Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

Prāna, Prāna-Vidya: What is it?

by Jim Fraser

The January AHYMSIN newsletter featured an interesting discussion on khechari mudra.  This particularly drew my attention because I had just given a talk on Hatha Yoga and the subtle body as compared to Hatha Yoga as a set of linear exercises.  The advanced discussion of khechari mudra is certainly beyond my simple talk; however, the difference is one of the degree of understanding of the Subtle Body.  Both depend on the awareness of prāna.    Therein lies great puzzlement.

When I first accessed the TTP website [Ed: Teacher Training Program] I came across a note explaining that the Hatha Yoga was taught according to prāna-vidya.  ‘Oh,’ I said to myself, ‘I have been chasing that for years.  This is surely beyond me.’  And being a typically frugal Scotsman I was concerned that I had perhaps spent my money unwisely. 

So what is prāna?  I had listened to teachers refer to it as heat rising in the body; as contained in the air and assimilated by pranayama; as energy driving the body as steam drives a locomotive.  Swami Vivekananda uses that analogy in his book, Hatha Yoga.  One teacher led a seminar entitled ‘Electric Yoga’ as if prāna is electricity.  Then there were the various ‘Tantric’ exercises and concentrations supposed to cultivate and direct prāna.  I learned a lot about breath control, but not about prāna.  Books didn’t help either. 

I asked a teacher who offered elaborate courses on prānayama: What is prāna?  He didn’t know.  At least he was honest. 

In 2009 I asked Swami Ritavan the same question.  He provided an answer which went right over my head.  All I caught was the tri-partite word Sat-Chit-Ananda.  But that was a clue.  I had come round to thinking by then that prāna and mind cannot be separated, they are like two sides of a coin.  That means that it cannot be understood as an object or a process such as electricity.  But if there is no object then there is no subject.  With no object and no subject, it is difficult to reason.  Instead there are intimations of a larger sense of Being which is the tripartite word. 

I listened to Swami Veda talk about prāna and how it helped him to continue his mission despite illness.  In one of his talks on the Śiva Sutras he mentions that though the control of prāna is effective is it not a happy affair to live on and on.  This was a sobering measure of what prāna is.  It still eluded me however, happy or bleak.

Swami Veda in his book Kundalini: Stilled or Stirred? (p.63) advises that physical yoga exercises are done with awareness so that ‘gradually one begins to become aware of the centres of prāna and then learns to work directly on the prāna śhakti. On the prāna force.  This is the thinking behind the instruction I had met on the TTP website. 

What I personally discovered was that the Hatha Yoga as taught did not imbue prāna vidya.  The relaxation exercises and shitali karana, OM kriya, 61 pointsand yoga nidra did.  I found that deep relaxation makes the breath very subtle and awareness settles gradually into itself.  For knowledge of prāna the mind needs to be thus so it can watch without being co-opted by the body’s insistence.  Lying in śavasana, prāna and its centres can be glimpsed as a sense of wholeness and light. This same training frees the mind in the sense that it can read emotional dispositions and refuse to be co-opted by these.      

In asana, however gentle, the breath is continually influenced by the body’s position and movement.  So a lateral movement influences the flow in one nostril over the other, in a twist the diaphragm is constrained, a backward bend constrains the abdomen and thus the diaphragm and so on.  Even in the most gentle of movements such as smoothing the forehead with the flat of the thumbs the breath is compromised.  If the breath is compromised then the mind is not stilled.  At least not to begin with, but having learned to find the stillness of the mind through learning deep relaxation then whatever the movement the effect on the breath can be neutralised.  Relaxation in asana releases tension in the body. By attending to the movement of the breath and relaxing that movement incrementally the body will relax and open into the position.  It is also a two-way process.  The breath can relax the body then the body so relaxed can in turn relax the breath movement so the breath and the mind then relax further.    

This approach provides increased body awareness so the tips of the fingers, the tips of the toes and the top of the head meet in the navel and there is a sense of union throughout the body.  The practice of nauli enhances this awareness.  

Moreover through relaxation I found that the mind extends through the body   It is at the source of every movement.  The body, so full of mind, responds to concentration.  The body is not a distinct object but folds around the mind wrapping around our thoughts demanding it be the sole focus of attention, so the body and ego are synonymous.  We are so busy with the body that we don’t see the mind except at second-hand.  In asana I had learned that shifting the toes or the fingers can enhance the depth of a posture.  As I saw how the mind is there before any movement I learned that it is not necessary to emphasise these digits, concentration is enough.  So instead of pushing the toes into the mat to flex the hips further in adhomuktsvansana that can be done by concentration alone. 

Continuing with relaxation practices the mind now made distinct from the body is not held in the embrace of subject and object so it becomes light and there is the impression it might just float off.  It is with that degree of sensitivity that the Hatha Yoga exercises begin to suggest the flow of prāna.  In becomes possible to feel a movement that is not just the linkage of bones, joints, muscles and nerves.  So the entire body is engaged, the mind watches the breath which is directed to soften the forces in the muscles and joints and is aware too of the subtle movements finding the centres. 

So for me it is not asana but relaxation which initially imbues prāna-vidya and maybe one day khechari mudra.



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