The prana pump
Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach or tingling under your skin at the end of your yoga class? These are examples of one of the more subtle aspects of existence: that of prana. Prana is the “livingness” found in all of the cosmos. It is our breath and energy.(1) Pranayama, usually translated as breath control, is the fourth of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga.
As I wrote in last month’s blog, in Ashtanga yoga, using the bandha is an important contraction/release technique that helps build the incredible strength and flexibility of Ashtanga yogis. Bandhas are the energetic locks of the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominus. These bandhas, moola and uddhiyana, respectively, are contracted on every exhale, and released on the inhale, depending on the power needs of the body. Not only does using the bandhas with the breath increase strength flexibility, it also increases prana in the body. And, it stimulates the two lower energy centers, or chakras. I call this yogic technique the Prana Pump.
Incorporating Ujjayi (Victorious) breath control allows the bandhas to act like a bellows: prana is pulled into the body through the crown of the head, sending it down to the root, on every inhale and relaxation of the bandhas; and pushed out from the root to the crown on every exhale and contraction. Prana is moved with intention and attention. Energy follows intention.(2) All you have to do is imagine it moving where you want it to, and it goes there!
Focusing attention on the root and lower abdominals to keep prana in is considered beneficial in other energy systems, such as Qi Gong, Reiki, and the various martial arts. It’s not surprising, as these disciplines can all be traced back to Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from India who traveled the Silk Road to the Shaolin Temple in China.(3) From China, where prana is called qi, it spread to Japan, where is it called ki.
Kino MacGregor, yogi and author, recounted during her workshop I attended that Sri Pattabi Jois, the founder of the modern-day Ashtanga system, said the root should be slightly contracted at all times, except when sleeping, toileting, or resting at the end of a yoga session in savasana. In this way the prana can be kept in the body. And the more prana we have in us, the more “livingness” we will have and the longer we will live.
As prana is a more subtle aspect of yoga, it is not usually taught to the beginning student. I veer from tradition, though, as I teach even my beginning students this life-enhancing technique. Its benefits are so profound, from learning to integrate breath and movement, to giving stability and lift during asana, to increasing the healthful effects of prana in the body, among others, that I believe beginners should also learn and incorporate the prana pump into their yoga practice.
Join me in January for my Beginners Yoga series. This is a series of six, one hour a week, small-group classes, where you will learn the basics of a yoga practice, including the prana pump. After completion, you will feel confident to attend any level one studio class or start a home practice. Space is limited to six participants. Reserve yours now! Let me teach you. Contact me to find out more.
(1) Prana and Pranayama by Swani Niranjanananda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, Bihar School of Yoga, 2009, p. 9
(2) Qigong for Health and Martial Arts by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, YMAA Publication Center, boston, MA, USA, p. 78