Prana – Beyond the Breath

Prana – Beyond the Breath

Yesterday I watched my son go under anaesthesia. It was a confronting experience to see his natural functions being shut down – his body closer to a coma state than a sleep one – his breathing assisted by tubes and machines. There was no longer consciousness linking him to his breath. His body had been forced into an artificial state. So it got me thinking about breath…and prana.

Prana is essentially our life force. The breath is our expression of prana – the part we can access.

Have you stopped to think about your breath today?

If prana is weak or not functioning well it will show in breath capacity and rhythm. Far from being a mystical concept prana is a necessity for wellbeing.

There is a wonderful Indian story from the Upanisads highlighting how breath is linked to consciousness…

A dispute broke out between the senses, the mind and the breath as to who was more important. They went to a master who informed them that the most important part was the one without which the whole could not survive. They agreed to each leave the body for a short period of time to see what would happen.

Each of the senses left the body but life carried on without them…

The mind disappeared and even though things were dull, life still continued…

However when the breath started to leave, the mind and the senses felt themselves being pulled out of the body too. They all recognised who was the most important!*

We take our breath for granted yet without it we wouldn’t be alive!

It can be a great indicator of our health… short breath can indicate anxiety, illness in the body, or a lack of fitness. (Like most things in our life we only notice it when it becomes a problem!)

The opposite of this is a long, smooth and steady breath – a state indicating a calm mind, capable body and the goal of anyone who wants to sustain their energy!

The ancient yogis believed we are born with prana within us – but its capacity or strength will change depending on what we do, think, and feel. Although prana may be an unseen aspect it shows in the ability to complete simple functions – moving our body, having that thought, digesting our food etc.

It flows in our system via many energetic channels, one or more of which can become ‘blocked’ perhaps as a result of fatigue, poor health, inappropriate diet/lifestyle etc.

Which is why working with our breath is such a valuable tool…

Where the mind moves, so too does prana. Link mind to breath and we affect prana.

Conscious breath links us to prana and enables yoga to become a multidimensional practice.

Are you just moving the body through a series of asana or postures or bringing mindfulness to breath at the same time?  If the breath can become long (dirgha) and smooth (susksma) we begin to affect our health at a much more subtle level.

The breath used this way is termed ujjayi – an awareness of breath moving softly through the nostrils, its presence felt subtly at the throat. This breath demands you to be present – not just going through the motions. Tapping into this adds another layer to the quality of yoga practice.

Beyond this there are other, more specific pranayama techniques used in yoga to affect the quality of breath. (Definition: prana = life force,  ayama = to extend)

In fact, pranayama alone can assist in bringing wellness to the body – which is why even people who may be paralysed or with physical restriction can do yoga. As a colleague of mine likes to say ‘If you can breathe you can do yoga!’

So far from being an esoteric concept that may have little relevance for us, prana is actually very logical and can be accessed so simply. We all have the capacity to ‘exercise’ our breath if we can just take our mind to it. Yet yoga is relatively new to the Western world and it sometimes seems we have grabbed the most obvious tool and run with it – the body.

To move deeper into yoga, the body is the starting point – like the tip of the iceberg. The real depth to the practice sits deeper beneath the surface, where prana lies…

by Jill Harris

*Story from the Upanisads taken from ‘What Are We Seeking?’ by TKV Desikachar with Martyn Neal.