Note: This is part 3 of 7. For the full series on the 5 koshas click here.
The fourth garment of the soul is pranamaya kosha — the energy body.
Pranamaya kosha, contains the five vayus, five motor organs, and the vast network of nadis and chakras. Paired with manomaya kosha (the mental sheath), it forms what is commonly referred to as the astral body.
Feeling the Circulation of Prana
When the body is calm and stable the yogi is free to focus attention on the life energy moving within. Using the tools of mudras, bandas, and pranayama, they can activate and circulate the energy, then direct it toward its source.
While the average person doesn’t have much conscious control over the pranic body, everyone feels subtle energies. The hair-standing-on-end feeling when watching a talented performer, the electric connectivity when making love, the uplifting rush of sudden inspiration — all are energetic experiences.
Much has been written about the chakras, the pranic crossroads where the highway of 72,000 nadis intersect. Often this information is too abstract and esoteric to provide a practical understanding. But, like the flow of prana, most everyone has felt these centers.
Falling in love expands the heart chakra, the burn of hate contracts it. The fear of public speaking contracts the throat chakra, the easy flow of conversation among friends expands it. The crown chakra expands with the feeling of awe and wonder, and contracts when apathy and disinterest prevail.
Paying attention to these pranic pulsations, the yogini attunes herself to pranamaya kosha. It’s always there, below the surface of the physical, driving its actions. Becoming mindful of it, she embodies it and accesses its power.
A sattvic diet helps develop the sensitivity needed to sense the energy body. Tai chi, and chi kung are some great movement practices that increase this capacity, as are some forms of yoga asana, especially when paired with pranayama.
The Power of Pranayama
There are many flavors of pranayama. Prana means life-force or breath, and ayama means to extend.
Pranayama is yogic breathing. It’s the exercises that regulate the rhythms and patterns of inhalations and exhalations in order to elicit particular responses within the body/mind. Some activate the sympathetic nervous system, others the parasympathetic.
There are forms of pranayama that purify specific nadis, or that direct energy and awareness into a particular chakra in order to enliven it.
A Few Examples of Pranayama
The most basic form of pranayama is the simple observation of the breath. When the breath is observed it slows and deepens. The pauses between each breath widen. This calms the mind and nervous system and brings one into a meditative state.
Nadi shodhana pranayama — alternate nostril breathing — can be used to equalize the solar and lunar flows in the body and to balance the brain hemispheres. Whereas the practice of uni-nostril breathing has been shown to provoke different responses depending on which nostril is used. The right governs the solar channel (pingala or surya), the left the lunar (ida or chandra). When the inhalation is initiated on the right it heats and activates, when initiated on the left it cools and calms.
Sushumna pranayama is a powerful technique for balancing the flow of energy is the ida and pingala nadis so that kundalini can flow through the sushumna nadi. This practice magnetizes the spine, encouraging the flow of energy toward the higher chakras so that superconscious states may be experienced.
Our core practice of Rudra Meditation utilizes the double-breath technique developed by Swami Rudrananda. Rudra pranayama, as I like to call it, circulates the life force through the chakras. It builds the capacity to expand each center and open to the flow of Life within and around you.
*Note: I will be writing more about these breathing techniques in upcoming articles.
Brahmacharya – Right Use of Energy
In the Yoga Sutras, as well as in the Upanishads, hatha yoga texts, tantras, and other scriptures, the practice of Brahmacharya is mentioned. This word is often translated as celibacy, but is better understood as the right use of all vital, creative forces.
Brahma is the name of the creative principle, and acharya means teacher. To practice Brahmacharya involves observing and listening to the life-force and using it wisely. Prana, in its highest sense, is the greatest of teachers. If we open to it, and allow it to direct us, it will guide us toward a full awakening.
An excess of any activity, whether it be sex, fitness training, or socializing, will deplete our energy reserves. The yogi pursues the opposite, eliminating all activities and relationships that rob him of vitality, and cultivating those that build it.
This may include periods of celibacy if that is what is needed at the time, but this doesn’t mean that it should be held as a yogic ideal. A renunciate monk has no more advantage over someone who is sexually active.
In fact, the monk can even be more hung up on sex, especially if they haven’t aquired the ability to properly transmute sexual energy. Without this ability they merely suppress it, which can lead to mental imbalances and derangements.
Sexual energy is the most potent of vital forces. If misdirected it can entangle us in many problems. If directed upward it can be transformed into a higher, more refined power.
Being a yogi doesn’t require a life without sex. It involves using your prana wisely. It is possible to have both an active, fulfilling love life, and an abundance of vitality which can be directed toward creative and spiritual pursuits.
The right use of vital forces builds and strengthens pranamaya kosha. Pranamaya kosha bridges the physical and mental — annamaya kosha and manomaya kosha.
Strong prana nourishes the physical body, fights off disease, and helps us achieve all soul-inspired goals. A calm prana creates a calm mind, a calm mind gains access to the higher intellect, and the higher intellect reflects the light of the Self. The key to all of this is Brahmacharya.
Prana is both within us and all around us. We can learn to drink-in the energy from our environment. This inexhaustible source is easiest to open to in beautiful, natural settings.
Just as annamaya kosha consumes food, pranamaya kosha feeds on energy. In order to remain healthy and strong it needs the nourishment of nature. A walk through a forest, park, or on a beach, fuels and refreshes us.
But no matter how much vitality we are surrounded by, it won’t do us any good if we don’t open and take it in. The following exercise is a simple technique that can be performed while walking or while still:
Take a deep breath in through the nose, feeling the energy come down through the third eye. Bring it down through the chakra system, through the throat, the heart, and into the navel center.
As you exhale, direct the energy outward to all parts of your body. Feel it nourish and energize your pranamaya kosha.
In the next article we’ll explore the 3rd covering of the soul, manomaya kosha.