In the study of Hatha yoga, the fundamental and most central concept is "prana." You've probably heard that word mentioned many times before. But what is prana? Prana... is prana. Nothing more can really be said about it, because it is not something which can be objectified or described. Its existence cannot be inferred. It can neither be proved, nor disproved. It can neither be demonstrated, nor thought about. However, its effects can be known. Just as you cannot see the air, but know you would not be able to breathe if it were not there, in the same way you know that the branches of a tree swing because of the movement of air. You do not see the air itself, but you become aware of it by its functions. If you bring to our questioning of what exactly is prana, a description of its functions, you wind up with a generalized definition that prana is cosmic energy, and that every form of energy that we can discover and describe is prana. So, before going into the details that are usually discussed, let's try to look at the way prana operates on the cosmic level.
It is prana whose movement, or vibration in the cosmos gives rise to the world's appearance. In other words, it's because of some vibration, or movement of energy in the cosmos that elements are able to be formed in the first place. For the most rudimentary element, --if one could accept the scientist's description of hydrogen as a rudimentary element--, to collide and collide and collide, and become more and more complicated, forming the most complicated elements or molecules, some force is needed. The force which brings about this collision is prana.
As we have said, the entire universe is nothing but chitshakti: consciousness in which energy is inherent. What caused the agitation which forms the elements in the midst of consciousness-energy? In the Yoga Vasistha you find this question along with a rather interesting answer:
Where are the seeds that bring about you as you, me as me, the dog as the dog, the tree as the tree? There are two causes. One is prana-spandana, movement of energy. The other is vasana, a mysterious self-limiting concept.
What is the meaning of this innocent little verse? Even to merely suggest a meaning, I suppose you will have to imagine the universe as filled with an infinite number of root elements or cells (cell/soul... notice the similarity of the words) and each one of these cells being identical with the cosmic being, each one is also pervaded with consciousness-energy. Now imagine that each one of these particles, in which there is both energy and consciousness, thinks, "I am a particle of sand," and so becomes a particle of sand. The consciousness, as it were, thinks "I am a man," and it becomes a man. The particle thinks "I am a woman," and it becomes a woman. How could this cell do that? It is only able to do something like this because the energy inherent in consciousness is able to fashion it... immediately. Since energy is there in all things, in every cell, in every atom of existence, it is immediately able to fashion the substance that is conceived.
When we come to the study of Raja yoga, we will no doubt come headlong into this subject. The vasana, or notion, together with the movement of energy, is the cause of what the yogis call 'chitta' and what you call 'my mind'. The mind, your mind, has these two causes. The notion which we refer to is fundamentally non-different from consciousness or intelligence. You cannot have a notion which is devoid of consciousness or intelligence. Nothing cannot entertain a notion of something. A non-entity cannot entertain a notion of entity. An unintelligent, inert, absolutely lifeless non-thinking substance, an insentient substance cannot produce a thought or song. so where there is a notion, where there is thought, or concept, its own content, its own reality is consciousness. That concept produces a limitation of itself.
On a less grand scale, we do this every time we use the words 'entire universe' or 'entire cosmos'. No sooner do we use these words, but we are also stretching out our arms as if to show that the universe is ... so big, while we mentally entertain some kind of vague notion that the universe is some kind of circular beginingless and endless unit, like a big globe. Right there, we have limited the cosmos to that! In the same way, in this cell, there is a notion, "I am that!" No matter what that notion is, it is, by definition, self-limiting. The movement of energy in that notion is mind.
The chitta is more or less the same as the notion called vasana. The vasana is the 'seed': the chitta is the 'sprout'. There really is not much difference between the seed and the sprout. Vasana, the seed, is built into every cell of the body, and it has been animated by prana. The vasana and the prana together give rise to chitta, the mind.
It is important to understand these distinctions clearly, because quite a lot of what goes under the name of 'positive thinking' proves ineffectual due to this misunderstanding:
We think that we think what we think we think.
Afterwards we wonder why all that positive thinking hasn't worked! It hasn't worked because we haven't been thinking at all! We only think that we think. Thinking probably takes place at the level of the vasana, at the level of the reality of consciousness, at the cellular level. Are we able to think at this cellular level? No, our thinking is a terribly superficial affair. In order to bring about any real change, we must go down to the 'grass roots'.
Incidentally, you might find it interesting to learn that 'I' which we have been talking about, which is sometimes referred to as "ahankara," is one of the thoughts that arise in the chitta, which makes it twice removed! Therefore, in order to bring abou a total revolution, or change, we must go over the fence called the ego-sense, dive through the chitta, and come right down to this vasana, and change it there.
We have said that prana is energy, and that one can only see prana as its various functions. If we are to continue to explore what prana is, then obviously we will have to look at the functions of prana. However, before we go on to discuss prana at the individual level, let us consider one important point regarding the operation of prana at the cosmic level.
One might say, for example, that the force of gravity is a manifestation of the function of prana. But it is good to remember that it is only with our finite minds, which are so fond of division, that we see the world, planets, stars, etc., as held together by the force of gravitational pull. As far as the cosmos is concerned, there is no such force, but only pure oneness. It's not any different than the example of walking along with your arms attached to your body. You don't feel that some kind of force or pull is needed in order to keep your arm with you when you start walking somewhere. So, when we say that the force of gravitation at work in the cosmos is a manifestation of prana, we are looking at the cosmos from our own preconceived notions. As we proceed to explore prana, please remember that.
One can say that gravitation at work in the cosmos is a manifestation of prana. And on a closer level, electromagnetism is also a manifestation of prana. The energy inherent in physical substances, however you may name it, may be regarded as prana. And in sentient beings --in which we can include not only humans and animals, but also the plant kingdom-- what can be called 'natural sensitivity' may be regarded as prana. In humans and animals, prana acts as natural neurological response.
What is natural neurological response? It merely means that if your hand comes down on a hot plate, before you know what has happened, you are withdrawing your hand. Of course, that's a very simple example. In some cases, the natural response is difficult to see, because neurological response is not always natural but sometimes perverted by, say, fear.
If someone hiding in the bushes suddenly jumps out and violently attacks a passer by, the victim may become afraid of all bushes, or, all human beings. That is not natural neurological response. If one of you were to jump up and grab me by the throat, the natural neurological response would be to grab your hands and pull them loose. But is it natural neurological response to later look at someone who wore the attacker's hair style, and run away? That is perverted psychological response.
Is the distinction clear? In animals, at least in the non-domesticated ones, one doesn't find this perversion. That is why you don't see the perpetuation of animosity in animals that you see in the case of humans. The non-domesticated animals may fight for a few minutes over a bone or piece of meat, but when the quarrel is over, all animosity is forgotten. If you and I start fighting, who knows when it will come to an end. Probably your grandson will be fighting with my grandson!
Perhaps now you can see that when our friend was standing on the edge of the chair, and his legs, feet, and toes started "dancing", moving around, what was happening was the result of natural neurological response. He was not afraid until his mind looked at the situation and took over with the psychological perversion you call 'fear'. If one is able to see the difference between the natural neurological response and perverted psychological response, one can keep the fear from taking over. Without fear, the feet will still "dance" and move around on the edge of the chair, because the body is engaged in not falling off, which is natural neurological response, the function of prana. In the same way, if someone accidentally bumps the sore arm of a sage or great saint, that sore arm will make the sage or saint howl, but the howl has nothing to do with fear of pain. It is only natural neurological response, a manifestation of prana.
How do we recognize prana? This must be asked because we have so completely forgotten the real nature of prana, the life force, that we have ignorantly identified prana with our breathing. We are the victims of a simple psychological trick. We see a dead body, and because we are told that prana is the life-breath, and because we see that the breathing has stopped, we assume the prana has left. We can see that in the dead body there is no breathing, and make the simple equation that prana is breathing.
However, prana is not just breathing! Prana is what enables every cell of being to live and to function. And the yogis looked at these functions of prana rather closely. In accordance with the several functions the single prana performs, they classified it into these five:
prana, apana, samana, udana, vyana
The function of breathing in and out is given to the first of these five: prana. The function 'apana' is excretion. It includes not only excretion of the feces and urine, but all manner of excretion! And so to the extent that the exhaled breath carries some sort of excretion with it, the function of apana is involved with the exhalation of the breath.
I bring this to your attention to point out that the divisions between these classifications cannot be taken literally, in a cut and dried fashion. The whole thing is prana, but the prana has different functions. In accordance with the different functions, we give the same thing a different name, just for the sake of identifying that particular function.
The carrier of nourishment to the very cells of the body, that which enables assimilation and nourishment to take place is called 'samana'. To the force which enables you to walk they give the name "udana." The word means "to lift up." So in the giving of that name, I hope you appreciate that although these ancient yogis have often been called unscientific and even superstitious and silly people, they certainly must have observed that all objects fall to earth and were pulled down by some force, which we now call 'gravity' and must have questioned how humans, in light of this downward pull, were able to walk at all! They must have realized that an upward force was needed in order to tear, as it were, one's foot away from the ground in order to advance in any manner at all. Finally, to the force needed for the circulation of the blood and all energy throughout the body, they gave the name 'vyana'.
Prana is found everywhere in the universe, not only in food, water, or air, but everywhere throughout the cosmos. Yet, it is only in the individual that there is the need to conserve and not misuse the supply of prana. It is a self-perpetuating mechanism. However, in having to assimilate the life force from food and drink, the prana has to work. There is an expenditure of energy in the activity of digestion, and in the activity of assimilation.
That's the only problem with this machine. It performs work, and In its working, it has to spend prana. Of course, in that food which is eaten, and in that air which is breathed in, etc., there is prana. But prana is needed to replenish the prana expended. If perversion and other interferences are avoided, the prana can absorb additional prana that is inhaled, or taken through food and drink, and in so doing, perpetuate itself.
And yet, somehow we are losing, and the balance always seems to be In the red. We gain a little prana here and there, but little by little, we are losing. When the energy that animates this body gets so low that it cannot replenish itself anymore, then no amount of food, tonic, what have you, is going to be able to perpetuate it. Then apana takes over. At that stage, the entire body is fit to be excreted. That is why the yogis also regard apana as the manifestation of death. When the prana budget gets so very low that it Is more in the red than otherwise, they call it "the end of life," the time when the body becomes useless, and fit to be excreted.
There is also a theory that prana is not recharged by eating and drinking. According to that theory, eating and drinking provides only flesh (the material substance): the energy itself comes from sleep. When they say that, they are talking about the average person. They are not talking about those people who are meditating. In the case of meditators, it is meditation itself that puts them in touch with the source of prana.
If you wanted to rate the sources of prana from the most abundant source to the least abundant source, meditation would be first. Next would be sleep. The third most abundant source of prana would be water, pure and simple water (not polluted by alcohol). Last on the list would be food, because so much energy must be expended in the process of digestion and assimilation that the amount derived is not much greater than the amount necessary to process it: the balance table does not change significantly. Only in sleep or meditation is one able to derive maximum energy from the source.
Why so? Maximum energy is derived from sleep and meditation because it is specifically at those times that ego interference is minimal. The ego stands as a barrier between the source of energy and the body. The less ego interferes with our life, the greater the energy and the less the loss of it.
Physical activity, of course, is one of the ways that we lose energy, but the greatest loss, according to the yogis is supposed to occur in the activities of speech and sex. Therefore, they advised us to reduce these two, or cut them out. Any activity that is ego-centered, ego-based, motivated by the ego, is a drain on prana. And therefore, all emotions are a drain all the time, the emotions being the reaction of the ego. By definition, the externalized motion of energy is... emotion:
e - motion
Any haphazard or disorderly movement of energy is also ego-based, and is, therefore, a drain on prana. Greed, aggression, anger, violence, etc., are actions that cause prana to be dissipated. Another classic example would be the person who feels caught in the situation of being compelled to do what he doesn't want to do and deprived of the opportunity to do what he wants to do. This person gets depressed because his prana has been dissipated. This happens because having been forced to do what he doesn't want to do and wanting to do something that is denied, he is struggling between these two directions, and the struggle itself uses up much prana.
The problem of how to gain prana, and of how not to stop the drain of prana, or at least of how to minimize loss, should not be oversimplified. Perhaps it may be oversimplifying matters by saying that the source of prana is beyond the 'me'. Nevertheless, any state of consciousness which is beyond the ego-sense must provide a source of prana.
Sleep is beyond the ego-sense, and it does provide a gain in prana. Meditation is always beyond the ego-sense, and through meditation prana is gained. Pure love (pure love, not lust, or sexual activity: sexual activity causes a huge loss), pure love you might not find between a man and a woman as such, but is sometimes found between a mother and her infant. There the mother gains prana every time she nurses, every time she attends to the baby's needs.
It is only afterwards, when the ego wakes up, and says, "My god, I've lost all my sleep!", that the drain of prana can set in on the mother. Even then, the drain comes only from the ego's activity, and not from any mothering activity. So that if the baby is truly and seriously ill, the mother can go for days without sleep, and still not feel like she has missed her rest. Such an activity goes on in the consciousness that is beyond the self, beyond the ego.
Energy is motion! It has to move, because it is energy's nature to move! This tells us that movement of energy in itself is no loss. In this light, perhaps you can appreciate the Sanskrit word "brahmacharya." The meaning given is "a unidirectional movement of energy." Thus brahmacharya is the closest kind of movement to the natural condition of energy, because it signifies the whole being moving in a single direction. In that, there is no struggle, and therefore, little if any loss of energy. In brahmacharya, the whole being is aligned in a single direction. "Brahmacharya" does not mean "forced celibacy" or continence.
Of course, on another level, it is useful to understand what activities cause a greater drain of energy than others, and so some yogis have provided us with that information, considerations that we may deal with. Certain foods, for example, do need a greater expenditure of energy to digest and assimilate, and those foods are generally prohibited.
How does one know which activities drain the energy more than others? At least one indication of energy loss is easily found in one's own breathing. If you watch your own breathing, the activity in which there is greater loss of energy produces a breathing that is labored and agitated.
On the other hand, that activity which puts you in touch with the source of prana is accompanied by rhythmic, graceful and almost imperceptible movement of breath. In this activity, there is no labored breathing, only subtle breathing, gentle and smooth. I have often felt that our inhalation/exhalation has no other purpose but to indicate this.
Look at this room! It breathes by simple cross ventilation, without having to have the walls go up and down. So perhaps the purpose of having an in an out motion was simply to indicate the state of emotional being. Perhaps it was meant to indicate your state of mind. Perhaps it was meant to indicate the state of your consciousness. Perhaps it was meant to indicate the state of the functioning of your prana, that is, whether you are gaining or losing, because if you watch your breathing you will know. If the breathing is gentle, quiet and even, you are not losing very much. However, if it gets labored, you are beginning to lose prana. There are some other signs also. If your body begins to shake, or if the skin gets hot, it means that prana is escaping, and you are in the red.
In the unusual circumstance of the person who, in an act of selfless service lifts a heavy object which is pinning someone down to the ground, what would happen to breathing? Would it become agitated? What is important to understand in this special instance is that the prana is coming from somewhere else, and so it does not get exhausted. However, the motivation of saving that person's life must be there to such a high degree that one jumps into that task spontaneously. Otherwise, one is straining to lift and becomes terribly conscious of the body, the muscles, arms, shoulders, and so on and the effect of the strain is felt.
Can you do this simple experiment: At what precise point does inhalation stop and turn into exhalation, and, at what precise moment does exhalation turn into inhalation? You can look at a point on the wall, or on the floor, but don't close your eyes. When you do this for some minutes, you are not aware of the breathing at all, because you are looking for the moment of change. You'll also find that you are neither tense, not agitated.
As long as the ego is active, there is tension, and there is lack of inner awareness, because the ego has faced outwards. In which case, you will be more aware of body, more aware of your surroundings, and less aware of the mind, or what is behind the mind, and therefore, less aware of the source of prana. There is still a flow of prana from the source, but because it passes through the filter called 'ego', it gets distorted. This is the cause of the agitated movement of prana. You call it 'deep breathing' but it's really tense breathing, not deep breathing. The real deep breathing only takes place when you are not even conscious that you are breathing.
The eyelids are like the breath in that they are also indicators. If you are very tense and nervous, the eyelids will blink a lot. When the mind is completely relaxed, and when the mind is totally concentrated, the eyelids don't blink. This is because the vision is not focused outwards. You are looking at the breathing even though the eyes are open. People who complain about having to keep the eyes open, complain that with the eyes open, they will be forced to look at something, and will, therefore, start thinking about something. However, when the eyelids are down, there is no way to prevent yourself from looking at the inside of the eyelids! That's my argument for keeping the eyelids open.
Some of us get terribly worried about correctly learning how to take 'the full yoga breath'. If you watch beginners who come to yoga class, you will learn that most people can't even breathe from their abdomen, which is only the first step in this 'full yoga breath.' It seems that the beginner's abdomen is always tense. (That's probably from holding it in!) These people must first be taught diaphragmatic breathing, and only then can they learn to take the breath into the chest, and then fill up to the very top: 'the full yoga breath'. Where does the breath in actually begin? After having to relearn how to breathe in, if someone were to ask you, "When you breathe in, where does it start? " would you know what to say?