Chapter 3: Vitality – The energy body (Prana)
If energy could be packaged and sold in a shop, it would be the most successful business ever. Merely talking about energy, excites and energizes people. Where can we get it, people want to know. Well not in packets and not in shops because it is, first of all, everywhere and, second, free of charge.
There is nuclear energy, electrical energy, muscular energy and mental energy. All of those are called in Sanskrit, pranic energy or simply prana. Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy. Prana is the hidden and potential energy in all beings, released to the fullest extent as a response to any threat to one’s survival. It is the prime mover of all activity. It is energy that creates, protects and destroys. Or in Hindu, prana at work is GOD; Generating, Organizing and Destroying. Inhalation is the generating power, retention is the organizing power and exhalation is the destroyer.
Pranayama, with its suffix ayama, means stretch, extension, expansion, length,regulation, prolongation, restraint and control. Therefor pranayama means, the prolongation and restraint of breath. Since prana also means energy and life force, pranayama also means the extension and expansion of all our vital energy.
It has to be clear that you cannot just increase the volume of this pure energy, without taking steps to contain, harness and direct it. One can understand this by comparing this prana with the electrical current arriving in your house. You would also not think the kettle would boil in a third of the time or your lights would shine three times brighter by tripling the arriving electrical current. But, you would probably burn out all the circuits immediately, and be left with nothing at all. That is why Patanjali clearly stated that between the practice of asana and pranayama , there is a step up like an upgrade. It is through the proficiency in asana, that strength and stability is created in the circuitry of your body, so that it can withstand the increase in current that pranayama practice will bring.
Having strengthened our physical and outermost sheath of being, the anamaya kosha, through asana, we are now adding a second string to our bow through the cultivation of our breath. By doing so, more energy is generated on a conscious level. And with this additional conscious energy we can now penetrate further and deeper within the second sheath, the physiological or organic body, pranamaya kosha.
In yoga philosophy both energy (prana) and consciousness (citta) are considered to evolve directly out of the universal/cosmic intelligence (mahat). The universal intelligence of nature can be most easily seen in its genius self-expression. That is why every leave is a unique manifestation, infinitely varied, infinitely inventive. Prana is our link to this infinite cosmic intelligence. We live with our individual consciousness with its limited intelligence, often feeling lonely and small and weak, when there is a channel available directly to the cosmic consciousness and intelligence. Pranayama is about restoring this channel so that the intelligence bearing the energy of the macrocosm can illuminate our microcosm.
3.1. Breath and Pranayama
Pranayama is more than just breathing, it is a technique that generates cosmic/vital energy through the fusion of the elements of Fire and Water. Fire is the quality of the mind and water is the element that corresponds to the physiological body. Water douses (extinguishes) fire, and fire evaporates water so they are not easily brought together. Air is the interface whose flow in the lungs provides the dynamic stream that fuses water and fire and produces an energetic current of prana. This spreads through the nervous system and blood stream and is distributed around the body, rejuvenating every cell. The Earth element in the form of body provides the physical location for the production of energy, and Space or also referred to as ether offers the space required for the energy to distributes itself. The need for a harmonious and symmetrical space explains the importance of the spine, being the central column of the nervous system, and its supporting musculature.
Watching the flow of the breath also teaches stability of consciousness, which leads to concentration. The power of concentration allows you to invest your new energy judiciously.
The yogic breathing techniques consists of four parts: inhalation (puraka), retention of breath after inhalation (antara kumbhaka), exhalation (recaka), retention after exhalation (bahya kumbhaka). The in-breath should be long, deep and even. The energizing ingredients of the atmosphere percolate in to the cells of the lungs and rejuvenates life. By retaining the breath after inhalation, the energy gets fully absorbed and distributed to the entire system through the circulation of blood. The slow discharge of air during the exhalation carries out accumulated toxins. By pausing after the exhale, according to one’s capacity, all stresses are purged and drained away. The mind remains silent and tranquil.
We have observed that the mind moves with your breath, like the leaves of a tree move with the wind. When breath is regulated and pacified, there is a neutralizing effect on the mind. And when you hold your breath, you hold your soul. By retaining the full in-breath, you hold the divine infinite within yourself. At this moment you have reached the full potential of your individuality, but it is a divine individuality and not the small selfish creature we normally take our self for. By exhaling you generously give out your individual self to the universal world. To expire, means both to breath out and to die. What dies is the known I-sense. In retention after exhalation you experience life after death. The ego’s worst fear is confronted and conquered.
Especially today the “rat race” has created so much unnecessary tension both within and around us. Because of this fast life, we are neglecting the body and the mind. The body and mind are beginning to pull each other in opposite directions, dissipating our energy. And we do not know how to recharge our batteries with energy. We throw ourselves from one endeavor to another, believing that speed and movement is all there is in life. Therefor stress accumulates in the body, producing psychosomatic ailments from stomach ulcers to cardiac arrest. There is positive and negative stress in life. Positive stress relates to a measured response to Nature’s challenges. It is constructive and does not harm the nervous system. The main cause of negative stress comes from anger, fear, speed, greed, unhealthy ambition and competition which produces a deleterious effect on the body and mind. When one does good work without selfish motives, though there is the stress of work, it is positive stress and it does not cause the far greater stress that comes from grasping and greed. The practice of asana and pranayama not only de-stresses you, but energize and invigorates the nerves and the mind in order to handle the stress that comes from the caprices of life.
The cure to combat the three Ss: Stress, Strain and Speed, can be found in the three Ws: the Work of devoted practice, the Wisdom that comes with understanding the self and the World and Worship because ultimately surrendering to what we anyhow cannot control allows the ego the relax and lose the anxiety of its own infinitesimally small self in the infinitude of the divine. When the suffering depressed mind is cured, the light of the soul can itself radiate to the surface of our being.
The pranayama kosha, the energetic sheath, is not only where we work with breath but also where we work with our emotions. For any serious work with our breath and with the energy of the body, we must face the six emotional disturbances.
3.3. The six emotional disturbances
Through yoga we are able the lessen the six emotional disturbances that cause us so much anguish: lust, pride and obsession, anger, hatred and greed. They are called negative emotions by Western psychology or deadly sins by Christianity. Those emotional reactions are the enemies of spiritual growth when they are beyond our control. However each of those emotions exists with a purpose and can be used wisely.
George Stevenson invented the steam engine because he noticed that the steam in a boiling kettle lifted the lid. The force was irresistible. Yoga is about challenging and transforming that energy to higher purposes, just as Stevenson used the energy of steam to drive locomotives.
Ninety-nine percent of all human communication is emotional, not intellectual. Emotions, far more than thoughts, guide most behavior in the world. Emotions relate not only to what we feel, but to the value we place on things. Human life is concerned very much with exchanges, and when we disagree about the value of what we are exchanging, misunderstanding and disharmony can ensue. To understand the emotions, we have to recognize the role the ego plays in them. In these emotional disturbances most people become stuck and find themselves bouncing from one to the other like billiard balls. Yoga helps us to get off this emotional pool table. It teaches us how to control our emotions so they do not control us. In this way, we can sublimate them and become masters of our circumstances and not slaves to them.
When feelings get anchored by thought into our memory, they become emotions, which are no longer related to the moment but to the past. They accrue a greater density and darkness, like storm clouds that block out the sun itself. These stagnant emotions poise us and prevent us from seeing what truly is. By understanding those six emotional disturbances that plague humanity, we will be able the have a chance at transforming them and transforming ourselves.
Nothing scatters the mind more than lust. Yet lust is the impetus for procreation. But what has the ego done to procreation, to the harmonious union of complementary opposites. It has twisted it into an act of egoic self-affirmation, a self-validation through consumption rather than a consummation. On the other hand, lust or better passion, is the glue that holds family life together. Sexual dissatisfaction is where problems in marriage begin. Patience and tolerance are necessary. There is natural progression in marriage whereby the importance of passion becomes less important, and its place is filled evermore by love and friendliness. Sexual fidelity can seem boring. But to love One is to access All. Trust and faith bind us not only to each other but to the Universal.
A passion for excellence is one thing , to force one’s beliefs and practices down other people’s throat is another. That is ego; that is pride. More about pride will be covered in chapter 5.
Fanaticism is an other word for obsession. The yoga path is not easy and requires almost a commitment that to many may seem extreme or even fanatical. That is fine to be fanatical with oneself, but that does not mean that you have to be fanatic with others. More about obsession will be covered in chaper 4.
We have all seen when anger is out of control or destructive. Husband and wife shout at each other, or drivers yell at each other in the street. Anger is out of control when it flares up in us like fire that we have no control over and that smolders long after the fire is out. We shout and call people names and say things we might not even mean because we are in a rage. This is all anger that comes from our ego. He did this to me. He has offended me. He has affronted my ego. As we practice yoga and begin to meditate, we develop equanimity. We slowly let go of this ego. We realize that most of life is not personal. We realize that it had nothing to do with us. You must conquer your ego or small self, so that you can let your soul , your big Self, be victorious.
Hatred and its relatives, malice and envy are the last of the emotional disturbances mentioned by Patanjali.
Remember that quality is more important than quantity. Take in the essence of life as you would smell the fragrance of a flower, delicately and deeply, with sensitivity and appreciation. The ways in which our greed are destructive in our world are easy to see. The way in which our greed is destructive in our lives is more difficult. When we are greedy we are never satisfied, and we are never content.
3.4. The healthy Vrttis
If you are happy, pleasant and unselfish in your behavior towards others, obstacles will shrink. If you are miserly with your emotions and judgmental in your mind, obstacles will grow. Certain treatments, know as the healthy and healing qualities of conscioousness, cultivate the mind. They are:
Maitri: Cultivation of friendliness towards those who are happy
Karuna: Cultivation of compassion towards those who are in sorrow
Mudita: Cultivation of joy towards those who are virtuous
Upeksa: Cultivation of indifference or neutrality towards those who are full of vices.
The fifth petal of yoga is the continuation and intensification of the process that started during the pranayama in which one learns to withdraw the senses and mind for their external engagement.