Prana – What is it, why do we need it, and how do we get it?
In a yoga practice, we hear the word prana used by anyone at any time. The idea is fairly simple – prana is energy, universal life-force, or something general and intangible like that. It is sort of like someone telling you that there are seven billion people on the earth. We understand the words (LOTS of people!), but actually comprehending what ‘seven billion’ really means is almost completely outside our cognitive ability. So what is prana? What does it mean when a teacher tells you that a certain breath technique is “pranayama” or to “inhale fresh prana”? What is the goal of “controlling prana” and why is it important in a yogic practice?
Prana as a Force
Prana is most commonly referred to as energy or a vital force. Sri Swami Sivananda says that prana is “the finest vital force in everything which becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action, and in the mental plane as thought”. His understanding is that light, heat, magnetic energy, electricity, etc. are all manifestations of prana, all springing up from Atman. This theory alone explains eye vayu – by holding our eyes open we absorb energy in the form of light particles (photons), and these particles are transformed by the body into useable energy. In fact, our eyes absorb many waves of light that are not directly visible to us (UV, infrared) but can still be used by the body as prana. So after practicing urdva danurasana a few times, our bodies create heat and energy in the environment, which can be reabsorbed through the eyes by practicing the eye vayu while this energy is still abundant in the space. Trying to harness more prana than our bodies and minds are ready for can be damaging. This is why we don’t jump into breath retention techniques before we are ready, and also why staring at the sun is a terrible idea – that much UV at once is very damaging. However, walking on the beach on a sunny day is a wonderful way to absorb prana – being immersed in it without trying to control it.
Walking along a beach on a windy, cloudy day is also an effective way to absorb prana. Whenever there is a wind warning, I immediately want to head to Dallas Road to bask in the intensity of crashing waves. And by the amount of company I have when I do this, I assume a lot of other people feel the invigorating energy of a good wave-show. Hurricanes and tornadoes also focus huge amounts of energy, and thrill seekers may even brave these storms in order to feel that massive energy pocket. This is prana. Prana is created by friction in water and wind. When molecules rapidly rub together, negative charges (electrons) are transferred. The idea is that the friction in wind and water causes polarization; pockets of positive and negative charges. This is the exact same science as static electricity – when you take a toque off, negative charges are transferred to the toque and your hair has a positive charge (because like charges repel each other, your hair stands up – each strand is trying to get as far away from the other as possible). By being in the presence of the transfer of charge in a storm, we can absorb the electrons that are released by friction and use them as energy. This is the yogic explanation for why being in the presence of crashing waves is invigorating.
So prana may be a force that can be generated by pretty much anything, and used by living bodies as energy and vitality. If a yogi can learn exactly how to acquire and preserve this energy, they could, in theory, live forever without food or water. They simply use this vital force to nourish their cells and their souls.
Prana as Matter
The second theory is that everything is made of prana; that there is prana in air, water, food, concrete, plants, wind, earth, etc. This is not mutually exclusive of the above argument – there can certainly be positive and negative charges in everything – we simply need to learn to harness these charges and some will be easier to access than others. Oxygen is the easiest because all we do all day long is breathe, and that may be why pranayama is the most effective way of controlling prana in the body.
Interestingly, if we think of prana as a building block for every other atom, molecule, or particle in the universe, yogis may well have solved the largest problem in theoretical physics today, thousands of years ago! The current quest in theoretical physics is to develop a theory that accounts for both large events (gravity and general relativity) and small events (quantum theory) – a grand universal theory. The present system is composed of two separate theories, Einstein’s general relativity (which breaks down when things get really really small), and Richard Feynman’s quantum theory (which works perfectly on the very small things but break down when anything gets as big as an atom – which is still pretty small). Without going into detail on these two theories, the current most popular idea to combine them is string theory. This is the idea that every particle in the entire known cosmos is made up of tiny strings that vibrate on different planes, to create everything. Granted, there are some problems with the theory and it is completely untestable, but the math is good. What makes it interesting is that vibrating energetic strings that are responsible for everything in the entire universe sounds remarkably like prana. Perhaps prana is can be described as tiny vibrating strings that, when put together appropriately, create everything: matter, energy, and force. Another explanation is that prana is the vibration alone, acting on tiny bits of matter – the vibration being responsible for the “music” of the universe. String theory is compatible with the idea of multiple universes and a much bigger picture of existence than we could possibly imagine. The idea of something out there, beyond our present universe is extremely compatible with Atman, and Hindu and yogic philosophies. Prana is thought to be the basic building block of everything, as are strings. Who is to say that they are not the same thing?
Why Learn to Control Prana?
Other than energy, why do we want prana? First, spare electrons are required to neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are molecules in the body that have a spare electron in the outer molecular shell, and they are theorized to be involved in damaging cell membranes causing a decrease in cellular activity and cell death. This is theorized to be an important component in the development of cancer cells, and in many damaging aging processes like organ failure and heart disease (as well as not-so-damaging aging processes, like skin wrinkles). Free radicals attack stable cells, stealing an electron from them. Then the attacked cell becomes the next free radical. Anti-oxidants (like Vitamin C and Vitamin E) neutralize free radicals by donating a spare electron to the radical and halting the chain reaction of electron-stealing. The anti-oxidant does NOT become a free radical because these molecules are stable in either state (with or without the extra electron). That is what makes them special. The yogic theory is that prana also acts as an anti-oxidant. It can be absorbed out of the air (or from water and food, for that matter) in the form of electrons and the basic negative charges swoop in and join a free radical, neutralizing the harmful cell by becoming part of it and creating a normal, stable molecule. One research study including 60 patients with coronary artery disease showed that practicing yogic breathing techniques (bhastrika, kapalabhati, anulom-vilom, Bhya, and Brahmari) increased the activity of anti-oxidant enzymes and helped to prevent cellular damage in patients.
Prana depletion can cause sickness, anxiety, depression, and a great deal of other ailments. Spending your days in artificial light, drinking coffee and alcohol, smoking, eating highly processed or unhealthy foods, and spending time with negative people or with people who zap your energy (we all know people like this!) are sure-fire ways to deplete your pranic stores. Prana is always lost faster than it is gained, which is why we all eventually die. The goal of yoga is not to avoid death (at least, this is certainly not my goal!) but I do want to be healthy and happy. Cultivating prana is the best way to do this. According to Swami Sitaramananda, prana can be cultivated from all of the elements. To cultivate prana from the earth, we walk barefoot in the grass. To cultivate prana from water, we drink water, or swim in the ocean. To cultivate prana from fire, we spend a day in the sun, we eat food that grew in the sun, or we sit by a fire on a cool summer night. The cultivate prana from air, we breathe! Air is the richest source of prana and most of us ignore it all day long. Take a deep breathe in and slowly exhale. I bet you feel better already. Is it any wonder that the acquisition of prana makes us happier and healthier? I felt lighter just writing this paragraph – imagine how I would feel if I actually went out and walked barefoot on the grass?
With that, perhaps the idea of prana is a little easier to grasp. It is not just an idea or a word that we can easily define but barely understand. It is, pretty much, everything. That good feeling we get when we sit on our lawn and suntan, or we go for a run on the breakwater – that is prana. So why do we want or need to cultivate it? Why on earth wouldn’t we??