Prana is everywhere, in everything. The “life force” exists even in those things we deem “un-living” or “without life.” Yogic thought—Hatha yoga, to be specific—is grounded in nature. Without nature, we cannot exist here in this life, and we cannot exist here in this life without prana. Prana exists in all of nature. It is in the greenest trees, in the smallest beetles, and in the hardest rocks. Prana originates from the five elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air, and space (or ether). On a regular basis, we invite these elements to enter the body to provide us with prana, or energy.
The 5 Elements Of Nature = The 5 Prana Zones
The five elements of nature, the five homes of prana, form the foundation for understanding the physical aspects of yogic philosophy. Therefore, in order for the five main zones of prana in the body (udana, prana, samana, apana, and vyana) to function efficiently in the body, we first need to invite prana from the five natural elements to those spaces. Just as the five natural elements exist in nature, outside the human form, they are also represented within the body. Udana embodies space; prana, air; samana, fire; apana, earth and water; and vyana, the ether (the same as space, but more so the space beyond the clouds, beyond the space of udana).
In order for those elements to reside in the five main zones of prana, we borrow these elements from the natural world. We consume the earth element in the form of foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, etc.) and products (clothing, paper products, tools, machinery, fuel, etc.) derived from the ground beneath our feet. We drink water, bathe in water, swim in water, transpire and respire water, and our bodies are made up of about 60% water. We find fire in the warmth of spices, hot beverages, and spicy foods; create heat in exercise; and absorb the heat/energy of the sun. We find air in our breath, as we find motion in life, and most especially in the freshness of nature. Finally, we find space when we sleep, in the dream state when the mind is carefree.
Balance Is Key
Prana originates and grows from these five elements, and moves within the five main pranic zones of our body. Vyana—the pranic zone that surrounds the whole body and represents space/ether—is then divided into five sub-categories of prana. Each of these subcategories functions to compensate for and regulate the effectiveness of the main pranas in the body. If one of the other pranas is out of balance, one of the five sub-pranas of vyana will become more active in order to establish greater balance amongst the greater five pranas. Our vyana prana, therefore, works a bit like a pre-set thermostat constantly taking a reading of how all the pranic systems are working…or not. If one system is compromised, vyana will kick on the boiler to bring that system back to the pre-set norm for the body.
The five sub-pranas of vyana, called the upa-pranas or pancha vayus (roughly translated as “five winds”), are generally functioning involuntarily as physiological responses. However, in becoming more in tune with our five major zones of prana, we can also become more aware of—and eventually control—the five minor pranas in the body. There are five subcategories of the vyana prana zone:
- Naga is responsible for belching and hiccups.
- Movement and vibrations within udana (head and throat), prana (chest), and samana (digestive system) activate naga when the air element is agitated by disturbances in the diet and digestive system. (In Indian culture, where yogic philosophy was born, belching is accepted as polite, since it is understood as a means of cleansing the body.)
- Koorma opens the eyes and stimulates blinking.
- Physically located in udana, the eyes are also a manifestation of the state of the mind, which sees. Koorma keeps the eyes healthy, moist, shining, and bright, so that the mind may be likewise for the purpose of focus and concentration in deep meditation. If koorma is under control, one is able to perform the powerful cleansing/meditation technique called trataka, when one stares at the flame of a candle without blinking.
- Krikara controls sneezing and coughing.
- Responsible for clearing [energy] blockages in the respiratory system (prana zone), through sneezing and coughing, krikara also clears blockages in the upana (head, sinus, throat) zone. It is believed one whose sneeze is strong will live a long life, as sneezing releases impediments to strong energy flow.
- Devadatta generates feelings of hunger and thirst and induces sleep and yawning.
- Naturally associated with tiredness and lethargy, devadatta regulates feelings of hunger and thirst that, when quenched, allow the body and mind to relax for the purpose of entering deep meditation and Samadhi. Yawning responds to function in zone of samana (digestion), expelling gases that are a by-product of eating certain foods, also helping to increase energy levels.
- Dhananjaya opens and closes heart valves and prompts decomposition of the body.
- This upa-prana is unique in that it is most active after death, although if it is significantly disturbed, it can become active in the form of cardiac arrhythmia or heart attack. Dhanajaya prana never leaves the body, but must be kept in balance for optimal health and a long lifespan.
Photo Credit: Connor Horenn