As ayurveda works to balance the three doshas (see previous posts), yoga works to boost the energy underlying the doshas. Last week we began to look at how the doshas manifest physically and mentally. Now we are beginning to explore the three ‘vital essences’ which are at the very root of the doshas.
Each of the doshas has a special force which infuses the body, mind and spirit with life. Cool, eh? They are: prana (vata/air), tejas (pitta/fire) and ojas (kapha/water).
Prana is the breath of life. It is the prerequisite condition into which any thing or body comes to life. In this universe, the Sun, which unconditionally gives light and life to all beings, symbolizes prana. It is everywhere, although most prevalent on the eastern horizon, which in general is the preferred direction to face for morning yoga practice. Like the sun’s radiant brilliance, prana is an electrical charge that runs through the body and mind, illumining us with life.
Prana is the body’s inherent natural intelligence at work. It is what babys use to learn to walk. I witnessed prana in action on the bus this morning as a teenager effortlessly typed a text message. His masterfully coordinated movements whizzed effortlessly over the micro keys of a tiny pocket telephone.
Prana guides the body through the asana practice if the yogi is able to still the mind. It travels in currents throughout the body, in several general patterns (vayu). In a backbend, prana is the energetic force that can life the chest and front of the body, release the tension along the spine for flexibility, and also fire up the deeper core muscles for stability.
If vata (see last week’s post) is a tendency toward creativity, prana is the power that propels a thought to immerse and then connect to another. Likewise, prana is the force of natural intelligence that powers the meditator’s recognition: “that there was just a thought that floated through my mind,” and the intelligence that empowers him to then regain balance in a thought-free state of meditation. Pranayama (the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga) are methods to experience one’s prana directly, ride its waves of energy, and learn to surrender to it. We do it in all the asanas, especially in padmasana [(seated) lotus pose]. After practice when we lie still and take rest, prana settles in the body.
Prana is like the breath and the mind – it has a flowing, dynamic quality. But its inner movements are very subtle, and require us to train our most acute power of perception. The Prasha Upanishad says that the wise seeker of prana looks deep within herself through meditation, self-discipline, wisdom and faith in God.
Prana is the wind of enthusiasm and creativity that we need for change. We can feel prana in the weightless of well-aligned headstand, in the vibration of chanting a mantra, or simply in experiencing the scent of a forest, or the site of a flower, or the sound of the sea.
Prana is airy like the mind, which as the old saying does is as difficult to control as the wind. The discovery and cultivation of intimacy with prana requires very disciplined self-observation. When we make an effort to realize ourselves through yoga practice, it is as if we were taking the reigns over our senses, and standing up with our truest selves to surf the wave of constant change that we call life. Our intelligence (prana) can then merge with the higher wisdom of the world.
Yogis have always been drawn to pristine natural places (many of them were forest dwellers), fresh natural foods, and simple lifestyle in rhythm with natural cycles – because those are sources of prana. Microwaves, shopping malls, gambling casinos, television, too many trips to the city – these are all not so good for our prana.
We can’t bottle, buy or borrow prana. We can only build it! Introspective physical meditation such as yoga awakens prana from within. Health-conscious lifestyle nurtures it. Some say, a bit of coffee boosts it.
But when prana goes, death comes. Story’s over.