Secrets of the Five Pranas

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Written by Dr. David Frawley

All that exists in the three heavens rests in the control of Prana. As a mother her children, oh Prana, protect us and give us splendor and wisdom.

Prashna Upanishad II.13

To change something we must alter the energy which creates it. This fact is true in the practice of Yoga. To bring about positive changes in body and mind we must understand the energy through which they work. This is called Prana in Sanskrit, meaning primary energy. It is sometimes translated as breath or vital force, though it is more than these.

While the subject of Prana is common in Yogic thought and while different forms of Prana may be introduced, the subject of Prana and its different subtypes is seldom examined in depth. For this reason the entire science of Prana, which is vast and profound, is rarely understood. In this article we will look into this vast subject, that we might be awakened to the great expanse of Prana in all of its manifestations.

There is an old Vedic story about Prana that we find in various Upanishads. The five main faculties of our nature – the mind, breath (prana), speech, ear and eye – were arguing with each other as to which one of them was the best and most important. This reflects the ordinary human state in which our faculties are not integrated but fight with each other, competing for their rule over our attention. To resolve this dispute they decided that each would leave the body and see whose absence was most missed.

First speech left the body but the body continued though mute. Next the eye left but the body continued though blind. Next the ear left but the body continued though deaf. Mind left but the body continued though unconscious. Finally the Prana began to leave and the body began to die and all the other faculties began to lose their energy. So all they all rushed to Prana and told it to stay, lauding its supremacy. Clearly Prana won the argument. Prana gives energy to all our faculties, without which they cannot function. Without honoring Prana first there is nothing else we can do and no energy with which to do anything. The moral of this story is that to control our faculties the key is the control of Prana.

Prana has many levels of meaning from the breath to the energy of consciousness itself. Prana is not only the basic life-force, it is the master form of all energy working on the level of mind, life and body. Indeed the entire universe is a manifestation of Prana, which is the original creative power. Even Kundalini Shakti, the serpent power or inner power that transforms consciousness, develops from the awakened Prana.

On a cosmic level there are two basic aspects of Prana. The first is the unmanifest aspect of Prana, which is the energy of Pure Consciousness that transcends all creation. The second or manifest Prana is the force of creation itself. Prana arises from the quality (guna) of rajas, the active force of Nature (Prakriti). Nature herself consists of three gunas: sattva or harmony, which gives rise to the mind, rajas or movement, which gives rise to the prana, and tamas or inertia that gives rise to the body.

Indeed it could be argued that Prakriti or Nature is primarily Prana or rajas. Nature is an active energy or Shakti. According to the pull or attraction of the higher Self or pure consciousness (Purusha) this energy becomes sattvic. By the inertia of ignorance this energy becomes tamasic.

However even the Purusha or higher Self can be said to be unmanifest Prana because it is a form of energy of consciousness (Devatma Shakti or Citi Shakti). From the unmanifest Prana of Pure Awareness comes the manifest Prana of creation, through which the entire universe comes into being.

Relative to our physical existence, Prana or vital energy is a modification of the air element, primarily the oxygen we breathe that allows us to live. Yet as air originates in ether or space, Prana arises in space and remains closely connected to it. Wherever we create space there energy or Prana must arise automatically.

The element of air relates to the sense of touch in the Yogic system. Air on a subtle level is touch. Through touch we feel alive and can transmit our life-force to others. Yet as air arises in space, so does touch arises from sound, which is the sense quality that corresponds to the element of ether. Through sound we awaken and feel our broader connections with life as a whole. On a subtle level Prana arises from the touch and sound qualities that are inherent in consciousness. In fact Prana has its own sheath or body.

The human being consists of five koshas or sheaths:

  1. Annamaya kosha – food – physical – the five elements
  2. Pranamaya kosha – breath – vital – the five pranas
  3. Manomaya kosha – impressions – outer mind – the five kinds of sensory impressions
  4. Vijnanamaya kosha – ideas – intelligence – directed mental activity
  5. Anandamaya kosha – experiences – deeper mind – memory, subliminal and superconscious mind


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