Prana is the Sanskrit term used to describe the life giving force behind all of creation. It is this indwelling cosmic life-force that orbits the planets around the sun, expands and contracts the universe, fluctuates our social and ecological systems, ebbs and flows the tides of the ocean, and pulses the beat of our hearts. In essence, prana is cosmic energy manifesting itself in various fractal forms across all scales and dimensions of nature. Called zero-point energy at the quantum scale, embodied as the four forces of nature at the macro scale, prana is the “cosmic breath” that moves in and out of our bodies to sustain our very existence. Our breath is one of many forms of prana , and it is in the fourth limb of Raja Yoga’s eight limbs that we learn to work with respiration to develop mastery over its vital flow.
Even though we can witness the movement of prana in the physical plane, it is its hidden subtle dimensions that one learns to dance with in order to master its ways. Prana expresses the same reality as does the Latin term spiritus, embedded in terms such as inspiration, respiration, and expiration. Essentially prana refers to the spirit-essence that animates all that is, spinning life into being with every inhalation, and exhaling the old in a timeless feedback loop of creation.
For most people breathing is an unconscious, autonomic, involuntary physiological process that just happens, as does the beating of the heart or the crashing of the ocean waves. The beauty of breath, however, is that it can also be a conscious process. We have the choice to take a breath or not, unlike our heart or the ocean waves. Being one of the few functions of our body-mind that is governed by two distinct systems, it acts as a powerful link to otherwise hidden powers of the human organism.
The Power of Breath
Breath is literally that which connects the unconscious, involuntary system to the conscious, voluntary system, as breath is governed by the reptilian brain stem when we are not paying attention, and by the pre-frontal cortex when we are. Since breath is crucial to all bodily functions, bringing fresh oxygen to every single cell that comprises our organism, we have the potential to develop deep intimacy with a physiology that is unconscious to those not engaged in these breath awareness practices.
Pranayama are exercises that work directly with breath and the movement of prana. Once the energy has been liberated by the asanas of the third limb, the practitioner then learns to consciously direct, control, focus, and manage said energy via pranayama. Patanjali reminds us that all of these practices are designed solely for the purpose of clearing the system and preparing the individual for meditation.
Breath, then, is the bridge that connects body and mind, the conscious and the unconscious. One can witness this link by noticing the direct relationship between breath and various mental-emotional states. How one breathes—the depth, frequency, rhythm, and speed—directly correlates with how one feels and thinks.
For instance shallow, quick breaths often indicates poor health and a low, anxious, agitated state of being. Holding one’s breath often indicates angry, constricted states, whereas deep, slow, rhythmic breathing correlates with relaxed states and physical well-being.
Fast vs Slow Breathing
The whole autonomic body listens to the breath, so that when the breath is fast and shallow, the entire organism shifts into the sympathetic nervous system’s stress “fight or flight” response, activating the system for an impending danger. By contrast, slow, deep, rhythmic breathing will inform the autonomic body that there are no threats. This allows the body to activate the parasympathetic “rest and repair” nervous system, shifting the organism into a healing state of coherence and wellbeing.
By consciously working with our breath we can engage our entire organism, creating a direct line of communication to a physiology that was, up to this stage, completely unconscious and automatic. Through breath, we make the body and all its states conscious, thus healing the so-called mind/body split. If all body-mind functions are the instruments of a symphonic orchestra, the breath is the conductor setting the tempo for the music that is our life.
The Science of Pranayama
Within the science of pranayama, a series of breath exercise are employed to regulate the system of the practitioner, where breath acts as a gear shift that leverages the practitioner into various states of consciousness. From ecstatic, kundalini (powerful form of prana latent in the human organism) activating sequences that raises the energy to sublime levels, to an almost imperceptible flow that brings the system to stillness, pranayama becomes the self-regulating practice par excellence.
In more advanced applications, the yogi learns how to access deep and expanded states of awareness by merely shifting the quality of breath. A natural way of clearing stagnant energies and blockages, the practitioner opens up the possibility of becoming conscious of what is normally stored in the unconscious. Through pranayama we learn to release these stored unconscious complexes, thereby liberating energy so that it may be directed toward the higher ideals of yoga: namely union with the Divine.
Yoga teaches that all external gross forms are animated by the subtle tides of prana, forming currents (nadis) and vortices (chakras) as it undulates throughout the human body. In the practice of pranayama one first increases sensitivity to the movement of prana, ultimately learning to direct said vital force. The breath is the vehicle for prana, uniting inner and outer, mind and body, individual and universal. Breath is that which governs life; we breath we live, we stop we die. Breath is the center of our practice.
Once the body-mind has opened its subtle channels and released the free flow of prana through asana, we learn to direct it through pranayama. The next four limbs teach us where to direct the released energy for the ultimate purpose of Self-Realization.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here