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The Five Pranas

pranas
Five Pranas

The word “prana” (prāṇa – प्राण) is derived from the Sanskrit root word “an” (अन्) with the prefix “pra” added. “an” means to breathe. When we add the prefix “pra” then prana assumes a much broader meaning in addition to simply the breath. Prana can mean the cosmic life force or the individual vital life energy. It is the life force or the life principle that keeps us “alive”. In many parts of India, when a person dies, the statement made is “prana left the person’s body” and the implication is that the person is dead. At the time of death some of the organs in the body like the liver, kidney, eyes etc. may still be functional. In fact, that is how organ transplant is done from a cadaver. The only reason these organs are of no use in the body is because there is no prana in the body. In a different body where the prana is still there, this organ can replace the damaged organ and resume normal function.  

There is a story about Prana that we find in ancient texts, the Upanishads. Our five main faculties – 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. 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 they all rushed to Prana and told it to stay, acknowledging its supremacy. Clearly Prana won the argument. Prana gives energy to all our faculties, without which they cannot function. The moral of this story is that to control and harmonize our faculties we need to learn how to control and enhance the quality of Prana. 

As we know from our yoga practice, it is the practice of Pranayama that helps control, regulate and energize the pranic energy in the body. Pranayama works at the level of the Pranamaya Kosha, one of the five koshas (sheaths) that our body is a composite of. You can read more about these koshas in my blog post here.  

At the level of the pranamaya kosha, prana performs five different functions. These five functions influence the functioning of the body at the physical, physiological, mental, intellectual and spiritual levels. These five are usually referred to as five “vayus” or five pranas. The Sanskrit word vayu means the air or wind. Vayu also represents movement. These five pranas are: prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana. 

In addition to the these five which are called major pranas, five other minor pranas, called up-pranas in Sanskrit, are also listed in our literature. The minor pranas are: naga, koorma, krikara, devadatta and dhananjaya. 

The five major and five minor pranas are described below.

Prana

Physical level: This prana is also known as sthoola (gross) prana to differentiate it from the all-pervasive vital force, also called Prana (usually written with capital P). Sthoola prana refers to the energy currents located in the thoracic region between the diaphragm and the throat area. It is the center of circulation of life energy. It governs reception of all types from the eating of food, drinking of water, and inhalation of air, to the reception of sensory impressions and mental experiences. This force maintains the heart and lungs, and all the activities in the chest region such as breathing, swallowing and circulation of blood. When the rate of breath or heartbeat increases due to strenuous work etc., the level of sthoola prana also increases.

Among the fivefold pranas, it occupies the pivotal position and controls the other four. Pranayama in particular raises the level of this prana and prevents congestion of blood in the arteries around the heart.

Subtle level: At the level of mind, prana is responsible for the (throat) chakra. When the force of prana is strong and flowing uninterruptedly, purer qualities of the heart, such as strength, courage and greatness are expressed. This prana is the energy by which one-pointedness of mind and intuitive knowledge can be experienced.

Prana Vayu creates the openings and channels in the head and brain down to the heart. There are seven openings in the head – the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and mouth. Udana assists Prana in creating the openings in the upper part of the body, particularly those of the mouth and vocal organs.

Indications of imbalance: When the pathways of prana are not clear, the heart and lungs malfunction and there is poor intake of oxygen. At the mental level, one is not able to bring in positive impressions. It is difficult to concentrate or access intuitive knowledge.

Apana

The Apana Vayu operates in the pelvic region between the navel and the perineum. Apana governs the movement of energy from the navel down to the root chakra. It moves downward and outward and governs all forms of elimination and reproduction (which also has a downward movement). It governs the elimination of the stool and the urine, the expelling of semen, menstrual fluid and the fetus, and the elimination of carbon dioxide through the breath. On a deeper level it rules the elimination of negative sensory, emotional and mental experiences. It is the basis of our immune function on all levels.

Apana is responsible for the creation of the openings in the lower part of the body, those of the urino-genital and excretory systems.

Subtle level: Apana brings energy down through the five koshas. Swadhisthana (sacral) and mooladhara (root) chakras are within the range of apana. By energizing apana, these chakras are expressed. This prana is the energy by which one-pointedness of mind and intuitive knowledge can be experienced. Control of apana is also control of the sexual instinct and the instilling of brahm-acharya (abstinence). At the mental level, apana removes negative thoughts and emotions.

Indications of imbalance: When apana is unbalanced, there is poor elimination, a feeling of being pulled down by gravity, depression and negativity.

Udana

The Udana vayu moves upward – qualitative or transformative movements of the life-energy. It governs growth of the body, the ability to stand, speech, effort, enthusiasm and will. It is our main positive energy in life through which we can develop our different bodies and evolve in consciousness.

Udana operates in the extremities: the arms, legs, neck and head. This prana is responsible for all the jnanendriyas (organs of perception), and karmendriyas (organs of action). It coordinates and controls the movements of the legs, arms and neck and directs the activities of the brain and sensory organs that are situated in the head region. These include: eyes, vision; ears, hearing; tongue, taste; nose, smell; skin, tactile sensation. The organs of action controlled by udana are three: hands, feet and speech. The other two, the excretory and reproductive organs, are under the control of apana.

Udana also assists prana in inhalation and exhalation, intake of food and drink, as well as vomiting, spitting and swallowing saliva. All the functions of the throat and mouth are sustained by udana and its influence begins from the region of vishuddhi chakra (throat). It also maintains the pranic link between the heart and the brain. In addition, udana aids the minor pranas (see below) in carrying out their activities due to its close proximity to them.

Udana sustains the sense organs and their activities. The enjoyment of senses keeps udana active, because it functions according to their needs. The force of udana keeps the body upright; it is responsible for anti-gravitational activities of the body (particularly by the hands and the feet).

Subtle level: Udana allows one to perform positive mental work. It is responsible for sweet, melodious and impressive speech. It allows for the exchange of prana between the head and heart, thereby establishing contact between the subtle and causal bodies.

Indications of imbalance: An irregular udana causes breathing troubles, inefficiency in physical and mental work, inability to think clearly or express oneself, uncoordinated speech, weakened will and lack of cheer.

Samana

Samana vayu moves from the periphery to the center, through a churning and discerning action. It operates between the navel and the diaphragm. The word samana is derived from the root saman, meaning ‘equal’ or ‘balanced’. Thus it acts as a balancer or equalizer for the two opposite forces of prana and apana. Samana activates and maintains the digestive organs and their secretions, and is responsible for metabolism. It is associated with the digestive fire, jatharagni. Samana aids in digestion on all levels. It works in the gastrointestinal tract to digest food, in the lungs to digest air or absorb oxygen, and in the mind to homogenize and digest experiences, whether sensory, emotional or mental.

Subtle level: Samana maintains the cohesion and balance between the five koshas. It is subtle in comparison to apana and gross in comparison to prana. Just as it helps digest food, samana gives us nourishment, contentment and balance at the mental level.

Indications of imbalance: Samana, the equalizer, is disturbed whenever one’s mental peace and harmony are disturbed. Whenever there is turbulence in the body and the senses, samana becomes agitated and causes disorders. Poor assimilation of food is a result of samana imbalance, causing build-up of toxins as well as psychological blockage. At the mental level it brings about attachment and greed. We cling to things and become possessive in our behavior.

Vyana

Vyana vayu moves from the center to the periphery. It governs circulation on all levels. It moves the food, water and oxygen throughout the body, and keeps our emotions and thoughts circulating in the mind, imparting movement and providing strength. In doing so it assists all the other Pranas in their work. Vyana also regulates and coordinates all the muscular movements, aids in sending impulses to different parts of the body, and causes the flow of perspiration and gooseflesh. Vyana causes all the pranas, major and minor, to function by being their accessory.

Subtle level: Vyana brings about circulation through all the five koshas and is responsible for their differentiation. It is the vehicle of consciousness through the body. In the condition of excitement, due to its swift motion, it makes the mind excited and deluded.

Indications of imbalance: When vyana, the expansive energy, is unbalanced, there is lack of coordination, tremors, inability to reach out to people, and the mind is erratic.

Summary

As a simple summary we could say that Prana governs the intake of substances. Samana governs their digestion. Vyana governs the circulation of nutrients. Udana governs the release of positive energy. Apana governs the elimination of waste-materials.

This is much like the working of a machine. Prana brings in the fuel, Samana converts this fuel to energy, Vyana circulates the energy to the various work sites. Apana releases the waste materials or by-products of the conversion process. Udana governs the positive energy created in the process and determines the work that the machine is able to do.

Minor Pranas (Up-pranas)

Along with the five major pranas, there are five minor or upa-pranas. These are: naga, koorma, krikara, devadatta and dhananjaya. The minor pranas are grosser and more limited manifestations of energy compared to the five major pranas.

Naga: This field of activity causes belching and hiccups. When the air element is agitated, naga becomes active and tries to throw the agitated air out of the stomach, causing vibrations in udana, prana and samana. Naga remains inactive as long as the diet and digestion are healthy. In the state of meditation, naga does not function.

Koorma: This field causes the blinking of the eyes and keeps the eyes healthy, moist and protected. It enables one to see all objects. The eyes shine due to the energy of koorma and one appears impressive. When koorma is under control, the yogi can keep the eyes open for hours, performing trataka (candle gazing). Although koorma operates in a small area, it has a lot of force and during meditation it makes concentration firm and deep.

Krikara: This field causes yawning, hunger and thirst, and assists in respiration. Due to its relation with yawning, its origin is sloth and lethargy. When krikara is controlled with practice, sloth and sleep are overcome, hunger and thirst are controlled, and sweet secretions begin to flow in the mouth. The control of krikara is especially helpful during fasting and samadhi.

Devadatta: This field causes sneezing and aids in respiration. It becomes activated by sharp or irritating smells and causes pain in the nostrils in more intense conditions. In its subtle state, devadatta enables the practitioner to experience pine smells.

Dhananjaya: This field pervades the whole body and is related to the organ of touch. It influences the work of the muscles, arteries and veins, and the skin. The swelling experienced during an injury is due to the motion of dhananjaya. During a tamasic state it reinforces sloth in the body. Dhananjaya is the last prana to leave the body after death and is responsible for decomposition of the body.

Acknowledgment

I have used the following two publications as my main resource for this blog article:

  1. Secrets of the Five Pranas – by David Frawley
  2. Chapter “Pancha Prana: Pranic Force Fields” from the book, “Prana and Pranayama” by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga

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