What is prana? More than just a line of clothing! Prana is the energy that runs through our bodies, our very life force. Prana is sometimes translated as breath, though this is not quite accurate. We can access the energy in our body through our breath, but the breath itself is not prana. The practice of pranayama (extension of energy) consists of breathing exercises and this is where the confusion about the definition of prana came from. Though they are not one and the same, prana and breath are intimately related and both are necessary for human life.
To further the confusion between prana and breath, Prana can be subdivided into 5 categories called Vayus or winds. Each Vayu controls the movement of energy in a certain direction in a specific part of the body. The first two (Prana and Apana) are generally considered to be the most important and most accessible.
Prana Vayu – Upward moving and expansive, prana vayu governs the chest and head, nourishing the brain and the eyes.
Apana Vayu – Downward moving, controls digestions and elimination and aids in the feelings of equanimity and groundedness.
Vyana Vayu – Expands from the core to the periphery, sending life to the edges of the body.
Udana Vayu – Moves circularly around the head and neck.
Samana Vayu – Moves circularly around the waist, from the outside in.
To feel Prana and Apana Vayu with the breath:
Close your eyes, and take a deep breath in. As you inhale, notice how your body expands upwards and your whole body is energized. This is Prana Vayu.
Notice the release and subtle downward motion as you exhale.
See if you can notice small variations in the intensity and duration of your inhales versus your exhales.
To feel Prana and Apana Vayu in Asana:
Take Warrior 1 position: from standing, step the right foot approximately 4 feet behind you and swivel the right heel down so that your toes are pointing at about 45 degrees. Bend the left knee as deeply as you can, making sure to keep it directly above the left ankle (it will want to bend inward towards the right).
The optimal environment for prana to flow in the body is a state of relaxed engagement, so pause here for a moment and try to feel the prana and apana vayus just like you did while seated. This will cultivate sensitivity and awareness and keep you from over-effortingin the pose. Now from the center of your pelvis, extend energy down your right leg and if possible bend deeper into your left knee. This extension downward is Apana Vayu. To feel Prana Vayu, extend the arms upward. From the same place in the pelvis that you are reaching down your leg, inhale and reach your arms straight up. If you can do both at once, you are circulating prana and apana energy evenly in your body. This creates a balanced yoga pose (and is a LOT of work!). Whew, you can come out now!To balance and strengthen your Vayus, try this simple pranayama practice:
Full Yogic Breath
In order to balance the Vayus and strengthen the flow of prana in your body, practice this simple pranayama exercise. Set yourself up for pranayama practice in a way that you will be comfortable yet alert the entire time. Reclining with your upper body on a bolster or several pillows is ideal, but if you are feeling sleepy, you might want to sit. Take several normal breaths, paying attention to the length and feeling of the inhalation versus the exhalation. Begin evening and smoothing out the breath, creating a seamless transition between inhalation and exhalation.
Keeping the breath smooth and effortless, focus the movement of your breath entirely in your abdomen. Take 10 deep but easy breaths, keeping your chest completely still. Now keep your belly still and take 10 breaths into your chest. Continue to breathe without effort or strain. Your last 10 breaths will include expanding both the abdomen and the chest. This is the full yogic breath. When you are finished with these 10 breaths, breath normally for about a minute and feel the energy moving through your body before moving or getting up.
Practicing the full yogic breath lowers cortisol (stress hormone) and increases DHEA, the hormone the fights fat and makes you feel more alert and energetic. It can also help to regulate blood pressure. Amazing what a little extension of your life force can do!