Prana can be approximately used in place of of the phrase ‘life energy’. The word itself comes from the ancient language of Sanskrit with a ‘Pra’ meaning ‘to exist before’ and ‘ana’ meaning ‘atom’. The phrase then can be taken to derive from ‘existing before an atom’, which can be further distilled to mean that which existed before the atom.
In metaphysical terms the atom represents all that is in the universe. The atom is the matter and anti-matter. It makes up everything that we can see, hear and sense and everything that we cannot. It is the entire energy of the universe. The atom is the very energy that makes up the structure of this universe whether we can see it or not – it is important that we do not ascribe to the ‘atom’ the notion of just physical energy because in its original meaning, it encompasses everything within this universe.
The term ‘Prana’ then means prior to the formation of this universe. It is the energy that existed before the universe took form into its current structure. That we would have this energy as our life force is saying to us that our ‘prana’ is something that has existed since the very beginning of time. Our Prana is not something that just derives from our physical activities but something that has permeated our existence since our souls came into being.
In a wider sense, prana runs through everything. Energy in various forms can be found in tables, oranges, forests, cars, people and everywhere on earth and beyond. Prana is this energy, only it takes on different forms. It is the energy of gravity, of love, of music and of consciousness. There is no-where that prana is not.
The concept of prana is not unique to the Hindu tradition. In traditional Chinese philosophy, the same type of energy is called Qi and it flows through all things. The Japanese call it ‘Ki’. In ancient Maori traditions it was called ‘mana’. Just about every culture or tradition that you delve into has a concept of energy that gives life force – the santised western version was called ‘holy spirit’ but was usually taken to mean a life force that only pertained to humans. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for it was ‘Ruach’ which means ‘force’. And in the gnostic texts (See The Gospel of Thomas, verse 77), this force is often described as going through all things, not just the human form. So the ‘Holy Spirit’ became very narrow definition of what was viewed as the ‘force’ that ran through all things. The term Holy Spirit is technically correct but it hides a wider and more pervasive meaning of what was meant by ‘force’.
Like many cultures then, the objective of Yoga is to balance our prana with that of the wider universe. Yoga itself means ‘union’ in the sense that our higher selves seek to unite with divine energy. This goal of balancing our prana can take many forms – from the diet we eat, to how we meditate, the environment we live in, the emotions we feel, our thoughts and our physical actions (e.g. holding asanas or what we do during the day) all affect the prana that flows within us.
Prana is said to flow within our bodies through Nadis – these can be loosely looked upon as channels or tubes but they are non-physical in nature (‘Nadi’ in Sanskrit means to flow, or a motion). The three main Nadis are Ida, Pingala and Sushumna but the total number of nadis is said to be 72,000. The larger centers of prana within the body are the Chakras and these are located along the central Sushumna channel. It is through this channel and Chakra system that Kundalini energy rises up until it reaches Sahasrara Chakra at the crown of the head. The characteristics of Ida are feminine, mental energy, lunar and is the colour white. Pingala is the opposite – masculine, physical, the sun and is red in colour.
Bringing the dance between the energies of Ida and Pingala into balance is the purpose of Yoga – it allows the Kundalini to rise and thus we move closer to enlightenment through the crown chakra.