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The Subtle Essence of Vata: Prana

So far in our blog entries, we've been working really hard to provide the background necessary for anyone to properly understand some of Yoga's and Ayurveda's most insightful concepts. We've touched base on some of the most frequently mentioned topics and concepts for both of these disciplines and provided a 'beginner's guide' to Ayurveda and Yoga that is true to their actual philosophical, empirical, and scientific depth.

But if there's one morcel of wisdom worth taking home at the end of this very long, very complex lesson is that Yoga and Ayurveda speak of an alchemical process of sorts: the alchemical process whereby 'you' and 'me' can turn our lives and bodies around to experience a state of 'pure being' first hand. In order for this alchemical process to begin to take place, however, knowledge of the precise methods and techniques whereby we can sublimate our factors of disease ––known as the three Doshas–– into their revitalizing subtle counterparts ––Prana, Tejas, and Ojas–– is key. This is the whole reason for any of the prescribed methods of Yoga (asana, pranayama, meditation, mudra, bandha, mantra...) or any of the lifestyle recommendations that Ayurveda gives. And so, today, we'll approach the first one of these three subtle energies: Prana.

On Prana

To start easy, we can say that Prana is the subtle essence or energy of Vata Dosha. It is the power or energy of the 'air element' manifested as a sort of spiritual 'wind.' For those unfamiliar with the notion of Vata, please check our earlier entry on the topic here.

From the Sanskrit for 'energy,' Prana is more often than not defined in terms of the breath or as our 'vital energy,' our 'life-force,' the equivalent of the Chinese 'chi'; but the truth is that it goes well beyond that. Prana extends to reach deep into the realm of our 'soul' and 'spirit,' so that our innermost immortal nature or essence can be described as the deepest and most profound level of Prana any of us houses within. By this we mean, we house it within us but it does not necessary begin or end with us.

Indeed, our most basic nature is energy or, if you prefer, consciousness; for it is consciousness-as-energy that activates our bodies with all their gross and subtle elements with their different degrees of manifestation from within. It is, therefore, the power of our spirit, soul, consciousness, or whatever you want to call it that makes our bodies and minds as they are and that is eventually responsible for any of their innate gifts and potentials. For Prana is certainly responsible for the unfolding of higher consciousness or the expansion of consciousness in us.

Now, the thing with Prana is that it is responsible in many ways for the correct organization or coordination of our "breath, our senses and mind" (Frawley 2008: 88). It harmonizes all of these. But Prana being 'the subtle energy of air' or the subtle expression of Vata dosha, also means that it is often subject to inadequate expression in this plane.

As noted when we spoke of Vata Dosha, one of the main characteristics of this Dosha is enthusiasm, creativity, spontaneity, adaptability, and the will to be. Now, when the qualities of Vata Dosha or of its energy can't find correct expression, all of these qualities derange. And so, this is how, for example, we can come to feel that sometimes in life we know what we want to do but lack the energy or actual 'know-how' to get around to doing it. Ayurveda and Yoga would say that this is due to an energetic issue of sorts, one involving Prana in any number of its expressions; because the vitality, creativity, and spontaneity of our vital force can't fulfil its role.

Thus, when the energy of our spirit, soul, or consciousness is weak or finds a blockage at a physical or psychological level, it loses effectivity. It is unable to fulfil its innate function. And so, Yoga and Ayurveda tell us that, the key for any of us to attain happy, successful, and well-balanced lives is to learn to properly store, manage, and direct our vital energy through the entirety of our being.

The Secret to a well-managed Powerhouse

The vital essences of Prana, Tejas and Ojas, then, work together in order to enhance, harness and mobilise each other so that our being can properly function at all levels. Their relation is, therefore, multidirectional, inasmuch as Prana needs Tejas, Tejas needs Ojas, Ojas needs Prana and so on. We will be dealing with Tejas and Ojas in upcoming entries.

Ayurveda and Yoga have devised different means that, used alone or in combination, are meant to help us increase our inner store of vital energy, clear any existing blockages, release any waste products and, overall, purify the very essence of our being: our consciousness. They go about it differently, however; but in essence, we can say that both of these disciplines address the main reasons why we often fail to properly manage our own physical-spiritual powerhouse. And these are:

- wrong diet

- wrong breathing

- wrong activity (lack of exercise, sedentary lifestyle, or excessive physical activity in just one realm)

- wrong focus (self-indulgence, stress)

- wrong attachment (emotional blockages, excessive or maloriented desire, trauma...)

Both Ayurveda and Yoga, then, aim at restablishing the correct flow of vital energy in our bodyminds so that, by learning to properly utilize our different sources of energy, we may lead happier and more fulfilling lives. And one of the main methods whereby any of these two disciplines address any problems at the level of Prana is through the practice of pranayama or techniques for the correct use of our breathing ––and of our breath retentions in particular.

Sources of Prana

Aside from well-known physical sources of Prana, such as foods and herbs, there are other sources of vital energy we have a cultural tendency to neglect, and these often involve incorrect breathing and improper use of our senses. Both of these on their own have detrimental effects on our nervous system and on our minds leading to numerous disorders and, when combined, lead to many of our modern-day malaises.

Hence, learning to cut down on potential sources of energy depletion that involve our senses such as when we consume too much media, too much noise, too much stress, too much food, too much social interactions, too much sex, or, in general, too much self-indulgence at large is one of the goals pursued by both Yoga and Ayurveda. The other main goal and recommendation put forth by these two disciplines with regards to Prana is to learn to actually breathe, to inhale and exhale, so as to adequately take-in and circulate vital energy through our bodyminds. That and learning to take in Prana also by spending more time in nature, more time in silence, and more time in stillness, just being.

This is the true secret for the correct management, storage, and expression of the subtle essence of Vata.