4 easy ways to increase your prana right now
Have you ever wondered why yoga makes you feel so good? Have you ever taken a moment to reflect why you feel so vibrant yet relaxed at the end of a yoga class? Have you ever felt teary and emotional while in a yoga pose? Why is that? What helps you recognise that your energy levels are low on the days when you are not your 100 per cent? How can you define and regulate that energy contained within?
Yoga has the answers.
You came to the Earth with the physical body, yet also you were born with another, less tangible body, which in yoga tradition is known as the subtle body or the energy body. The energy that circulates within and around you is the life force called prana in the Indian yoga tradition and qi in China. Yoga and the disciplines like acupuncture, reiki, tai chi and qi gong are based on regulation of prana in order to restore wholeness and bring health and vitality into the body and the mind. Yogis see prana as a force that sustains all life.
Samana vayu is the inward-moving balancing energy dominating the navel region ... and, when balanced, results in vitality and healthy digestion.
As described in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient yogic text, practising certain yoga poses, various breathing techniques, chanting and meditation help release stagnant energy and free the flow of the vital life force (prana). Take a deep breath through your nose … and exhale through your mouth. Notice how nice, expansive and relaxing it feels as, together with filling your lungs with oxygen, you enrich pranic flow within your body.
Prana is distributed throughout the body through energy pathways called nadis, as well as the spinning energy conduits known as chakras, which are aligned along the spine within sushumna (the central energy channel). Sarah Powers from the Insight Yoga Institute describes chakras as “the lungs of the energy body”, which have “specific functions that affect our overall wellbeing in various ways [physically, emotionally, mentally and energetically]”.
Five major vayus (winds of prana)
There are five primary and five secondary sub-divisions of prana, called vayus, described in the yoga tradition. Vayus translates as winds or airs of prana, which flow in specific directions, responsible for the movements in the body, and can be cultivated by directing your awareness to them. The five major vayus are described below.
- Prana vayu
Not to be confused with the vital life force prana, prana vayu is the upward-rising energy, associated with inhalation, fluid and food intake, which spreads through the heart and lung region of the body, governing respiration and boosting your energy levels.
- Apana vayu
Apana vayu is the downward-flowing energy of exhalation, which is active in the pelvic floor and lower abdominal region and governs elimination processes: urination, defecation, menstruation, ejaculation, child birth and expenditure of sexual energy.
Exercise to experience prana & apana vayus
Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position on the floor or on a chair. As you inhale, start to slowly raise your arms up above your head feeling the up-rising energy which raises your chest flowing from the belly upwards as your arms ascend (prana vayu). As you exhale, bring your arms down, noticing the downward-flowing energy with the descent of your arms (apana vayu).
- Udana vayu
Udana vayu is the ascending energy of five senses. It governs the region of the neck, throat and head and is responsible for speech, erect posture and sensory responses of the body.
Exercise to experience udana vayu: ujjayi breathing with a sound in the throat
This breathing exercise will allow you to experience the energy and sound emerging from your throat, while also calming the mind and soothing your nervous system.
To start the practice, lie on the floor in savasana (corpse pose) or sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor or a cushion with your spine erect and your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths through your nose.
Now begin ujjayi breathing practice. Although it is commonly done through the nostrils, it is helpful to learn it first by breathing through the mouth. As you inhale, open your mouth and create a “gasping” sound, drawing the air in. Then slowly exhale through your mouth, making the sound “hahhhh”, closing off your glottis (the space between your vocal cords) and breathing mainly through the back of your throat, as if you are trying to fog a mirror. Repeat a few times, connecting to the sensations at the back of the throat and listening to the sound you produce on inhalations and exhalations.
After that, close your mouth and breathe through your nose while continuing to make the audible sound in the back of your throat on both inhalations and exhalations.
- Samana vayu
Samana vayu is the inward-moving balancing energy dominating the navel region between the chest (prana vayu) and the pelvic area (apana vayu). It governs homeostasis, metabolism and digestion. The movement of samana happens when prana and apana vayus unite and, when balanced, results in vitality and healthy digestion.
- Vyana vayu
Vyana vayu is the outward-extending energy permeating the whole body and governing the circulatory system of the body. It manages the muscular system and physical movement as well as controlling other vayus, distributing the energy throughout your body.
Exercise to experience samana & vyana vayus: goddess pose (utkata konasana)
Step your feet wide apart (about 90-120cm) and turn your toes out 45 degrees. Keep your legs straight and bring your palms together at the heart centre. Inhale here.
Exhale and bend your knees over your toes, squatting down and extending your arms out parallel to the floor and pushing the palms away from the centre of the body. Notice the outward-moving energy as you enter goddess pose (utkata konasana).
Inhale, come out of the pose by straightening your legs and bringing your hands together, with palms touching at the heart centre, paying attention to the energy moving inwards.
Repeat a few times.
Nadis (subtle energy channels)
As established above, the winds (vayus) of prana flow in various directions through multiple pathways in the body. Those pathways, known as subtle energy channels, are referred to as nadis in yogic texts. BKS Iyengar in his book Light on Pranayama also adds that nadis are “channels which carry air, water, blood and other substances throughout the body”.
While Shiva Samhita (a comprehensive treatise on hatha yoga) mentions 350,000 nadis, most tantric texts claim there are 72,000 nadis in existence, of which three are considered to carry most significance. They are sushumna, ida and pingala.
- Sushumna is the major nadi, which originates at the base of the spine (muladhara chakra), travels inside the length of the spine to the crown of the head, and controls the chakras. In many lineages of yoga, including tantra and hatha yoga, it is said that kundalini (the highest form of prana) flows through that central nadi.
- The ida nadi flows on the left side of the central sushumna and is associated with the left nostril, and hence the right hemisphere of the brain. Ida refers to the cooling, feminine moon energy and is linked to intuition, compassion, a nurturing nature and empathy.
- The pingala nadi runs alongside the sushumna nadi on the right and corresponds to the right nostril, and therefore the left hemisphere of the brain, which is more analytical. The pingala nadi carries stimulating solar energy; it is active and masculine.
While most yoga lineages agree on the functions of the major three nadis, the direction of these subtle energy channels are described differently by various traditions of yoga.
Some yoga schools, including the Bihar School of Yoga together with TKV Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga, among others, support the view that ida and pingala criss-cross the central axis of the spine at the locations of the six chakras: at the base of the spine, just above the trunk, at the navel point, in the heart area, in the throat and between the eyebrows.
Other yoga traditions say ida and pingala nadis begin at the base of the spine, flowing straight up either side of the central sushumna nadi. Hence why Dr Hiroshi Motoyama’s research, published in his book Theories of the Chakras, reveals that none of the seven yogic texts he analysed — including Yoga Chudamani Upanishad and Yoga Shikka Upanishad — discuss the fact that the nadis cross at the chakras.
As prescribed in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “The yogi who has thus overcome fatigue by practising asanas [postures], should begin practice of purification of the subtle nerve, the nadis, manipulation of prana, pranayama [yogic breathing] and mudras [symbolic gestures] to invert the subtle energies in order to deepen meditation practice.”
Practice to purify the nadis: nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)
This breathing exercise is effective in restoring the equilibrium between the nadis, balancing both hemispheres of the brain and calming the mind. It is recommended to practice nadi shodhana on an empty stomach.
To start the practice, sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor or a cushion with your spine erect and your eyes closed. Take a few slow breaths, equalising the length of your inhalations and exhalations.
Bring your right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding your index and middle fingers into the palm. During this practice, you will use the thumb of your right hand to close the right nostril and the ring finger to close the left.
Exhale through both nostrils.
Close your right nostril with the thumb and inhale gently through the left nostril. Then, as you release the right nostril, close the left nostril with the tip of your ring finger and exhale slowly through the right nostril. After that, inhale slowly through the right nostril, close the right with the thumb, open the left nostril, and exhale through the left. This completes one round.
Do eight to 10 rounds, completing your last round by exhaling through the left nostril.
When you finish nadi shodhana, release your right hand and breathe naturally through both nostrils for eight to 10 cycles of breath, observing the changes created by this breathing exercise.
Chakras, translated as “wheels” or “discs”, are the spinning energy centres aligning along the length of the spinal cord that influence one another, energise and connect the physical and subtle bodies. The seven-chakra model developed in the 11th century, which is used in this article, was described in the tantric text Sat Cakra Narupana, teachings of which were translated, commented on and brought to the west by Sir John Woodroffe (also known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon) in his book The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga.
Just like a flower, the chakras can open or close within your body according to the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state you are in.
Chakras receive, store and convey specific information in the form of prana and carry certain physical, psychological and energetic qualities. Each chakra has its own unique location, purpose, sound, colour, symbol, element, balanced qualities, malfunctions and shadows, described (together with yoga exercises you can do to balance them) in the chart below.
The chakra symbol is a lotus flower with various numbers of petals. This is related to the concept that, just like a flower, the chakras can open or close within your body according to the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state you are in. Thus, when the energy in the chakra is stagnant or blocked, it triggers physical and psychological responses manifesting as imbalances and malfunctions of that chakra.
For example, one person with a deficient fifth (throat) chakra might be overly shy, fearful of public speaking and have difficulty communicating, while another person with an excessive throat chakra would talk too much, may lie or be unable to listen. Both indicate blockages in the same chakra, but they are expressed in different forms. That same person may also suffer from frequent colds and have thyroid problems manifesting as malfunctions of the fifth chakra.
So, to unblock the throat chakra, that person would choose to focus his or her attention at its location, examine the qualities, the colour and element associated with it, chant the seed sound ham and include camel, plough, shoulder stand and fish poses in his or her yoga practice.
Exercise: introduction to working with the chakras
Examine the chakra chart below. Identify the chakra which might be blocked in your body, noting the factors that have prompted you to decide on the imbalance in that particular chakra.
Seat yourself comfortably and bring your awareness to the location of the blocked chakra, feeling the sensations in the area of the body linked to that chakra and noting its behaviour.
Visualise the colour associated with that chakra in its location in your body. Chant the seed sound corresponding to that chakra. Include the suggested yoga poses in your asana practice.
First chakra: muladhara (base chakra)
MEANING: Root support
LOCATION: Base of the spine
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with four petals
SEED SOUND: Lam
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Good health, vitality, stability, loyalty, trust, feeling of safety and security
MALFUNCTIONS: Weight and knee problems, sciatica, constipation, arthritis
SHADOW: Fear and insecurity
YOGA ASANAS: Warrior I and II (Virabhadrasana A and B), Triangle (Trikonasana), Eagle (Garudasana), Chair (Utkatasana), Knees to Chest (Apanasana), Bridge (Setu Bandhasana)
Second chakra: svadisthana (sacral chakra)
PURPOSE: Movement and connection
LOCATION: Lower abdomen
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with six petals
SEED SOUND: Vam
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Good mobility, emotional intelligence, healthy boundaries, responsible relationships, ability to change and experience pleasure
MALFUNCTIONS: Tight lower back, kidney and bladder issues, frigidity, impotence
SHADOW: Guilt, absence of boundaries
YOGA ASANAS: Warrior II (Virabhadrasana B), Hip Circles, Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana), Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)
Third chakra: manipura (solar plexus chakra)
MEANING: Lustrous gem
LOCATION: Solar plexus
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with 10 petals
SEED SOUND: Ram
MALFUNCTIONS: Ulcers, diabetes, digestive problems, hypoglycaemia
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Confidence, good self-esteem and self-discipline, playfulness, balanced, responsible, reliable, warm personality
SHADOW: Shame, greed and anger
YOGA ASANAS: Boat (Navasana), Seated Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana), Bow (Dhanurasana)
Fourth chakra: anahata (heart chakra)
PURPOSE: Love and balance
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with 12 petals
SEED SOUND: Yam
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Compassion, love, empathy, self-love, peacefulness, strong immune system
MALFUNCTIONS: Asthma, hypertension, heart disease, problems with lungs
SHADOW: Grief and attachment
YOGA ASANAS: Cobra (Bhujangasana), Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), Bridge (Setu Bandhasana), Fish (Matsyasana)
Fifth chakra: vishiddha (throat chakra)
PURPOSE: Communication and creativity
COLOUR: Bright blue
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with 16 petals
SEED SOUND: Ham
ELEMENT: Sound, ether
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Good listening skills, clear communication, creativity
MALFUNCTIONS: Sore throat, stiffness in the neck, frequent colds, thyroid and hearing problems
SHADOW: Lies, insecurity, inability to express yourself
YOGA ASANAS: Neck Rolls, Camel (Ustrasana), Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), Plough (Halasana), Fish (Matsyasana)
Sixth chakra: ajna (third eye chakra)
MEANING: Command centre
PURPOSE: Pattern recognition
LOCATION: Between eyebrows
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with two petals
SEED SOUND: Om
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Good intuition, perceptivity, imagination, memory and visualisation skills
MALFUNCTIONS: Problems with eyes (vision), headaches, nightmares
SHADOW: Illusion and confusion
YOGA ASANAS: Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), together with alternate nostril breathing exercise (nadi shodhana) (described above in the nadi section)
Seventh chakra: sahasrara (crown chakra)
MEANING: Thousand fold
LOCATION: Top of head
COLOUR: Violet, white
SYMBOL: Lotus flower with 1000 petals
SEED SOUND: Om
QUALITIES WHEN BALANCED: Good perceptive and analytical skills, intelligence, open-mindedness, wisdom, elevated levels of thoughtfulness, awareness, broad understanding and connectedness
MALFUNCTIONS: Depression, confusion, apathy, difficulties learning
YOGA ASANAS: Headstand (Sirsasana), if it is in your regular practice, together with a seated meditation on “following your thoughts”.
Primary sources: Judith Anodea, Wheels of Life: The Classic Guide to the Chakra System and Eastern Body Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self
As established, while the subtle body is intangible, it inevitably permeates the physical body and has a strong impact on your mind, health and overall wellbeing. The information presented here is designed to get you excited about your yoga practice, inspire you to look deeper within with heightened curiosity, explore your physical, psychological and subtle dimensions, and develop the practice that fits your beliefs, needs and lifestyle.
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