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Understanding Prana—the Foundation of All Life

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Understanding Prana is key to understanding Ayurveda, as “Ayurveda is primarily a pranic system of medicine.” Understanding Prana, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is essential to understanding our own vitality, and our pathway to personal wellness. Prana, in Ayurveda, is described as a subtle, cosmic force that underlies all movement and energy. It manifests within all things, and is even considered to be the primal force that governs Creation itself. Prana allows us to think, feel, hear, and act in the world.

The five elements, or five states of matter, originate from prana. We look to the qualities of each of those elements, as well as, the whole system of Prana in order to better understand our own constitution (our personal makeup and framework for wellness). The five elements don’t just exist outside of us in the natural world; they also exist within us. We borrow the elements from the natural world, and imbue ourselves with their energies every time we: eat whole, unprocessed foods from the ground (earth element); use tools and products that were fashioned from a natural source (earth element); hydrate, bathe, urinate, sweat, cry, swim (water element); eat spices with a hot/warming temperament—like: cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cayenne, ginger, cumin, turmeric, etc., and foods—like: peppers, bitter greens, red meat, beets, brussels sprouts, buckwheat, etc., and consume hot temperature foods and drinks (fire element); digest, are exposed to sunshine, or exercise (fire element); breathe, spend time in fresh air, think thoughts, or move about life (air element); sleep or daydream (space/ether). We also interact with space/ether just by being in the world, occupying space physically and energetically.

Keep in mind that all of the elements work together—no element is mutually exclusive from another; for example, we cannot sweat without the water element but we also cannot sweat without the fire element that warms us up enough to do so. Within the context of Prana, there are five essential, elemental locations and actions:

1. “Prana—Inward moving prana—seated in the head and heart—controls thinking, emotion, sensory functioning, and memory. We receive cosmic prana from the sun; it is called hot or solar prana.” Prana is associated with the element of air, as it is fluid, moving, changing. Cosmic, solar prana is also associated with fire.

2. “Apana—Downward moving prana—seated in the colon—controls the process of elimination (urine, sweat, menstruation, orgasm, and defecation), and receives prana from the Earth and moon; It is called cool, or luna, prana.” Apana is associated with Earth and Water, as it deals with elimination out of the body and absorption of grounding energy through the body.

3. “Samana—Equalizing prana, seated in the navel, controls the digestion and harmonizes prana and apana. This is also called the upward breath, for together with apana it creates the upward and downward movement of breathing.” Samana is associated with the fire element, as it deals with digestion and regulating the temperament and temperature of digestion flow and breath ignition—helping to ignite, or initiate, the upward and downward flow of breath.

4. “Udana—Upward-moving prana—located in the throat—controls speech, connects us to the solar and lunar forces (sky and Earth), is responsible for spiritual development, controls psychic powers and psychic phenomena, and controls creative expression.” Udana is mainly associated with the element of Space/Sky. It helps us connect to the cosmos, to our sense of place in the world, and our ability to communicate/commune with ourselves, others, Spiritual energy and Consciousness.

5. “Vyana—The pervading prana, is seated in the heart; it unites the other pranas and the body, and controls nerve and muscle action.” Vyana is associated with the element of Ether, which is spaciousness beyond “Space” and “Sky.” Not necessarily literally beyond those edges, but more so the space between, around, beyond space itself. It can also translate to no-space, before space, primordial space or sound, essence of emptiness, or unmanifested form; the space the other elements fill in. The heart, as the seat of Vyana, often knows our Truth quicker than our minds can keep up. 

“These five pranic forces govern all types of movement in the body; they restrain and impel mental activity, coordinate the senses, help in the enjoyment of their objects; they hold together different parts of the body, promote speech, enable touch and hearing; they are the cause of joy and courage; they stimulate digestion, absorb the three humors (Vata—motion and space; Pitta—heat and fluid; Kapha—fluid and solid), expel waste from the body; they create the gross and subtle channels in the body, mold the shape of the embryo, and determine the length of the lifespan.”

It’s important to keep the elements and humors balanced, working in harmony with one another. It’s a constant navigation, as the littlest things can shift one element and/or humor from moment to moment. We all have predominant constitutions or dosha(s)—the governing humors known as Pitta, Vata, and Kapha—that articulates what’s primarily going on with us and acts as a framework for better understanding our tendencies. That means, once we know our predominant dosha(s), we can better understand how our body responds to our environment, diet, lifestyle, etc., and we can make adjustments as needed to consciously regulate our system. 

For example: for someone who is primarily Pitta, pacifying the pitta and bring cooling and rest to the body on a regular basis is important because Pitta runs hot and fast, and if unchecked, can lead to irritability, impatience, jealousy, dominance and manipulative tendencies. When in balance, Pitta can assimilate information quickly, discern well, and take proper actions that contribute to more than just their own needs. Pitta is great at initiating and keeping the energy high for all kinds of activities, as long as there is a passion for it. For people who are Vata dominant, it’s important to add a bit of grounding, meditation, consistency/routine, love/connection, and warmth, to stabilize its dry, cool, spacy, airy qualities. Out of balance Vata can be nervous, anxious, forgetful, dissociated, irritated, passive, and quite fearful. In balance, Vata can be great at problem solving, thinking abstractly, and being highly creative and intuitive—think of artists, musicians, psychics, writers, and philosophers. Vata is associated with the mind, so Vata in balance looks like a clear, peaceful, flexible mind ready to think through things deeply, to make connections, and to stay on task; out of balance: unfocused, unmotivated, frozen by anxiety. For those that are primarily Kapha, adding in movement, playfulness, and raw fruits and vegetables, can often help bring upliftment to the slow, grounding, heavy qualities of this dosha. Out of balance, Kapha can procrastinate and be quite sluggish, depressed, greedy, possessive, tired, and psychological dense. It can be hard to see things from another perspective, and to be flexible when things change instead of feeling bogged down or overwhelmed. In balance, Kapha is incredibly grounding, nourishing, and giving. There is a consistency, dedication, and precision to Kapha, that can inspire well formulated and thoroughly executed ideas and projects. Kapha is comfort, stability, rootedness, and sense of security/belonging.

Having a basic understanding of Ayurveda can be a fun way to understand how connected you are to the world around you, and how to become even more connected to your own nature. To apply some of the teachings and to experience some of the benefits of this system, we invite you to find out what your own constitution is. To schedule a Consultation with us, visit:

Writer: @alyson__amrita

All quotations come from Atreya’s book, “Practical Ayurveda,” published by Samuel Weisner Inc.

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