Prana is the vital energy that makes up the entire cosmos. Even the movement in an atom is due to the prana within it. When you see a flame, and you see the heat in that, that is the prana. Your car moves with prana. Your gasoline is a liquid form of prana. You need prana even to raise your hand. Even to think you need prana. Because thinking is a modification in the mind. The mind has to move. The entire nature moves constantly. That is the nature of the nature—constant movement; transformation from one thing to another. Change is the common phenomena. Every second things move, things change. What causes that movement is prana, the vital force.
In the Hindu system, prana, is seen as feminine power. It is called: Shakti or Parashakti, the cosmic power. According to different scriptures of the world, God just is. In the Bible, we hear God telling Moses: “I Am that I Am.” According to Hinduism also we have the “I Am,” which is the Siva. Siva is the static energy in its potential form. Shakti is the dynamic energy that is manifest. But Siva and Shakti are not two separate things as many think. Rather, they are one and the same. They are like light and heat; you cannot separate them. Or, you can view them similar to a gem and its brilliance—they cannot be separated.
Siva when expressed becomes Shakti. And that Shakti is what you call prana. So the entire cosmos is nothing but the expression of that static essential One. All that we see is nothing but prana. If something doesn’t move, you may call it static energy, because it is stationary. Still, the energy is there in the potential form. But if it is just static it is not of much use. So to express its potential, you need movement. The expression itself is what you call movement. The mere existence of something in its unexpressed form, is the potential energy.
It’s something like the flow of electricity. Your house may be wired electrically. So, there is that flow of electrical energy. But, that energy is just there invisibly or unexpressed until you plug in a lamp. When you plug it in and get light, then you see one form of the electricity’s potential expressed. This is known as Sat, truth. Something that exists, just is, that’s all. It has not become something, and it has not expressed as something. So it just is there in its’ truth, its’ Sat. Nature is. You are. God is. And then it expresses.
In Sanskrit, God is defined as Sat-chid-ananda, Truth-Existence-Bliss. The purpose of prana is to enable the Sat to manifest as chid. This makes it visible and useful. Once it manifests, the outcome is ananda, bliss. It is not: Sat‑chid‑pain! It is Sat‑chid‑ananda. If the Sat expresses and if you understand it properly there is ananda. So, the expression brings pleasure, joy, bliss. But if it just remains as plain Sat, it is not even going to be known by anybody. Nobody can utilize or enjoy it.
That is why I say that if God centers Itself and remains in Its own center, It simply is a big zero. That means, It remains unmanifest. Look at the way we spell God: G‑O‑D. At the very center of God is a big zero: G‑O‑D. So, if it remains in its center, it remains zero or unmanifest. That is why the Bible says, “In the beginning there was God and nothing but God.” There was nothing other than God even to experience God. And even the God couldn’t experience anything because there’s nothing else. So maybe God got bored and wanted to express Itself. The entire cosmos is nothing but the expression of that static essential One. And that expression is what you call prana.
The opportunity to regulate, direct, and control prana is given only to human beings. Have you ever heard of any animal thinking of landing on the moon? Have you heard of any animal throwing a bomb on another country? No. It’s only the human being. In a way, all the scientists are trying to control the prana, to use the prana the way they want. All the inventions, discoveries, scientific and medical breakthroughs, are nothing but the uncovering of the power of prana. The only difference between a Yogi and a scientist is that the scientist is trying to discover the pranic movement in external things and then control that movement as he or she wants. Whereas, in the yogic field, you begin by learning to regulate the internal prana and that naturally leads to mastery of all things—internal and external.
Our body itself is a planet. That is why it’s called “microcosm.” The external world is the “macrocosm.” In the Hindu thinking, this concept in Sanskrit as, andam and pindam. Andam refers to the cosmos and pindam refers to the microcosm. And there is one hundred percent similarity between the pindam and the anandam. We have all the planets within us. You have sun, moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, everything within. Those who know palmistry will agree with me. Your entire cosmos is in your palm.
The purpose of Yoga practice is to enable you to regulate the prana within. You are taught first to go within. Because if you want something to happen outside, it first should happen inside you. Your own body’s movement is due to the prana moving. Your mind moves because of that same power. And you—the True Self—are the witness, simply there watching and allowing the energy to make the prana move. In this way, you are the Sat. I can give the analogy of how a magnet works. Imagine there is a magnet sitting on a table and nearby there are some iron filings. Your real Self is sitting like the magnet watching the magnetism flowing that makes the filings move.
Why would we want to control prana? Is there any particular reason for it? Yes. We are surrounded by prana moving all around us. Everything outside of us moves and we are simply bombarded by those movements. We are continually influenced by these movements. Your environment, the people around, the air that you breathe, the water you drink, the sun, and the moon all have an influence upon you. Even the thought waves around you can influence you. The stars influence you—isn’t that why many people consult very often with astrologers?
So, if we are constantly being influenced by things, how can we make use of those influences for our benefit? We can try changing the outside influences, but that may not help us much. Instead, you can strengthen yourself so that you are well-equipped to handle anything that may try and influence you.
Many years ago, I composed a small Tamil verse describing this idea. While poetic in Tamil, it translates simply in English as: “Control the prana within and gain mastery over the prana without.” Where should we begin to control the prana? As I said earlier, the same prana that moves the cosmos, moves your mind and body.
The prana that moves the mind, is more subtle, than the prana that is responsible for physical movements. I’m sure you can easily guess which is easier to control: the gross or the subtle things? Gross movement is easier to handle because it’s more concrete. For example, it’s easy to pick up an ice cube and place it wherever you want. But, you cannot just pick up water and put it here or there; you need to first put the water in a container. And, if the water goes back to its original form—H2O, as a hydrogen‑oxygen particle—even the container is not enough to hold it. Because it’s more subtle, more expanded, it’s harder to handle. That is the same reason why you can easily pick up a rock and put it in your hand. But, scientists find it very difficult to pick up a molecule in it’s original form.
To learn how to control prana, we begin with the gross side—physical movement—which is easier. You slowly discipline your physical movements, control the movements. It almost looks like a tea ceremony. During the tea ceremony, every movement is performed with total awareness and control. This is the same idea behind how we practice the Yoga postures. I recommend that they are done in slow, methodical movements with total awareness. As you move slowly through the posture, every second you know that you are lifting the arm. There are no quick or jerking movements. By practicing asana in this manner, you are gaining mastery over your physical prana. Then you are ready to move to the next and more subtle level, which is to work with the movement of the breath. This is the practice we call, pranayama, or regulation of the breath. The more subtle prana moves the breath so by controlling the breath you are trying to control the subtle prana. And, there are other, more subtle levels in which we can work with the prana within us.
Yoga texts describe five bodies or sheaths through which the human being functions. These are known as koshas and they are: annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vignanamaya kosha, and anandamaya kosha. Annamaya kosha refers to the body of physical elements or the vital body—this is the body that we see with our eyes. It is the body that is made out of the food we eat. When a baby grows in the mother’s womb, it is fed by the food and nutrients the mother ingests. That helps to form the physical body of the child. If the baby is unable to absorb the nutrients it will not develop a healthy body. When you are an adult, if you do not eat, your body will die. The body is nothing but all the food and nutrients you put into it. So, it is comprised of physical elements.
The next sheath is the pranamaya kosha or the vital body. It is also known as “the breath body” because it is associated with the flow of breath and pranic energies. The third sheath is the manomaya kosham, the mental body. The fourth one is the vignanamaya kosham, the intellectual body. It is the sheath through which the higher mind functions. And the fifth sheath is the anandamaya kosham, or the blissful body. In this kosha, there is only the feeling of bliss. It is the experience of the real Self, of pure being. Yoga practice leads you from the grosser levels through the more subtle levels until bliss is experienced.
When you learn to regulate the prana and make it function the way you want, then you can move to the manomaya kosham, the mental body. At that level, you can regulate the thoughts and the mind. The mind and the prana work closely together. When you regulate the breath, you have regulated the mind. If you have disturbed your mind, you have disturbed your breath.
The relationship between the breath and the mind is easy to see in a person filled with anxiety. When a person is nervous or gets frightened, what happens to the breathing? Instead of being calm and quiet, it will soon become very shallow. So, if we want to control the mind, we follow the reverse order. We become very aware of the breath, and make it slow, calm, and deep.
Yoga teaches us that when we calm the breath we have calmed the mind. The breath provides us with a beautiful link to the mind. That is why I often tell my students that if you don’t have time to do your Yoga postures each day, don’t miss doing your pranayama practice. Because it’s the prana that functions through the breath and during pranayama practice you spread that prana throughout your system.
Prana is our life force. All that you see is nothing but prana. During our Yoga practice what are we trying to do with the prana? Why should we even go and do something with the prana? We can answer these questions by first understanding the meaning of the word, “pranayama.” The word pranayama is comprised of two words: “prana” and “ayama.” I already talked about the meaning of prana. It is the vital force that makes up the entire cosmos. Breath is the external manifestation of the prana. Thus, by regulating the breath, one can gain mastery over the prana within and without. Ayama is the term that refers to the regulation of the breath. It means regulating, or handling something, in a disciplined way.
We should not make the mistake of thinking that when we regulate the breath or the prana, that we are blocking or stopping it. Because sometimes people think that practicing pranayama means that we inhale and hold the breath until the eyeballs pop out. That is not the purpose of pranayama. Pranayama involves using the breath to make it flow the way you want. The practice of pranayama can be compared to training a wild horse. Another way to think of it is like playing with a tamed serpent.
Often the prana or cosmic energy has been compared to a serpent. The prana resides in your body as the kundalini shakti, or divine energy. It is compared to a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. With your gradual and disciplined practice of Yoga, you are gently rousing that energy. The Yoga practices train you in how to handle the prana or kundalini. If the serpent is under your control, it will behave well; but if you don’t have that self-mastery, it may strike you and you’ll be poisoned. The Yoga practices are all designed to safeguard you as you gain that mastery over your body, breath, and mind. Then the energy will rise naturally and you can make use of it for the highest good of all.
We have subtle nerves centers known as nadis and chakras. Nadis are channels or tubes through which blood, water, vital fluids, etc., flow in the physical body. They also have their counterpart in the other koshas and carry pranic, spiritual, and other vital energies. The scriptures say there are 350,000 nadis. Of these nadis, 14 are noted as the most important. The nervous system can be compared to a huge power generating center. The brain and spinal cord can be seen as the generating station. The nerves and nadis carry the electricity throughout the body. If there is a good flow of electricity or prana and if the wires conducting the electricity are all strong, sturdy, and in good shape, everything runs well. But, if there is not adequate flow of energy or if the wires leading from the generator are damaged or there are loose connections, then the power system does not function well. Through Yoga practice, especially pranayama, the nadis are purified.
We have an example, in the life of the South Indian saint Sri Ramalingam, of someone who mastered his prana. Gradually he was able to raise the kundalini up to the crown chakra and his body glowed with light. It is possible. He had many students but they were more interested in the miracles that he was able to perform and less interested in the wisdom of his teachings. After awhile, he told his students, “You are all interested in miracles but nobody is interested in the Truth. I seem to be wasting my time. I have thrown pearls before swine so I am going away.” It was in the year 1874 that he went into a room and asked the disciples to lock the room from the outside. I have seen that room. It is just one single room with only one door and a small window that has bars.
Sri Ramalingam went into the room and asked his students not to open the door. After two or three days the news spread and the government authorities came to know of this. They told the disciples, “You cannot do this. It is against the law to keep somebody in a room and lock him in. I order you to open the door now.” At first, they refused. But soon they were forced to unbolt the door. When they opened the door there was nobody in the room. He simply melted his body and he dissolved it into light. That is the greatness and power of someone who has mastered his prana.