Prāṇa and I maintain an intimate, unfailing relationship. It seems that Prāṇa touches everything that I live with and cannot live without. Nonetheless, I do not measure the dimensions of my Prāṇa, let alone monitor every nuance of its movement. There is nowhere to submit my complaints if it stops working, but I rest assured that it never stops working from the moment that I was born. I am bemused by my attempts to quantify it as a separate resource from my body and mind, as if to suggest that I can be depleted of it, or that I can mine more of it. Such irony is present in the phrasing of ‘I’ve lost my mojo!’ and ‘I’ve got my mojo back now’. How can the sap of life be removed from my body, mind and spirit? Can a circle in spatial geometry have its locus extracted out of its periphery? In yoga (union), I focus on my intimate, unfailing relationship with prāṇa because the locus of the self is sarām (essence), and the essence of life is prāṇa.
Prāṇa as living energies
Prāṇa is a concept espoused by the ancient yogins and yoginīs to explain the dynamics and vibration of the psyche, the body and the relationship with the external environment (including nature and culture) that support well-being and life.
Prāṇa, unlike the fundamental forces of physics, is described as psychic vibrations, based on psychology, metaphysics, and phenomenology. New Age exploration of psychic energy, however, tends towards the propagation of pseudoscientific myths based on superstition, magic and beliefs that support a placebo effect. Moreover, there is no tool that can physically measure psychic energy, aside from an individual’s own subjective experience, in a manner of speaking. Thus, literature and practices that make claims of some miracle or magic panacea under the auspices of the placebo effect to treat a wide range of symptoms – hair loss, sexual dysfunction, weight loss, etc. – should be viewed with a reasonably high amount of skepticism.
Prāṇa in the metaphysical model of existence (Vedānta psychology)
Historically, the concept of prāṇa first appeared in ancient gnostic scriptures called the upaniṣads, as part of a metaphysical framework of existence that describes structures of experience or consciousness.
The Vedic sages’ ascetic discipline of the psychology of experience was a precursor to the twentieth century phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al., which involves the study of appearances rather than reality.
In particular, the taittirīya upaniṣad illuminates the underlying phenomenological concept as illusion (maya) – by presenting its model of the experience of prakṛti (nature) in terms of five layers. From the gross to the causal, the layers are named annamaya, prāṇamaya, manomaya, vijñāṇamaya (or buddhimaya) and ānandamaya. Each of these mayaḥ represents the phenomena (Greek phainomenon, appearance) or manifestations of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things.
Within the annamaya (food) layer of the physical body (sthūlaśarīra), the prāṇamaya layer represents the vitality of the subtle body (liṅgaśarīra or sūkṣmaśarīra).
The word ‘kośa’ (sheath) was not used in the taittirīya upaniṣad, and it might have entered the lexicon through Ādi Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary on the ten principle upaniṣads. The model (illustrated) is popularly known as the pancamaya kośaḥ, where ‘kośa’ is commonly used as a synonym for ‘layer’.
The term ‘kośa’ is not used in the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar lineage when describing the five layer model of experience, because it suggests compartmentalization within the layers, instead of conveying the pervasive, unbounded nature of human consciousness and experience.
Five forms of prāṇa
The five forms of prāṇa are also described in the taittirīya upaniṣad,
Adhyātma (inner spiritual self or spirit) | prāṇa, vyāna, apāna, udāna & samāna
These five forms are also known as the pañčavāyuḥ, or five airs, which localize prāṇa activity in various parts of the body:
1. prāṇavāyu: responsible for the beating of the heart and breathing.
2. apānavāyu: responsible for the elimination of waste products from the body through the lungs and excretory systems.
3. udānavāyu: responsible for producing sounds through the vocal apparatus.
4. samānavāyu: responsible for the digestion of food and cell metabolism (and also directly affects jaṭhara agni).
5. vyānavāyu: responsible for the expansion and contraction processes of the body, e.g. the voluntary muscle system.
Metabolic fire or Jaṭhara agni
Fire (agni), as the earthly manifestation of the power of the Sun, is sacred in Hindu rituals, and its symbolism in the work of haṭhayoga connotes the oblations of the temple that is the energy body, and its prāṇa (vital energies) – leading to transformation to a higher level of being.
In the context of prāṇa, the catabolism (breakdown) of food for samānavāyu (digestion, metabolism) is represented by the imagery of fire in the jaṭhara (Japanese hara, belly). By inference, the dynamics of the belly function as the centre or heart of the subtle body system. In other words, the symbol of agni represents the hṛdaya (heart) or sarām (essence) of prāṇa.
Sometimes I feel moody, overworked or tense in some parts of my mind-body but lethargic or sluggish in other parts of my mind-body.
In Āyurvedic terms, the state of vikṛti, or imbalance of bodily humours or dośaḥ in the body depends on my relationship with prāṇa.
The practice of yoga (union) is to bring the subtle psychic energies back into a sense of balance, by drawing the downward-moving psychic flow of apānavāyu up towards the navel (psychic energy centre referred to as ‘maṇipūra’, or city of jewels), and the upward-moving psychic flow of prāṇavāyu down towards the navel.