Understanding Prana

December 21, 2015    BY David Frawley

All that exists in the three worlds rests in the control of prana. As a mother protects her children, O prana, protect us and give us splendor and wisdom.

—Prashna Upanishad 2.13 

The five main faculties of our nature—the mind, breath (prana), speech, hearing, and sight—were arguing about which was the most important. To resolve the dispute they decided that each would leave the body in turn to see whose absence was missed most. First speech left, yet the body continued to flourish though it was mute. Next the eye departed, yet the body flourished though blind. Then the ear left, yet the body thrived though deaf. Finally the mind left, yet still the body lived on, though it was now unconscious. But the moment the prana started to leave, the body began to die. The other faculties were rapidly losing their life-force, so they all rushed to prana, admitted its supremacy, and begged it to stay.

This is an old Vedic story, slightly different versions of which are found in various Upanishads. The argument in the beginning represents the ordinary human condition in which our faculties are not integrated, but compete with each other for control of our attention. When prana leaves, it becomes clear that prana gives energy to all our faculties, without which none of them can function. Thus the moral of this story is that to control these faculties, one must control the prana.

To bring about positive transformations in body and mind we must understand the energy through which they work.

To bring about positive transformations in body and mind we must understand the energy through which they work. This force is called prana in Sanskrit, meaning “primary energy,” sometimes translated as “breath” or “vital force,” though it is actually something more. The different forms through which prana expresses itself are seldom examined in depth in Western literature on yoga, and for this reason the science of prana, which is vast and profound, is rarely understood.

Prana has many levels of meaning, from the physical breath to the energy of consciousness itself. Prana is not only the basic life-force, it is the original creative power. It is the master form of all energy working at every level of our being. Indeed the entire universe is a manifestation of prana. Even kundalini shakti, the serpent power or inner energy which transforms our consciousness, develops from awakened prana.

On a cosmic level there are two aspects of prana. The first is unmanifest, the energy of pure consciousness, which transcends all creation. The second, or manifest prana, is the force of creation itself. The purusha, or higher Self, can be said to be unmanifest prana, the energy of consciousness itself, called devatma shakti or chiti shakti. From the unmanifest prana of pure awareness comes the manifest prana of creation, through which the entire universe comes into being.

Nature itself is composed of three gunas, or qualities: sattva, or harmony, which gives rise to the mind; rajas, or movement, which gives rise to prana; and tamas, or inertia, which gives rise to the physical body. Nature is an active, or rajasic, energy. Responding to the pull of the higher Self, or pure consciousness, this energy becomes sattvic. By the inertia of ignorance this same energy becomes tamasic.

Relative to our physical existence, prana or vital energy is a modification of the air element, deriving primarily from the oxygen we breathe. On a subtle level, the air element corresponds to the sense of touch; through touch we feel alive and are able to transmit our life-force to others.

The Koshas

The human being consists of five koshas or “sheaths”:

  1. Annamaya kosha (“sheath made of food”). This is the physical body, composed of the five elements we ingest (earth, water, air, fire, ether).
  2. Pranamaya kosha (“sheath made of breath”). This is the vital body, composed of five aspects of prana called vayus.
  3. Manomaya kosha (“sheath of impressions”). This is the outer, or lower level, of mind, filled with the five kinds of sensory impressions.
  4. Vijnanamaya kosha (“sheath of ideas”). This is intelligence itself, directed mental activity.
  5. Anandamaya kosha (“sheath of experiences”). This is the deeper mind, containing the memory, subliminal mind, and superconscious mind.

The pranamaya kosha is the sphere of our life energies. This sheath mediates between the physical body on one side and the three sheaths of the mind (outer mind, intelligence, and inner mind) on the other. It also mediates between the five gross elements and the five sensory impressions. 

The best English term for the pranamaya kosha is probably “vital sheath” or “vital body,” to borrow a term from Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. The pranamaya kosha, which is connected to the five motor organs (excretory, urino-genital, feet, hands, and vocal organ), contains our urges for survival, reproduction, movement, and self-expression. It provides us with enthusiasm and motivation for all we do.

Most of us are dominated by the vital body and its deep-seated urges, which are necessary in order for us to remain alive. The vital body is the home of the subconscious ego, which harbors our various fears, desires, and attachments. Most of us spend our life seeking enjoyment through this kosha in the form of sensory pleasure and acquiring material objects. 

People with a strong vital body are able to impress their personality on the world and often become prominent in life. Those with a weak vital body do not have the energy to accomplish much, and usually remain in subordinate positions. Generally people with strong yet egoistic vital natures run the world. But this nature can be one of the greatest obstacles on the spiritual path because it makes it difficult for the person to surrender to any higher power or to question his or her own desire-based impulses.

This makes some people think spiritual life requires us to suppress our prana, but a strong pranamaya kosha is quite different from egoistic or desire-oriented vitality. It derives its strength not from personal power but from our surrender to the energy of the divine. Without a strong spiritualized pranamaya kosha, we lack the energy to do our practices in an intense and sustained manner.

In Hindu mythology this higher prana is symbolized by the monkey god Hanuman, son of the wind, whose story is told in the ancient Indian classic the Ramayana. Hanuman surrendered to the divine in the form of the divine incarnations Rama and his wife, Sita, and he thereby gained the ability to become as large or as small as he wished, to overcome all enemies and obstacles, and to accomplish the miraculous. Such a spiritually directed vital nature has energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm, along with the ability to control the senses and vital urges—all subordinate to a higher will and aspiration.

The Five Pranas 

The pranamaya kosha is composed of the five pranas, also called vayus or “forces of the air.” These five pranas are categorized according to movement and direction. This is an important topic in Ayurvedic medicine as well as in yogic practices.

Prana Vayu

  • Prana vayu literally means “forward-moving air,” because it moves inward and governs all kinds of reception into the body, from eating, drinking, and inhaling, to the reception of sensory impressions and mental experiences. It is propulsive in nature, setting things in motion and guiding them, and it provides the basic energy that drives us in life. 

Apana Vayu

  • Apana vayu, “the air that moves away,” moves downward and outward, governing all forms of elimination and reproduction (which also has a downward movement). It governs the elimination of stool and 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. 

Udana Vayu

  • Udana vayu, “the upward-moving air,” moves up and brings about qualitative or transformative movements of the life-energy. It governs the growth of the body and the ability to stand, as well as speech, effort, enthusiasm, and will. It is our main positive energy, helping us to develop our different sheaths and to evolve in consciousness.

Samana Vayu

  • Samana vayu, “balancing air,” moves from the periphery to the center, through a churning and discerning action. It aids digestion on all levels, working in the gastrointestinal tract to digest food, in the lungs to digest air or absorb oxygen, and in the mind to digest experience—sensory, emotional, and mental.

Vyana Vayu

  • Vyana vayu, “outward-moving air,” moves from the center to the periphery, governing circulation on all levels. It moves food, water, and oxygen throughout the body, and keeps our emotions and thoughts circulating in the mind, imparting momentum and providing strength. 

The five pranas can also be seen in terms of their body region. Prana vayu governs the movement of energy from the head down to the navel, which is the pranic center of the physical body. Apana vayu governs the movement of energy from the navel down to the root chakra at the base of the spine. 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 vayu governs the movement of energy from the navel up to the head.

The five pranas can also be seen in terms of their body region.

In brief, prana vayu governs the intake of substances, samana governs their digestion, and vyana governs the circulation of nutrients. Udana governs the release of positive energy, and apana governs the elimination of waste materials. This is much like the working of an efficient machine. Prana brings in the fuel, samana converts this fuel to energy, and vyana circulates the energy to various worksites. Apana disposes of the waste products produced by the conversion process. Udana manages the energy thus created, enabling the machine to function effectively. 

The key to health is to keep our pranas working in harmony. When one prana becomes imbalanced, the others tend to lose their equilibrium as well, because they are all linked. Generally prana and udana balance apana, as the forces of energization balance those of elimination. Similarly vyana and samana coordinate with each other in terms of 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 by creating various subtle nerve channels, or nadis, through which it can operate and energize gross matter, shaping it 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. Udana vayu assists prana in creating the openings in the upper part of the body, particularly the mouth and vocal organs, because the mouth is the main opening not only for the head but for the entire body. In fact, the physical body is, in a sense, an extension of the mouth, which is the main organ of 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 the channels of the intestines and organs such as the liver and pancreas. Vyana vayu shapes the channels going to the periphery of the body, the arms and legs. It forms the veins and arteries and also the muscles, sinews, joints, and bones.

Breathing is the main form of pranic activity in the body.

The navel is the main pranic center for the physical body, or annamaya kosha (“body made of food”), which is dominated by the digestive system. Gross prana is taken in as food through the digestive process, centered in the small intestine, and is held in the heavier tissues, mainly muscle. Yet prana has other centers as well, based on its function on subtler levels. The heart is the main energy center for the pranamaya kosha. The subtle prana taken in by breathing is carried by the blood due to the action of the heart. The head is the main energy center for manomaya kosha, or the mental sheath, which is energized by sensory perception, dominated by the eyes and ears.

Breathing is the main form of pranic activity in the body. Prana vayu governs inhalation; samana governs absorption of oxygen, which occurs mainly during retention of the breath; and vyana governs its circulation. Apana rules exhalation, particularly with regard to the release of carbon dioxide. Udana controls exhalation by releasing positive energy through the breath, for example in speech or song. 

Prana and the Mind

Mental energy is derived from food, breath, and the impressions we take in from the external world. Prana governs the intake of sensory impressions, samana governs their mental digestion, and vyana governs mental circulation. Apana rules the elimination of toxic ideas and negative emotions. Udana provides 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 unhealthy desires and insatiable cravings, and we become misguided, misdirected, and generally out of balance. 

Apana 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 gives us nourishment, contentment, and a balanced mind. When deranged it brings about attachment and greed. We cling to things and become contracted, stagnant, and possessive in our behavior.

The pranas have many special functions in yogic practices.

Vyana gives free movement and independence of mind. When deranged it can cause isolation, hatred, and alienation. We become unable to unite with others or to remain connected with what we are doing.

Udana gives us joy and enthusiasm and helps awaken our higher spiritual and creative potentials. When deranged it can cause pride and arrogance, and we become ungrounded, trying to go too high and losing touch with our roots.

Spiritual Aspects of the Pranas

The pranas have many special functions in yogic practices. On a spiritual level, samana governs the space within the heart in which the true Self dwells as a fire with seven flames. Samana regulates our inner fire, which must burn evenly. Without the peace and balance samana creates, we cannot return to the core of our being or concentrate our 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 illusory experiences. Prana vayu gives us the proper aspiration necessary for spiritual development. 

Udana governs our growth in consciousness and carries the mind into the states of dreaming and deep sleep, and into the after-death realms. Udana also governs movement up the sushumna. Because the mind moves with udana vayu, it is generally the most important prana for spiritual growth.

As we practice yoga, the subtle aspects of these pranas begin to awaken, which may cause various unusual movements of energy in body and mind, including various spontaneous movements called kriyas. We may feel new expanses of energy (subtle vyana); great peace (subtle samana); a sense of lightness, as if we are levitating (subtle udana); deep groundedness and stability (subtle apana); or just heightened vitality and sensitivity (subtle prana).

Working with Prana

Proper nutrition increases prana on a physical level. Proper elimination also helps. In Ayurvedic thought, the prana from food is absorbed in the large intestine, particularly in the upper two-thirds of this organ. For this reason apana 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, sustained by right food. The immortals are the senses that take in food via prana itself in the form of sensory impressions. To strengthen prana, practices such as rituals and visualizations are important, as well as sensory therapies involving color, sounds, or aromas, and contact with nature.

Regular alternate nostril breathing is the most important method for keeping our pranas or energies in balance, but there is another method—uniting prana and apana

The main way to work with prana is through pranayama, particularly in the form of yogic breathing exercises. Yoga emphasizes purification of both body and mind as a means to Self-realization, and for this reason it emphasizes a vegetarian diet rich in prana—that is, foods full of the life-force—and a mind rooted in ethical values such as truthfulness and nonviolence, and in spiritual disciplines. An impure, toxic, or disturbed body and mind cannot realize the higher Self. The key to purifying body and mind is prana, which links the two. The main method is purification of the nadis through which prana flows.

While all yogic breathing exercises are helpful in this regard, the most important is nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), which helps balance right and left prana currents. According to the yogic system, the body and all its channels have a right or left predominance. The right side is solar in nature. It aids in such activities as digestion, work, and concentration, and is pittic, or fiery, in constitution. The left, or the lunar, nadi is kaphic, or water predominant. It aids in such activities as rest, sleep, and relaxation.

Regular alternate nostril breathing is the most important method for keeping our pranas or energies in balance, but there is another method—uniting prana and apana. Apana vayu, 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 vayu, on the other hand, tends to disperse upward through the mind and senses, and is our pathway to the energies above. Yogic practices require bringing apana up and bringing prana down so the two can unite; this helps balance all the pranas. In doing so, the inner fire or kundalini becomes enkindled in the region of the navel. Mula bandha (the root lock) is an important practice in this regard.

Mantra and Meditation

The pranas in the mind can be dealt with directly. There are pranayama techniques that work with the mind and senses, and are not just limited to the breath. Color and sound (music) are important ways to direct energy in the mind, but the best technique is mantra, particularly single syllable, or bija, mantras like Om, which create vibrations that can help direct positive energy into the subconscious. Meditation itself, creating space in the mind, serves to create more prana, and when the mind is brought into a silent and receptive condition, like an expanse of sky, a new energy comes into being which can bring about great transformation.

All the paths of yoga are based on controlling prana. Bhakti yoga, or the yoga of devotion, brings about pranic transformation by uniting us with the divine prana. Karma yoga, or service, is based on alignment with the divine will, which also gives us more prana, not only to act outwardly, but for inner development. 

Classical yoga, or raja yoga, is based on the control of mental activities (chitta vrittis). The vibration of the mind (chitta spanda) follows the vibration of prana (prana spanda), and 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; yoga postures occur as an expression of pranic movement, and many great yogis learned yoga postures not through mechanical practice, but through the power of their awakened prana.

Jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge, requires a strong will and concentration. In this yoga the prana of inquiry must be created, which means we must inquire into our true nature, not merely mentally but in all of our daily activities; without well-developed udana vayu we cannot succeed.

Indeed, as the Vedas say, we are all under the control of prana. Prana is the sun that imparts life and light to everyone and dwells within the heart as the Self of all creatures. The prana in us gives us life and allows us to act. We must learn to be open to and welcome this greater force and seek to bring it more fully into our life and actions. This is one of the greatest secrets of yoga.

David Frawley
Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) D. Litt., Padma Bhushan is a western born teacher or guru in the Vedic tradition. In India, Vamadeva is recognized as a Vedacharya (Vedic teacher), and includes in his scope of studies Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta and Vedic astrology, as well as the ancient Vedic teachings going back to the oldest Rigveda.

Vamadeva is a rare recipient of the prestigious Padma Bhushan award, one of the highest civilian awards granted by the government of India, “for... Read more>>