ISSUE #016 - Jul 09, 2019

The Prāṇa of Paramahansa Yogananda

Jensen Martin

For most of the yogis of the present era, the name of Paramahansa Yogananda will be very familiar. A key icon of the first wave of early 20th century Guru’s from India, Yogananda presented an American audience with scientific meditation techniques that he promised would lead to a tangible experience with the Divine if practiced correctly.  Since yoga’s explosive popularity in the past couple decades, Yogananda’s name has become even more relevant, largely through his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, which has now been translated into more than 50 languages. Like many others, my first reading of this book was a gateway into a magical world of yogis with supernatural powers and an example of a life that was directed by a Divine hand which, for Yogananda, often showed itself in the form of miraculous visions or experiences.

As influential as Yogananda has been, the finer points of his teachings are often unexamined in the still developing world of western yoga. While many know Yogananda as a teacher of the prāṇāyāma technique of Kriya Yoga, it is a far smaller number of people that have investigated the other prāṇāyāmas taught by him and the more subtle aspects of Kriya yoga. Even though the outer appearance of Self-Realization Fellowship, the international organization founded by Yogananda, can feel very traditional with its Sunday lecture services, the writings of Yogananda reveal an extraordinarily broad understanding of the human mind and the subtle body which are still relevant today and should be thoroughly examined by the serious yoga practitioner.

For the purposes of this article, I will give a summary of the science of prāṇāyāma according to Yogananda. I will attempt to present here a small history of the evolution of Yogananda’s methods through his studies with his Guru in India and then I will discuss his definition of prāṇa.

The Early Life of Yogananda

Yogananda was born in the city of Kolkata in West Bengal, India, a region historically famous for producing great spiritual renaissance through the life and teachings of great saints such as Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ram Prasad Sen, or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Yogananda expressed from an early age many signs that foretold his later spiritual career; Guru Lahiri Mahasaya had blessed the infant Yogananda and proclaimed that he would “be a great spiritual engine,” and the scenes of his adolescence show displays of religious and yogic zeal. Yogananda’s most formative years were those spent with his own Guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, who was an advanced disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya and who had perfected the Kriya technique. With Sri Yukteswar’s training, Yogananda mastered the various prāṇāyāmas taught in the line of Lahiri Mahasaya and as a result, attained the highest levels of samādhi, bliss consciousness, while he was still a young man.

Sri Yukteswar’s training was quite severe. He expressed no leniency for those who had come to him for training. Yogananda was regularly pushed past his comfortable limits in order to please his Guru. In order to achieve the success he envisioned, Yogananda had to master the techniques of yoga that originated from Mahavatar Babaji. The techniques, which were handed down from the great Mahavatar to Lahiri Mahasaya, were said to be the most effective form of meditation available in this present age. Working with the nadis, subtle energy channels, the prāṇāyāma technique would quicken the practitioner’s spiritual evolution at an accelerated rate. According to the great Master, this method of Kriya yoga techniques was the same or similar to the methods of meditation in the higher ages of ancient times, and the same method known to other great Masters such as Shankara, Patañjali, Kabir, and even Christ and the other Hebrew prophets.

Yogananda received initiation and instruction from his Guru and later, permission from the founder of the lineage to teach these techniques to others. Yogananda made it his life mission to come to America and teach these methods of meditation in a simple yet powerful way that could more quickly expand the consciousness of Western minds who were as yet unaccustomed to a yogic lifestyle. In order to present these techniques in a way that would appeal to the current trends, Yogananda modified the original techniques taught by Lahiri Mahasaya and used his own knowledge of prāṇa and the subtle energies of the body to teach four different techniques to his students.

Each one of these techniques is highly specialized; designed uniquely to affect the body’s prāṇa to stimulate different kinds of awakening experiences. When practiced together, the methods are supposed to lead an intensely meditating practitioner into the same samādhi experiences of bliss that Yogananda received from Sri Yukteswar.

The Science of Prāṇa

Before we can get into the breakdown of the techniques themselves, we should examine the way that Yogananda talked about prāṇa and its potentialities. Today, many yogis translate ‘prāṇa’ to mean ‘breath’. Therefore, ‘prāṇāyāma’ which is a combination of ‘prāṇa’ and ‘ayama’, control, would mean ‘breath-control’. However, Yogananda takes a different approach and translates ‘prāṇa’ to mean ‘life-force’, making ‘prāṇāyāma’ to mean ‘life-force control’. Yogananda chose the definition of life-force over breath because he understood that the breath is just one of the many functions regulated by prāṇa. The exercises of yoga harmonize not only the breath, but all of the various energies that enliven the body.

Essentially, Yogananda says that prāṇa is broadly defined as ‘force’ or ‘energy,’ the same force which actively drives and sustains the universe. The prāṇa of the universe he calls “Para-Prakṛti” which is the natural driving force which forms the underpinnings of creation. A stricter definition of the word would be used to refer to the vital power of a living creature; like the functions of the organs and systems of the body of a man or an animal. The individual prāṇa is the subtle intelligence which keeps the body in harmonious operation and is called by Yogananda the “soul” of the cells, for the health of the prāṇa system decides the health of the body’s cell growth and function.

After the prāṇa forms the baby in the womb of the mother according to the karmic blueprint, the individual prāṇa can be broken down into five different categories. These five categories are: prāṇa – the power that brings the other forces into manifestation, apāna – the power of excretion or removal, vyāna – the power of circulation, samāna – assimilation and digestion, and udāna – the power which differentiates cells in their various functions. These forces of prāṇa are partly sustained by food and exercise, but primarily they are sustained astrally by the universal cosmic prāṇa, the Para-Prakṛti, which enters into the body in the medulla in the back of the head. Since the prāṇa is primarily sustained by the universal prāṇa, it is therefore extremely wise to have a habit of prāṇāyāma practice, which enlarges the receiving and storage capacity of the medulla and cerebrum to embody the universal prāṇa and convert it into the healthy function of the individual’s specific prāṇa. This individual prāṇa is mostly based in the sympathetic nervous system and the cells in the spine, but prāṇa is present in literally every cell in the body, for without the prāṇa to energize the cells, they would fall apart.

Final Remarks

The prāṇāyāma techniques taught by Yogananda and the detailed, scientific explanations he gives regarding each method, are one of his great contributions to mankind. Even for a meditator who does not practice Yogananda’s methods, reading the details of the science behind his techniques can be extremely helpful for self-reflection. In Yogananda’s writings, he makes many statements about the yogic body or the nature of the subtle mind which can be further unpacked to find incredible implications about the personal prāṇa life-force or the expansive Para-Prakṛti. For all of us, it leaves a message that the goal of unity with the expanse of Divine Consciousness is right within our grasp. Even if someone does not have the time to meditate deeply, just the thought of universal connectivity will bring peace of mind and sow the seeds for future transformation.

Sources used for this Article:

Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita. Los Angeles, CA. Self-Realization Fellowship, 1995.

Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. Los Angeles, CA. Self-Realization Fellowship, 1946.

Recommended for Further Reading:

Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary. North Point Press; 2009.

Muktibodhananda, Swami. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 1985.

Mallinson, James and Singleton, Mark. Roots of Yoga. Great Britain: Penguin Classics, 2017.

Yogananda, Paramahansa. The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You. Los Angeles, CA. Self-Realization Fellowship, 2004.


ISSUE #016

On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Image: On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma

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