Physiological aspects of yoga - meet PRANA


We see and hear a lot about the physical aspects of yoga – bodily movement and postures in space but what is the "goal"? There are many goals and purposes of yoga, but one of them is a better distribution of vitality or "energy" through our body.


Let's meet prana


There is so much more to yoga than just physical movement. Sadly, a lot of yoga is lost in our modern world. A lot of emphases is put on physical posture, aesthetics, looks and movement and often to some type of deep breathing called pranayama (breath control).


People often overstretch, overbend, over tense (using overly strength), over breathe and on top overthink. However, when we start to discover the definition in the Sûtras, which says that our asana practise is to be "performed with a minimum effort", we start to ask ourselves "can we live our life too with less effort"? Will this save us some vital energy?


Physical exercise in such best performed includes some fluid natural movements actively from the core. When necessary we modify posture to the physical conditions of each person and reassess this in every new moment.


We don’t expect people to understand every instruction and encourage them to be in their body rather than to overthink each instruction when doing their practice.


The conscious connection between brain and body takes time and often people can only follow one or two instructions. In order to be less effortful, we emphasise slow conscious movement without overstraining the physiology (we don’t force the breath) and don’t overstretch muscles or move too quickly. This is very important, especially for beginners. As I will discuss later (another blog), not being in your body mindfully can activate the myotatic stretch reflex and make the body seize up, which leads to less distribution of energy, blood and feeling more exhausted!


One important aspect of physical movement is to move energy and communication throughout your body through channels or so-called ‘NADIS’. This energy takes the name of different terms in different languages, so e.g. in Sanskrit, it is called PRANA. Information is consciousness and takes the Sanskrit name CHITTA. There are different levels of energy (gross, subtle energy etc.).


Meet Prana

Prana translates as ‘pra’ to ‘fill’ or ‘movement’ and ‘an’ ‘constant’ and the word ‘prana’ gets translated as ‘vital energy’, ‘life force’ or ‘vital principle’. Prana exists both on the macrocosmic level and microcosmic level. On the macrocosmic level, we call it ‘mahāprana’ (the great vital energy). There are said to be six things that make up the universe, namely ‘energy, matter, space, time, life, and consciousness’.


“A man may have ears, eyes, all faculties and parts of the body, but unless he has mahāprana there is no consciousness”


In Hindu literature, prana is sometimes described as originating from the Sun and connecting the elements. There is a little story written in the Upanishads, which goes like this:


According to this story, there are five faculties of our nature

In Hindu literature, prana is sometimes described as originating from the Sun and connecting the elements. There is a little story written in the Upanishads, which goes like this:


According to this story, there are five faculties of our nature:

· The mind

· Breath

· Speech

· Hearing

· Sight


According to the story, mind, speech, ear and eye had an argument. They argued about who was the most important.


In order to find out, one by one left the body. The first one to leave was SPEECH, but everybody realised that the body stayed intact simply not speaking. The next one to leave was EYE, but again the body was ok with this, simply could not see. Then EAR left, the same thing, the only thing was that the body could not hear. MIND tried and body continued although unconscious. Finally, PRANA left, and to everybody’s shock, the body began to die, and all the other faculties lost energy. BREATH won the argument. Without breath, there is no life.


Five types of PRANA

There are five types of prana or air (vāyus) with praṇā vāyu being the basic air from which the other air or winds arise.


A brief summary of the 5 types of prana are (of which the first two are the most important):


· Prana - inward moving, forward and upward moving energy – associated with the movement of the navel to the throat or larynx and top of the diaphragm. It is also associated with the respiratory organs, organs of speech, throat, gullet etc. it’s the force which draws the breath in, therefore works in mouth and nose, converts water into sweat and urine, controls glandular secretions. This energy pervades is the chest. It is associated with the inhalation.


· Apana - outward and downward moving force, from the navel to the anus or/and root chakra, circulates between the navel and the soles of feet, provides energy for large intestines, kidneys, anus, reproductive organs. The location point is often illustrated as being in the pelvis. It’s associated with the exhalation.


· Samana - active at the navel centre (where the digestive fire or called agni sits and all purification and transformation take place) and often called the ‘middle breath’ or ‘balancing air’, samana absorbs and consolidates all our intake. Its main function is to assimilate prana in all its forms and the movement is from the periphery of the body to the centre. It is also often described as the central power station, that is, samana vayu collects all the energy from the food we eat, the breath we take, the sensory objects we see, taste, touch and feels as our existing mental experiences. All our experiences are digested or not digested with this force. Samana vayu is where the two opposing forces prana and apana meet, unite and therefore awaken samana. This union strengthens us, balances the mind and gives us the courage to deal with life. This expansion of samana caused by the unification of prana and apana at the navel centre is also said to awaken one of the main nadis (energy channel) along the spinal cord (main channel: sushumna).


“When our samana energy force is healthy, we benefit from strong digestion, vitality, and balance at every level.”


· Udana (above the larynx, sensory receptors with a circular flow around the neck and head. It is connected to our speech, self-expression and growth.


· Vyana (pervades the whole body and controls the overall movements and coordinates the other vital energies), situated in the heart and lungs and the movement is from the centre to the periphery.

There are also minor pranas that govern in our body the processes, such as blinking, sneezing, coughing, yawning, hiccups, belching etc.


In Yoga, it is said the unification of Prana and Apana through breath control causes (that is by reversing the direction of those opposing moving forces and with the unification of Samana at the navel) Kundalini (see below) to awaken.


According to yogic philosophy, we are surrounded by subtle energy fields, layers or sheaths (‘kosha’) like the layers of an onion and only once we have brought them all into balance, can we speak about yoga.


The five sheaths (pancha-kosas) are described in the latter Upanishad. From a gross sheath to an ever-finer sheath, they are:


1. Annamaya kosha -‘foodstuff’ sheath (Anna)

2. Pranamaya kosha - ‘energy, pranic, vital’ (Prana/Apana) – holding together our body and mind

3. Manomaya kosha -’mind-stuff’ sheath (Manas)

4. Vigyanmaya kosha - ‘wisdom’ sheath (Vigyan)

5. Anandamaya kosha - ‘bliss’ sheath (Ananda) – said to be active in deep sleep

Each of those koshas is based on one of the elements. There are practices in which the practitioner re-examines the components of the five koshas and becomes aware of subtle influences of the 5 elements within each of the koshas in daily devotional meditation.


According to the Upanishads:

‘Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself. Inside this is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes its shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine experience benefit from excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life. Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. It fills the two denser bodies and has the same shape. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear. Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. It permeates the three denser bodies and assumes the same form. Those who establish their awareness here free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions and develop the self-control necessary to achieve their goals. Hidden inside is yet a subtler body composed of pure joy. It pervades the other bodies and shares the same shape. It is experienced as happiness, delight and bliss.’


Gayatri Mantra

Om bhur bhuvah svah tat savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhimahi dhiyo yo nah

prachodayat.


Translation:

The physical plane, the subtle plane, the casual plane, we meditate on the divine light of that adorable sum of spiritual consciousness. May it stimulate our power of spiritual perception.



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Sundara Yoga Teacher Training

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