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Prana: Understanding the Life Force

In the calm and tranquil oceanic existence of consciousness, the first spanda (motion or movement) is called prana. The ancient scriptures tell us that prana, the life force, is derived from two words, pra and ana. Pra means “first.” Ana means “that which moves or animates”—the first unit of pulsation, animation, vibration, and movement. There is a complex philosophy behind this statement, but Swami Rama (Swamiji) explained it in a simple way: that prana means “energy combined with consciousness”; intelligence that knows “I am moving”; that force whose motion or movement is self-regulated and not governed by anything else; that which is not blind force; and that which has purpose in vibrating, throbbing, and animating in a particular pattern or manner. That self-intelligent force is called prana.

It is because of the presence of that pranic force that the simple air that travels through our nostrils becomes a carrier or vehicle of vitality, freshness, and newness. When prana is not present in the body, none of our sophisticated medical devices are effective. They are not able to restart the lungs or heart after death, even though physiologically everything is still the same; the only difference is that the heart is no longer pumping and the lungs are not expanding and contracting.

Prana and the Body
Prana means “energy combined with consciousness.”

One day I was watching a television program on the function of the heart. The researchers took a few heart cells from a body and put them in a solution placed some distance away from each other. At first, the separated cells pulsed independently, but they had the ability to be aware of each other’s rhythm. When they were then placed within range of each other, they immediately coordinated their pulsation; they coordinated their rhythm—the whole process became harmonious. What force causes this to spontaneously happen? Does a chemical process somehow begin?

No, this theory does not really solve the mystery. Ultimately, the mystery has to be solved through one’s own direct experience, but this theory gives us at least some intellectual awareness that there is a divine, self illuminated, self-guided force that exists in every single cell and governs its functions and activities.

This is the pranic force. The first time it mysteriously causes the heart to pump, the whole process of life begins. It drives the heart; it is the first unit of animation. It goes beyond the theory of ovum and sperm. It is what makes these two combine and the process of multiplication begin. It is what makes the fetus grow and one day—mysteriously—become alive.

It is said that the pranic force is omnipresent and omniscient: it knows all about the past, present, and future; it is spontaneously aware of everything visible and invisible. It is because of the presence of this life force that we receive vitality from food, assimilate it into our system, and supply it to all our tissues and cells. When that pranic force decreases or is not functioning well, it will make no difference how much nutritious food is eaten. Megadoses of vitamins will have no beneficial effect; they may even have an adverse effect on the kidneys and other cleansing systems in the body. So, actually, it is in the presence of this divine force, prana, that we thrive—this force sustains our life and health, and we can use it to unfold our vast potential.

That is why it is so important to understand this divine force. We need to keep asking the question “why?” like a scientist—or like a child who is constantly learning. We call the person who discovers something a genius, but inventions and discoveries take place only because of this childlike nature of continually asking, “Why? Why? Why?” When that nature vanishes—when we take an answer for granted—then immediately discovery stops. The moment we delete “why?” from our vocabulary, we get old, rigid, and stiff. Only this question can really lead us to understand what the pranic life force is.

Prana and Consciousness

According to the scriptures, prana pervades the entire universe. Unfortunately, we mistakenly think that our existence is confined to this body. Therefore, we consider only what is felt and experienced within the body to be valid experience, and we think we are the only ones who have the intelligence to perceive it; the rest of the world does not. We say only human beings have souls, that there is no soul in an animal, no soul in a plant. Our world is limited to human beings—and sometimes we don’t even consider other human beings to be human beings! Some Christians think they are the only ones entitled to go to heaven. Some Hindus think they are the wisest, and that spirituality was born in the East and spread throughout the world from India alone. Everyone is proud of their particular culture and heredity. We identify ourselves so narrowly that we do not comprehend the reality beyond our little world.

In the Vedas, in the Upanishads, in yoga, nothing is unintelligent. It is just a matter of degree and gradation. You are a conscious living entity; I am a conscious living entity. With respect to Indian philosophy, I might be more knowledgeable, but in the field of anatomy or engineering, you might be more intelligent or conscious—that particular consciousness might be much more evolved in you than in me. Similarly, there are gradations of consciousness in other species. Consciousness alone exists: therefore, there is no unconscious, inert, dead matter anywhere. Prana is the force from which all the other forces of nature—gravity, electricity, and magnetism—evolve. We have always assumed that these forces were not intelligent, but how do we know that these are not intelligent forces?

There is a constant call from within to remove the veil and to re-identify ourselves with the universal life force.

The scriptures describe different aspects of the pranic force: it is sometimes personified in the form of gods or goddesses. But according to the wisdom of yoga and tantra, there is no external divinity, no gods or goddesses. Or, if there is anything outside us, it is certainly inside our body as well. There is spontaneous and simultaneous correspondence between the individual forces and the cosmic forces, and whenever that balance is lost, then everything immediately crumbles, and life shatters.

There is only one prana—inside and outside. But because of our identification with prana in relation to this body, we say, “This is my prana” or “Oh, his prana left,” meaning that the person died. But if the pranic force is universal and omnipresent, then how can it come or leave? Actually, it is just a matter of identification in relation to this body. Identification in relation to this body is called birth, and its end is death. When that identification is strong, the concept of individuation is established, and the universal becomes individual.

Prana pervades the whole universe. It is right here; we are not outside of it. But the identification in our minds that “I am this” confines that life force to this body. This is too narrow. Since ultimately prana is perfect, it has an urge to re-identify itself with the universe, with universal awareness. That is why there is a constant urge to keep connecting with the universal life force—to merge into and become one with it. That is why we are not happy or satisfied with whatever we have gained so far. There is an inherent urge to become perfect, because at a subtle level we know we are eternally perfect. We have imposed on ourselves this limitation of the body out of ignorance, but there is a constant call from within to remove the veil and to re-identify ourselves with the universal life force. And that is why we breathe.

Vehicles for Vitality: Breath and Food

Let’s look at what happens when we breathe. Before the air we breathe reaches the lungs, it is electrically charged. The quality of the air and its energy varies depending on whether the air passes through the left or right nostril. The electrical charge in each nostril is entirely different and independent, although the two are certainly interconnected. When air-carrying oxygen is assimilated into our lungs and supplied to all the tissues and cells, it provides life-sustaining energy and functions as fuel for all sorts of psychophysical functions. We are constantly inhaling and exhaling, importing and exporting. We are importing (inhaling) fresh vitality from the external world, and we are exporting (expelling) the used-up gases that are no longer needed in the body.

The finest stage of the pranic vehicle is ojas.

This process actually takes place because similar attracts similar: the external prana is attracted to the pranic force inside. Oxygen itself is not actually prana, or vitality, but the human system is designed to accept oxygen as a carrier for prana. Other kingdoms are designed differently: vitality for the plant kingdom has a different vehicle. Something that seems to be waste material for us is the source of vitality for others. In the same manner that we receive energy via oxygen, plants receive energy through carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Nitrogen and carbon dioxide are beneficial to plants, but they are not nutrients for us.

The point is not just that the external pranic force travels through different kinds of vehicles, but also that it is the presence of that inherent life force within us that attracts it. Without the internal force, the external systems are useless and cannot absorb energy from outside to sustain life. All of this energy is called prana, which is a very abstract and intangible term. We can infer it, we can postulate its existence, and we can experience it through our constant practice, but still, we cannot see it. Unfortunately, no method has been developed to scientifically isolate prana in the external world. However, prana is something entirely different from oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or any other gas.

Food is also a vehicle for prana, but prana itself is different from the nutritional elements that we receive from food. Protein, vitamins, and minerals are all simply vehicles. The manner in which food is broken down and vitality is extracted from it for assimilation into our system—that too is called prana.

The pranic energy contained in food and air goes through several “gates”; each successive gate is narrower and narrower—finer and finer. When food or air goes through the first level into the inner city of life, it can travel as a relatively large vehicle and can still pass, but the next gate is smaller. In order to penetrate through the next gate, food, for example, cannot be used as it is. It has to be broken down; its molecular structure has to go through enormous processing. The breath travels a similar course, starting as a smaller vehicle. Similarly, since each of its successive gates is narrower, it too has to change for the process to continue.

There is a constant processing and breaking down of gross vehicles into more subtle ones. The yoga manuals say that the finest stage of the pranic vehicle is ojas—vigor, ever-vibrating energy. That is the final step. At that level, there is no vehicle and there is no transportation, because there is no need for pranic energy to travel beyond that.

Gateway to Higher Consciousness

Swamiji once said, “What is mine is yours. We both breathe the same air.” But I couldn’t understand why he said that. So then he said, “What is yours and what is mine? We both breathe the same air,” meaning all of us receive the same things; nothing is yours and nothing is mine. Later on, he said something else that completed the teaching: “The air I exhale is inhaled by you. And the air you exhale is inhaled by me.”

“What is mine is yours. We both breathe the same air.”

The air that goes into our lungs is absorbed and carried by the blood cells and goes throughout our systems to every single cell. It is like a milkman making deliveries. He fills our order and takes back empty bottles. So the waste products come back to our lungs and are exhaled. After the inhalation, that pranic force goes from cell to cell—touching and knowing everything about every single cell. It comes back to the lungs and is exhaled. The information that was within you—and this means every single aspect of you, not just you as a whole being, but as a combination of trillions of “beings” within—is then exhaled. The knowledge of all that, held in the air from the exhaled breath, is what is inhaled. If I am sensitive to the content, if I have practiced the science of prana, then I will know everything about you that the pranic force knows. That science of breath, of prana, is called svarodaya.

If it is true that the life force is there, then why do we need to breathe? Yoga says that only an infinitesimal part of that life force is in its awakened state—the rest is dormant. But just a tiny bit of that force, awakened and in a functioning state, is enough to make us feel alive. According to yoga, the purpose of life is to unfold the dormant force. At least learn to recognize it and to really know “I am That.” That’s it! Just by knowing it, fear disappears, because then we know there is no way to lose anything. “I am That”—how can I lose myself? Then fear and insecurity disappear, and we are free.

Swamiji always said, “Unfold yourself on every level.” The first unfoldment is at the level of energy—the prana level. And ordinarily, when that happens, that which had previously been confined is uplifted; then we are no longer slaves to all those urges, whims, desires, demands, requirements, dissatisfactions, and frustrations. Theoretically, philosophically, that is how energy is related to the mind and body. When this force is in proper order, when it is unfolded and regulated, then the bodily and mental functions are also regulated.

The Major Pranas and Nadis

Pranic force is energy—self-regulated, self-guided, self-illuminated energy. This one single pranic force acts in our body in different ways, and depending on its function, it is called by different terms. Up until now, we have been using prana as a general term, but this term is also used in a specific way to mean “that which comes in”—that which provides nourishment to the body. That nourishing aspect of the force is also called prana. Another aspect is called apana. This is the force involved in the process of cleansing: it expels things that are not needed in the body. Samana is the force that assimilates. We eat food or we drink water—where does the food and water go? How is it done? Samana processes it and afterward circulates it so it can be assimilated throughout the system. Udana is the prana that helps us move upward, figuratively, mentally, and even physically. Udana relates to the process of purification, stability of mind, and control over the modifications of the mind. Vyana is the prana that helps us to expand and contract. These are the five main pranas, categorized according to their physical functions.

Yoga describes five more pranas: naga, kurma, krikala, devadatta, and dhananjaya. Because of their functions, they are studied separately, and there are specific practices that describe the nature, uses, and functions of each of them. So there are 10 main pranas that are the life force functioning in 10 different ways to carry out its work.

Unfold yourself on every level, starting at the level of energy—the prana level.

Prana travels through energy channels called nadis, which branch out into all directions; they are the wiring system of the body. The three main nadis described in meditative schools of yoga are ida, pingala, and sushumna. They are in the trunk of the body; ida is on the left of the spine and relates to the left nostril, pingala is on the right and relates to the right nostril, and sushumna is in the center.

Let me again emphasize the scientific aspect of the difference in the quality of the air when it is taken in through each of the two nostrils, and how it reflects on our physiology as well as our mental world. This is explained in great depth in Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness, Science of Breath, and Choosing a Path, as well as in classical yoga manuals such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, and Shiva S varodaya.

When you focus on the breath, and feel the flow of the breath at the bridge of the nostrils, that is called pranayama, the yoga of prana. By practicing pranayama, you begin the process of purification, and in doing so, you will attain the many great things that have been promised in the scriptures. Practice pranayama, allow the breath to flow easily, and then the veil that hides the brilliance, the light within, will be destroyed. Do you believe that just by doing pranayama all sorts of karmic impurities will be destroyed? Yes, they will. Why not? Breath is a conscious force that knows everything, and a knower of breath knows the secret of everything.

Practice Resources

Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness

Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, Swami Ajaya, MD

Yoga & Psychotherapy is an in-depth analysis of Western and Eastern models of the mind and their differing perspectives on such functions as ego, instinct, and consciousness.

Science of Breath

Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, Alan Hymes, MD

The goal of Science of Breath is to present knowledge and practices regarding the breath in a way that can be applied to personal growth.

Source: Dawn Magazine, 1990

About the Teacher

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is a modern-day master and living link in the unbroken Himalayan Tradition. He is the successor to Sri Swami Rama of the Himalayas, and the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. As the author of numerous books, including his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker, Pandit Tigunait offers practical guidance on applying yogic and tantric wisdom to modern life. For over 40 years he has touched innumerable lives around the world as a teacher, humanitarian, and visionary spiritual leader. You can view more of his teachings online at the Himalayan Institute Wisdom Library. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Family tradition gave Pandit Tigunait access to a vast range of spiritual wisdom preserved in both the written and oral traditions. Before meeting his master, Pandit Tigunait studied Sanskrit, the language of the ancient scriptures of India, as well as the languages of the Buddhist, Jaina, and Zorastrian traditions. In 1976, Swami Rama ordained Pandit Tigunait into the 5,000-year-old lineage of the Himalayan Masters.

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