By Shameem Akhtar
Like the scratch that turns off your mind from the pain of the bite, prana vidya takes your mind off your illness
I have found prana vidya healing even in its simplest version. I started doing yoga rather late in life, as a last-ditch attempt to cure myself of debilitating allergies that rocked me, ricocheting through and ruining the rest of my life. With yoga, the allergic reactivity began to leave me. Today, I can claim to have been divested entirely of its unholy grip.
But just before it slunk off my body entirely, the allergic reactivity would return occasionally. During one such devastating week, sitting through the night which followed several nights racked with my dry coughs, I tried the simple form of prana vidya, of which I had till then been skeptical.
Desperation can scorch any skepticism! Since I did not have the book that detailed it, I tried it in its simplest version. Amazingly, I fell asleep, not even aware when the coughs, which had shaken me and kept me up for so many nights, stopped!
How could conscious breathing soothe an ailment that even powerful antibiotics could not suppress? It seems on a physiological level this works just as an itch would. If an insect bites you, you scratch yourself. The biological reason for this scratch is to distract your nerves from the pain of the bite itself.
Similarly, when you focus on the up and down movement of the prana with true concentration, your mind gets off its painful obsession with the current illness. Like the scratch that turns off your mind from the pain of the bite, prana vidya takes your mind off your illness. This gap is enough for the body-mind complex, which is tied up in knots over your ailment, to get a breather. The gap is sufficient for your mind-body complex to make the leap towards health.
Adi Shankaracharya gives pranayam the most composite definition: “The restraint of all modifications of the mind by regarding all mental states like the chitta (consciousness) as Brahman (universal force) is called pranayam (breathing practices).”
Verse 118, Aparokhshanubhuti.
This may seem to veer off from hatha yogic pranayam practices which focus on strengthening the respiratory capacity of the lungs, the air exchange rate, etc., which all seem to be physiological. But truly, there is no contradiction between this and the raja yogic (mental control) pranayam of Adi Shankaracharya because yoga uses the body, as this column repeatedly notes, to fine-tune the mind.
Pranayam is, therefore, a progression of yogic practice designed to still the frisky mind. The mind is like a kite and the prana is the thread to hold it in place. Unless the person flying the kite has his attention on the thread, the kite will fly helter-skelter. So, too the mind and prana, which, though it means life force, is loosely interpreted as breath for the sake of convenience.
Prana vidya is an advanced practice where the practitioner heightens his awareness of the life force, using it as a form of subtle but powerful meditation. Anybody who has flown a kite knows the difference between one just holding the thread and the skilled person who can make the kite draw patterns on the sky, ride every puff of wind instead of being dragged by it. With prana vidya, the person assumes this expertise with the self. It is also a powerful healing practice, used to cure both oneself and others. Reiki and prana vidya share several features, such as the movement of consciousness through the chakras of the body.
Since yogic terminology is ancient, there is a tendency to treat this as if its references are for the most part psycho-babble. But modern science increasingly stacks up evidence to prove that our yogic seers were logical, scientific and precise in what they intuited.
For example, neurology proves that there are different maps in the physical brain itself. These maps keep changing through our lives. For example, the phantom limb pain (ache in the body part which has been amputated) was for long thought by scientists to be wishful thinking, a figment of imagination of the victim. Today, it is proved that though the body part is lost, the brain accommodates its map of sensitivity to someplace else. May be the cheek. So every time the person winces, the brain interprets this movement of the cheek as pain of the phantom limb!
Similar to such maps, the body has its own maps and blueprints for various systems (endocrinological map, for instance). As one neurologist observes, these several blueprints, road maps within the body, work in a complex intertwining fashion. Though working in tandem, they are separately designed as per nature and nurture (in yogic parlance, you could call these the samskaras or conditionings) yet collude to maintain the illusion of an individual or an ego (jiva).
But yoga recognised long ago that we were all “split personalities, identifying five sheaths or koshas that encase the ego.” This column will restrict itself to the second sheath of pranayam kosha or the vital sheath. It is here the prakriti or the creative force transduces itself from inert matter to animation. It is here the rhythm of the cosmic dance is “heard or felt as breath. But it is beyond breath, since it is the life force that pervades all the five sheaths of the body.”
To connect with all the five sheaths, one has to heighten one’s awareness of prana. Prana vidya is one such means that brings us closer to such acute sensitivity that, instead of imploding, explosively expands the self.
Though healing is one of its marvellous by products, prana vidya impact lies in the intangibles that will be felt and appreciated only with regular practice.
This is an advanced visualisation and meditative practice best learnt from an experienced teacher. Prana vidya needs a long and deep learning curve, meaning more time, patience and regular abhasya or practice. This may seem to be a simple technique but is rather tough to practise since you have to synchronise inhalation and exhalation with this visualisation. Unless you have been practising yoga and pranayam for a while you will be unable to do the breath-visualisation synchronisation smoothly. Here I am merely giving an introduction to the practice.
Lie down in corpse pose, legs slightly apart. Arms 40 degrees away from the body, palms and face turned up, the entire body completely relaxed. Now do a short yoga nidra or body awareness practice (covered by this column earlier) to get the left brain activated.
You also need to be aware of the exact location of the chakras—at the genitals (mooladhara), tailbone (swadhistana), navel (manipura), heart (anahata), throat (vishuddhi) and eyebrow centre (ajna). As you breathe in, move the breath from mooladhara to the right side of the body to reach swadhistana. From here it swings left to manipura.
Keeping this left-right swing, go up to ajna (swinging right from vishuddhi). As you breathe out, imagine the breath gushing from ajna straight to mooladhara. The curving upward path (always swinging in the directions mentioned above) and downward straight route may be done several times. You must always wind up by bringing the breath awareness back to the mooladhara chakra. Lie for some time before slowly emerging from the practice.
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