Find that from where all beings are born, that supports all life, and that into which all go back; that is Brahman. Taittirīya Upanisad 3.1.1
What Is Prana?
Prana is the basic life principle, and the origin of the whole Creation. Prana exists on a continuum transition, from gross or causal to subtle: its grossest manifestation is energy, which can be objectively measured; its subtlest manifestation is self-actualisation, which is purely subjective. Energy and self-actualisation sit at opposite ends of the Creation spectrum. Their key difference is not their measurability, but their degree of freedom. And the more freedom, the more Prana.
Following the grossest manifestation, the next transition is that in which energy is packed so tight that it becomes tangible: compacted energy is matter. Next, we travel from the mineral to the animal worlds, finding higher and higher degrees of freedom to move and act. The freedom to change belongs to man, with higher manifestations of Prana including mind and other states of consciousness.
The highest state of Prana is that of total freedom: the state of bliss and self-realisation.
The Pranic Body
Prana, this basic life principle, manifests itself in the Pranamaya Kosha or pranic sheath.
Everyone of us is made of five sheaths or bodies (Kosha). The causal body, the physical body that we perceive through the senses, is the Annamaya Kosha. Pranamaya Kosha envelops the gross body, and it has been described as the aura, which cannot be seen through ordinary vision.
Prana manifests itself in the Pranamaya Kosha in five different regions, influencing the physiological functions of the causal body.
Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana and Vyana are thus the five functional manifestations of Varistha Prana. Prashnopanisad 3.9
The Prashnopanisad defines the functions of these five manifestations of Varistha Prana as follows:
Apana works downwards and is responsible for the excretion, urination and seminal discharges. Prana has for its operation, the region of the eyes, the ears, and the nose governing the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and most important, breathing. Samana functioning in the abdominal regions is that which maintains balance between Prana and Apana. The digestion is controlled by Samana. Vyāna governs the sense of touch and the flow of impulses in the nerves. And that which flows upwards is Udana. Prashnopanisad 3.5, 3.6, 3.7
Besides these major functions or Pañca Pranah (five Prana), there are supporting minor Prana called Upa Pranah, which control the eyelids movement and the dilation of the iris; yawning, belching and sneezing; phlegm production.
Mastery Over Prana Is Pranayama
Pranayama is a systematic approach to harness Varistha Prana by gaining control of, at least, one of the Pañca Pranah or/and Upa Pranah through cleansing, balancing and stilling them.
The definition of Pranayama that, however, is most prevalent and popular nowadays is that of controlling the breath (one of the functions of Prana) in order to master over Varistha Prana. The stages of mastering over the breath are: cleansing, balancing, stilling, and expanding awareness.
The content of this article is based on the book “Pranayama — the Art and Science” by Dr. H. R. Nagendra, which has been a great resource in filling in the few gaps in my understanding of what Prana is.
For more information about mastering over the breath >>