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

Prāṇa – The Force of Life

by Siddhartha Krishna

The Sanskrit word ‘prāṇa’ is derived from the verbal root ‘ana’ which means “to attempt, to endeavor, to make an effort.” Therefore, prāṇa refers to the force of life which makes it possible for the material body to make an effort, i.e. to engage in purpose-driven activities. Activity on all the three planes, the body, speech and mind, is driven by prāṇa.

This force of life, which has its origin in the union of consciousness (puruṣa) and energy (prakṛti), permeates the universe. The earth is teeming with prāṇa and the ultimate source of it is the Sun, often referred to in the Upaniṣad also as prāṇa. Prāṇa is carried not only by the wind element, but also by the heat and water elements. It is not only present in humans or animals, but also in plants.

In the physical body, prāṇa gives rise to activities which can be categorized under five categories:
prāṇa (special effort) which is related to respiration. This form is primarily active in the chest region.
apāna (downward effort) which is related to activities such as excretion. This is primarily active in the region below the navel.
vyāna (diffused effort) which is related to all forms of exertion. This is active in the entire body.
samāna (equalizing effort) which is related to digestion. This is primarily active around the navel region.
udāna (upward effort) which is related to vomiting etc. This is primarily active in the throat region.
It must be noted here that the term prāṇa is also used for all the five forms collectively. In the Vedas the words prāṇa and apāna are used respectively for exhalation (upward movement of the breath) and inhalation (downward movement of the breath).

It is important to note that breathing is the only essential physiological function that is both under voluntary and involuntary control. Because of the voluntary control we have over it, it can be used as a tool to calm the mind. The Upaniṣad speak of the intricate connection between the breath (prāṇa) and the mind. Both are mixed like water and milk, connected like flower and fragrance or sesame and oil, where the former stands for the breath and the latter for the mind. Yogic texts further illustrate their connection through the image of a bird bound to a thread, where the thread stands for the breath and the bird for the mind. Hence, agitation in one agitates the other. Similarly, the relaxation of one relaxes the other. This is the principle underlying the practice of prāṇāyāma and the management of turbulent emotions with it.  Even just observing the breath mindfully calms it down. Soft and long exhalations calm it down even further.

Apart from prāṇāyāma techniques found in the Haṭha Yogic texts, many meditation and visualization practices related to prāṇa can be found in the Vedas, especially in the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣadsections. Meditation on prāṇa, known as prāṇa-upāsanā, is seen as an essential preliminary step to prepare the mind for the deeper realization of unity and oneness with the universe. These meditation practices include (a) bowing in gratitude to numerous manifestations of prāṇa ; (b) visualization of oneself as a plant and the universal prāṇa as water nourishing it; (c) meditation on the external manifestations of the five prāṇas which gives rise to a sense of oneness and unity of the individual prāṇa with the universal prāṇa; (d) meditation on the layer of prāṇa (prāṇamaya kośa) and its unity with the collective prāṇa (hiraṇya-garbha) which helps in withdrawing one’s attention from the body, the outermost layer, and is a preparatory step to meditate on the other deeper layers covering our being; (e) meditation on prāṇa as the fundamental life force in which all forces active at the microcosmic, macrocosmic and temporal levels of the universe are united; and (f) meditation and exploration of prāṇa, an entity bordering the manifest and the unmanifest, using the letter A of AUM as a symbol; (g) visualization of prāṇa as a thread which holds all beings together like a thread holds the beads of a rosary or supports the limbs of a puppet; and (h) meditation and worship of the five forms of prāṇa before every meal, among many others. Mantra, such as “Asato mā sad gamaya. Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya. Mṛtyor mā amṛtaṁ gamaya” (Lead me from the unreal to the real. Lead me from darkness to light. Lead me from death to immortality.) are addressed to prāṇa and are part of such meditation practices.