Course 3
Prana, its subtle role and vayavah the five main subtle breaths


In the works of yoga as well as in the treatises of traditional Indian medicine Ayurveda prana” is the Sanskrit word for breath, vital force or life principle. However prana is not breath. Breath is only the external function of the energy principle called prana

Prana is an intelligent energy, a very subtle, ethereal principle, more subtle than electricity, and it pulsates in the body through a network of subtle body channels (nadis). Prana, because it has karmic memory (of individual actions) imprinted in it, functions in each being in a unique way. It exists as a universal energy not only in our subtle bodily channels, but also in the entire Universe. Prana is the sea of Cosmic Energy that fills and activates all matter and is also the force that flows and performs vital functions in all forms of life.  

Pranic Energy is what enables the physical body to function, including the functions of breathing, digestion and blood circulation. Everything is controlled by the movement of this intelligent energy. Prana is what surrounds us and subtly nourishes us. So Prana is found in us, in the air we breathe and in the sunlight, and prana is also found in food and water.

Vayavah, the subtle breaths

Breathing is constantly moving. Each breath cleanses the body and nourishes the bloodstream with oxygen. This process takes place all the time, whether we are aware of it or not, and is the constant background to every activity we do. But exhalation and inhalation, the two great waves of breathing, do not give us a complete picture of it. They are connected to a vast energy system that processes and uses energy. According to the yoga tradition, this vast system of vital energy works through five sub-energies called panca vayus “the five subtle breaths”.  Thus, without conscious effort, body temperature is maintained, blood circulates to the cells, food consumed is digested and waste products that accumulate in our body are eliminated. With the full range of potential human functions mobilised, this is what truly sustains life. Under the influence of this “inner breath”, the mind-body mechanism is maintained. In ancient yogic texts these autonomous functions called vayus are stated to be vital activities carried out through subtle energy channels (nadis).

By understanding the roles and functions that the five subtle breaths (panca vayus) integrate into the human energy system we can understand how pranic forces animate the whole being. The name vayavah is generally used in yogic writings when referring to prana, apana, udana, samana and vyana (which we will describe below). In general these are the functions of the organs of action, but none of them is a specific function of any particular organ of action (indriya). In total there are ten such vayus, praņa etc., those mentioned above are the five main vayus: while naga (burping), kurma (blinking), krkara (yawning), devadatta (sneezing) and dhananjaya (opening and closing of heart valvesare secondary. 

In advanced yogic practice the state of Samadhi. Divine Ecstasy  is a state of stillness i.e. a suspension of these functions. Sage Vyasa describes them as the functions of all the organs of action (indriya) and the functions of the senses. 

Description of the five main subtle breaths

1. Prana

Prana is associated with the heart area and the lung area, as well as with the air that constantly enters and exits through the nasal passages, and with the swallowing process as it is said to drive food and drink into the stomach. Prana is the most important of the ten vayus. Prana resides in the kanda, the being’s esoteric egg, a subtle structure located above the pubis and below the navel in the shape of a bird’s egg. Some treatises point out that Prana also enters through the mouth, nostrils, heart, navel region and toes.

2. Apana

Apana is responsible for exhaling and moving energy downwards and outwards – (removing waste). Its seat is associated with the Muladhara chakra. Its disorders are associated with bladder, pelvic and colon diseases and contribute to immune deficiencies. Some works report that the sphere of work of the subtle breath apana extends to the soles, anal region and others state that it extends from the navel to the knees. In all cases the main function of the apana is associated with the evacuation of waste materials produced in the process of digestion and assimilation of food. Defecation, urination, menstruation, ejaculation and childbirth are associated with the influence of the subtle breath apana.

3. Udana

Udana is located in the neck and head region. With the power of the subtle udana breath, the ability to produce the sounds of speech, music and humming is achieved. Udana is associated with upward movement, such as the movement of energy in the trachea. Thus the subtle breath udana is associated with the Vishuddha chakra, the throat centre, and the regions above. A strong upward flow of the subtle udana breath implies that a person is acting from a higher vision. Thus, the subtle udana breath is associated with the energy that leads to the revitalization of the will and self-transformation. It causes us to hold our heads high, both figuratively and literally. A disharmonious movement of the subtle udana breath is associated with diseases that occur in the neck and head.

4. Samana

Samana is associated with the region between the heart and the navel area and maintains the fire of the stomach with the help of digestive juices. Samana consumes food and separates nutrients from residues. It works in conjunction with agni (as the digestive fire) and is centred in the stomach and intestine area. Thus it is commonly associated with the Manipura chakra energy centre. It is noted that samana also functions in the lungs, and in the mind (where ideas are integrated). It performs a guardian function, allowing energies to enter the body in the important proportion and order, energies necessary for health and well-being. When both samana and apana are disturbed, problems of reproductive and urinary functioning arise.

5. Vyana

Vyana is found throughout the body and circulates continuously through the blood vessels, lymphatic system and nervous system. Because it is associated with the regulation of the three basic systems (circulatory, lymphatic and nervous), it is universal and significant. Vyana transports nutrients, circulates blood, causes sweating, cleanses toxins from the blood and lymph and helps coordinate all systems. Standing up, sitting down, pushing, pulling, opening and closing the eyes are all associated with the subtle breath of vyana.

Koshas, the subtle vehicles of the Divine Self Atman

Koshas are considered the energetic layers or subtle vehicles that surround or envelop the Divine Self Atman. They are also referred to as ‘sheaths’ or ‘coverings’. There are five of them, coexisting and animated within each other. The physical body is the outer sheath or layer, while the inner layer contains the body of bliss, or the Soul, the spark of the Divine Self Atman

1. Annamaya kosha – the material shell – the physical body;

2. Pranamaya kosha – the vital pranic sheath – the astral body;

3. Manomaya kosha – mental sheath – astral body;

4. Vijnanamaya kosha – the sheath of wisdom and knowledge, the spraconscious or supramental mind – the astral body;

5. Anandamaya kosha – the sheath of Eternal Bliss – the causal body.

Koshas evolved from the Divine Self Atman and through which it manifests, so that ultimately there are five principles, anna, prana, manas, Vijnana and Ananda.

Karmas (actions) and samskaras (past memories and experiences; mental impressions) are stored in the koshas. They form the parts between the individual soul (jivatma) and the Universal Self (Atman). Liberation (Moksha) – can therefore be defined as the liberation of the soul, the spark of the Divine Self Atman from the limitations of the sheaths (koshas). In order to become one with something, it is necessary to develop the same qualities as what we wish to become. Freedom from the limitations of the koshas, frees us from ego and identification with the small self, and makes possible merging with the Infinite. Overcoming and detaching from the subtle koshas is a vast process of physical and mental purification and development that is possible through the practice of yoga

1. Annamaya kosha: the material shell - the physical body

Annamya kosha is influenced by the food we eat as well as the environment and society we live in. That is why yoga teachings emphasise how important positive and beneficial human interactions and a healthy, pure (sattvic) diet are for our physical and mental development. Consuming meat, alcohol and coffee weakens our vitality and fills us with negative vibrations. A healthy lacto-vegetarian diet, however, ensures that the body is nourished in an ideal way.

2. Pranamaya kosha: the pranic vital sheath - the astral body

Pranamaya kosha is the subtle sheath of cosmic energy that permeates and surrounds the physical body. It forms the aura, the radiance that emanates from us. Prana is the subtle nourishment that is as necessary for life as food and water. With every breath we take in not only oxygen but also prana. Pure (unheated, unprocessed) food not only provides us with nutrients, but also with prana. The quality of our prana is decisively influenced by external influences, as well as our own thoughts and emotions, and has an impact on the other layers.

3. Manomaya kosha: the mental shell - the astral body

Manomaya kosha, the mental energy sheath, is more extensive and powerful than pranamaya kosha. Its scope is infinite. The mind and thoughts can reach anywhere without any loss of time. Therefore, thought control is very difficult.

The philosophy of Vedanta school teaches us: “It is not an idea but a thought: The whole world exists in your mind”.

In the mind of every individual there are countless levels and worlds. Every thought, every idea and every feeling forms a separate world for oneself. By controlling the mind we can gain control over destiny. The best way to master the mind is to overcome all thoughts; in the first phase one eliminates obsessive ideas and negative thoughts and then in a higher phase one transcends positive thoughts. Also understanding, dedication and prayer purify our actions (karma) and mind.

4. Vijnanamaya kosha: the sheath of knowledge, the spraconscious mind - the astral body

Vijnanamaya kosha is the body of intellect. It can be positively or negatively oriented. This depends on the society in which we live along with the sensory impressions we absorb from our environment. This shell is made up of the experiences, growth and upbringing of this life and is the sum of them. However, an impure intellect is not always the best adviser because it can judge selfishly according to personal desires. Intellect can be a very useful tool, but it can also be a great hindrance. That is why we should always use both our reason and correct discrimination.

5. Anandamaya kosha: the sheath of Eternal Bliss - the causal body

Anandamaya kosha is the “body of happiness”. It is the most subtle of the five sheaths. Lasting contentment and Maha Ananda (Infinite Bliss) are granted only in oneness (yoga) with the Divine Self Atman; all other joys are limited and fleeting. Bhakti Yoga (devotion to God) brings us closer to this goal; but the final step can only be taken through direct knowledge of the Truth. Only then can man finally attain Moksha (liberation).

Body, thoughts, emotions and intellectual knowledge: the sheaths that cover the core of human existence.

All the troubles and turmoil of life are found in the first four sheaths (koshas). The energy in these first four koshas is pranic. It sustains both cellular and mental energy. Cellular energy undergoes changes and influences mental energy. Mental energy in turn influences the intellect and ego. When the ego becomes tired from the incessant play of mental energy, it needs rest. In general, cessation of mental energy is only possible in deep sleep. But sleep cannot always be deep sleep; it is interrupted by dreams, and in dreams one’s mental energy plays a major role. The only solution to total rest is to stop the mind. The mind in its activities depends on pranic energy, so controlling pranic energy appears to us as the only solution.

The Divine Self Atman

The Divine Self Atman is the non-dual Cosmic Consciousness – omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. Yoga is the process of self-realisation, and the aim of yoga is the union of the individual soul (jivatman) with the Divine Self (Atman). The Absolute Reality or Atman can be understood as pure consciousness, which means that it cannot be described in words or concepts. All concepts used to describe the Self are merely mental representations or linguistic approximations of Atman. All that exists is the Eternal Cause, the Spirit operating in the material realm. This cause is the Divine Self Atman (God).

Factors influencing the healing of the five sheaths

In the yogic view, healing (to be sustainable) must reach the deeper layers of the being. The search for lasting happiness (Ananda) should be based on an inner vision, directed towards knowledge or wisdom, so that in this way we can more easily change the external factors that influence our lives.

1. Annamaya kosha (physical) – Proper diet and nutrition, pure food and water, herbs that improve digestion, tonic and nutritive herbs.

2. Pranamaya kosha (vital) – Pranayama (controlled breathing) and asanas (postures), massage and special Ayurvedic oils, energy extracted from herbs and natural drinks.

3. Manomaya kosha (mental) – Beneficial sensory impressions derived from nature, art and spirituality, accurate information, prayer and meditation, mantras (sacred sounds), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses inward), herbs that strengthen the nervous system.

4. Vijnanamaya kosha (supramental) – Harmonious judgment and intentions, inclusive, true knowledge, introspection, wisdom, discrimination, meditation, study of higher teachings, development of higher values, sense of dharma.

5. Anandamaya kosha – (Eternal Happiness) – Beneficial relationships and associations, love with contentment, inspiration, devotion, contentment, detachment, peace, Samadhi Divine Ecstasy.

The power of thought

On the whole, humanity still remains unaware of its evolutionary potential and possibilities. So not everyone is aware of the limitations of the personal mind, and there are millions of people even today who are completely unaware. However, there have always been those who have tried to overcome their limitations. This process, this experience, this expansion has always been with man and is called Tantra.

Because of its authenticity and the unsuspected depth it implies, yoga is hardly accessible to the common human intelligence, especially if we consider that everything that is received will be conscious or in other words reflected according to the nature of the receiver. Therefore, yoga can only be understood by the practitioner.

In order to understand Tantra, the concept of mind must be defined. In everyday life the mind has come to mean the means by which man thinks and feels. Psychology has also defined the mind in a similar way. In Tantra and Yoga, mind means something quite different. Here the mind is called chitta, which literally means consciousness, and this term encompasses consciousness on all levels of existence. Objective consciousness is one of these levels; subjective consciousness is another; absence of consciousness is another.

Mind is not thought, emotion or memory, as is commonly believed. The individual mind is a part of the universal mind, a part of what we know as the total mind. The total or universal mind is thought to be composed of a type of proto-matter and has two poles, known as time and space. Time and space are in fact categories of mind but in conventional thinking time and space are considered to have a separate existence, distinct from the universal mind.

Every form of matter has a core, and so does mind. On the material plane, scientists have succeeded in releasing energy from the core of matter through a process of fission. In the same way, yogis and spiritual aspirants have explored similar ways of releasing energy from the core of the mind and the material body. As long as time and space remain separate, nothing can come out of the universal mind, but when time and space come closer together, then the universal mind becomes a creative force. Although the individual mind is a part of the universal mind it still retains its own core until the moment of enlightenment.

According to the teachings of Tantra Yoga, man has three bodies (physical, astral and causal) but also three associated minds, one in each of the three major dimensions of being. During spiritual growth, man must climb the evolutionary ladder through these dimensions, gradually increasing his awareness of the higher realms. In this way, man can free himself from the limitations of the three bodies and their corresponding minds.

Specifically, the three bodies and three minds are:
(a) the physical body and its mind, i.e. the consciousness operating in association with the physical body;
b) the astral (subtle) body and its mind, i.e. the awareness we experience primarily as emotions and feelings; and
c) the causal body and its mind, i.e. the consciousness that is expressed primarily as intelligence and wisdom.

As the chakra energy centres are activated and awakened, man not only becomes aware of the higher realms of existence. Since through the activation of the energy centres physical energy can be transformed into psychological-spiritual energy (ojas) they are seen as an intermediary for the transfer and conversion of energy between two neighbouring dimensions of the being, as well as a centre that facilitates energy conversion between a body and its corresponding mind.

Every human being projects a certain type of vibration around them. There are beings whose company is a real pleasure. They seem to possess a certain type of prana, or vital energy, which they transmit to everyone. There are also negative and depressive people who give us the impression that they absorb the energy of those around them. 

The company of the right beings can make you feel peaceful, optimistic, content, happy and have an optimistic outlook on life. You want to discover and experience new things. The wrong company causes dissatisfaction, can make you feel anxious, angry, sad and pessimistic about life. The reason is that there is a certain power that thought contains, very subtle but powerful. 

Man, consciously or unconsciously, transmits and receives thoughts. According to the science of yoga, every thought has weight, shape, size, colour, quality and power. Thought is like an object. 

Just as you can offer a friend an apple and then take it away, so it is possible to offer someone a powerful thought and then take it away. Good and evil, friend and foe are but creations of the mind. Every man creates, with his own imagination, a world of virtue and vice, pleasure and pain. These qualities belong strictly to the internal mental attitude, they do not come from objects. What for some is a joy for others may be a suffering. A man’s thoughts control his life, shape his character and destiny, and can heal or harm those around him.

The healing power of prayer

A person’s character is revealed through the use of words. The effect on self-improvement and spiritual practice can be strengthened by listening to wise words. Words have power and can positively permeate our spiritual practice. They can help us raise our consciousness. 

Paramahansa Yogananda (born Mukunda Lal Ghosh; 5 January 1893 – 7 March 1952)

Paramahamsa Yogananda’s accounts of the power of words are a great inspiration to us all. Paramahamsa Yogananda believes that words have enormous power to energise the mind, heal the body and exalt the spirit of those who listen. The power of the word is one of the many gifts God has given us to express our thoughts and feelings. Words have healing properties and can lift the conscience of the hearers. There are, however, some words that are more powerful than others: please, I’m sorry, thank you, I love you, forgive me. 

The higher our state of conscience, the greater will be the blessings spoken from the heart. These blessings are the fruits of the spirit. The person who is spiritually aware is always centered in God’s good desires and intentions. The spiritual man always has a pure intention and therefore his path is to eternal life. The spiritual being bestows blessings on all beings and that is why he is blessed: because he has a pure intention and does good deeds for all mankind. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

In Paramahamsa Yogananda’s view “all sound vibrations released into the ether produce a momentary mental effect on the listener; but the vibrations of words saturated with soul-force remain long in the ether, ready to work for the benefit of the receiver. This principle is operative in the efficacy of prayers offered on behalf of others. When the healing vibrations reach the superconsciousness of the person to be healed, his soul sends a wave of energy from the brain down the spine into the body. It is this Divine Life Energy, reinforced by the vibrations of God’s healing power transmitted through the ether, that produces healing. Man does not realise the power of God which has been implanted by Him in the mind. It controls all the functions of the body and, when its power is properly exercised, it can promote the healing of any ailment of the body. In divine healing, the mind first receives the healing suggestion by positive thought, affirmation or prayer. Then, through the superconscious conviction of the soul, the latent power of God in the mind becomes manifest. Finally, the brain releases the divinely recharged vital energy to heal itself.”