Breath or Prana in the Upanishads

Breath control

by Jayaram V

Breath in Hinduism is called prana. Next to the Self and the Supreme-Self, the most important entity which is frequently mentioned in the Upanishads is prana.

The Upanishads extol prana as the essence of the body, as the very Self and as the Supreme-Self. It is the life-supporting nourisher of the mind and body.  Beings are alive as long they breathe.

The deities who reside in the organs stay in their respective spheres as long as breath is circulating in the body and bringing them food. When it departs, they depart too. It is also impervious to evil and selfish desires. Hence, it is considered to superior to all.

The prana that the Upanishads extol is not just the air we breathe.

It is the life-energy which circulates in a being from the time of its conception until its death.

While the body is mortal, prana is immortal.

What sustains and supports the body during its existence upon earth is prana.

Prana nourishes the organs in the body, protects them and at the time of death absorbs their subtle aspects into itself and then releases them in the mid-region, or the region above the earth, from where they return to their source.

There was a time in the development of Upanishadic thought, prana was compared to the Self itself.

The early Upanishads compare prana to the Self, while the later Upanishads draw a clear distinction between the two and describe the Self as the one who breathes, who is prana of the pranas and whom prana serves.

They state that in the dream state, the Self leaves the body under the protection of prana and wanders around.

They refer to the organs in the body also as breaths only because in their subtle aspects, the organs contain prana as their essence.

Hence they describe prana as the sap of the limbs, or Ayasa Angirasa.

The Chandogya Upanishad compares the pranic energy in the body with the energy of the sun. It declares that what is in the sun is the same as what is in prana. The sun is the sustainer of all. The energy in the body is actually similar to the energy present in the sun. Hence in the austerities (tapas), the body is able to generate heat.

Prana forms part of the subtle body. Its presiding deity is the air, Vayu. Its location is the mid-region. It is compared variously to heaven, to Brahman, to air, to Saman, to Ukta, to Gayatri, to the sun, to the Yajus, and to the Udgita.

All the organs in the body are nourished either by the breath or by the food.

Hence, Yajnavalkya divides the divinities in the microcosm and the macrocosm into two categories, those nourished by the food and those nourished by the breath.

Prana invigorates and recuperates the body. According to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Prajapati has sixteen parts. His fifteen parts decline and dissipate during the fifteen days when the moon wanes. However, on the sixteenth day, which is the full moon day he recovers fully because the sixteenth part of him is made up of prana.

Therefore, during prolonged fasting a person may lose his energy and his limb may grow weak; but if he retains his prana, he will survive.

The Upanishads describe prana as superior to all the organs in the body for three reasons.

First, because prana is beyond the control of the mind and body and tireless. While other organs suffer from fatigue, prana keeps flowing continuously in the body day and night and even when the body is asleep.

Second, prana cannot be corrupted by evil desires, whereas the organs in the body are vulnerable to desires and sinful intentions. The demons, therefore, succeed in overpowering the organs in the body, but they cannot do so in case of the breath.

According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the breath not only protects the organs in the body, but also keeps them free from evil. In the past, it carried all the organs to the ends of the quarters and freed them from the impurities of evil.

Thus, as long as prana is present in the body, the organs are safe and the body remains pure.

Hence the third reason quoted in the Upanishads for the superiority of prana is it keeps the body alive and free from evil. While the body can survive without the presence of other organs, although it may lose some functionality in the process, without the breath it dies.

Like the Self, prana is also invisible and subtle. It remains hidden behind names and forms. While the Self is indivisible, the breath is divisible. It divides itself into various kinds and flows in the body in various directions.

The Upanishads identify 5-14 kinds of breaths. However, the most commonly recognized forms of prana are only five, namely Prana, Apana, Vyana, Samana and Udana.

Prana is the ear we breath in and breath out. It is that which is connected to prana present in the air (prana pranati) through exhalation and inhalation. Nevertheless, Paul Deussen believed that prana was expiration and Apana was inspiration.

He arrived at this conclusion based on a verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which states one is able to smell odors through the Apana breath. His interpretation is questionable because the function of smelling belongs to the nose or the nostrils, not to the breath.

Apana is what travels down in the body, through the downward breath channel and exists out of the anus. It is usually foul smelling.

Vyana is the diffused prana which spreads in the body to various limbs through a network of fine arteries.

Samana is the equalizing prana present in the middle of the body.

Finally, Udana is that which travels upward from the heart region to the tip of the head. It is through Udana, the Self, prana and the divinities present in the body escape at the time of death.

Since prana is superior to the organs in the body, including the senses, the mind and the limbs, it has a great significance in the practice of yoga, in the purification of the mind and body and in stabilizing them.

By regulating and calming prana, it is possible to gain control over the mind and body.

The practice of pranayama is based upon this notion only.

By practicing prana control one can stabilize the mind and the senses, and experience self-absorption.

In fact, the techniques of Ashtanga yoga are derived from the knowledge of prana contained in the Vedas, especially the Upanishads.

In a way, the eight limbs of the yoga recreate or reenact the processes associated with the withdrawal of prana from the body at the time of death, without letting it escape from the body into the air, thereby preventing the possibility of unconsciousness and death.

In the practice of yoga, a yogi withdraws his senses into his mind, his mind into the intelligence and his intelligence into his prana.

When he withdraws his prana also, he loses consciousness of the outer world, but remains alive because his prana is still present in the body, although in a suspended state.

Adept yogis are able to withhold their breath in their bodies in this manner and yet escape from death as they prevent it from leaving their bodies.

By holding their prana in a suspended state, they remain alive even when they do not prana for hours or days.

This is the secret the yogis practice to suppress the modifications of their minds.

Controlling their minds and bodies with the help of prana, they and enter a stateless state of self-absorption and transcend death.

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