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.

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