“Prana” in Sanskrit means “breath.” In Vedic texts, prana is recognized as the energy of spiritual light, and this is the substance of our subtle body.
What Is Prana?
Prana is an energy that can be transferred from one person to another through various hands-on treatments like massage.
We energize our prana through meditation, Yoga, mantra practice, and by eating nutritious foods. Another way to work on our prana is through “pranayama” or yogic breathing exercises. We all need breath to survive.
Even plants breathe. And even though this appears to be a kind of mechanical process, one we don’t really think about, Ayurveda explains that the whole process of inhaling and exhaling is full of life itself.
Notice how the breath changes when our emotions come into play. When we are scared, we tense up, and hold our breath, our breathing is irregular. When we are happy and laughing, we breathe deeply, our breathing is rhythmic.
Pranayama translated means “to control the breath.” By doing so, we are helping to settle and control our busy minds. Pranayama is often considered to be an art, and some people consider it to be an important part of their spiritual practice.
Prana And Pranayama
Our bodies are made up of pairs of things: two arms, two legs, two lungs, two nostrils, and even two brains, left and right.
Pranayama helps us to even out the balance of energy on both sides, including our shiva and shakti, male and female energy.
This brings us to a greater sense of awareness. Our breath is what gives us life. We can breathe “consciously” by becoming aware of our breath.
Take long, slow breaths from your diaphragm. Pay attention to both the inhale and then exhale. The benefits of conscious breathing are these.
- Decreases stress.
- Helps in developing sensory sensitivity.
- Helps with improving sleep.
- Calms the body and mind.
- Improves mental capacity and concentration.
- Provides feelings of fulfillment and joy.
The process of pranayama, or conscious breathing, can be broken down into 3 parts: inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Inhalation is breathing in – it is receiving universal energy in the form of breath.
In Sanskrit, this is called puraka. Inhalation stimulates the system.
Retention is holding that breath for a pause to be still and appreciate the universal energy. In Sanskrit, this is known as kumbhaka. Retention distributes the energy to the whole body.
Exhalation is breathing out – releasing with the breath all thoughts and emotions. The Sanskrit word for this is rechaka. Exhalation gets rid of old air and any toxins.
While the lungs are empty, pause again, in kumbhaka, and surrender the individual energy to universal energy. Become one with the whole.
More On Prana
The word prana is usually translated as “breath”–but it is so much more than that. “Prana” is the universal energy–the energy that exists everywhere, all at once.
We can experience this energy as light, heat, gravity, magnetics, or electricity.
It is all of these and more, prana is also the potential energy that resides within each one of us and in all living beings. Prana is what energizes us, moves us, motivates us and gives us life. Prana has many names and many functions.
Ayurveda says that Vata one of prana’s names. The functions of Vata have been explained the same way that the Yoga texts explain the functions of prana.1
Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, describes pranayama as “the controlled intake and outflow of breath in a firmly established posture.” So pranayama is not just our usual breathing that we don’t even have to think about. It’s an art.
If you’d like to learn more about Ayurveda and how it can help you with your health and wellbeing, check out Lissa Coffey’s course below.
How Prana Affects The Body
There are techniques to use to make the respiratory organs move and expand in an intentional way. The respiratory system is seen as the key to purifying the whole body.
When the respiratory system is functioning optimally, then the circulatory system can work at its best. Bodily fluids are able to flow properly to the liver, kidneys, stomach, skin and other organs.
And when the circulatory system is operating well, then the digestive system can do its job properly. We can live without food for a few days. We could even live without water for a while.
But without breath, without respiration, there is no life. When we are born, and we take our first breath of air, our life as an independent person in this world begins.
Subtle changes take place in the body when we practice pranayama. Pranayama helps the mind to concentrate and helps us to achieve both health and longevity. As we age, the respiratory function decreases.
But by practicing pranayama, we bring vitality (through prana) to all the organs of the body, particularly the lungs, so we can slow down the aging process and be healthier, longer.
Tantric texts say that the goal of pranayama is to wake up the Shakti, or power, called kundalini. Kundalini is the divine cosmic energy in the body that lies at the base of the spine.
As kundalini moves up the spine with prana, through each of the 7 chakras, we begin to understand the oneness of all creation. We see beyond time and space and experience our divine connection with the universe.
In this state we are ever-present – not thinking of regrets from the past or anticipations from the future – we are in a serene state of mind where only the “now” exists.
Here are some recommendations for how to best practice pranayama.
- It is best to have been practicing Yoga for a while and have mastered some of the postures, or asanas, before learning pranayama. This way you will understand better muscle control and your lungs will be more prepared for the practice of pranayama.
- It has been said that Yoga brings discipline to the body and pranayama brings discipline to the mind. It is best to practice yoga and pranayama at separate times of the day.
- Pranayama cannot be performed properly after strenuous exercise.
- Empty the bladder and bowels before you sit down to practice pranayama.
- Go slow and gently with your practice. Take one step at a time. Do not practice too hastily or too forcefully.
- Choose a fixed time and place for when and where you practice. Find a time where you can be quiet, away from
- Find a place that is clean and airy. The best time to practice is in the early morning, before sunrise if possible, when the body and brain are fresh. The next best time is after sunset when the air is cool.
Pranayama Do’s And Don’ts
- Don’t do pranayama on a full stomach, or when you are hungry. Leave some time, about four hours or so, after you have eaten to begin your practice. Allow half an hour after pranayama to pass before eating a meal.
- Don’t start pranayama when you are angry, sick, or tired. Do not practice just before bedtime as it will keep
- Sit on a mat or blanket placed on the floor. Keep the spine straight. You can sit cross-legged, or on your shins, or with your feet together and your knees apart. Whatever
position is most comfortable for you. If you have back trouble, sit in a chair with your feet on the floor.
- Yoga asanas are practiced with the eyes open.
- Pranayama is practiced with the eyes closed. With the eyes closed, look within and place your attention on the heart.
- When you complete your practice, rest for a while before resuming activity.
There are many different types of pranayama, but let’s look at just three types of prana breathing practices.
Alternate Nostril Breathing Pranayama
This exercise is good for all three doshas.
- Begin by sitting with your back straight. Be comfortable, either on the floor or in a chair.
- Take your right-hand thumb, and with it, close your right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril, deep into the diaphragm.
- Hold it for a moment.
- Close your left nostril with the ring finger of your right hand.
- Exhale through your right nostril. Hold it a moment.
- Inhale through your right nostril. Hold it a moment.
- Close the right nostril with your right thumb and begin the sequence again
- You can do this exercise for 8-10 “rounds” and will notice an increase in your energy level, and feel like you have a clearer
- This exercise is particularly good for Pittas.
- Curl your tongue into a tube shape and stick it out a little.
- If you can’t curl your tongue, then part your lips, keeping your teeth together, and put your tongue up against
- Inhale through your mouth, allowing the air to pass over
- Draw your tongue in and close your mouth.
- Exhale through the nose, keeping the mouth closed.
Breath of Fire Pranayama
- This exercise is good for both Vatas and Kaphas.
- Inhale gently through the nose.
- Exhale through the nose more actively, with more strength, almost like you’re blowing something out your nose.
- Inhale gently again.
- Blow out through the nose again.
- Start out slowly, then gradually increase your speed. The idea is to sound like a train moving slowly at first, and then picking up speed.
- Practice one round of 20-30 exhales, then rest for a minute or so. You can practice up to five rounds at a time, twice a day.
Please consult a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner before following this prana and pranayama guide or any other Ayurvedic recommendations mentioned in this article.
This article is sourced with excerpts from Lissa Coffey’s course on The Ayurveda Experience. Content reproduced with permission.
- Sengupta, Pallav. “Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review.” International Journal of Preventive Medicine, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, July 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415184/.