Prāna – The Breath of Life, Your Life Force
The Sanskrit word ‘prāna’ (प्राण) means the ‘life force’
It means ‘the breath of life, spirit and vitality’. Prāna is the energy that enlivens us, makes us think, feel, wonder and create. Spirit and Life and Breath are all intimately connected, and in turn they connect everything and everyone. Just on a physical level we are connected by the air we breathe which has passed through an uncountable number of other living breathing creatures. We breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide in a natural exchange with green leafy plants and trees that breath in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen.
On a more subtle intangible level prāna refers to life energy, the life force. All of us walking around in our separate bodies partake of this same unifying life force. The Bhagavad Gitā teaches that all living beings are linked like ‘pearls strung on a thread’, we are all strung together on the breath of life, like pearls strung together on a silken thread.
This prāna energy is transformative
Again on a physical level we can use prāna - the life force - via the act of breathing to change our energetic state. When we’re fearful we can take a deep breath to calm down and steady ourselves. When we want to become energised, we take a deep breath first and then get moving. When we feel a bit down and want to pick ourselves up, we can take a deep breath, cheer ourselves up and adopt a positive attitude.
The animating, energising prāna breath gives confidence. It frees us from fear and leads to creative dynamic action. We take heart because there is no place here for feebleness, insecurity and inertia.
This technique is so simple and ready to hand that it is amazing more people don’t avail themselves of it. Next time you want to shift your state or mood just take three long slow breaths and then, with the increase of prāna energy, consciously adopt a new attitude.
Another element of prāna is connection
When we connect with the life force flowing through us, we can then open out and feel that same life force flowing through everyone and everything. This is another very simple practice which you might like to try. Take a few long slow breaths and connect with the energy flowing inside you, circulating from head to toe and everywhere in between. Connect with the life force inside you. Rest there, be at peace. Then gently let your awareness expand to feel that exact same energy flowing around you, embracing you, enlivening everyone and everything around you. Be content to rest in that enlivening energy and be at peace.
Physically, of course, breath and breathing are crucial to life. It is said that we can live without food for thirty days, without water for three days, and without breath for three minutes. I’m not sure if those numbers are true for all of us, but the point is clear – breath is vital.
So, finally, what is the importance of this breath on a spiritual level? This subtle breath of life is also essential, we could not move, think, act, or indeed live, without it. To ask how important prāna is to us, is the same as asking how important to us is life? Perhaps a story will illustrate the point.
A young man lost in sorrow yearned to discover a spiritual path that would set him free of worldly cares. He studied and meditated and engaged in acts of charity. He sought out teachers, wise men and women, gurus and sages. He sat at their feet absorbing their teachings and putting them conscientiously into practice.
One day he was in an ashram taking his midday meal when he overheard a couple of fellow students speaking of a wise man who lived high in the far-off mountains. His dwelling place was hard to find and the way up to it was steep and difficult. But, said these two devotees to each other, this sage was reputed to hold the key to the secret inner teachings of the holy path to freedom.
At these words the young man was inspired. He burned with the desire to seek out this holy man and to beg him to take him on as a disciple. He asked for directions to the mountain where this holy man dwelt and, having the way pointed out, he gathered his few possessions and set off.
The journey to the foot of the mountain was long and difficult. He had to cross rivers and valleys and for a time the trackless wastes of a wide desert. At last he came to a village nestled into a fold of hills over which towered high snow-capped mountains. The villagers took him in and offered him food and shelter.
He asked if they knew of the holy man who dwelt high above in the snowy reaches of the great mountain.
Yes, said the villagers, they knew of the holy man. And they knew the path to his ashram. But the snows were thick now and the path was closed. In return for helping with the herding and the harvest, they promised to feed and house him and, when the snows cleared, they would guide him on the next stage of the journey.
At last, when the spring came, the young man and several guides from the village set out up the steep and winding path towards the dwelling place of the holy man. After a hard climb taking several days the village guides pointed to a narrow rope bridge beyond which a path could be seen winding between rocky cliffs.
“There,” said the village guides, “is the way that you seek. Cross the bridge and follow the path and you will surely come to the holy man.”
The young man bad farewell to his guides, then he crossed the bridge and headed up the path. He came to a small clearing. There he saw a simple hut next to a gently flowing stream. A thin column of smoke rose from the hut. On the ground in front of the hut sat a man robed in saffron. His eyes were closed, his legs crossed, his hands gently rested on his knees. The young man waited for some time until finally the man opened his eyes. The holy man seemed quite unsurprised to see a visitor here in the high inaccessible peaks of the great mountain.
“Welcome to my home,” said the holy man to his guest. And he offered him a seat and food and water. When the young man was settled the sage asked: “How can I be of service? Why have you come to see me?”
The young man eagerly explained that he was searching for the secret path to Truth that would free him from all sorrow. Without another word the holy man smiled again, arose and beckoned him to follow. They walked together to the stream. To the young man’s surprise, when they reached the bank of the river the holy man kept walking into the cold water. He had no choice but to follow. When they were waist deep in the stream the holy man suddenly turned and with surprising strength placed his hands on the young man’s head and pushed him under the water.
The young man was stunned. After a few moments he began to panic. He began to struggle. He could no longer hold his breath! But the holy man held him fast. He thrashed and flailed but it was no good. He was on the verge of drowning when, at last, the holy man pulled him up out of the water and dragged him to the riverbank. The young man lay heaving and gasping for breath.
When he had sufficiently recovered from his shock, he looked up into the calm smiling face of the holy man.
“Thank you for coming to visit me,” said the holy man genially, “Come back again when you want this path to freedom that you seek, as much as you wanted that next breath.”
This story is also our story.
It is not, to be sure, necessary to have our head held under water until we gasp for breath! The message for us is that we can benefit from firing up our enthusiasm and our efforts on the path to freedom. We can focus with renewed vigour, harnessing the power and energy of prāna, the breath of life. This will pay handsome dividends. Start with those simple breathing practices that I outlined above and rediscover the transformative power of prāna, our life force.