This text was written for the Zinal Congress of the EUY in 2024

Prāṇa - Living a healthy, happy and harmonious life

by Swami Maitreyi

“The word prāṇa assumes the quality of ‘livingness’. From the yogic point of view the entire cosmos is alive, throbbing with prāṇa.” from “Prana and Pranayama”, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati[1]


The science of prāṇa is called Prāṇa Vidyā and is mentioned in texts like the Upaniṣad from 500 BC and in more recent texts like Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham. The word prāṇa is Sanskrit and can be translated as a force in constant motion, energy or vital force. The ancient seers and yogis thousands of years ago asked themselves, what is life? What force makes life possible, what makes the sun and moon rise, the stars twinkle, the wind blow, the fire burn, the water flow and the earth tremble? What makes the plants grow and the animal and humans breathe, what makes us move, hear, see, talk, think and feel? Behind every experience they found that there was a force that made it all possible. In Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham[2] (3:17) it is explained: “The divine vital air, prāṇa, does quite everything in the body, as a machinist performs the activities of a machine.”


Modern science has identified different forces; the gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, the magnetic force, electrical force, nuclear force, photonic, thermal energy, and today they are trying to identify the force which unifies all the different forces, the unified force field. In Prāṇa Vidyā that unified force field or multidimensional energy was not only discovered and defined but also experienced by the ancient seers and yogis in deep states of contemplation, both in the universe and within the individual. The universal prāṇa is called Mahāprāṇa which exists within the individual as prāṇa in the same way as universal consciousness exists within the individual as individual consciousness. We might think of it as a science or experience of life, when in fact it is life itself, prāṇa is life and without prāṇa there is no life, behind every expression of creation, behind every experience of life, there is prāṇa. We switch on a lightbulb and see light, we switch on the television and see images and hear sounds, we switch on the AC and feel coolness but it is all due to the electricity flowing in the electrical cables. We don’t see or hear the electricity but we experience the light, sound, working of machines etc. Life is a network of energy and Prāṇa Vidyā is the science on how we can properly use, direct, understand, awaken, rise and experience the force of life. Every life form is part of the pranic network and there is a constant exchange, giving and receiving of energy. As individuals we have a storage of prāṇa within in the same way a battery stores electricity but we also need to generate prāṇa in order to survive. We need to feed not only the physical body but also the mind and spirit.


Experience of prāṇa

According to yoga human beings are able to experience not only the physical body but five different dimensions of our existence which are called the pañca kośa or the five sheaths: Annamaya-kośa, the physical body; Prāṇamaya-kośa, the pranic body; Manomaya-kośa, the mental body; Vijñānamaya-kośa, the psychic body; Ānandamaya-kośa, the body of bliss. We generate prāṇa through anna or food to sustain annamaya-kośa; through śvāsa or breath to sustain prāṇamaya-kośa; through manas or mental and emotional stimuli to sustain manomaya-kośa and bhava or higher feeling to connect with vijñana and ānandamaya-kośa. It is therefore very important what quality of food we eat or not eat, the water we drink, the air we breath, the mental input or the quality of thoughts and emotions and how we are able to connect to positive thoughts and emotions in order to supply our body, mind and spirit with higher quality prāṇa. For example fresh food or home cooked food will have more prāṇa than processed food or junk food. The air in the forest or by the sea has more prāṇa than the polluted air in the city. The same goes with all the sensorial inputs, sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch. Positive and constructive thoughts and emotions have higher prāṇa than negative and detrimental thoughts and emotions. Depending on the quality of the prāṇa we take in, we will either increase or decrease the prāṇa within. A distracted mind also tend to scatter the prāṇa which is why in the system of yoga practices where deviced to gather, redirect and focus the prāṇa of the body and mind, and instead of the prāṇa flowing downwards and outwards it is directed inwards and upwards to the higher and more subtle realms of consciousness and human experience.


Prāṇa and the system of Yoga

The ancient yogis of India through their experience of prāṇa on all different levels and dimensions deviced a system of practices in order not only to describe and understand prāṇa but also how to increase, access and utilise prāṇa in order to live a more healthy, happy and harmonious life.


The yogis described a process which begins with purification of pranic pathways or channels, strengthening of the body and mind so that a higher frequency of prāṇa can be conducted, redirecting and focusing the prāṇa from being scattered and fragmented. Today we know this systematic process as Haṭha yoga, Rāja yoga and Kriyā yoga. Most importantly the yogic process begins with awareness and in order to experience, increase and awaken prāṇa we need to become aware of prāṇa on different levels, within us and around us.


How do we experience prāṇa? On a physical level we experience the movements of the different limbs of the body, the functioning of the different systems of the body, voluntary as well as involuntary. The nervous system is responsible for all the physical functionings of the body and we experience the energy at this level in the form of nervous energy. The nervous system is divided into the sympathetic, the parasympathetic and central nervous system which are being provided with energy or prāṇa from the three main pranic channels; idā, piṅgalā and suṣumṇā nāḍī and distributed throughout the body in further 72000 pranic channels or nāḍī. Idā activates the left hemisphere of the brain and piṅgalā the right.


On a pranic level we experience prāṇa as vitality, we feel more or less energetic or that we have more or less vitality. On a mental level we experience prāṇa in the form of light. We can have bright ideas which are symbolized  with a light bulb above the head or we can have destructive thoughts and we say that we have dark thoughts. When we have positive and happy feelings and emotions we feel light and the sun shines bright and when we, on the other hand, are feeling down and depressed everything looks dark and gloomy. Becoming aware of the energy or prāṇa behind the thoughts and emotions can help us change the direction of the energy upwards and not downwards, increasing the light. The light can even become a light that shines for the others and the surroundings. For example anger can be very destructive and explosive but if it is redirected the same energy can be used creatively and constructively instead. The same with sexual energy. We experience the prāṇa which is stored within us in the form of sexual energy when it is released. When it is released in the lower centers it is used for procreation and pleasure but when the same energy is being sublimated and directed towards higher centers it is converted into spiritual energy and used for spiritual purposes. When prāṇa is experienced in the higher centers it becomes even lighter and is experienced in the form of higher understanding, clarity of mind, wisdom, expansiveness, lightness, peace, stillness and bliss.


The purpose of Haṭha yoga is to balance idā and piṅgalā, the parasympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, to strengthen the body and prepare the body and mind for the awakening and release of prāṇa .


The purpose of Rāja yoga is to manage the mental and emotional activities and responses and redirect the energy, prāṇa from negative, destructive and scattered towards positive, constructive and uplifting thoughts and emotions. And when the physical, mental and emotional energies have been balanced and strengthened the purpose of Kriyā yoga is to awaken and rise the stored prāṇa in suṣumṇā nāḍī to the higher centers, levels and dimensions of experience.


Regardless on which level or dimension our awareness and experience lies, by becoming aware of the energy or prāṇa behind the physical, mental, emotional, psychic or spiritual experience we can enhance the experience and live a healthier, happier and more harmonious life on all levels.

[1] Prana and Pranayama, author Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. Published by Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. Year of publication 2009.

[2] The Supreme Yoga, A new translation of Yoga Vasishta, Swami Venkatesananda, New Age Books, published 1976.