What is Prāṇa?
In many ways, the entire practice of Yoga can be understood as an engagement with prāṇa.
Prāṇa is the vital energy of life itself. It is the basic material for all that exists. In Sanskrit, prāṇa is a compound word made up of the prefix pra + root verb aṇ. Pra is an intensifier that has the double meaning of an action that is continual and an action that is preceding or that previously started. The root Aṇ, is to breathe or to be alive. Thus, prāṇa is both the origination of life and its continuation.
The Ṛg-Veda, the oldest of the Vedic texts, includes the creation myth where initially there is nothingness, neither death nor immortality, and “no air.” Then “the breathless” begins to breathe on it’s own. (10.129) Breath, or prāṇa, in this case, is synonymous with life and the creation of life.
Another story, found in several Upaniṣads, describes an argument between the vital functions about who is the greatest. To settle the argument, each vital function leaves the body for one year to find out which is most essential. In turn, speech, sight, hearing, mind, and semen each take a year away from the body, with no serious repercussions. When it comes time for the breath to depart, the five other functions immediately feet its movement, [like a great horse pulling loose from its tether]. They all then recognize breath as the most essential and greatest of the vital functions. Breath, in this narrative, is aligned with the self, or ātman. (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.1.6-12; Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 6.1.7-13, Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad 2.14).
In Sāṃkhyan terminology, puruṣa is unmanifest prāṇa, or the pure energy of consciousness itself. Prakṛti is manifest prāṇa, or the active force of creative energy.
Some contemporary traditions of yoga highlight the idea that the body is comprised of five kośas, or layers/sheaths. This idea may be drawn from early Upaniṣads (See Mallinson, Root of Yoga, 184), but it is not mentioned in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras or in the later Haṭha yoga texts. There are five kośas, or layers that make up the individual body. These include:
- annamaya – the food sheath, or physical body
- prāṇamaya – the prāṇa sheath, or layer made of breath
- manomaya – the mental sheath, or layer of mind (manas)
- vijñanamaya – consciousness sheath, or layer of intellect
- ānandamaya – bliss sheath, or layer of superconsciousness
The prāṇamaya kośa, like each kośa, is further divided into five aspects of breath/energy or prāṇa. In the non-dual traditions of Tantra, the analysis of the movement of prāṇa in the subtle body looks at these five elements of the prāṇamaya kośa as the primary vayus, or winds, that exist within the body. These include:
- prāṇa – inhalation, and the act of receiving food and sensory experience. This is the creative source.
- apāna – exhalation, excretion or removal. This is the act of letting go, or non-attachment and it is fundamental to the immune system.
- vyāna – circulation, both on a physical and energetic level.
- samāna – balance and harmonizing. This included assimilation of ideas and the digestion of food.
- udāna – will and transformation, or “upward moving air.” This is motivation and the ability to raise energy towards a higher purpose.
Yogic practice often focuses on breath control, or prāṇāyāma, as a means for accessing and gaining insight into prāṇa, or the vital energy of life. In English, the terms breath, spirit, and vital energy are not typically synonymous. This paradigm shift, rooted in the profound diversity of the word prāṇa, connects the individual act of breathing to the cosmic experience of life and creation itself.
What happens if we reimagine the breath as creative and spiritual energy?
Norman W. Brown. “Theories of Creation in the Rig Veda.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 85, no. 1, 1965, pp. 23–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/597699.
Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation. Mushiram Manoharlal Publishers: India (1998).
James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, eds. Roots of Yoga. (2017)
Tarka, vol. 16, https://www.embodiedphilosophy.com/issue/on-prana-pranayama/
American Institute of Vedic Studies, https://www.vedanet.com/the-secrets-of-the-five-pranas/