Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
Last month, we explored the first layer in the five-part model of yogic well-being known as the “panchamayakoshas.” The first layer, the annamayakosha, is literally the “meat,” the body that we can see, feel, feed, clothe, and care for. The second layer involves the flow of breath and energy and is known as the prana layer (pranamayakosha). Although this ancient model doesn’t always map neatly onto our present understanding, the pranic level roughly equates to the science we call physiology, and includes the circulatory, respiratory, lymphatic, nervous, and immune systems.
Obviously, the way that we look after the “food body” will have a huge effect on our energy and vitality, and there are three more layers to come that also play important roles.
Prana has two meanings: one is synonymous with breathing and the other has more to do with “life energy” or vitality. The yogis believed that the animating force, life itself, was carried by and delivered by the breath. They reasoned that the difference between a living body and a corpse was breathing. Also, they believed that the substance of life itself (amrit) flowed around the body like electricity through a house and that the movement of prana was important to this circulation. They posited five other “winds” or sub-currents (vayus) within the prana that govern bodily functions.
According to this model, when prana is balanced we have healthy digestion, healthy sleep, resilience under stress, and lots of energy. You could think of your prana as the level of charge you have in your battery. Your energy is a resource that is renewable, but also can be over-spent.
During the dark winter months it is my firm belief that we should be resting, relaxing and recharging; but in our consuming-obsessed culture we often do the opposite. We amp up when we should be slowing down, and we overbook our social calendars, over-eat, over-indulge, and stay up too late. We forget to schedule time for doing nothing, meditating, or taking a restful walk in the woods.
Although you wouldn’t word it this way, you can tell when you look at someone what their pranic balance is like. Imagine the difference in someone’s demeanour when they’re in the midst of a family or work crisis versus returning from a relaxing holiday. A few years ago an artist named Peter Seidler created a photo exhibition of people at the beginning and at the end of a meditation retreat. Although it’s hard to describe the differences in their faces, it’s clear that their energy has shifted. (And I can attest to a huge shift from my past experiences with even short, seven-day retreats).
Prana could be thought of as the balance between energy-in and energy-out. Introverts and extroverts have different ways of managing their prana. Extroverts gain energy by attending holiday parties. Introverts, who may like parties equally well, need to rest and recover after they’ve attended one. In Ayurvedic medicine, different body types are believed to have different pranic traits. Some bodies need pushing to move, others need to be reined in or encouraged to move differently. Overdoing exercise can lead to poor immunity and disturbed sleep. Moving the body builds prana—but we need to find a balance between expenditure and rest.
The pranamayakosha is the territory of the autonomic nervous system, which is largely unconscious and bound up closely with how we breathe. Too much sympathetic nervous system stimulation (the part dedicated to “fight, flight or freeze”) will lead you to be uptight, wound-up, anxious and irritable. We’ve all noticed or witnessed how stress and fear can make it difficult to breathe. Tightening restricts the circulation of blood and other fluids, as well as constricting autonomic processes like peristalsis (the contraction and release of the intestines needed for digestion). Also, over the long term, excess tightening leads muscles to lose their pliability and responsiveness. Prolonged stress can lead to insomnia, constipation, menstrual irregularity, and a litany of other ailments. Too little stimulation can lead to lethargy, weakness, lack of motivation and depression.
Yogic techniques for working with prana are varied and diverse. Often we use breathing techniques to up-regulate (stimulate) or down-regulate (calm) the nervous system. For example, try this:
Take a long, deep inhale through your nostrils. Then purse your lips as if you were about to kiss someone. Breath out slowly through the small valve you have created with your mouth. Let your exhale last as long as possible. As you exhale imagine your body growing softer and heavier, sinking down into your seat or whatever is supporting you. Repeat five times. Then sit for a minute and notice what you feel.
Besides working with the breath, yogic practices like movement, chanting, and meditating can all alter our energy balance sheets. The key thing is to sit still long enough to notice your energy balance, and to be willing to listen to your inner knowing when it comes to what you need. Our prana is always shifting and changing, and yoga can give us tools to work with it regardless of where it’s at.
Now, it’s your turn! What is your energy like this time of year, and what are your favourite techniques for re-charging? Focus on the methods that don’t cost much money so that they’re accessible to everyone. Leave your ideas and comments below.