What Is Prana?

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prāṇa (life force)

Prana Definition

Prana refers to the vital life force energy that permeates all living beings and the entire universe.

It is a Sanskrit term used in various spiritual and philosophical traditions, including yoga and ayurveda.

Prana is considered the subtle energy that animates and sustains life on multiple levels, from the physical body to the mind and consciousness. It is believed to flow through a network of subtle channels called nadis, influencing both the physiological and energetic functions of the body.

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Prana Deep Dive

Prana is believed to enter our bodies through the air we breathe, the food we eat, and other environmental and energetic exchanges we experience.

As ancient yogis believed prana to be ‘life force energy’ they developed systems to understand, cultivate and preserve one’s prana in order to increase longevity and spiritual experience.

Prana in Ancient Texts

Prana is mentioned in various ancient yoga texts with its earliest references in the Upanishads, a collection of philosophical texts dated from 7th century BCE- 5th century CE.

In the Upanishads, prana is described as the ‘vital breath’ or ‘life force’ that pervades all living beings and the entire universe. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanishad, among others, discuss the nature and significance of prana.

Prana is further elaborated upon in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an influential text on classical yoga philosophy. The Yoga Sutras, composed around 325 CE, describe prana as one of the five vital energies known as the “pancha pranas.”

Nadis and Pathways of Prana

Nadis are subtle energy channels through which prana flows. The most significant nadis in the yogic tradition are the ida, pingala, and sushumna.

an illustration of the nadis

Ida Nadi

The ida nadi is associated with the moon, it represents the feminine, cool, and nurturing aspect of prana.

Pingala Nadi

The pingala nadi is associated with the sun, represents the masculine, fiery, and dynamic aspect of prana.

Sushumna Nadi

The sushumna nadi runs parallel to the spine. It is the central channel and is considered the pathway to spiritual awakening.

Through asana (posture) practice, pranayama (breath control), and meditation, we can purify and balance the nadis, allowing prana to flow freely throughout the body.

Pranayama and Breath Control

Breath control is considered the most tangible manifestation of prana. The yogic practice of pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It focuses on consciously directing and expanding the breath to influence the flow of prana within the body.

Although modern-day yoga is usually associated with asana, in pre-modern India; pranayama was what defined the physical practice of yoga.

Pranayama refers to the practice of controlling and directing prana through various breathing techniques, such as:

  • Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) – regulates the flow of prana through the nadis (subtle energy channels) to balance the body and mind.
  • Kapalabhati (skull-shining breath) and Bhastrika (bellows breath) – involve forceful and rapid breathing, which increases the flow of prana, energizes the system, and purifies the nadis.
  • Ujjayi (victorious breath) – characterized by a slight constriction of the throat while breathing in and out through the nose which creates a soft hissing sound. It helps deepen the breath, calms the mind, and builds internal heat.
  • Brahmari (bee’s breath) – a calming pranayama technique where one produces a humming sound during exhalation, resembling the buzzing of a bee. It helps relieve stress, anxiety, and promotes mental clarity.
a woman sitting in a park practicing breathwork

The Five Vayus and the Ten Functions of Prana

Prana can be explored through its ten main functions, these include the five vayus (“winds”). The five vayus are described in Hindu, Ayurvedic and Tantric texts, as well as in Tibetan medicine.

Prana is one of the five vayus. The basic vayu is prana, and it is through prana in which the other vayus arise.

Understanding these distinct facets of prana provides insight into the dynamic interplay between energy and consciousness within the yogic framework.

The Five Vayus:

1. Prana – The Life-Sustaining Breath

Prana represents the life-sustaining force that permeates the entire body. It governs inhalation, the absorption of life force, and the circulation of energy throughout the physical and subtle body.

Prana nourishes the brain, heart, and respiratory system, maintaining vitality and ensuring overall well-being.

2. Apana – The Eliminating Breath

Apana governs exhalation and the downward flow of energy. It is responsible for eliminating waste, toxins, and negativity from the body and mind.

Apana also regulates the reproductive and eliminatory systems, fostering physical and emotional release, and creating space for renewal and rejuvenation.

a man meditating with a ball of prana in his chest

3. Udana – The Ascending Breath

Udana energizes and uplifts, facilitating the upward movement of pranic energy. It plays a vital role in expanding consciousness, promoting clarity, and enabling spiritual growth.

Udana powers the expression of speech, aids in swallowing, and supports the functions of the throat and vocal cords.

4. Vyana – The Expansive Breath

Vyana pervades the entire body, circulating prana and ensuring harmonious flow throughout the system. It helps maintain balance, flexibility, and vitality, fostering a sense of wholeness and integration.

Vyana governs the circulation of blood, nutrients, and energy, coordinating the functions of various bodily systems.

5. Samana – The Balancing Breath

Samana acts as the integrative force, harmonizing and assimilating prana. It supports the metabolic processes, promoting physical and mental equilibrium, and aiding in the extraction of nourishment from all aspects of life.

Samana governs digestion, absorption, and the assimilation of food, thoughts, and experiences.

Prana and The Chakras

Prana is intimately linked with the chakras, the energy centers within the subtle body. The chakras act as reservoirs of pranic energy and influence our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

The chakras are positioned at the points where the ida and pingala nadis intersect with the central sushumna nadi. They serve as junctions connecting numerous minor nadis and play a crucial role in the distribution and movement of prana throughout the entire body.

“Locks” above each chakra can block the flow of prana along the sushumna nadi. These locks prevent kundalini energy from rising up the spine to the crown chakra. Through careful and dedicated practice, yogi’s work to unblock these locks to achieve states of ‘awakening‘.

Through the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation, we can activate and balance the chakras, ensuring the smooth flow of prana.

a woman meditating with chakras on her

Prana In Your Life

There are practical ways we, as yoga practitioners, can cultivate prana and integrate practices into our daily routines to preserve our prana. Below you will find some suggestions:

1. Mindful Breathing

The breath is the most powerful gateway to prana. Throughout the day, pause and take a few conscious breaths, focusing on deep inhalations and exhalations.

This simple act can help to calm the mind, energize the body, and create a bridge between our outer experiences and inner vitality.

2. Nourishing Foods

Nourish your body by following an Ayurvedic diet, choose prana-rich foods that are fresh, vibrant, and full of life force. If possible, opt for organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as they retain more vital energy.

Mindfully prepare and consume your meals, infusing them with gratitude and awareness of the nourishment they provide on physical and energetic levels.

3. Nature Immersion

Spend time in nature to absorb the abundant pranic energy present in natural surroundings. Take leisurely walks, swim in the ocean, practice outdoor yoga, or simply sit in contemplation amidst the beauty of the natural world.

Allow the elements of earth, air, water, and sunlight to replenish and invigorate your being.

a man meditating closed eyed in nature with a beanie

4. Mind-Body Practices

Engage in mind-body practices that cultivate and balance prana. Yoga asanas, pranayama techniques, tai chi, or qigong help stimulate the flow of vital energy within the body, clear blockages, and promote overall well-being.

Regularly incorporating these practices into your routine will help to cultivate a sense of mind-body connection.

5. Meditation and Mindfulness

Through meditation and mindfulness practices, we can tune into the subtle realms of prana. Set aside a few moments each day to practice stillness, observe your breath, and expand your awareness.

This cultivates a deeper connection to your inner self and the universal life force.

6. Energy Cleansing

Regularly cleanse and balance your energetic system. This can be done through practices such pranayama, taking salt baths, or practicing energy healing modalities like Reiki.

Clearing stagnant energy and promoting a free-flowing pranic field allows for greater vitality and mental clarity.

7. Creative Expression

Engage in activities that allow for creative expression, such as painting, dancing, singing, or writing.

Creative pursuits open channels for pranic energy to flow freely, nourishing your spirit and connecting you to a deeper sense of joy and inspiration.

8. Gratitude and Positive Intentions

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude and set positive intentions each day.

Expressing gratitude for the blessings in your life and consciously directing your thoughts and actions towards positivity and kindness generates a higher vibrational energy, attracting more pranic abundance into your everyday experiences.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Amy is a yoga teacher and practitioner based in Brighton.

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