I was interested to read in the news this week of a study that had explored the relationship between where we live and cognitive ability. Essentially, it was found that living near woodlands, parks, lakes or the sea had a profound effect on children’s development. These children were a year ahead of those living in more developed urban areas. The authors linked this difference in thinking ability to the higher level of air pollution in urban areas.
In addition, when considering the greening of our cities for good health, the University of Washington points to studies that have shown that time in a natural environment can restorative, boosting satisfaction and work performance. The incorporation of natural spaces into urban environments may also help to improve our ability to learn and our memory.
This makes a lot of sense to me, considering the impact of negative ions on our health and well-being. In his book entitled ‘Pranayama’, Andre van Lysebeth suggested that negative ions are part of the prana or life energy that is vital to our existence. In areas of high pollution, such as towns and cities, these ions are severely reduced. He refers to these as areas of ‘zero climate’. In contrast, more natural environments, particularly open spaces such as hills and the sea side, have much higher levels of negative ions in the air. As a result, we feel much more energised (literally!) from spending time in these places with ‘higher’ climate.
With the longest day almost upon us, it really makes sense to get out and appreciate the natural world around us in the fine weather. Look after yourself by spending time in nature this weekend; walk through the park, relax in the garden or take a daytrip to the countryside. It really is time well spent.
Prana is used to describe the energy in the body as a whole, but the ancient yoga philosophers have also attributed specific names and functions to this energy in certain areas of the body.
The energy in the chest is also known as prana, and is associated with the intake of food, water or air. Prana refers to this nourishment in itself but also to the actions that bring it into the body, the functions of breathing, eating and drinking.
The energy in the lower abdomen is referred to as apana. This energy is associated with elimination from the body. It is both the action of elimination and that which is eliminated. Apana powers elimination of waste upwards, in the exhalation, as well as downwards.
Apana is complementary to prana. Nutrients enter the body under the influence of prana and leave due to effect of apana. If our energies are not in balance, waste (signified by apana) is said to collect in the lower abdomen. This makes us sluggish and heavy. We need to reduce apana to make space for more prana in the body.
In the middle, where prana and apana meet, we have the region of samana energy. Samana is associated with the absorption of nutrients. In this middle area we also find agni, the fire of life. It is said that the inhalation turns the fire downwards to burn the waste and the exhalation turns it upwards to release the waste from the body. This in itself offers an interesting symbolism to explore as we sit and observe the breath.
We can also use this time to bring balance to the inhalation and exhalation. Regardless of our opinions on the existence of prana and agni, it has been shown that a longer exhalation helps to reduce the heart rate and facilitate a sense of relaxation. Start by observing the in-breath and out-breath as they are naturally. You might then go on to gently increase the relative length of the exhalation, to perhaps twice the length of the inhalation. Stay with what feels comfortable and right for you, building the length of the practice over time.
Our topic at the moment in the Tuesday classes is prana. A Sanskrit word, prana is generally translated as life force or energy. It denotes the sum of energy in the Universe. It is said to flow around the body in channels or nadis. In a healthy person, this energy is retained within the body, whilst in someone suffering from disease (or dis-ease) the prana is more easily lost. Whilst there is no conclusive evidence that prana exists, neither has its existence been disproven. It is possible that some of the proven benefits of yoga in reducing stress and balancing hormones in the body are at least in part due to the subtle influence that yoga has on prana. The bottom line is, we don’t know!
The ancient yogis spoke of prana in the Upanishads as life force;
“Life is the fire that burns and is the sun that give light. Life is the wind and the rain and the thunder in the sky. Life is matter and is earth, what is and what is not, and what beyond is in Eternity.” Prasna Upanishad, in The Upanishads, Mascaro (1965)
According to Andre von Lysebeth Prana “…is present in the air, yet it is neither oxygen, nor nitrogen, nor any other chemical constituent of the atmosphere. Prana exists in our food, water, sunlight, but it is neither vitamin nor warmth nor ultraviolet rays. Air, water, food, sunlight: all convey the prana on which all animal and vegetable life depends. Prana penetrates the whole body, even where the air cannot reach. Prana is our true nourishment, for without prana there can be no life.”
Prana is manifest wherever there is movement. This could be on the minute scale of electrons moving around the nucleus of an atom or the enormity of an earthquake. Prana is everywhere.