breath is to look at the rate of breathing. Human beings take about 15 breath per minute (Ref 2) which is about 21,600 times per day. Yogis studied nature and animals and they realised the importance of slow breathing for increasing life span. Yogis measure the span of life not by the number of years but by the number of breathes taken. Slow breathing animals such as snakes, elephants and tortoise’s have a long life span whist birds, dogs and rabbits have fast breathing and only live for a few years.
So the less breathes you take, and the deeper and more rhythmic your breathing is then you will live longer!! Don’t take my word, try it for yourself and see how you feel!!!
Ref 2: Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. 2009.
Ref 1: The Science of Pranayama, Sri Swami Sivananda. The Devine Life Trust Society. Uttarakhand, Himalayas India. 2008.