Prana, Chakras and Mastery of the Body and Life-Energy

The scientists of Hatha Yoga developed an understanding of the body and its interaction with the life-energy that relies on the subtle energy centers rather than solely on physical organ systems. The physical organ systems are part of the physical body’s structural mechanism, yet without the movement of the life-force, they are dead and unable to do anything. Everything relies on this life-force, which the ancient practitioners called “prana”. In their view, there is a universal life-force which permeates all existence and carries out activity. In the physical body, it is this force that makes the difference between “life” and “death” of the body. This is a subtle force, however, and not directly perceptible by the physical senses. The practitioners of Hatha Yoga felt that by gaining mastery over the most accessible manifestation of the life-force, the breathing process, they would be able to gain control over the entire range of subtle energy actions within the body.

Sri Aurobindo provides an overview of this understanding: “The Prana has according to Yogic science a fivefold movement pervading all the nervous system and the whole material body and determining all its functionings. The Hathayogin seizes on the outward movement of respiration as a sort of key which opens to him the control of all these five powers of the Prana. He becomes sensibly aware of their inner operations, mentally conscious of his whole physical life and action. he is able to direct the Prana through all the Nadis or nerve-channels of his system. He becomes aware of its action in the six Chakras or ganglionic centres of the nervous system, and is able to open it up in each beyond its present limited, habitual and mechanical workings. He gets, in short, a perfect control of the life in the body in its most subtle nervous as well as in its grossest physical aspects, even over that in it which is at present involuntary and out of the reach of our observing consciousness and will.”

Western scientists have done research on various claims of the Hathayogins and found that in fact, control over heartbeat, blood pressure, stress reduction and breathing could be effected by those who were proficient in the practices. Some of these are the “involuntary” functions that cannot normally be controlled by most people consciously.

This basis is a preparation for the higher aims sought by the Hathayogins, namely, the achievement of various psychic and spiritual realisations. Sri Aurobindo comments that at this point the action of Hatha Yoga begins to correspond more with the practices known as Raja Yoga, and thus, a review of Raja Yoga will be in order.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp. 512-513

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Combining Pranayama With Asana Enhances the Results of Hatha Yoga

The power of Asana to bring about stability and foundation to the physical body is only the beginning of the action of Hatha Yoga. In order to achieve the higher results of the practice, the use of Pranayama, the controlling of the vital force and its flow in the body, is essential. Pranayama is frequently associated with control of the breathing, but this is just the most visible, and thus easiest to grab hold of, aspect of the control of the Prana, or vital life-force. Starting from a stable Asana, the practitioner will develop control over the breathing apparatus to first bring about a calm, alert control, and later to begin to direct and focus the flow of the vital force into different organ systems and for a variety of purposes.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Pranayama, starting from the physical immobility and self-holding which is secured by Asana, deals more directly with the subtler vital parts, the nervous system. This is done by various regulations of the breathing, starting from equality of respiration and inspiration and extending to the most diverse rhythmic regulations of both with an interval of inholding of the breath. In the end the keeping in of the breath, which has first to be done with some effort, and even its cessation become as easy and seem as natural as the constant taking in and throwing out which is its normal action.”

It should be noted in passing that practicing Pranayama without guidance can be disruptive, as the practitioner is changing the automatic breathing function that is natural to the body. Without clear and precise guidelines the basic balance between mind, nervous system and physical frame can be disrupted and health issues can ensue. This may include physical health disruptions and mental balance issues.

That said, there can be real benefits to the proper implementation of the practices of Pranayama: “But the first objects of the Pranayama are to purify the nervous system, to circulate the life-energy through all the nerves without obstruction, disorder or regularity, and to acquire a complete control of its functionings, so that the mind and will of the soul inhabiting the body may be no longer subject to the body or life or their combined limitations. The power of these exercises of breathing to bring about a purified and unobstructed state of the nervous system is a known and well established fact of our physiology. it helps also to clear the physical system, but is not entirely effective at first on all its canals and openings; therefore the Hathayogin uses supplementary physical methods for clearing them out regularly of their accumulations. The combination of these with Asana,–particular Asanas have even an effect in destroying particular diseases,–and with Pranayama maintains perfectly the health of the body. But the principle gain is that by this purification the vital energy can be directed anywhere, to any part of the body and in any way or with any rhythm of its movement.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg. 512