Breathing Easy, What is Prana?
Lets do an experiment. Close your eyes and begin breathing through the nostrils. When your ready inhale counting to 4 slowly then exhale to 4 again slowly and at the same pace. Then open your eyes. What did you notice? Do this a couple of times and you might notice a shift in the body, face or perhaps your mood or thoughts have been altered. Maybe you can notice a softness or ease happening somewhere and/or a short pause from the stream of thoughts that endlessly scrolls through the mind or perhaps none of that happened, notice what affect the breath has on you individually.
The energy in our body that has the ability to make this shift is referred to as Prana in Yoga philosophy. Many other cultures and religions throughout history have described energy this way like Chi, Ki, Mana, Barakka, Soul, Holy Spirit, Biometric energy, the list goes on. Pranic energy is described as a life force within us but also all around us and is in every living thing. The father of modern yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar states, “The breath relates directly to the mind and to our prāṇa, but we should not therefore imagine that as we inhale, prāṇa simply flows into us. This is not the case. Prāṇa enters the body in the moment when there is a positive change in the mind.” The ancient yogis believed that a part of prana is the breath and can also be moved by the breath within the body, it travels around through 1000's of channels referred to as Nadi's, the main ones being around the spine that connect with energy centre's known as Chakra's. They also believed that when Prana is blocked or stagnant, this can result in illness, injury or disease on the mental, physical, and spiritual planes.
History is fascinating in the way that new generations or cultures find different ways to describe or explain the same thing over and over. What are some modern definitions of Prana, Nadis and chakras? Have we explained the same things in modern Western medicine that ancient yogis did some 4000 plus years ago? What comes to mind to me is the mind/body connection in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the affect that breathing has in regulating these responses. Ill draw up some similarities and allow you to make your own assumptions.
First, there are 5 types of Prana and they have function in different places of the body:
Udana-vayu: throat region and function of speech
Prana-vayu: chest region and function of the heart
Samana-vayu: central region of the body and the digestive system function
Apana-vayu: lower abdomen region and function of elimination
Vyana-vayu: distribution of energy to all areas of the body
The goal is for all of these regions to be balanced with each other and this is done through the breath and learning how to control it or be aware of it, depending on which school of yoga you come from. Examples of this are being able to breath steadily, exhaling slowly and breath retention. Exercises known as Pranayama helps develop breath control and it needs practice, just like our Asana (physical poses) we might start out small and stiff but over time we can deepen into and explore the pose with ease. In Yoga, breathing is given the same if not more weight than Asana and you can see this themed into a lot of styles that give breath instruction along with the pose and Pranayama practices before and after movement. Some examples of Pranayama are Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Ujjayi, 3 Part breath (chest, ribs, belly) and the list goes on. We move the Pranic energy with the breath (and movement) around the body and balance these areas as well as prepare the mind for meditation. Right, so what is the connection?
The ANS is a fascinating bit of evolution. We have developed over 10's of thousands of years a fight/flight/freeze response when our brain interprets stress or danger. As fantastic as this is, human evolution of the brain function hasn't quite caught up with modern society. Needing to hunt/gather enough food to make it through winter is now meeting deadlines at work and unfortunately all we have are the same responses and our brains inability to see the difference as they both become threats to survival. The ANS separates itself into 2 main components the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system gives us rest and digest responses when we aren't responding to external threats and the sympathetic system gives us fight/flight/freeze responses when we do.
Its interesting to see a lot of the same organs and functions listed above as with the Prana centres. Another correlation is the effect of breathing on the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Our breath rate speeds up in a fight or flight response, this is so we can run away or fight off a saber-toothed tiger. This in turn means our blood and heart are pumping faster but this type of response isn't exactly what we want when we get upset with a spouse per say. This is where breathing can work to balance out those autonomic responses, by slowing it down (ever heard the phrase "count to 10") and getting us out of the fight/flight response. This happens through the channels that run through our body, much like Nadi‘s, known as nerves and the primary one here is the vagus nerve.
Today's world is filled with stress that we may interpret as life threatening, but really, it might just be deadlines and spouses. It shows by a lot of the illnesses that are related or made worse by stress and the field of medicine opening up around this mind/body connection. Learning how to control breath like with Pranayama practice and making a connection with that breath may be a very beneficial tool to learn about stress management, our reactions to environmental stresses and balancing out the sympathetic nervous system. To find equanimity in the body is an important aspect of Yogic philosophy and personal health, and it looks like modern science agrees.
The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar, 1995.
Yoga of the Subtle Body: A Guide to the Physical and Energetic Anatomy of Yoga, Tias Little, 2016.
Parasympathetic & Sympathetic Nervous System (happyhealthyyou.com.au)