Prana and the body – the Ayurvedic view

Ayurveda Pranayama Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash.png

If you do yoga you've probably heard of prana, the Sanskrit word meaning energy, the force that gives us life. You'll often hear it mentioned in yoga classes. But did you know it also underpins Ayurvedic medicine? In fact, Ayurveda sees all disease as an imbalance of prana and says we cannot be physically healthy without the correct flow of prana around the body. I'm going to explain just what prana is, how it affects our bodies, and hopefully get you thinking about your own underlying energy level. 

What is prana?

Our physical activities – moving our muscles, breathing, digesting food and so on – are not merely mechanical; there is an unseen, vital energy behind them. That's prana. Its nature is movement. It is both physical and mental energy, giving vitality to the physical body and giving us the power to think. Every living being is alive due to prana. It's called chi in Chinese medicine and ki in Japanese (as in Reiki) . 

Our physical body is a manifestation of prana, and the way we think, feel, breathe and perceive the world is a reflection of the state of our underlying energy. We can also tell from our behaviour, such as our patterns of eating, exercising and resting, and how appropriate or inappropriate for health these patterns are.

Prana is what holds creation together. It's the vital energy of the universe. It is what links our body, mind and spirit so they act together as a single organism. Everything we do in life is either transmitting, receiving or depleting this energy; breathing, eating, sleeping, moving, standing, sitting, talking, thinking, feeling, sensing.

So, since Ayurveda views illness as an imbalance in our prana, treatment involves correcting that balance. This is why an Ayurvedic practitioner considers not only your skin, digestion, weight, or whatever bodily system is not functioning optimally, but also looks at your underlying energy and motivation (for example, through pulse reading). All Ayurvedic methodologies work on restoring prana – both physical methods, such as eating fresh wholefoods, and more subtle, like breathing and meditation.

How we deplete our prana 

We lose prana by eating contaminated, artificial foods, drinking alcohol, smoking, being a couch potato, taking in too much stimulation for our senses (online scrolling, social media, noise pollution, visual over-stimulation, movement, travel, crowds, busy environments, and many other of today’s habits). Imbalanced prana becomes imbalanced Vata (the dosha that causes the most diseases).

How to generate prana

Having sufficient amounts and movement of prana in the body is one of the most important parts of a healthy Ayurvedic life. It can be obtained by eating fresh uncontaminated foods and drinking pure water, which contain prana, and through pranayama (breathing techniques).

But the most instant way to recharge your prana is to breathe correctly. Prana is not the breath, nor is it oxygen; but oxygen carries prana, hence we obtain prana through the breath. The prana from fresh, digestible, wholesome foods is absorbed via the large intestine, or colon. So the amount of prana we can absorb, and therefore how healthy and vibrant we feel, depends on the health of both our lungs and our colon.

How Ayurveda works on prana

All Ayurvedic healing modalities are ways of treating prana, including nutrition, lifestyle, herbal medicine, massage, yoga and pranayama. 
• Food. This contains prana, which we absorb as long as the food is fresh, correctly prepared, correctly consumed, of a type we can digest (the right type for our doshic balance), and our digestion is functioning optimally. 
• Herbs. These correct the movement of prana and its functions, such as digestion, elimination and sweating.
• Physical treatments. Ayurvedic massage loosens blockages of prana in the muscles and bones. Marma point therapy loosens blockages of prana in the nadis (the channels in the energetic body through which prana flows).
• Touch. This is the sense through which prana is conveyed, transmitting prana from the therapist to the patient. The healer’s prana awakens the prana of the patient and encourages it to heal.
• Meditation. This opens the prana of the mind, and mantra chanting energises it.
• Pranayama. Prana can be expanded through regulating the different stages of the breath (inhalation, exhalation and retention) in specific ways, but never attempt this before you are ready or without being properly shown. Dr Vasant Lad, one of the foremost Ayurvedic doctors living today, says that pranayama alone has the power to cure many diseases – but that practised incorrectly is can also cause them. Speak to your yoga teacher or Ayurvedic practitioner about learning the correct techniques. Pranayama also develops buddhi (our capacity for discrimation; our ability to make the right choices).

Your own energy level

Take a moment to think about your own prana. How are you thinking, feeling, breathing, and perceiving the world around you? Are you eating, exercising and resting in ways that are appropriate for your body? Or not? Are you keeping going on adrenaline, or functioning from a place of full and balanced energy? When prana flows, life flows!

This post has looked at prana and the physical body, according to Ayurveda. I will shortly write about prana, pranayama and the mind, according to yoga.

Jacqui Gibbons is an experienced Ayurvedic health coach, currently training as a yoga teacher, and will be offering yoga and Ayurveda workshops in London in 2019