The Multiple Meanings of Prana

The Multiple Meanings of Prana
Because yoga was born in India, many yogi/nis choose to pay homage to that country by using Sanskrit terms to describe various practices. However, as all polyglot people know, translation is rarely a simple task. This is true for the word prana, which is usually translated simply as ‘breath’ in English but which encompasses a great deal more in its original tongue. How should we understand the term?

In Eastern philosophy, a great deal of attention is given to the life-force which animates the bodymind. Commonly called chi or in the Far East, the term used in Southern India is prana. The sage Paramahansa Yogananda used this word to delineate the animating power within the human body, the energy that brings us life, that vigor which separates us from inert objects. He considered this dynamism to be that which we can study, effect, and use to change our current conditions.

In yogic tradition, we inhabit many types of bodies, the physical layer being just one of them. Beyond our skin, muscles, blood, and bones exists an energy sheath known as pranamaya kosha. Along with the mental, wisdom, and bliss bodies, this casing is part of our entire consciousness. Pranayama, or the workings of the breath, allows us to affect this kosha, which then affects the other layers. We may not realize the connection, but we experience it as part of how we live our lives.

When we speak of the chakras, we are referring to specific energy centers in the body where prana collects. We visualize these in order to affect the ways in which prana moves through us. By doing this, we enable the different parts of our body to work in harmony, which in turn allows us to then work on uniting the body, mind, and spirit. The word yoga means ‘to unite’, and one of the ways we do this is by working with the breath, a practice called pranayama, commonly thought of as ‘breath exercises.’ This translation, as we can see from the above description, only partially covers the effects of pranayama; when we practice Equal Breathing or Nadi Shodhana, we are working with the body and energy paths as well as with the breath.

In Patanjali’s Eight-Fold Path, we begin by looking at the yamas, or ethical controls, and the niyamas, as positive principles of life. We see the root ‘yama’ used again a suffix in the term pranayama, which can thus be better translated as ‘control or principle of the life force within us.’ Because we experience this energy best through our breathing, we use breath practices to harness the energy within, in the same way that we use asana to work with the body and meditation to work with the mind and spirit.



You Should Also Read:
Introduction to the Chakras
Introduction to the Koshas

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