Prana can be a tricky thing to understand because it’s unseen. It is, however, felt. Through a clearer awareness of what prana is and what it isn’t, it’s possible to become more closely connected to the energy of prana in a felt sense. When we connect to prana, we connect to the world around us and to our true selves.
This article explains the contexts in which prana occurs – the body channels, chakras, in meditation and pranyama, and around us – and explores different practices that work with prana. Discover free guided meditations that help to feel, balance and direct prana within your body along the way.
What Is Prana?
Although prana is related to the breath, it is not the breath. Prana is an energy that pulses through the body along a network of subtle body channels. Similar to the central nervous system, the channels of the subtle body, or nadis, connect form and mind and act as a conduit for energy, prana.
Prana In Context
There are over 3,000 years of references to prana which transcend cultures and spiritual traditions. Prana is a mainstay of Hindu, Ayurvedic, Hatha Yoga and Tantric Yoga traditions, but similar references to the “life force” are seen in the Chinese principle of chi, ancient Roman anima, ancient Greece’s pneuma, ruh of the Islamic tradition, ruah of the Hebrew tradition, and the Christian Holy Spirit.
While not the same as the breath, prana is often defined as breath or respiration. Additional definitions include life force, spiritual energy, vital winds, inner winds, spirit or soul.
Some traditions identify up to five or ten different types of prana, related to inward moving energy, outward moving energy, upward and downward energy, or energy-related to particular places in the body such as the head and throat, the heart or digestion.
Prana And The Sun, Moon & Central Channels
While each of us humans has a form body, our physical shape, we also have a subtle or energetic body. The subtle body, which can be likened to one’s aura, extends beyond the physical body. This is what makes it possible for one to “light up a room” or for us to intuitively sense the energy of another.
The subtle body’s central nervous system is a network of channels, or nadis, comprised of a main central channel, two main side channels—the sun and the moon—and, depending on the tradition, 72,000 or more smaller channels.
The Sun Channel
On the right-hand side of the spine is the sun channel, pingala, represented by the Sanskrit syllable ha. This opaque reddish channel is where the energies of anger, jealousy, separateness, aversion and ignorant disliking flow, each a “hot” energy associated with the sun.
As downward traveling energy—associated with exhale breath—moves through the pingala channel, we experience a rejection of the outside world. “Ignorant” disliking is labeled as such because we mistakenly believe by ridding ourselves of certain people or things lasting happiness will arise. The wise yogi understands that happiness comes from within.
The Moon Channel
On the left-hand side of the spine runs the moon channel, or ida, represented by the Sanskrit syllable tha. Flowing through the moon channel are the “cool” energies of desire, craving, attachment and ignorant liking.
With upward movement of prana through the ida channel, associated with the inhale, the mind is attracted outward to objects of desire, “ignorantly” craving what it mistakenly thinks will cause happiness. The yogi understands that happiness is an inside job and that lasting happiness is not found in impermanent objects or people.
The Central Channel
Running just in front of the spine is the central channel, sushumna or avadhuti, the singing or shaking channel. The name is in part a reference to the hum of pure bliss that arises when prana flows freely through this nadi.
To move the energies of ha and tha from the side channels into the central channel is the ultimate goal of ha-tha yoga. Hatha yoga was originally a forceful practice designed to push and pull the inner winds into the central channel through physical manipulation of the body.
When prana is flowing freely in the central channel we have reached samadhi, full integration. Wisdom, pure thoughts, complete joy and contentment flow through the central channel.
Prana And The Chakras
Where the two main side channels and their numerous “capillaries” become wrapped and interwoven around the central channel, they form wheel-like shapes, or chakras. The points at which these chakras cross the central channel can become choke points, blocking the flow of prana. When we say someone’s chakra is “blocked” it’s the central channel that’s blocked, with the chakra as the culprit.
Traditions vary in describing the exact placement and number of chakras. Most Hindu traditions name six or seven chakras, while Buddhists refer to five.
Both yoga and meditation free up these choke points or chakras by moving prana from the side channels in toward the central channel. As side channel energy is minimized, the “choking” effect fades away.
Sensing Prana In The Body
Physically, in a yoga class, as prana moves more freely you may feel an electric charge run through the body. When we “get the shivers” or a “gut feeling” we are responding to prana and the sixth sense of the subtle body.
We can also recognize what prana is doing by watching the breath. As the electricity of prana runs through the right side channel, for example, it exits the right nostril. In these moments, the logical, left side of the brain is most active. When the left nostril is active, the creative, right side of the brain dominates.
Normally, one nostril or the other is dominant, changing approximately every hour. When we’ve reached a state of nirvana, samadhi, or complete absorption in meditation, we will finally breathe equally through both sides of the nose, energy no longer flowing through the side channels.
An easy way to connect with prana is to notice felt sensations related to the breath. It’s no accident that we relate inhale breath to happiness, greater energy, and awake and vibrant feelings. We relate exhale breath, a sigh out, to sadness, disappointment, and letting go. This cycle of happiness and sadness, ever-changing and impermanent, is the cycle we exist in for as long as we continue to breathe.
Prana In Meditation
As yoga pushes, pulls and moves the inner winds toward the central channel through physical means, meditation does the same through the influence of the mind. Classical texts say our thoughts ride prana like a rider on a horse. Thus, it’s possible to use intentional thoughts to guide prana toward the center as the rider guides the horse.
Through meditation and pranayama, we learn to control the flow of the breath. Many of us have noticed that when our meditation is agitated, the breath is too. When our meditation is calm, resting in the sweet spot, our breath is barely noticeable.
Since mind, prana, thoughts and breath are interconnected, all of them can change by focusing on any one.
One of the eight limbs of yoga, pranayama, or breath control, uses breathing exercises to manipulate prana as an additional tool alongside asana, the physical poses, or meditation.
Ayurvedic pranayama techniques help to cure illness and keep us physically healthy. There are plenty of pranayama techniques to increase and calm our energy, warm our bodies and clear our minds. A 2012 study has shown that the popular ujjayi breathing technique turns off our physical response to stress.
Through the combination of asana, meditation and pranayama, the latent Kundalini energy or prana at the base of the spine travels upwards through the central channel and out the crown chakra, bringing us to enlightenment. This also happens at the moment of conscious death, as prana is directed first to the heart chakra, and then expelled from the body through the crown of the head. You might want to read our beginner’s guide on how to breathe in yoga to balance body and mind.
Prana Within And Without
Prana as a universal energy exists not only within our subtle body channels but all around. We are not separate from the energy of prana in the wind, the earth, water and fire. Our inner winds are related to the winds without.
As we practice awareness of prana in body and breath, we can also practice noticing the movement of energy in the environment around us, the weather, and how the foods we eat, caffeine or intoxicants affect energy within.
Awareness of prana and the subtle body is a lifelong practice. In meditation, awareness of our thoughts gifts us the space to respond to them more wisely. Awareness of prana gifts us the same ability. Over time, with deeper awareness, we’re able to intentionally move that energy toward center, and experience an undisturbable contentment and bliss.