The 4 (+1) sources of prana

This weekend I’m participating in a silent meditation course with the Art of Living Foundation in Santa Clara, California. I first began studying breath and meditation with the Art of Living in January 2012, and I took my first silence course in February 2012. As I prepare for this weekend, I thought I’d share with you an approach to health that the Art of Living taught me, and which I still use as a guide to this day.

What’s prana?

Coming from ayurveda, the ancient Indian life science that informs many yogic teachings, the Sanskrit word “prana” is often translated as “breath” or “life force.” If you have never stopped to consider the fundamental relationship between breath and life, notice that even in English, the word “spirit” shares a root with “respiration.” In yogic contexts, prana is one way of referring to one’s state of health. High prana states are healthier and more vibrant than low prana states. In the first Art of Living course I took, we learned about the four sources of prana (and a bonus fifth one).

Breath: The first source of prana

No surprise, the first source of prana is breath. When you’re feeling down, notice how you’re breathing, and notice how it’s different from the way you breathe when you’re in a better mood. Experiment with taking a few slow deep breaths. If you’ve done any yoga training and you’ve learned to take deep breaths into the belly, ribs and chest, try a few of those first thing in the morning. Prana is also described as a vital energy, and while we may all be used to the idea that we get our energy from food, the sugar that we derive from food can only provide us with energy if there is oxygen at the end of the line. Breath is so integral to the process that biologists call it cellular respiration.

Food and water: The second source of prana

Again, thinking of prana as a sort of energy, it isn’t difficult to see how the foods we eat can have an impact on our level of prana. However, ayurveda is thousands of years old, pre-dating our understanding of calories and micronutrients, and as such, the relationship between what we ingest and our level of prana has no clear parallel in western nutrition. For one thing, water does not provide us with any calories, but that doesn’t mean we can’t compare the levels of prana of two different types of water. Certain foods and certain drinks are characterized as having higher or lower levels of prana. Living foods, green foods, and whole foods are higher in prana than processed foods or dead foods like meat. Clean water with electrolytes is higher in prana than dirty water, or even distilled water.

Sleep: The third source of prana

If we don’t sleep, we die. Death is a decidedly low prana state. So much of our health, happiness, productivity, and general performance in life is dependent on getting enough restful sleep. Compare how you feel after a good night’s rest to how you feel after getting only a couple hours of sleep, and it becomes instantly clear which leads to the higher prana state.

Mental state: The fourth source of prana

Our thoughts and emotions can also affect our level of prana. Mindbody medicine may still seem “new agey” and weird to many Americans, but it has been around for a long time, and is now beginning to be substantiated by the hard sciences. How we feel and the things we think about can affect our physical state. Since learning to meditate with the Art of Living, I have seen how a regular practice of mental cleansing can be just as important to my health as brushing my teeth. Learning to replace low prana mental states like hatred and anger with high prana mental states like love and acceptance is difficult, to be sure, but well worth the effort.

Cold showers: The bonus fifth source of prana

Don’t laugh. Or go ahead. Laugh, as long as you’re laughing with joy (fourth source of prana). I can’t really explain it, but scientific evidence and my own personal experience both converge on this one. Cold showers can do wonders for your physical and mental health. If you’re scared to give it a try, start small. Work out first to work up a sweat and then take a cold shower. Or start with the water hot and slowly lower the temperature. I’ve made taking cold showers a habit. I’ve probably taken no more than two non-cold showers in the last month, and they felt weird. Benefits include: shortcut to present-moment awareness, less water wasted in unnecessarily long showers, encourages me to move and stretch while I’m in the shower to reduce prolonged exposure to any one area, trains me to grit my teeth in the face of something horrible and just do it. Others report additional benefits: mood lift, weight loss, and sleep aid. For real, Google “cold water therapy” for more about this.

That’s it. Pretty basic. Which of these five sources of prana do you have working for you on a regular basis? What can you do to squeeze a little more prana out of your daily life? What do you think is missing from this list? Remember, this is just one model for health. Feel free to use as much or as little of it as you like, and combine it with your own approach if you have something that works well for you.

Until next time.

Why is it hard to change?

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Those too frustrated for metaphors throw up their hands and lament, “People never change!” Whether it’s giving up an unhealthy habit like smoking or snacking, taking the first steps towards the achievement of a goal like starting a blog, or adopting new healthy habits like exercise or meditation, I’ve found that it is often hard to change. But why is change hard? What conditions make it hard, and what can be done to overcome those hurdles?

Ignorance or Lack of Awareness

The first obstacle to change is ignorance about why it might even be a good idea to change. If you don’t know how your habit of snacking between meals is affecting your health, or if the habitual anger response that is sabotaging your relationships is outside of your conscious awareness, there’s very little chance that you are going to do anything to change these circumstances. In this case, education and self-observation can help bring someone closer to change.

Fear, Doubt and Worry

The three hindrances of yoga–fear, doubt, and worry–have often stood between me and my goals. I remember when I first learned (read: came into awareness) that sugar was such a toxic substance and I contemplated what it would be like to completely give it up. I was scared. Sugar was my friend and I didn’t want to lose it. I doubted that I could be happy without it, and I worried that I would be giving up something that I knew I liked for the uncertainty of “health” or that even more wishy-washy word, “wellness.” In this case, I found it helpful to start small: I went without sugar for one month to see what it was like. It has been a long journey between that first month and where I am today in my sugar consumption and overall dietary habits, and while I have not eradicated sugar completely, the try-and-see approach has proved useful for overcoming the fear, doubt, and worry that come along with uncertainty. And of course, there was a lot of yoga.

Time or Prioritization

Once you are educated about why change is a good idea and once you have done enough experimentation to realize that change does not mean the end of the world, the third obstacle that may come up is time. If we’re being honest, though, this obstacle is really just our own prioritization. We like to say we’re too busy to exercise, or to cook, or to meditate, but we have a lot more control over our time than we might like to admit. We just choose to use that time in certain ways rather than others. For instance, during the 2008 election, I became obsessed with following the news and reading all about different political issues. I was reading two weekly news magazines, two monthly magazines, and various other articles that I would find online. What’s more, I kept a detailed spreadsheet of everything I had read about various political topics for later reference. But once that “phase” of my life passed, did I all of a sudden have a ton of free time? No, because that free time got filled with other interests and obligations. Most people’s time gets filled up without them even realizing where it’s going. So if you truly believe that it’s important for you to make a certain change in your life, and you want to actually do it, put that belief and desire into action by allocating your time accordingly. If you need assistance, you can enlist the help of a coach or accountability buddy. Be realistic about the amount of time you can commit, but commit something. Even if that means not doing something else that you are more accustomed to doing. Whenever I feel like skipping my meditation, I hear the voice of one of my coaches saying, “I’m suggesting that you don’t have anything better to do.” Ouch. Reality check.

Warrior on.

What is growth? What is health? What is happiness?

In the “About” section, I said that the goal of this blog is ” to support each other in our pursuit of health, happiness, and growth.” But what do “growth,” “health,” and “happiness” mean? These concepts mean different things to different people, and even to the same people at different times. As such, this blog will revisit each theme from a different angle over and over again, but for now I thought I’d share my basic understanding of what these words mean to me.

Health

In my experience, health is often most easily defined when it is lacking in some way. For instance, when I’m feeling under the weather, “health” could mean being able to breathe with an unobstructed nose, or if I have an ache, “health” is the state of being free of pain. In each of these cases, health is characterized by the absence of something added. However, when I’m paying attention on a better day, “health” may mean riding my bike up a large hill, swimming a great distance, or holding a yoga pose with presence and vibrancy. The common idea here is that health is what we experience when our body is working as it is meant to, or as we know it can under ideal circumstances.

The description of health that I’ve provided above is mainly concerned with physical health. Obviously, we can also talk about mental or emotional health, and these are all related and interconnected.

Happiness

Happiness can be thought of as emotional health. Most simply, to be happy is to feel good. However, too often a person’s happiness is allowed to depend on external circumstances. “I’m happy when things go my way.” “I will be happy when I get what I want.” This conditional happiness can feel good, but it can be accompanied by doubt, worry, and fear. “How long will I continue to get my way?” “I will be unhappy if things change.” In my experience, learning to let go of this conditional, outward-looking happiness and replace it with an unconditional, self-sustaining happiness has been a worthy pursuit. Does this mean I am always happy? No, of course not. Does it mean I don’t get upset when things I judge to be “bad” enter my awareness? Not at all. But through practice, I am learning to judge less, and even when I do judge, I am learning to dissociate from my negative feelings and thoughts and to just observe them with curiosity and compassion.

Growth

Change. Transformation. Development. These are words that come to mind when I think of growth. The world is a beautiful, crazy, complicated place. We will never know all there is to know. To the extent that what we know influences who we are, we are naturally growing every day, because we are learning every day. An important question then becomes what are we learning? Are we learning lessons that, if internalized, will bring us closer to health and happiness? Or are we learning lessons that leave us feeling isolated, fearful, and angry? And at the same time, what possibilities are there for unlearning unhelpful lessons from the past? If we have to grow every day, what can we do to ensure that we’re growing in ways that feel good?


 

I hope for this blog to provide a space for us to explore these ideas and teach each other ways of being in this world that optimize health, happiness, and growth. Please comment below with your thoughts and questions. I look forward to learning from you.

June

Loved ones gathered on the banks of the Illinois
Celebrating with food,
Moving with dance,
Smiling with laughter.
The banjo music reflects the blue sky in its twang.
Dogs and children make waves of water
and sound.

An apple in one hand, and barbecue smoke in my
head, I sit on this rock and think, “People are strange.”