ASHTANGA YOGA AND PRANA
We all have heard about ASHTANGA YOGA and have been practising it for the well-known journey on the path of spirituality. Given by sage Patanjali and elaborated in the 29th sutra in Sadhana Pada (second chapter), it says –
Self-restraints, fixed rules, postures, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and Samadhi constitute the eight limbs of Yoga.
This sets the Goal as well as the way (Path) to achieve it. Let’s explore and try to understand this journey based on the basics of Prana.
As we are aware, Prana has two very important vehicles. They are, the food that we eat and the breath that we take. If you have gone through the previous blogs on Prana, you must have clearly understood the link between Svasayama and Pranayama and also the importance of Prana in our body. What is health or wellness? It is nothing but the proper balance and coordination between the various Pranas at all levels. Then what leads to disease (dis + ease)? Any imbalance in the occurrence of Prana in a particular area / organ, leads to disorder, followed by disease of that particular area/organ.
Today we are going to concentrate on an important aspect of individual Prana, which will deepen our understanding of the journey on this spiritual path. To understand wellness, we need to know more about the Pranas.
Pranas are broadly divided into two categories – Individual Prana and cosmic/universal Prana.
THERE ARE OF ABOUT TEN IMPORTANT VARIETIES of individual Prana, BUT OUT OF THESE, IF WE CAN UNDERSTAND THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT ONES, THEN WE CAN APPRECIATE THE WHAT AND HOW OF OUR WELLNESS/HEALTH. IT IS NOT JUST ANY PLAIN KNOWING ABOUT HEALTH, BUT AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE PURPOSE OF LIFE, WHICH IS OF PRIME IMPORTANCE.
In this Sutra Samvad, we will talk about the two foremost Pranas – PRANA & APANA. They are the ones which finally matter; of course, ably supported by the other varieties. Shiva Samhita mentions about these two most important ones as under:-
Out of the ten (major and minor Pranas), the first Five are the leading ones: even among these, Prana and Apana are the highest ones.
I am sure we all would like to know what these varieties are and also how they are the basis of vital body functions, without which, life cannot sustain.
There are five primary forces which operate in our body at all times. Although they have clear-cut areas of operation and action, they are also complimentary to each other. They are combined under Pancha Pranas, also called Pancha Vayus. They are Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana and Vyana. Though all are varieties of Prana, all have different functions and operate at different areas.
PRANA is the first of the Pancha Pranas. It is also called Sthoola Prana to differentiate from the all-pervasive vital force. Its area of action is in the chest region between the neck and the diaphragm (muscle which separates the chest from the abdomen). Thus being the most important, it is called Prana. It not only maintains the heart and lung functions but also regulates the breathing, swallowing and blood circulation (through and into the heart). Coming to the subtler level of the mind, it is responsible for impressions and ideas. Whenever the force of this Prana is more, qualities of the heart get strengthened, leading to strength, courage and greatness. This is helpful in making the mind one-pointed and intuitive knowledge is experienced. This Prana is the medium for realization. And here lies the importance of meditation at the Anahata chakra to awaken and activate the Prana in this area. Imbalance of Prana can lead to lung and heart disorders and at the mental level there is a lack of positive ideas.
APANA – It is the second most important one which is active in the pelvic region. Its area of influence is between the navel and perineal region (anus and just above it). It controls the functioning of excretory and reproductive organs, which include kidneys and bowels. Functioning- wise, it is responsible for expulsion of gas, faeces, urine, semen and ova.
At the subtle level, the Svadisthana and Mooladhara are the chakras that are mainly under the influence of Apana. At the mental level, it is said to remove negative thoughts and emotions. Imbalance of Apana leads to poor elimination and gives rise to a feeling of depression many a times.
Dear co-sadhakas, we will be concentrating only on these two important Pranas in this Sutra Samvad. These are the most influential ones. APANA pulls the consciousness downwards and it generates desires and deeper interaction with the external world. Similarly, under the influence of PRANA, the consciousness is drawn upwards, with the element of ether (AKASH) associated with it. It leads to experiences of the higher nature.
What is the ultimate aim of the practices of yoga (specifically Hatha yoga)? These practices lead to the change in the directions of the flow – upward flow of Prana is directed downwards and the downward flow of the Apana is directed upwards. This finally leads to their merging into each other at the level of Samana Vayu (around the navel area). As Bhagavad Gita (4/29) says :-
जुह्वति प्राणं प्राणेऽपानं तथापरे
प्राणापानगती रुद्ध्वा प्राणायामपरायणा: || 29||
Apana is absorbed in Prana (by some),and Prana in Apana by others. By restraining the courses of Prana and Apana, (the yogi is ) wholly occupied in Pranayama
As Gurudev Swami Rama says in one his lectures, merging of Apana and Prana leads to the devitalization of Ida and Pingala, leading to the opening up of Sushumna. Thus Sushumna gets activated and the vital energy moves up along the Sushumna to higher centres.
Now coming to ASHTANGA YOGA, the yogic practices of Yama and Niyama help us in collecting the awakened spiritual Prana. Asanas help us in turning our body into a vessel to be able to contain this Prana, which is further purified and gets converted into higher Prana by the practices of Pranayama. The practices require the support of Pratyahara to incorporate these (higher Prana) into the various koshas, and without this, we may dissipate the Prana to the external world. In Dharana, this Prana becomes one with the mind and finally Dhyana takes it beyond the mind. Going beyond the mind leads one to the Non dual state – ADVAITA. That is the whole purpose of meditation practices, which our Parampara focusses on. It is of prime importance to meditate at the same place and same time; that helps us in getting guidance from the lineage to go beyond the mind.
Dear co-sadhakas, contemplate on the importance of Prana in our spiritual journey. In the next Sutra Samvad on Prana, we will see the importance of other major and minor Pranas and the techniques to activate them.
Do write in the comments section, any specific questions, you may have, so that we can discuss them in future blogs.
DR. ASHOK BHATT