The Chinese call it “chi" the Japanese “qi,” Egyptians named it “ka” and to yogis, it is known as “prana.” This non-physical essential energy flows through and around the body and is responsible for your “aliveness.”
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Energy Not Air
Prana is generally associated with the breath, however the air you breathe is not the actual life-force energy, nor does the air actually contain the prana. Through the yogic practices of asana and pranayama -- movement and breathing techniques -- you utilize the breath to promote, control, and direct the flow of prana.
How Prana Flows
Yogic wisdom states that there are 72,000 energy channels, called nadis, in the energetic body, and that out of this vast number there are three main channels that direct the primary flow of energy through the body. The central energy conduit, the Sushumna, is said to reside within the spinal canal of the physical body. When a person awakens deep spiritual energy, the Sushumna is the channel responsible for containing the flow of this energy from the base of the spine through the crown of the head and often leading the person to experience a state of bliss. The other two main nadis are the Ida and Pingala, which are located on the right and left of the Sushumna. In healthy individuals, prana flows alternately between the two nadis. The Ida is the left side nadi and is said to have a cool, loving, feminine energy. The right side nadi is the Pingala and is said to be associated with heated, intense, masculine energy.
Where Prana Goes
Just as the energy of the Ida and Pingala illustrate certain characteristics, the flow of prana can be divided into five categories, based upon the movement and the direction of the flow throughout the energetic body. As confusing as it may seem, when inward, flowing energy is called, prana. This energy is responsible for receiving energies from food, oxygen from the air, input from the senses as well as mental and emotional stimuli. When energy moves down and away, it is called Apana. Apanic energy is involved in elimination and expulsion. Exhalation of carbon dioxide and the removal of bodily waste, as well as reproductive fluids are governed by apana. Positive, upward moving energy is called Udana. It is responsible for your physical growth, the will and ability to stand as well as your enthusiasm for expanding your physical, mental and spiritual awareness. The energy of drawing inward is known as Samana, and literally means, "balancing air." This prana helps you digest our food as well as your experiences. The fifth prana is call Vyana and controls the circulation of your energies from the inside to the periphery; from moving the nutrients in food throughout the body to allowing your thoughts and emotions to pass through the mind. This energy keeps you from stagnating.
One of the main purposes for practicing hatha yoga is to move the prana throughout the body, with the purpose of creating a physical and energetic balance. For instance, yoga therapy focuses on utilizing specific asanas for addressing and healing certain physical, mental and even spiritual illnesses and injuries.
Pranayama is often mistakenly categorized simply as “breathing techniques.” While it is true that certain breathing methods are practiced, they are used to affect the flow of prana through the body with the purpose of allowing the prana to bring a change to the body and mind. Just as there are specific asanas used to direct the pranic flow, the different breath techniques can bring stimulation, calm and even blissfulness to the practitioner.