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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Prana and Pranayama

December 30, 2003

One of the delegates asked a very simple but honest question in one of the conference. Not many people paid attention to it but it made me think with sincerity.
The question is a common man has the grasp of two things; one is body and the other is mind. When one has pain or injury it is there at body level. Another thing that bothers one is worry or suffering which is there at mind level. This appears to give him answers to all his problems. Apart from these two why do we need a third aspect called prana? How can we convince somebody with the idea of prana? Excepting India the whole world developed so far for several thousands of years with out a word equivalent to prana. For a lay person who is not introduced to Indian ways of thinking, in what way can we convince him about the importance of prana?
This, I found, is a very interesting question. Some of the speakers tried to answer it in their own way. Some suggested that we all have life pulsating in us. That is prana. This is alright that we have life which is prana. The objection is that we know that we have life, which is prana and we know we are living as long as there is prana in us and the moment it goes away we are no more! This truth everybody knows. Everybody knows that as long as there is prana there will be activities going on, such as, heart will be beating and respiration will be going on. There will be activity in the hands and legs, eyes, ears and in the brain. If this energy is same as the food energy that we take, then as long as we continue to give food so long we should be living. But it is not so. This prana may not be the energy that we take in the form of food, because even though we continue to take food we will not continue to live. So life energy is different from the food energy we take and food appears to be complimenting this, which is some kind of fundamental aspect called prana.
I thought in another direction to convince myself to think about this prana and need to continue to work with this prana in the form of pranayama practices. Several years ago, I was invited for a satsang by a friend of mine, who is a very highly sophisticated lady, coming from an aristocratic family. She wanted to offer me a cup of tea which she wanted to make. She put half a liter of milk on the stove. When the water started boiling she transferred two cups in to another vessel and put some tea powder added milk and it has become cold. Now she once again tried to heat it and add sugar. Then she found the vessel was not proper and transferred it into another vessel and tried to stain and on and on! I told her, “Madam, I would have spent lot less energy in making two cups of tea rather than watching you make two cups of tea!”
Outcome of the result being the same, one can do with less prana where as the other spends more prana. There can be such a difference in the life energy being spent by different people. This difference does not depend on the food energy that we take. A few more similar day to day life examples I can bring up here. When you look at the hand writing of some people you can notice this difference. Some people write continuously for ten pages at a stretch very legibly and beautifully and the letters you can find them to be uniform and no change in their shape and size indicating there is no energy level difference between beginning and at the end of writing for him. On the other hand many others feel completely exhausted by the time they come to the end of the page, while they are writing. This we find does not depend on the food one takes nor the training one has taken in the activity called writing.
This I feel is the way prana can manifest in the form of writing. This is prana in English we can refer to it as life force, for the lack of any other word. This is certainly different from the energy that we take in the form of food!
The same way when some dancers dance, it is so soft like gentle flow of breeze, where as when some dance you feel as if there is an earth quake! This difference is seen not only in dancing, but you can see it in every activity such as walking, talking, singing, playing, cooking etc. a person exhausts large amount of the life force in doing these simple activities where as some others are just fresh even after doing a large amount of work. And this difference is independent of the energy a person consumes in the form of food. This is known as prana!
If the amount of prana a person puts behind an activity is constant and unchangeable, which means the amount of prana spent by one in doing certain activity is absolutely fixed like one’s finger prints, and if a person has no control or command over this prana one spends, then there is no point in discussing about it. Then the difference between the prana spent by different persons for same amount of work done is different. If it is like one person is tall and one is short and nothing can be done about it. It looks so from our experience like if one asks how to reduce amount of energy spent behind walking or behind talking we can not suggest how can that be possible. But, on the other hand, there is one function-center in our body where we can control it to some degree. That is our respiratory center. At respiratory center we can definitely but gradually create a change. If you suggest one to slow down breath rate one can make it happen. One can make the respiration soft and smooth. Voluntarily one can take deep breath and thereby achieve slow respiratory rate. A practice of this manipulating prana spent for sufficiently long periods of time can bring about a permanent change in the respiratory rate.
Prana is that force behind respiratory muscles to generate and control our respiratory activity. By slowing the respiratory rate we are actually controlling the prana, breath is only consequential. Prana is responsible for all the activities with in us. In other words different activities are the manifestation of same prana through different centers such as seeing, hearing, talking, and thinking etc. slowing down the prana activity at one center. Automatically sows down at all other centers. We become cool!
This can be experienced naturally. When somebody is in panic and agitated slowing and deep breathing will help him to come out of the panic situation. Prana slowed down at respiratory center slows down the activity of prana at all the other centers. That is the reason the pranayama practices are given as slowing down the speed of respiration by Patanjali.
One of the important difficulties one encounters in trying to slow down respiration is monotony (not having variety) and the other difficulty is that our mind starts wandering away in all directions and as a result we loose our awareness. Once the awareness is not there we are not there any more to slow down the activity of prana. It is therefore necessary to have techniques to attach our awareness to respiration. These techniques may also have some other benefits incidentally, such as improving lung functions etc, but primarily it is to slow down prana activity.
These techniques are of three categories.
The first category is where the physiological details of respiratory center are used. Our lungs have three sets of muscles, namely the diaphragm muscle which separate stomach from lungs, the chest muscles which are spanning between the ribs and the third, the clavicular muscles which are associated with clavicles and shoulder blades. Respiration takes place through both the nostrils and if necessary we also use mouth for respiration. These details are utilized for the sake of pranayama practices in a nut shell. Some of these techniques are anuloma viloma pranayama, nadi-shuddhi pranayama, suryanuloma and chandranuloma pranayama, and bhastrika which fall under the first category.
The second category of practices uses the temperature aspect of respiration. We can feel the temperature of the air we breathe, varying with moisture while we breathe through mouth. We can also feel warm breath while exhaling. Can we enhance this property and make it useful. These practices are Sheetali, Sheetkari, and Sadanta pranayama.
The third category of practices is associated with sound. The sound that we produce while talking uses our breath. The practices are Nada-anusandhana, Bhramari etc.
The essential philosophy is that the peace of mind is the purpose and goal of life. Where there is no peace there is no happiness even though we may have many other things may. Yoga by definition is the technique to calm down the mind. This peace of mind, when percolated into prana, manifests as slowness and at body level manifests as relaxation. If we have neglected this goal of life, we are deviating from the very definition of yoga. But though the goal of pranayama is to slow down the prana inside some times consciously suspending the breath with a gentle pressure can also be adapted which is known as Kumbhaka. This may be useful for removing the lethargy and dullness.
In the path of spiritual progress one elevated himself above the level of physical body with the help of asanas and transcends the prana body by slowing down the prana. Further the mental body is transcended through meditation which is described in the Patanjali yoga sutras as Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
Thus the practices called pranayama are not what you do with prana, but what you do to prana so that we can transcend the bondages and disturbances at prana and we can continue our journey to subtler layers of existence.
Here I have not covered the details of the technology of practices of pranayama. They are available in various pranayama texts. Let us but bear in mind one thing that techniques are all for the sake of enriching and enhancing the inner peace and harmony.

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