The Science of Prana
Dr Swami Dharmavratananda Saraswati
A blind man and a lame man were very good friends. One day they decided to visit a nearby town to attend a festival. So the blind man said to the lame man, “Please lead me.” The lame man said, “I can lead you but I can't walk. You can walk, but you can't see.” Finally a wise man passed by and he advised the lame man to sit on the shoulders of the blind man. They did so and eventually managed to reach the show.
This story indicates that there are two forces in our lives. One is the force of consciousness which can see but cannot move, and the other is the force of energy which can move but cannot see. I would like to explain the same concept in the modern scientific context. Atomic energy is an energy without consciousness. Consciousness can guide that energy in a positive or a negative direction. It can create a bomb blast and destroy a whole city, or it can illuminate and provide power to an entire city and transform life. Energy is the crude power and consciousness is the guiding factor.
Consciousness is a state of continual awareness. The gross mind, consisting of manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara, is the aspect of consciousness which interacts with the manifest world. We know that the physical body is made up of matter. If we dissect it, ultimately we reach sub-atomic particles which lead on to nothing but energy. So this gross, physical body is nothing but a condensation of energy in the form of matter. The force of mind (consciousness) is guiding the whole body (energy). Therefore, the combination of energy and consciousness is very evident. One becomes the realm of energy in the form of the gross body and gross brain, and the other remains the field of consciousness.
As to the disparity between mind and brain, it becomes clear that the brain is like the hardware of a computer; it provides all the circuits but it is consciousness, the software, which runs the circuits. If a portion of the hardware is cut then a portion of the software cannot work. In the same way, consciousness and matter, the brain, work together. The brain has a neurological function and the mind has a conscious function. Both are interrelated parts in which the brain does the physical processing and the mind does the processing in the realm of consciousness.
In yoga a state is described which is a subtler manifestation of energy and consciousness fused into one. That phenomenon is called pranic energy. Pranic energy is very different from the normal concept of energy. In a study of the yogic scriptures and modern research, in search of this unique phenomenon, we have come across many unique correlations. The most impressive one was by a Russian, named Kirlian, who devised a method to photograph these mysterious energy fields. His work indicated that there is an energy in the body which is more subtle than the gross movements of molecules. Great saints are often depicted with haloes around their heads. The Kirlian instruments produce similar pictures around any living organism or its parts. In one experiment Kirlian accidentally put his finger in a very high magnetic field. The resulting photograph showed an 'aura' around the finger. In one experiment into this phenomenon, he cut a leaf in half and photographed one half. The photograph showed the 'aura' of the entire leaf, which indicates that there is a subtle body which persists in the gross body.
Kirlian photographed his finger over a period of time. Usually it showed a bright 'aura', but one day the light emanation was very dim. He did not know the reason. Nothing was wrong with the machine. The next day he fell sick and during the illness the dim 'aura' persisted. When he recovered, his 'aura' was restored to normal. He concluded that changes in the pranic field precede the onset of physical disease or problems. Research has shown that diseases have different frequency patterns. Just as X-rays show different holes and morbid phenomena, these different frequency patterns show morbid phenomena which actually precede the onset of physiological defects.
It was also shown that pranic energy is greatly influenced by one's state of mind. When we are fresh and alive we feel buoyant and energetic. That is a subjective feeling but nobody knows where it comes from. After a boring lecture or a hard day's work we feel drained. Why? If the blood glucose and blood pressure are measured all the parameters will be normal, but still we feel depleted. What is missing from the system? When Swamiji was in the USA he participated in research using Kirlian photography. Four subjects had their fingers photographed before and after work. In the morning the auras were bright and wide. In the evening, when they returned tired and drained after a hard day's work, the auras were sunken or dull in colour. But the interesting thing was that just fifteen to twenty minutes of yogic practices immediately restored the brightness and lustre of the aura and the corresponding physiological and psychological feelings of health and buoyancy.
The practices of yoga are relevant here. Asanas are practices which are psychophysiological in nature, but which have a certain relationship to these energy flow patterns. In the yogic tradition, these energy flow patterns are called nadis. Nadi comes from the root word nad, meaning 'to flow'. A nadi is a flow field. Just as there is a blood flow in the arteries and veins, in the same way, a whole network of energy flow fields has been described in the scriptures, with specific Sanskrit names. We are familiar with only two or three popular ones, but there are 72,000 nadis, each having a name and a flow which has a different direction and a different attribute.
Asanas work on particular nadis. For example, in tadasana the whole nadi system is stretched from the tips of the toe to the tips of the fingers. The stretching and aligning of these flow fields improves the flow of energy within them. When a kink in a pipe is straightened the flow becomes smoother. Asanas work in the same way. It is postulated that the joints, where the body moves, are the most likely places where kinking and obstructions can occur. The pawanmuktasana part 1 series improves the joint functions and removes obstructions to the flow of energy in the joints. It is best for improving the flow in the nadis. In Chinese medicine the same nadis are termed acupuncture meridians. This is the basic principle on which acupuncture, acupressure and reflexology is based, i.e. on the same physiological phenomena or energy fields as the yoga practices.
Pioneering research in this field has been carried out by Dr Hiroshima Motoyama. He designed a machine called AMI, which measures energy emitted from the acupuncture meridians. He measured and compared the flow of ki or energy in various meridians and came to the conclusion that a particular disease phenomena correlates with a defect in a particular flow field of a particular nadi. It has been focused and pinpointed. Any practice which will open the flow of pranic energy in that nadi correlates with clinical recovery. This research is as scientific as that of any other science. Therefore, the choice of yogic practices for a particular disease has to be on the basis of these flow field meridian patterns. We know that the yogic practices work and we know what the diseases are, but we do not know how to correlate which asana with which disease, or how many times, or for how long. There must be some objective criteria. I think that further research will find out more about these flow patterns and, in the future, provide guidelines as to the choice of a yoga practice for a particular disease state.
In the same way, we can compare the practices of pranayama with channel cleansing practices which increase the voltage. Before upgrading the voltage in a wire, first you clean the wire. If you upgrade the voltage in a dirty wire, it is likely to short circuit. Similarly, with the advanced yogic practices it is always advisable to clean the system first. Don't jump in. If I hear that the kundalini yoga practices are the best ones to awaken my kundalini, and immediately start with these practices, I may end up in a psychosis. That has happened to many seekers who have insisted on doing advanced sadhana and have landed in mental hospitals. Why? There was a short circuit because there was not enough preparation for this energy field pattern. Therefore, yoga practitioners advocate cleansing practices first and then upgrading the voltage with the practices of pranayama.
Two points become important here. Firstly, somehow the breath is closely linked with the degree of voltage, with increasing the amount of pranic flow. It has been seen that shallow, rapid breathing is correlated with low levels of prana, and deep relaxed breathing is correlated with high levels of prana. If the breathing can be slowed down and prolonged, and certain pranayama techniques followed, then these energy fields can be influenced in a very positive way.
Secondly, any energy has two poles; electrical energy has two poles, pranic energy also has two poles. One pole is called ida, the other pingala. One is positive, the other is negative. Whichever pole is flowing will influence this pranic field We have a preliminary working knowledge from a scientific point of view. However, in the future, yogis and scientists need to work in closer coordination on this mysterious phenomena which is happening to us all the time.
Another observation is that in a group we also interact at the level of vibration, not just at the level of speech and hearing. For example, you meet an unknown person, you like that person and you talk to him. Then you meet a very nice person, but you just don't feel like talking to him, even though you have not even been introduced. With a person like Swamiji the simplest word he says becomes a source of inspiration. Then there are people who say very good things but they don't make any impression on the mind. Why? Because there is an interaction like vibrational matching, like resonance, like tuning forks. If two people are vibrating at relative frequencies they tune together very well. So this pranic field also has a group dynamic. Therefore, during the practice of yoga, the building up of a group dynamic, of a teacher-disciple relationship, are all important phenomena.
Relaxation and meditation
The science of mantra is also relevant here. Mantras are vibrations of a particular frequency, arranged in a particular pattern, having a particular effect on the whole structure pattern. There can be a mantra to open a particular nadi for a particular disease, there can be a mantra to derive a particular change in this pranic field. The science of mantras is almost lost, but once it was a known practice and many still exist.
I talked about the relationship of stress and pranic energy. In group interactions, teachers often report feeling drained after just one hour of lecturing, as if they had run fifteen kilometres. What is the reason? They feel drained because during the process of interaction they lose their energy and feel diminished. Therefore, whenever we are interacting we have to be careful of these phenomena. Stress markedly reduces the voltage of the pranic field. A small amount of stress can drastically shrink the aura to a dark colour. Buoyancy and happiness can click it back into a bright shape. Therefore, the practice of relaxation is very important and complementary to asana and pranayama.
In meditation practices where you direct the force of your consciousness, your awareness, to a particular energy flow field, such as navel to throat or the nostrils, you can open that channel. Dr Dean Ornish has used a lot of different visualization techniques to help open up the coronary arteries. What is the principle? When you visualize and take your awareness into that particular energy field, the nadis related to that particular area begin to open and clear up. When the pranic field clears up, the energy flow becomes smooth, the tissues become rejuvenated and the healing process begins. Even though the coronary arteries may remain choked, the tissues become rejuvenated.
In this way, many meditation techniques, visualization techniques and breathing techniques, even alternative methods of therapy such as homeopathy, are based on the same principle. You just have to know what the vibrational defect is, complement it with a molecule which has the same effect, and it works. Acupuncture, acupressure, reiki, pranic healing and psychic healing all share this knowledge of the vibratory body, the pranic body, the energy body, the pranayama kosha, and, therefore, they are all branches of the same science related to this level of our existence.