ISSUE #016 - Jul 09, 2019


Srivatsa Ramaswami

It is common knowledge that prana is life force. Prana is a samasa word, samasa means a compound word. It is ana with a prefix pra. My Guru would unzip this word to “prakarshena anati gacchati iti prAnah” which will be the vigraha vakya. That which, with wholesome labor, moves forward is prana and it refers to life force which relentlessly works all through life. The prana in every individual divides itself into five specific entities doing different functions to maintain life. They are prana, apana, vyana, udana, and samana. This one life force also is called mukhya prana or principal life force that divides itself to do varied functions to maintain life.

For an individual to live, one has to take in material from the outside world and that force which is responsible to take in matter from the outside world for survival is called prana. Pra here means to take inward. We need food to eat, water to drink. A yogi eats once a day to maintain life. A bhogi eats twice a day for pleasure and then a rogi or a person eats several times a day and makes oneself sick. Then we also need to take water from outside. One drinks water about six times a day. Then we need air which we breathe in. And this is done according to some texts about 21,400 times a day. We breathe at the rate of about 15 times a minute. All these functions may be considered to be the function of prana, but the breathing in is considered the main function, the incessant function of prana.  Ana svase says dhatupata, ana means to breathe. So prana is associated with breathing in or inhalation.

The next prana is called apana, it is apa+ana. What is apa? It is to discard or keep away. Just as we need to take air, water, and solid food we have to discard waste products from the system– solid wastes, liquid wastes, and then gaseous waste. And this function is said to be done by apana. We defecate once a day, urinate 6 times a day, and breathe out about 21,400 a day. Prana and apana between them take in and discard material to survive.

Vyana is vi+ana. The prefix ‘vi‘ would mean to spread out and permeate, vyapaka. It is responsible to convey through the complex nadi system nutrients to every cell. It may be associated with the circulatory system centered in the heart. Vyana is the prime force of rakta sanchara or blood circulation and may be considered to be centered at the heart.  Then we have udana.  Uda+ana is udana. Uda or ut means upward. So according to some experts udana propels nutrients upward to the head and the sense organs in the head. However, there is another view of the function of udana. Uda or ut here is used in the sense of something higher or superintending. The prana and apana which are associated with inhalation and exhalation have to operate in tandem and udana is said to control prana and apana to act in sequence. We inhale for about 2 seconds and then there is the momentary pause and the exhalation is there for another couple of seconds and this process continues autonomously.  At the end of life it is considered that udana is the one that stops or leaves the body. When that happens the exhalation does not stop and next inhalation does not start resulting in the end of the life story. Then we have samana which is sama+ana. Sama means to balance, harmonize or homogenize. This samana is said to to kindle and keep the gastric fire glowing so that all the varieties of food we dump into the stomach or annakosa is digested.

So, we have one life force doing a number of functions to maintain life and five of them are said to be vital. It could be observed that all these functions are done involuntarily. Prana and apana work all the time, whether one is awake, dreaming or sleeping. These go on whether one pays attention or not. Vyana, which basically is the function of the heart, is an organ which functions autonomically. It is not usually possible to control it voluntarily, by will. Similarly, udana is also autonomic. Samana vayu associated with digestion also is involuntary. It attempts to digest all the junk we dump into it.

So, what is the use of this information? The hatha yogi is concerned with it. The overall goal of the hatha yogi is to integrate all the five pranas into one and at the time of leaving the body the prana is said to move along a nadi called sushumna nadi and finally pierce through the skull, the fontanel, and merge with the one universal prana. For the rest the prana leaves through the other outlets like the eyes, ears or even anus and such individuals take another birth as the prana moves out along the subtle body to take another birth due to accumulated karmas. Even if one is not interested in this ultimate goal of a hatha yogi, hatha yoga is especially concerned with the pranayama which slowly brings the autonomic prana to voluntary control. The whole thing starts with controlling the prana vayu through pranayama. The prana and apana while they are autonomic are also amenable to voluntary control and that procedure is pranayama. By first bringing the prana and apana under voluntary control, the hatha yogi is able to employ a number of internal practices of the body called mudras to slowly bring the other pranas like vyana, udana, and samana under control. Having brought all of them under voluntary control the hatha yogi guides the united prana for the ultimate journey described earlier.

What about ordinary people like us who are interested in hatha yoga but are not thinking about the ultimate goal. Can hatha yoga, especially pranayama, help us in maintaining good physical and mental health?

What are the procedures available? By pranayama and the mudras it is possible to regulate the functioning of the five pranas so that they do their duty without let or hinderance. While asanas help to exercise the skeletal muscles, pranayama and mudras help to harmonize the functioning of the five pranas and thereby ensure the healthy functioning of the various internal vital kosas like the hrudaya kosa (heart), the svasa kosa (lungs), garbha kosa (uterus), mutra kosa (kidneys), anna kosa (stomach), and svasa kosa (lungs). In fact, Sri Krishnamacharya in his book Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya states that the health of six kosas or vital organs inside the body may be maintained by pranayama.

Pranayama and the mudras go hand in hand. Mudras cannot be effectively performed without pranayama and pranayama becomes more effective with the bandhas and mudras. While hatha yoga is full of several varieties of pranayama and hatha yoga texts describe them, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes the parameters associated with pranayama.

These five pranas are not under voluntary control. Life goes on; prana and apana help to breathe in and breathe out with udana superintending this life-giving activity. Samana is also independent and not under voluntary control. Vyana also is autonomic. However, the yogi is able to bring all the five pranas under control. There are references to the siddhis of mastering these pranas like the mastery of samana and udana in the Yoga Sutras; by proper practice of asana and then especially pranayama and the mudras the yogi brings all these automimic pranas under his/her voluntary control thereby ensuring the optimal level of functioning of the vital organs. And that is yoga, hatha yoga.

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ISSUE #016

On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Image: On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma

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