Prana is the energy, gross and subtle, which pervades the whole cosmos. It vibrates through all life from the earth and flowers to human beings, from the tiniest atom to the largest galaxy. It is through manipulation of the mind and the prank body that yoga can so effectively remove digestive problems. Yogic physiology: transcends the physical body and puts it into its correct perspective in relation to prana, the mind and the spirit.
Beyond the food body According to the ancient yogic texts annamaya kosha, the 'food' or physical body depends on grosser forms of prana in the form of food, water and air. It is also dependent on subtler forms of energy from the other bodies: pranamaya kosha - energy body, manomaya kosha - mental body, vigyanamaya kosha – psychic body, and anandamaya kosha - bliss body. Each subtler body gives energy in the body beneath it. Thus the pranic body infuses energy in the physical body.
This energy can be divided into 5 main pranas according to location and function - apana, samana, prana, udana and vyana. Of these the 2 mainly concerned with digestion are samana and apana:
As well as the major divisions of prana, there are also the sub-pranas:
Food must be taken into the body at times when samana and apana are working best. Most forces of the body work in diurnal (daily) cycles peaking and ebbing at certain times. Meals must be eaten within natural and harmonious times of body (unction, Most people, however, being unaware of their inner cycles, do not understand this. Thus they eat at any time, according to social convention rather than in accordance with the dictates of nature. According to acupuncture the following periods of hyper-function of the body organs occur.
|large intestine||5-7 a.m.|
|heart||11 a.m. - 1 p.m.|
|small intestine||1-3 p.m.|
|heating components||7-9 p.m.|
|metabolic processes||9-11 p.m.|
|gall bladder||11 p.m. - 1 a.m.|
This list represents the times when prana is present in the largest quantity in the organs. The opposite time represents the lowest pranic content. We can see from this that there are certain times when digestion will be easiest. The stomach is most receptive to food in the morning and least receptive in the evening. Thus the morning meals should be taken some time between 7 and 11 for the best digestion. In this way food will reach the small intestines at the best time for absorption of digested food, from 1 to 3 p.m. The morning meal should therefore be the largest.
The evening meal should be light and taken before sunset. As the low point of stomach prana is around 8 p.m., large meals taken at this time cannot be properly digested. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world people take their main meal between 7 and 11 p.m. and then sleep soon afterwards. This habit is detrimental to health and may be one of the most important reasons for much of the digestive trouble facing us today. At least 4 hours should pass between each meal and sleep so that the little digestive fire present can adequately start off the process of digestion. Actually it is healthier to eat the main meal before midday as food is not required while sleeping.
By eating only at the correct times we flow with the natural body energies. If we take food when the pranic level is high, digestion is carried out with maximum efficiency. In this way, neither energy nor nutrition are wasted and health is maintained. By eating at the wrong time, however, we swim against the current and pave the way for disease.
In order to better understand the cycles of prana, it is necessary to gain an accurate knowledge of the nadis, the pathways of prana. This will help to regulate digestion. The three most important nadis or nerve channels in the pranic body are ida, pingala and sushumna. Sushumna flows up the centre of the spinal cord, and ida and pingala wind around it at right angles to each other. At the intersections of these three nadis, whirling vortices of energy called chakras manifest.
Ida represents the parasympathetic nervous system - the passive, introvert and mental side of man. It is dominant when the breath is flowing through the left nostrils.
Pingala represents the sympathetic nervous system - the active extrovert and physical side of man. It is dominant when the breath is flowing through the right nostril.
Sushumna represents the fusion of mind and body, the state of equilibrium which occurs when both nostrils are flowing.
The flow of prana in the body works in 90 minute cycled alternating between ida and pingala and spending a few moments in sushumna at the point of crossover. This science of internal rhythms, called swara yoga, can be applied to all the strata and phases of life. When we eat, for example, pingala nadi in the right nostril should be open. Body energy, extroversion, receptivity to external stimuli, and so on, should be maximized in order to optimize the digestive process. In this way body heat, the digestive fire and metabolism are prepared to properly cook the food in the stomach and upper intestines making it ready for absorption. Preparation of food in the stomach and upper digestive tract takes approximately 90 minutes, the time that pingala nadi is open. After this ida nadi opens in accordance with the natural flow of cycles. Mental energy, introversion, then increase while the food is actually being absorbed into the body.
Many people believe that ida, which governs the parasympathetic nervous system, should be operational while we eat. However, if we eat while the left nostril is open, food is hurried through the intestines by the increased peristalsis that results, and does not have time to properly digest. Diarrhoea can result, as is the case in nervous diarrhoea.
Many yogic authorities state that even though the right nostril is open and the sympathetic, stress-coping mechanism is operational, the mind is relaxed and engaged in a pleasurable activity. This is the ideal situation. Tension is not demanding energy for its release. As the sympathetic system is conserving energy the other aspects of its dynamic nature such as the positive link with manipura chakra can manifest and the energy is then utilized for natural and creative body processes such as digestion. Health is enhanced by the proper function of the digestive process in harmony with the rest of the body's cycles.
Stanley Friedman of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, USA, has postulated that stress disturbs this 90 minute cycle (called ultradian in scientific terminology), and that this disturbance desynchronizes the body.*1 As a result psychosomatic illness can manifest because of erratic hormonal output and activity in the central and autonomic nervous systems. He has gained preliminary evidence in neurodermatitis, pointing out the necessity for harmony and balance in all body cycles for optimum health.
The pranic body can be energized by concentration on the chakras, especially mooladhara and manipura. This is because they represent the intersection of all the subtler bodies. Therefore, their manipulation, when done correctly under proper guidance, can release large amounts of energy as well as rebalance function and even structure.
Digestion is governed by manipura chakra, the home of prana, situated in the spinal cord behind the navel. This psychic centre is concerned with the fire of the body, which is used in digestion and metabolism of food. It coordinates the nerves of the stomach, intestines and other abdominal organs. Manipura is symbolized by the sun and physiologically it is associated with the solar plexus.
This ten petalled chakra is bright yellow in colour. The seed mantra is ram. Its symbolic animal is the ram, a fiery aggressive animal, and its weapon is the thunderbolt, symbolic of power and energy. When manipura is awakened the following powers are said to manifest: the ability to find hidden treasure, freedom from the fear of fire, knowledge of one's own body and the means to control it, and freedom from disease.
When manipura is weak, the digestive system is sluggish, blocked or unbalanced. The digestive fire, dependent on a supply of prana from manipura becomes less intense because it has less energy to function. By yogic sadhana, manipura chakra is activated. The oven gets hotter and food is digested better and more quickly. This sun-like fire burns up all the toxins of the body and eliminates indigestion. It is said that a person with a fully awakened manipura chakra can digest anything.
The power of manipura chakra is fully illustrated by the story of the great sage Agastya who lived many thousands of years ago. Agastya once visited a demon named Ilvala and his brother Vatapi. These two enjoyed disposing of their guests in a most extraordinary way. Ilvala would turn Vatapi into a goat which he then prepared and served to his guests. The meal finished Ilvala would call his brother forth saying, 'Vatapi, come out!' thereby killing the victim as Vatapi burst out of his stomach.
Agastya enjoyed the feast and when he had finished the meal, sat back well satisfied and patted his stomach. Ilvala thought this was an opportune moment and called his brother forth, but Agastya said, 'Vatapi, stay where you are! It is better for everyone if I digest you in my stomach'.
Agastya is also reputed to have drunk the entire ocean and is so famous for his digestive capacity that the following mantra is used to stimulate the digestive fire:
Agastyam kumbhakaranam cha shamincha vadavanalam
Bhojanam pachanarthaya smaredabhyam cha panchakam
We all know that after an excessively large meal we feel heaviness in the abdomen and lethargy throughout the whole body. Overloading the stomach and intestines results in loss of energy rather than gain. Blood is redirected from the brain and other organs to aid in the process of digestion, leaving most of the body with only the minimum supply of oxygen and nutrients. Blood is required to carry the absorbed products from the intestines to feed the cells of the body, but if it is concentrated in the digestive system for too long, then the rest of the body suffers.
A light meal of grains or vegetables usually remains in the stomach for about 2 hours, while a fatty meal may stay in the stomach for 6 hours or more and its passage through the rest of the digestive tract may take a full 24 or even 36 hours. All this time the body continues working hard to digest the food expending energy even when its peak time is well past.
Eating the wrong sort of food leads to over secretion of one type of digestive juice, which creates imbalance in the whole digestive tract. For example, too much sugar results in excessive secretion of mucus and as a result the digestive fire is cooled, weakened, and the body becomes dull, tamasic and prone to disease. Hot, spicy, oily foods result in excess secretion of bile which leads to indigestion.
Depression, fear and worry automatically lower the level of one's prana. Moreover, these mental states reflect into the physical body and disturb the digestive process. Constant worry and anxiety produce gas and excessive acid secretion which leads to ulcers. An anxious person or someone burdened with a heavy load cannot enjoy his meal, and this loss of satisfaction also lowers the digestive prana.
A simple vegetarian diet is sufficient for the body's physical needs and keeps the pranic level high. Eating with the hands, rather than with forks and spoons, also increases prana. The palms and fingers radiate large amounts of prana. This fact has been substantiated by Kirlian photographs which show flames of energy shooting out of the fingertips. The hands are also an extension of the heart, a sensitive means of externalizing and expressing our inner nature. It is through the hands that psychic healers transfer prana to a diseased part of the body in order to regenerate and heal the tissues.
When we handle food, we infuse it with subtle energy. The use of spoons, knives and forks blocks this energy transfer. Taking food to the mouth with the hand is a natural way of closing a circuit of energy. When the circle closes, energy flowing out from the hands is directed back into our being through the mouth. When we touch the fingers to the lips, we are performing a mudra, a gesture that reflects a psychic attitude. When we use a fork or spoon, we cannot close this circuit and prana is lost.
Another way to increase prana is to take meals in a happy relaxed atmosphere. Prana flows best when we are relaxed. Kirlian photographs show us that the aura of a relaxed person is stable and even, usually blue and white in colour. A tense person has an uneven, spiky emanation of smaller diameter, usually red in colour and often associated with disease.
Preparation of food is also important. When one purchases and cooks food with awareness and care, prana is transmitted into the preparation. You can actually taste it. After such a meal one feels more alive and energized.
Probably the best way to generate prana and maintain a high level of subtle energy is the regular practice of yogic techniques.
The cleansing practices and asanas tone all the digestive organs, while meditation harmonizes the body with the mind. As unbalance and disturbances are gradually eliminated, the appetite becomes regulated to the body's needs. When we eat in response to a healthy appetite, the tendency to overeat or under-eat is also reduced. Yoga synchronizes our energies and brings about a state of optimum digestive functioning.
Many spiritual aspirants regard the taking of food as a sacrament. In India, for example, the stomach is thought of as the havan, sacrificial fire, and food as the offering. In many homes the following verse from the Bhagavad Gita is recited before meals:
Brahman is the oblation, Brahman is the clarified butter.
By Brahman is the oblation poured into the fire of Brahman.
Brahman verily shall be reached by him who always sees
Brahman in action. (4:24)
Those who take food with this attitude will increase their digestive prana, and will not suffer from indigestion and other digestive disorders.
*1 I. S. Friedman, J, Nervous and Mental Diseases, 166: 110-116, 1978.