A few years ago, I did a second yoga teacher training in India.
It was a month-long intensive programme which took place in the beautiful setting of the Himalayas, overlooking the Ganges.
For the 100 or so participants, it was an opportunity to experience the yogic gurukula system which basically means you live, work and study with your teachers. In this instance the teachers were yogic monks, also known as Swamies.
As the month progressed, I become both curious and somewhat in awe of their energy. They would run sessions that commenced pre-dawn, having already done their own practices, continued to work throughout the day and at times late into the evening. Yet they always looked well rested, healthy, and at ease.
Any intensive training can be, at times, challenging. However, I also began to need less sleep and less food– instead drawing energy from another source.
That other source is primary energy and you don’t need to head to the Himalayas, or become a yogic monk, to tap into it.
What is Primary Energy?
Have you heard the rule of three … “you can last 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water but only three minutes without air”?
Well, ‘air’ is just one of the many translations of the sanskrit term, prana. Also translated as ‘lifeforce’, ‘the breath’, ‘the breath of life’, ‘vital or primary energy’ – to name just a few.
As well as many translations of the word prana, there are also many interpretations of its meaning.
In yogic philosophy, prana, at its highest level, is linked to creation itself, spans the entire universe and also transcends all creation. Okay if you say it quick, right?
A great book we read, as part of my principal yoga training with the fabulous Qi Health and Yoga in Sydney, was “Yoga and the path of the Urban Mystic’ by Darren Main. In this book, Main describes prana as the difference between a block of wood and a living tree – or the difference between a corpse and a living body. He goes on to say that without prana there would be no physical universe, for it is the foundation.
Prana, and in some ways the next level of it, is within us too. Our ability to take it in, retain it and let it go freely, is believed to be intrinsically linked to our vitality.
TKV Desikachar, in his book ‘The Heart of Yoga’, another one of my principal yoga training reads, references the ancient texts including:
The Yoga Yajnavalkya which tells us that someone who is troubled, restless, or confused has more prana outside of them, than within. Too little prana can be expressed as a feeling of being stuck or restricted. It can also show as a lack of drive or motivation to do anything; we are listless or even depressed. We may suffer from physical ailments when prana is lacking in the body.
The Yoga Sutra, which mentions disturbances in the breath taking on many forms. Patanjali, who compiled the yoga sutras, calls these symptoms of a disturbed mind - the experience of suffering (duhkha), a negative attitude (daurmanasya), physical ailments (angamejayvatva) and breathing disturbances (svaspravasa).
If you are familiar with yoga, you are likely to have come across the term ‘pranayama’.
This refers to the yoga practice of linking movement with the breath or performing breathing techniques in their own right. The purpose of these is to ultimately enhance, retain and distribute prana and to expel apana – more on apana shortly.
So, in my very layman terms, prana has three principal forms:
Universal Prana – that which ignites, spans, and transcends all creation.
Physical Prana – the energy within us.
Pranayama – the practice of enhancing, retaining, and distributing prana and expelling apana.
A word to the wise
There are some great teachers out there, who will give you an in-depth and spiritual explanation of prana and relating concepts. I am not one of them.
There are many other traditions that have similar concepts to those that I will share, and interpretations differ amongst yogic traditions. For the purposes of this blog, I will stay with yogic philosophy and the learnings from my principal yoga training, unless otherwise specified.
My goal is to take, principally 3, large and complex subjects and turn them into a straightforward and as palatable a read as is possible. I’ll take you through each one and bring it together at the end of the blog. And provide you with ways of working with primary energy in your daily life – should you wish to.
One thing to note, particularly for the more pragmatic readers, is that whist there are similarities to evidence-based anatomy, the yogi’s did not dissect the physical body to comprehend it. Rather they learnt mostly through introspection. Whilst some things may be discounted by anatomical understanding and modern science today, many things still hold true.
This few thousand-year-old system saw us humans as much more than our physical manifestation and worked on the level of, what is known as, the subtle body.
The subtle body comprises of five energetic sheaths, known as the five Koshas:
1. Annamaya Kosha: the physical sheath which includes all aspects of the physical body.
2. Pranamaya Kosha: the sheath that encompasses prana and the energy body.
3. Manomaya Kosha: the mental, emotional, and psychological sheath.
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha: the sheath of wisdom and intellect.
5. Anandamaya Kosha: Ananda means happiness and bliss. Anandamaya kosha is the sheath, that connects us to our higher self and to all things.
I am personally in awe of the knowledge and understanding, attained from so long ago, that continues to support so many across the globe today, with their mental and physical wellbeing. And so much more, for those that are seeking it, through the practice.
Just as blood flows through the body using a network of veins, capillaries and arteries, prana is believed to flow through the body via a network too.
In yoga this network is called the nadis and, like any network, we want it to flow freely in order for it to do its job effectively.
There are believed to be 72,000 nadis, of which there are three principle nadis – Ida, Pingali and Susumna.
Ida correlates to the left side of the body/nostril, and right side of the brain, and Pingala the right side of the body/nostril, and left side of the brain. Susumna runs up the centre of the spine. IDA and Pingala don’t run straight up and down, rather they weave their way up from the base of the spine and meet at the centre of the forehead. Where these nadis intersect is where the chakras are believed to reside.
The chakras are believed to be the storage place for certain aspects of life.
It might sound a bit out there but I know, in my work as a yoga teacher, classes focussed on the heart can see participants become emotional, the core can see folks stay and chat after class, and hips see some get a tad grumpy. And we have probably all heard stories of organ transplant patients experiencing the feelings and traits of their doners?
Chakra literally translates to wheel or disk and, rather like the nadis, the aim is for these, and the areas they represent, to be free flowing.
Whilst the chakras are a blog topic in themselves, below is a quick reference to the key 7 chakras, where they live in the body and the aspect of life they are associated with:
The theory is that if the nadis or chakras are blocked, or not flowing freely, then the correlating aspect of life will be negatively impacted.
The Five Pranas
Also known as pancha prana vayu, the five pranas are essentially subdivisions of primary energy. Vayu directly translates to ‘wind’ and they are often described as “the winds that move prana around the body”.
Rather like the chakras, each subdivision correlates to specific aspects and functions of the body, with the aim of ensuring these are functioning optimally.
If one of the vayus becomes stuck, or out of balance, it is believed to negatively impact the whole energetic system, along with the corresponding chakra and the associated aspect of the body and mind.
Let’s take a look at each of the five:
Prana vayu translates to ‘forward-moving air’ and moves inwards and upwards. It is associated with reception into the body from inhaling, food, drink, thoughts, and the senses. Its location is the heart and chest region and, rather like the heart itself, plays a principal role in feeding and nourishing.
Prana is our vital life energy, so weakness in this vayu affects our overall wellbeing and disposition. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, a diminished immune system, lack of focus, worry and anxiety, lack of energy and motivation, disconnection to the senses, unhealthy cravings, and ill-advised choices.
The second of the vayus is apana-vayu which is the ‘air that moves away’, well, downward and outward to be precise. Located in the region of the pelvic floor and lower abdomen, it governs all aspects of elimination. Stool and urine, semen, menstruation, and the elimination of carbon dioxide via the breath. It is associated with letting go, not only physically but mentally and emotionally too.
Physically this can show up as issues with the digestive process, associated organs and relating immunity. Mentally with feelings of being stuck and an inability to let go of negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
Udana vayu, is known as the “upward-moving air” and is located in the region of the throat. As the location suggests, it relates to speech but is also linked to mindset, self-expression, growth, development, and transformation.
An absence or imbalance in this vayu is linked to the ability to stand up, both mentally and/or physically. To find balance and coordination, to speak up and express ourselves vocally. It can also cause someone to stand still and lack the will or motivation to develop and evolve in life.
Translating to the “balancing air”, this vaya is located in the abdomen and moves from the periphery to the centre of the body. It governs the absorption and integration of oxygen, nutrition, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Our ability to digest our lives mentally, physically and from a sensory and metaphorical perspective.
When this vayu is not functioning optimally it can result in too much or too little agni (digestive fire), impacting metabolism, digestion, and absorption. Along with a lack of confidence, desire or motivation, attachment, greed, possessiveness, and poor judgement.
The last of the five vayus, vyana vayu, translates to “outward-moving air” and moves from the centre to the periphery. It governs circulation on all levels and assists the other vayus in performing their functions. It enables movement of nutrition, hydration and oxygen throughout the physical body and keeps emotions and thoughts flowing.
When this vayu is weak or dysfunctional, it can result in poor mental and physical circulation. Coldness, stiffness, skin issues, and nerve functioning are some of the physical challenges. Along with feelings of isolation, a lack of strength, drive, and inconsistent thought patterns.
You might like to think of this as a circular flow: Prana intakes, Apana eliminates, Udana transforms, Samana digests and Vyana circulates.
Bringing it All Together
The moral of the story is that if the nadis, chakras and vayus are all working optimally, then so too will we - at the level of the subtle body. Our physical, energetic, psychological, intellectual, and ultimate self - firing on all cylinders.
We will be able to make like a Swami, somewhat, no matter how much we have on our plate or what our life shape looks like.
Now I appreciate that the three concepts are a lot to get your head around. The diagram above and table below, provides a couple of quick visuals to help bring them together.
Working with Prana
Whilst Swamis dedicate their lives to the yogic path, I am not suggesting that you do the same. Unless of course leaving behind your current life, to become a yogic monk who dedicates his/her self to spiritual enlightenment, is your thing.
As inhabitants of the modern world, our path and how we utilise primary energy is likely to be quite different.
So how might ‘we’ go about tapping into the vayus, to enhance the vitality of our mind, body and more, along our life path. Let me share some thoughts:
Prana – what are you ingesting?
Apparently, a Swami would rather not eat than take on food that they see as not containing prana, such as meat, processed or old food.
Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga and one of the oldest wellbeing systems, also recommends eating the highest quality food available to us. And how we prepare and eat it is equally important i.e. with a positive mindset.
But taking on prana is not just about nutrition; it is also about what we ingest mentally. How we spend our time and with whom, what we read or watch on TV – all have the capacity to fill us up or deplete our vitality.
As do the products we put on our bodies, clean our homes with and the environment we live and work in.
In working with prana, we need to be considering the choices we make and whether these enhance our life force or deplete it.
During my month in the Himalayas, I used to regularly head to a spot next to the Ganges and just lap up the beauty of my surroundings and the prana it gave me. In my day-to-day life I do the same, for instance on my daily dog walks in the surrounding countryside.
Know those places and things that fill you up and refuel regularly.
Physically apana relates to our ability to eliminate through processes such as excretion and the breath. Essentially letting go of that which is no longer needed and making space for the new.
In yogic philosophy, there is a concept called a Samskara. These are the impressions created by our thoughts, behaviours, habits, and actions. It is believed that some we are born with and others we develop. Samskaras play a role in how we view and navigate the world, and can be both negative and positive.
In order to enhance our life force, the intention is of course to eliminate the negative samskaras, which can be draining, and get more of the positive ones, which can be uplifting.
There are many ways to go about this, one of which is simply to bring more awareness to them.
In noticing our negative patterns, we move away from ‘what is happening to us’ and observe with curiosity ‘our response to it’. Here we can, at times, choose again.
Or we might be able to proactively let go by using a practice, such as the one below:
Make a list of some of the things you would like to let go of.
Review your list and if you have put anything on it that you don’t really want to let go of then cross it off.
Tear up the list and put it in the trash.
Try to really feel a sense of release as you tear up the list and put the pieces in the rubbish bin.
When you move the body mindfully, through practices such as yoga, you never know what shifts will happen.
As mentioned previously, there is some correlation to our emotions and aspects of the body. I gave the examples of a practice focussed on the heart seeing some participants become emotional and hips see some get a tad grumpy. And I could list so many more.
You may use, or have heard, phrases that suggest this too – ‘it was heart felt’, the ‘words got stuck in my mouth’, ‘my gut instinct told me’ etc. All the language of the mind and body connection - the vayus and the chakras.
If yoga is not your thing, you might like to consider a mindful walk in nature, perhaps getting quiet enough to listen to the language of your body.
Or you might simply like to read the section on each of the vayus, once a day for a week or more, and see how it shows up for you and how you might go about developing it in your daily life - letting this ignite you and your world in a new way.
Eating on the run or never stopping to take a breath, doesn’t give the body time to digest what we intake physically or mentally. Or enable time for apana.
One of the best ways we can support the digestion and absorption, of all the goodness we take on, is to pause and take 5-10 conscious breaths a few times a day.
Set a timer, or line up a pause before you eat, and simply stop, take stock, and breathe.
This gives us an opportunity to make better choices for ourselves, if we need to, and will also bring the nervous system down a notch or two ready to absorb nutrients. If we are hanging out in the heightened aspect of the nervous system, digestion and absorption is not going to be as effective.
You may also like to take a moment to reflect on what is going well for you, or what you are grateful for. As humans we are predisposed to be drawn to the negative, and proactively focussing on the positive helps to balance out the equation in what we digest mentally.
One of the most common practices for clearing or enhancing the flow of energy, through the network of the nadis, is Nadi Shodhana – a pranayama practice also known as alternate nostril breathing. Here’s how you do it:
Sit with an upright but relaxed posture and begin by settling into the breath.
1. Close off your right nostril with your right-hand thumb and inhale through your left nostril.
2. Close off your left nostril with your right-hand index finger and exhale through your right nostril.
3. Keep your left nostril closed as is and Inhale through the right nostril.
4. Close off your right nostril with your right-hand thumb and exhale through your left nostril.
Continue with steps 1 to 4 for a few rounds keeping your shoulders and face relaxed. Start small and work up to doing a few minutes of the practice.
Nadi Shodhana not only works to free up the nadis, but it is great for calming and relaxing the body and mind. It is also believed to help balance the logical left and emotional right sides of the brain.
Prana is of course not the only resource we need for a healthy body and mind.
Adequate and quality nutrition, hydration, exercise, rest, and sleep are all required in the recipe for wellbeing.
Whilst air or prana, is around us and within us, and in many ways our given right from the moment we are born to the moment we take our last breath, it is ours to do what we will with. To bring our block of wood into a living tree - our corpse into a living body.
This blog was written for Cytoplan and is also available on their website: