Breath: Energy of Consciousness
By Shabna Cader
Prana - Noun (Hinduism): breath, considered as a life-giving force. “prana is seen as a universal energy which flows in currents in and around the body”
Have you ever come to realise the importance of your breath? I think it’s one of the biggest factors of our life that we tend to take for granted because it happens to be something that occurs quite naturally even if we aren’t aware of it most of the time.
There’s an ancient Vedic tale regarding the importance of prana. The five main faculties of our nature—the mind, breath, speech, hearing, and sight—were arguing about which was the most important. To resolve the dispute they decided 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, sight departed, yet the body flourished though blindness. Then, the ear left, yet the body thrived though deafness. Finally the mind left, yet still the body lived on, though it was now in an unconscious state. However, the moment prana began to leave, the body was instantly on the brink of death causing other faculties to also rapidly lose their life-force. Therefore, they all rushed to prana and begged it to stay, admitting to its supremacy.
The moral of this story is that to control these faculties, one must be able to control and harness the power of prana.
In short, prana is how we come to understand and bring about positive transformation in both mind and body. Although there’s plenty of literature on the subject, it is yet vast and profound information that is rarely understood and acknowledged. I am only beginning to tap into it and this article includes some literature that I’ve picked up along the way, and some I’ve gathered especially to include here. Prana has many levels of meaning, from the physical breath to the energy of consciousness itself, and in order to understand everything in between, it is important to also understand pranayama kosha. Literally translating into ‘vital sheath’ or ‘vital body’, it is said that pranayama kosha is the sphere of all our life energies. This sphere 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 Five Pranas
The pranayama kosha comprises of the five pranas, also known as vayus or forces of the air. These are divided according to movement and direction, and are important topics in ayurvedic medicine and yogic practices.
Prana vayu (forward-moving air) - governs all kinds of reception into the body, from eating, drinking, and inhaling, to the reception of sensory impressions and mental experiences.
Apana vayu (air that moves away) - governs all forms of elimination and reproduction. On a deeper level, it rules the elimination of negative sensory, emotional, and mental experiences.
Udana vayu (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.
Samana vayu (balancing air) - moves from the periphery to the centre, 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.
Vyana vayu (outward-moving air) - moves from the centre 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.
Apana vayu - governs the movement of energy from the navel down to the root chakra at the base of the spine.
Udana vayu - governs the movement of energy from the navel up to the head.
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.
In brief, prana brings in the fuel, samana converts this fuel to energy, vyana circulates the energy, apana disposes of the waste products produced by the conversion process, and udana manages the energy thus created, enabling the mind and body to function effectively. Now this may seem like a lot of information and perhaps even jargon to someone who is new to the subject of prana, but in the simplest forms, it is the idea of keeping good and optimal health in order to keep our pranas working in harmony. When one prana becomes imbalanced, the others tend to lose their sense of balance as well, because they are all connected.
The main way guided and suggested to work with prana is through pranayama, the practice of breath control. This guided practice is typically approached in the form of yogic breathing exercises. Yoga emphasises on the purification of both mind and body, as a mean of realising or coming into one’s higher self.
Now, truth to be told, there are plenty of yogic breathing exercises that are helpful but the most important is alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana), which is my personal favourite and also one technique that I go back to very often. This type of breathing helps balancing the 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-dominant and aids in activities such as digestion, work, and concentration, and is fiery in constitution. The left side is water-predominant and aids in activities such as rest, sleep, and relaxation. Both currents need to be balanced in order to achieve equilibrium of mind and body. If you’re ever feeling either lightheaded or heavy headed, having a headache or migraine, or feeling nauseous, give alternate nostril breathing a go. Five minutes of mindful breathing in this form will help you feel a lot more relaxed.
Regular alternate nostril breathing is yet another great technique to keep the pranas in balance. The breath of fire (kapalbhati) is also a foundational breath technique used in the practice of Kundalini Yoga. It is rapid, rhythmic, and continuous, and involves an equilibrium on the inhale and the exhale, with no pause between them. It is always practiced through the nostrils with mouth closed, unless stated otherwise. For beginners this might seem a bit challenging, but one can always start with just ten fiery breaths to get the hang of it. It may feel extremely rigid in a way but if practiced correctly, it should relax the entire body. In my first few attempts, I almost felt out of breath and a great deal of heat within my core. Some tend to feel dizziness, some tingling, travelling sensations, and light-headedness but these are signs of the mind and body adjusting to the new breath and new stimulation of the nerves. Benefits include release of toxins, strengthening of the nervous system, increased physical endurance, and increase in oxygen delivery to the brain.
One of the other classic techniques is the ocean breath (ujjayi pranayama). It is known for its gentle, rhythmic, and soothing sound similar to that of breaking ocean waves, which further enhance the response of slow and relaxed breathing. Ujjayi has a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system, releases feelings of irritation and frustration, and helps calm the mind and body.
Thus, in many ways and more, the prana within us gives life and allows us to act and react. When we come to open and welcome this great force and power, and seek to bring it more mindfully into our lives, the benefits are plenty. I hope you come to realise and value prana in your own way, and allow it to lead you to wondrous spaces in time.