Let’s talk about prana, shall we? If you’re asking yourself, “what is prana?”, then this post is perfect for you, my friend! Prana is a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force energy’. The term refers to all the manifest energy in the universe, present in both living beings and inanimate objects. If that sounds like it’s powerful stuff, that’s because it is!
The word prana might sound familiar to you, because it is the first half of the word pranayama, which is the practice of regulating the breath – a practice we’ve talked about quite a bit around here.
Related: Pranayama Guide
Let’s Get (Not) Physical
The outermost layer of our selves (the physical body) is what we tend to associate with the most because it’s the most tangible. We can see it and feel it, and as a result, we often think that we ARE it. But just like yoga is so much more than the physical postures, we are so much more than our physical bodies.
The energy that exists within and around our physical bodies is just as real and just as important, even if we can’t see it or touch it. In the yoga tradition we call this energy prana. Many other eastern traditions have different names for it: Qi, as in Qi Gong; Chi, as in Tai Chi, and Ki, as in Reiki. All of these eastern practices work with this life force, the same way that yoga works with prana.
The Energy Body
The same way that blood flows through our physical body through veins, capillaries and arteries, prana flows through our energy body through pathways called nadis. The word nadi comes from the Sanskrit root nad meaning ‘channel’, ‘stream’, or ‘flow’. There are said to be thousands of nadis, but there are three main ones:
- Ida – Located to the left of the spine. This is the introverted, lunar channel.
- Pingala – Located to the right of the spine. This is the extroverted, solar channel.
- Sushumna – Located along the center of the spine. This is the central channel; the energy of kundalini awakening flows through this one.
Prana is often defined as the breath because the breath is the physical or external manifestation of prana. Our life force energy rides on the breath; so when we breathe in, we take in prana. When we expand our breath and improve the quality of it, we are expanding and improving the quality of the vital energy within and around us. This is exactly what pranayama is meant to do – to help us expand or regulate our life force energy.
Life Force Energy and The Chakras
An important part of the energy body are the chakras, or energy centers. We already talked about the nadis – I like to think of nadis as subway lines that carry the prana throughout the body.
According to yogic philosophy, chakras refer to centralized locations where the nadis converge. I like to think of them like prana subway stations, where different lines meet and cross.
In yoga, we focus on seven major chakras that exist along the line of the spine. Balanced energy flow through each of these seven major chakras manifests as health and wellbeing.
Conversely, when prana is blocked from a certain point, or overactive at a certain point, we can experience disharmony on both a physical and emotional level.
Any time you breathe consciously, you’re moving prana. So in your yoga practice, when you move with the breath, you’re moving prana. In a pranayama practice, obviously, you’re moving prana…that’s the whole point of the practice.
Keep in mind that it’s conscious breathing that moves prana – simply breathing doesn’t do it. The breath must be combined with the focus of the mind in order to move prana.
Different practices can move our prana in different ways and can help us to become more aware of that life force energy that can normally be difficult to perceive.
For example, kapalabhati breath (practiced at the beginning of the class below!) is a forceful breath, while anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breath) is a calming breath. In both practices, your mind is focused on conscious breathing, but you’ll feel both a physical and energetic difference.
In the practice below, we’ll be moving with the breath in ways that might be a little different than what you’re used to in a yoga class. We’ll be doing a lot of inhaling through the nose and audibly exhaling through the mouth. I want you to really feel the prana moving so that hopefully you become more attuned to this subtle but vital energy.
To get a feel for what it’s like to move prana in a calmer way, with more stillness, try out the calming breath meditation below. Notice what it feels like to move prana in this way, tuning in to the subtlety of your life force energy.