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 brah-
mane 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
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.
- 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 conscious-
ness. 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), but more about that later.
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, intro-
verted 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. Addition-
ally 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.
This is an excerpt from my book “Pranayama the Breath of Yoga”
© Gregor Maehle 2011