Thursday, 19 July 2012

What is Prana? Excerpt from Gregor Maehle's Pranayama : Breath of Yoga

"In response to a question by a student here another excerpt from the new Pranayama book:

What is prana?
As is the case with many other terms, prana can
have several meanings depending on context. For example some yogic scriptures instruct you to draw the prana in through the left nostril and expel it through the right and vice versa. Here, prana simply means breath.
More often we come across passages that advise us not to let the prana enter the head, or consciously push it into the arms to gain strength or direct it into areas of the body that harbour disease. Very common is also the scriptural advice to move prana into the central energy channel (sushumna), which, once achieved, produces the mystical state. In all of these instances prana obviously does not mean breath but ‘life force’.

Breath is the gross expression of the subtle life force.
In its cosmic form prana is also the manifestation of the Great Goddess and is then frequently described in a personalised form – it may be called Shakti when thought of as descending, or Kundalini when thought of as ascending. Again these two terms are often interchangeable depending on context.

The Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad identifies prana with the Brahman (infinite consciousness / deep reality) (Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad III.9.9). The same is said in the Brahma Sutra (Brahma Sutra I.5). How can the Brahman, which is pure, infinite consciousness, be the same as the subtle life force, which, although permeating and moving this entire universe, is still a far cry from pure conscious-
ness? The answer we find in the shanti mantra ‘Sham no mitra’ of the Taittiriya Upanishad. In this invocation we find the important passage ‘Namo brahmane namaste vayo tvameva pratyaksham bhrahmasi tvameva pratyaksham brahma vadishyami’, which means ‘I salute you oh
Brahman, I salute you, oh Prana. For you, Prana, are indeed the directly perceptible Brahman. You alone I shall call the directly perceptible Brahman.’

The understanding of this passage is very important. The Brahman is the transcendent aspect of God. Transcendent aspect means it is not directly perceptible (other than through an act of grace). But it can be recognised by its immanent aspect, in our case the prana. In this shanti mantra the prana is called the immanent aspect of Brahman.
The philosophy according to which God is at the same time both immanent and transcendent is called panentheism. Panentheistic thought is present in all major religions. In Christianity, for example, the Father is God transcendent and both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God immanent. Interestingly enough, spirit is the translation of the original pneuma in the Greek New Testament. The term pneuma
derives from the Sanskrit prana and, even in the English inspiration, the connotation of inhalation and thus breath is still present.

T. Krishnamacharya also linked prana to consciousness. He ex- plained that in the waking state prana is projected out to both body and mind (T. Krishnamacharya, Yoga Makaranda, p. 44). In the dream state it is withdrawn from the body and
extends only out to the mind. In the deep-sleep state, however, prana is withdrawn from both body and mind and abides in consciousness. That is why dreaming is not truly restful and not really conducive to health. It also explains the existence of proverbs in some languages that say in sleep one goes home to God or in sleep one does not sin. It is
reflective of the fact that prana is absorbed into our spiritual nature and absolutely no activity is present.

Some scriptural passages identify prana as the prakrti (nature, material cause) of the Samkhya philosophy, and in this case we simply look at the cosmic impersonal manifestation of what expresses itself in the individual as breath and life force. The Shatapatha Brahmana
describes prana as the elixir of immortality (amrita) (Shatapatha Brahmana X.2.6.18). Amrita more often than not denotes a drug derived from a creeper, but in yoga the
amrita is the reservoir of prana in the centre of the brain, the area of the third ventricle. When the prana is arrested there, immortality is gained. This immortality, however, does not necessarily refer to physical immortality, some schools interpreting it as the realization of divine consciousness.

Other textual passages say that prana and apana need to be united in the navel chakra (Manipura). In such contexts, prana refers to only one of the ten vital airs (vayus) that in themselves are subdivisions of the broader life force, prana. Prana has two storehouses in the body, a lunar, mental storehouse in the centre of the brain (Ajna Chakra) and a solar/physical storehouse in the area of the navel
(Manipura Chakra). Manipura Chakra is also the seat of fire (agni), and this is why some texts suggest raising Kundalini with fire and air (prana).

Some older texts also use the term vayu instead of prana (as the Taittiriya Upanishad above). In this book, if prana is used with the meaning of life force it will stand by itself. If it is used to denote the vital up-breath prana vayu, a subdivision of the life-force prana, then the compound prana vayu is used instead of the simple prana.

The term prana Shakti is also frequently used to denote the efferent (outgoing) function of the nadi system, i.e. the ability of individuals to actively express themselves through the body, such as moving it in space and making it perform actions. Prana Shakti is thought of as working through the right nostril, and breathing methods that primarily utilise the right nostril therefore make one extraverted and active. Opposed to that is manas Shakti, the collective term for afferent (incoming) nadi signals, which are activated through the left nostril. Breathing through the left nostril makes one more inactive, introverted and reflective, this being a function of manas Shakti rather than prana Shakti. This is covered in more detail in the chapter on nadi balance.

To those who reduce the term prana to merely mean ‘breath’
Swami Ramdev declares that it is not only breath but also invisible divine energy ( Swami Ramdev, Pranayama Rahasya, Divya Yog Mandir Trust, Hardwar,
2009, p. 15).

Summarizing, prana is thus the body and actions of the Great Goddess, with which she causes, produces, maintains and destroys not only the entire world of manifestation but also each and every individual by means of breath. The downward-moving process of manifestation of individuals (Shakti) and the upward-surging process of their spiritual emancipation (Kundalini) are the two directional manifestations of prana. Prana is the God immanent that
permeates and sustains this entire universe and all beings. Additionally the term prana is used to denote the vital upward current on the one hand and the efferent (outgoing) currents of the nadi system on the other. When trying to understand the significance of the term prana one therefore needs to cast one’s net as widely as possible to
include all of these possible meanings; otherwise certain textual passages will remain opaque".
© Gregor Maehle 2011


  1. Good stuff. I really need to pick up that book...after I finish the rest of my reading pile.

    But I'm kind of worried that it'll make me want to start a stand-alone pranayama practice...and I'm not sure when I'd fit it in my day! :)

  2. I know it's a problem, so much yoga so little time. Krishnamacharya
    'when once a fair proficiency has been attained in Asanas and pranayamam the aspirant to Dhyana has to regulate the time to be spent on each and choose the Asanas and pranayama which will have the most effect in strengthening the higher organs and centres of perception and thus to aid him in attaining Dhyana'
    So I guess ultimately your not expected to do your 90 minutes of asana and 90 minutes of pranayama etc.

    I've sacrificed a degree of fitness and fancy asana recently to focus on pranayama but I guess the time will come when I'll then have to sacrifice some of the long breath retentions and focus on dhyana with a more moderate asana and pranayama practice. good practice in non attachment perhaps.

  3. There are a few issues here that are indicative of Maehle's rather fast and loose take on the Sanskrit corpus.

    The first is with the Śānti Mantra from the Taittiriya Upaniṣad: the second line quoted (namaste vāyo) invokes Vāyu, the Wind, a common and prominent anthropomorphic god of the Vedic period. To equate that god with prāṇa is questionable, and even if it is so-equated within some branch of traditional knowledge, to treat it as transhistorically/transculturally so is misleading at best.

    The second, comparatively less important, problem is "The term pneuma
    derives from the Sanskrit prana." Both words, rather, come from an earlier source.

    In all, I've found Maehle's Prāṇāyāma book, like the theoretical parts of his earlier two books, fairly disappointing. Oh well.

  4. Isaac,

    I curious of the earlier source for pneuma and prana, if you are willing to share.

    I echo your sentiments on Maehle's work. It is certainly well researched and Meahle has definitely put in his time, but there is something very important lacking from his work. I have not read this particular book yet (aside form the posted excerpts) but his take on the yoga sutras in his first book makes me reluctant to spend another penny on his work.

  5. Hi Isaac, Tom, I don't mind the 'fast and loose' approach ( if indeed it is) so much, as long as he's referencing his sources such that I can look at the play with the different translations/uses myself. I'm having fun with it.

  6. I hear you Grimmly, he (Maehle) is both scholarly and diligent in his approach, and he does a great job of referencing his sources and pointing curious practitioners back to the original shastras. I do not see his approach as fast and loose at all actually, I see it as laborious mechanical, and a bit rigid. Quite the opposite of Isaac's take actually. But I certainly appreciate Maehle's effort, and that his effort allows you to have fun with it and allows us all to discuss, learn, and grow as practitioners.



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from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included. "So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta