Prana is, quite simply, life. It is the life force, nourishing body, mind and soul both literally and figuratively. Prana flows within the body by way of breath (the element of air), but also enters the body by the other four elements: earth, water, fire and the ether. The ether, or space, is the element of the soul. It is the element we aim to embody during meditation, as we move inward to find space. Prana is essential to accessing this endless space, and so we prepare for the process of locating space by practicing pranayama.
“Pranayama” is made up of three Sanskrit words: “prana,” meaning life force; “ayma,” meaning extension, and “yama,” meaning to control. Pranayama literally means, then, controlled expansion of prana. When we practice pranayama, the life force expands throughout our physical, pranic body and throughout each part of prana therein.
As a whole, prana is made up of five energies occupying various zones of the body. These five pranas represent different areas in which a particular type of pranic energy is circulating. You can think of it like a fruit salad: the whole is the bowl of fruit salad, the prana. But what makes the fruit salad a fruit salad in the first place is the mixture of fruits and colors and flavors together. Apple brings some crunch, melons are fresh, strawberries sweet, grapes a bit tart, and so on. Prana would not be prana – expanding and contracting in the physical body and also in the mind – without the parts of which it’s comprised. The five categories of prana are divided based on the function of each.
Udana occupies the head, including senses and throat; related to the soul, or the spiritual and mental.
- Connected with the 5th, 6th, and 7th chakras
- Controls the sensory system and thus our interpretation of the outside world through our senses
- Activates the limbs and their muscles, ligaments, nerves and joints
Prana occupies the chest and breast area; related to the physical, emotional, and spiritual.
- Connected with the 4th chakra and part of cosmic prana
- Controls the respiratory system, drawing prana into the body by breath
- Regulates the lungs, vocal system, esophagus, and heart function
Samana occupies the stomach area, between the heart and the navel; related to the physical body.
- Connected with the 3rd chakra
- Controls the stomach, liver and pancreas function, digestion, circulation, and assimilation of nutrients throughout the body
Apana occupies the abdominal and pelvic areas, between the navel and the root; related to the physical body.
- Connected with the 1st and 2nd chakras
- Regulates the large intestine, kidney, anus and genitals
- Provides energy and is responsible for elimination of wastes (and inducing labor)
Vyana occupies the whole body; related to the soul, or the spiritual and mental.
- Compensates for all chakras or if one becomes particularly weak
- Circulates throughout the body by regulating the blood system and coordinating movements
In a deeper practice of yoga, apana (abdominal zone) begins to move upward and prana (chest/lungs/breath) begins to move downward. By compressing apana and prana together, we create more space for prana to flow freely amongst the five pranic zones. Pushing apana and prana together, therefore, produces a deeper level of consciousness. Bandhas, or locks, can be helpful in order to merge apana and prana, as can mudras. Naturally, pranayama – controlled extension of the life force – is meant to move prana within our body, mind and soul. When prana is moving, then our levels of consciousness shift; when consciousness shifts, an enlightened comprehension of existence follows…