The student will notice, as he reads the chapters of this book, that there is an esoteric and an exoteric side of Hatha Yoga. By “esoteric” we mean “designed for only the specially initiated; private” (Webster’s Dictionary), and by “exoteric” we mean “external; publicâ€”opp. to esoteric” (Webster’s Dictionary).
The exoteric or public side of the subject consists in the theory of the obtaining of nourishment from the foodâ€”the irrigating and eliminating properties of waterâ€”the advantage of the rays of the sun in prompting growth and healthâ€”the benefit of exerciseâ€”the advantage of proper breathing-the benefit to be derived from fresh air, etc., etc. These theories are well known to the Western world, as well as to the Eastern; to the non-occultist as well as the occultist, and both recognize their truth and the benefits to be obtained by putting them into practice. But there is another side, quite familiar to the Orientals and to occultists generally, but unfamiliar to the Western world and not generally known among those who pay no attention to occult studies. This esoteric phase of the subject revolves around the subject of what the Orientals know as Prana. The latter, and all occultists, know that man obtains Prana as well as nourishment from his foodâ€”Prana as well as a cleansing effect from the water he drinksâ€”Prana properly distributed as well as mere muscular development in physical exerciseâ€”Prana as well as heat from the rays of the sunâ€”Prana as well as oxygen from the air he breathes-and so on. This subject of Prana is interwoven with the entire Hatha Yoga Philosophy, and must be seriously considered by its students. This being the case, we must consider the question, “What is Prana?”
We have explained the nature and uses of Prana in our little book, “The Science of Breath,” and also in our “Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism,” more generally known as “The Yogi Lessons” ([904). And we dislike to fill the pages of this book with what may seem to be a repetition of that which has appeared in our other hooks. But in this instance, and a few others, we must reprint what we have already said, for many people who read this book may not have seen our other publications, and to omit any mention of “Prana” would be unfair. And, then, a work on Hatha Yoga without a description of Prana would be absurd. We will not take up much space in our description and will try to give only the gist of the subject.
Occultists in all ages and lands have always taught, usually secretly to a few followers, that there was to be found in the air, in water, in the food, in the sunlight, everywhere, a substance or principle from which all activity, energy, power and vitality was derived. They differed in their term and names for this force, as well as in the details of their theories, but the main principle is to be found in all occult teachings and philosophies, and has for centuries past been found among the teachings and practices of the Oriental Yogis. We have preferred to designate this vital principle by the name by which it is known among the Hindu teachers and students-gurus and chelas-and have used for this purpose the Sanscrit word “Prana,” meaning “Absolute Energy.”
Occult authorities teach that the principle which the Hindus term “Prana” is the universal principle of energy or force, and that all energy or force is derived from that principle, or, rather, is a particular form of manifestation of that principle. These theories do not concern us in the consideration of the subject matter of this work, and we will therefore confine ourselves to an understanding of prana as the principle of energy exhibited in all living things, which distinguishes them from a lifeless thing. We may consider it as the active principle of lifeâ€”Vital Force, if you please. It is found in all forms of life, from the amoeba to manâ€” from the most elementary form of plant life to the highest form of animal life. Prana is all pervading. It is found in all things having life and as the occult philosophy teaches that life is in all thingsâ€”in every atomâ€”the apparent lifelessness of some things being only a lesser degree of manifestation, we may under-stand their teachings that prana is everywhere, in everything. Prana must not be confounded with the Egoâ€”that bit of Divine Spirit in every soul, around which clusters matter and energy. Prana is merely a form of energy used by the Ego in its material manifestation. When the Ego leaves the body, the prana, being no longer under its control, responds only to the orders of the individual atoms, or groups of atoms, forming the body, and as the body disintegrates and is resolved to its original elements, each atom takes with it sufficient prana to enable it to form new combinations, the unused prana returning to the great universal storehouse from which it came. With the Ego in control, cohesion exists and the atoms are held together by the Will of the Ego.
Prana is the name by which we designate a universal principle, which principle is the essence of all motion, force or energy, whether manifested in gravitation, electricity, the revolution of the planets, and all forms of life, from the highest to the lowest. It may be called the soul of Force and Energy in all their forms, and that principle which, operating in a certain way, causes that form of activity which accompanies Life.
This great principle is in all forms of matter, and yet it is not matter. It is in the air, but it is not the air nor one of its chemical constituents. It is in the food we eat, and yet it is not the same as the nourishing substances in the food. It is in the water we drink, and yet it is not one or more of the chemical substances which combining make water. It is in the sunlight, but yet it is not the heat or the light rays. It is the “energy” in all these things-the things acting merely as a carrier.
And man is able to extract it from the air, food, water, sunlight and turn it to good account in his own organism. But do not misunderstand us; we have no intention of claiming that Prana is in these things merely that it may be used by man. Far from itâ€”Prana is in these things fulfilling the great law of Nature, and man’s ability to extract a portion of it and use it is merely an incident. The force would exist though man were not.
This great principle is in all forms of matter, and yet it is not matter. It is in the air, but it is not the air nor one of its chemical constituents. Animal and plant life breathe it in with the air, and yet if the air contained it not they would die even though they might be filled with air. It is taken up by the system along with the oxygen, and yet is not the oxygen.
Prana is in the atmospheric air, but it is also elsewhere, and it penetrates where the air cannot reach. The oxygen in the air plays an important part in sustaining animal life, and the carbon plays a similar part with plant life, but Prana has its own distinct part to play in the manifestation of life, aside from the physiological functions.
We are constantly inhaling the air charged with prana, and are as constantly extracting the latter from the air and appropriating it to our uses. Prana is found in its freest state in the atmospheric air, which when fresh is fairly charged with it, and we draw it to us more easily from the air than from any other source. In ordinary breathing we absorb and extract a normal supply of prana, but by controlled and regulated breathing (generally known as Yogi breathing) we are enabled to extract a greater supply, which is stored away in the brain and nerve centers, to be used when necessary. We may store away prana, just as the storage battery stores away electricity. The many powers attributed to advanced occultists is due largely to their knowledge of this fact and their intelligent use of this stored-up energy. The Yogis know that by certain forms of breathing they establish certain relations with the supply of prana and may draw on the same for what they require. Not only do they strengthen all parts of their body in this way, but the brain itself may receive increased energy from the same source, and latent faculties be developed and psychic powers attained. One who has mastered the science of storing away prana, either consciously or unconsciously, often radiates vitality, and strength which is felt by those coming in contact with him, and such a person may impart this strength to others, and give them increased vitality and health. What is called “magnetic healing” is performed in this way, although many practitioners are not aware of the source of their power.
Western scientists have been dimly aware of this great principle with which the air is charged, but finding that they could find no chemical trace of it, or make it register on any of their instruments, they have generally treated the Oriental theory with disdain. They could not explain this principle, and so denied it. They seem, however, to recognize that the air in certain places possesses a greater amount of “something” and sick people are directed by their physicians to seek such places in hopes of regaining lost health.
The oxygen in the air is appropriated by the blood and is made use of by the circulatory system. The prana in the air is appropriated by the nervous system, and is used in its work. And as the oxygenated blood is carried to all parts of the system, building up and replenishing, so is the prana carried to all parts of the nervous system, adding strength and vitality. If we think of prana as being the active principle of what we call “vitality,” we will be able to form a much clearer idea of what an important part it plays in our lives. Just as is the oxygen in the blood used up by the wants of the system, so the supply of prana taken up by the nervous system is exhausted by our thinking, willing, acting, etc., and in consequence constant replenishing is necessary. Every thought, every act, every effort of the will, every motion of a muscle, uses up a certain amount of what we call nerve force, which is really a form of prana. To move a muscle the brain sends out an impulse over the nerves, and the muscle contracts, and so much prana is expended. When it is remembered that the greater portion of prana acquired by man comes to him from the air inhaled, the importance of proper breathing is readily understood.
It will be noticed that the Western scientific theories regarding the breath confine themselves to the effects of the absorption of oxygen, and its use through the circulatory system, while the Yogi theory also takes into consideration the absorption of Prana, and its manifestation through the channels of the Nervous System. Before proceeding further, it may be as well to take a hasty glance at the Nervous System.
The Nervous System of man is divided into two great systems, viz., the Cerebro-Spinal System and the Sympathetic System. The Cerebro~Spinal System consists of all that part of the Nervous System contained within the cranial cavity and the spinal canal, viz., the brain and the spinal cord, together with the nerves which branch off from the same. This system presides over the functions of animal life known as volition, sensation, etc. The Sympathetic System includes all that part of the Nervous System located principally in the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities, and which is distributed to the internal organs. It has control over the involuntary processes, such as growth, nutrition, etc.
The Cerebro-Spinal System attends to all the seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, etc. It sets things in motion; it is used by the Ego to thinkâ€”to manifest consciousness. It is the instrument with which the Ego communicates with the outside world. This system may be likened to a telephone system, with the brain as the central office, and the spinal column and nerves as cable and wires respectively.
The brain is a great mass of nerve tissue, and consists of three parts, viz., the Cerebrum Or brain power, which occupies the upper, front, middle and back portion of the skull ; the Cerebellum, or “little brain,” which fills the lower and back portion of the skull; and the Medulla Oblongata, which is the broadened commencement of the spinal cord, lying before and in front of the Cerebellum.
The Cerebrum is the organ of that part of the mind which manifests itself in intellectual action. The Cerebellum regulates the movements of the voluntary muscles. The Medulla Oblongata is the upper enlarged end of the spinal cord, and from it and the Cerebrum branch forth the Cranial Nerves which reach to various parts of the head, to the organs of special sense, and to some of the thoracic and abdominal organs, and to the organs of respiration.
The Spinal Cord, or spinal marrow, fills the spinal canal in the vertebral column, or “backbone.” It is a long mass of nerve tissue, branching off at the several vertebrae to nerves communicating with all parts of the body. The Spinal Cord is like a large telephone cable, and the emerging nerves are like the private wires connecting therewith.
The Sympathetic Nervous System consists of a double chain of Ganglia on the side of the Spinal column, and scattered ganglia in the head, neck, chest and abdomen. (A ganglion is a mass of nervous matter including nerve cells.) These ganglia are connected with each other by filaments, and are also connected with the Cerebro Spinal System by motor and sensory nerves. From these ganglia numerous fibers branch out to the organs of the body, blood vessels, etc. At various points, the nerves meet together and form what are known as plexuses. The Sympathetic System practically controls the involuntary processes, such as circulation, respiration and digestion.
The power or force transmitted from the brain to all parts of the body by means of the nerves, is known to Western science as “nerve force,” although the Yogi knows it to be a manifestation of Prana. In character and rapidity it resembles the electric current. It will be seen that without this “nerve force” the heart cannot beat; the blood cannot circulate; the lungs cannot breathe; the various organs cannot function; in fact, the machinery of the body comes to a stop without it. Nay, more, even the brain cannot think without Prana be present. When these facts are considered, the importance of the absorption of Prana must be evident to all, and the Science of Breath assumes an importance even greater than that accorded it by Western science.
The Yogi teachings go further than does Western science, in one important feature of the Nervous System. We allude to what Western science terms the “Solar Plexus,” and which it considers as merely one of a series of certain matted nets of sympathetic nerves with their ganglia found in various parts of the body.
Yogi science teaches that this Solar Plexus is really a most important part of the Nervous System, and that it is a form of brain, playing one of the principal parts in the human economy. Western science seems to be moving gradually towards a recognition of this fact which has been known to the Yogis of the East for centuries, and some recent Western writers have termed the Solar Plexus the “Abdominal Brain.” The Solar Plexus is situated in the Epigastric region, just back of the “pit of the stomach” on either side of the spinal column. It is composed of white and gray brain matter, similar to that composing the other brains of man. It has control of the main internal organs of man, and plays a much more important part than is generally recognized. We will not go into the Yogi theory regarding the Solar Plexus, further than to say that they know it as the great central storehouse of Prana. Men have been known to be instantly killed by a severe blow over the Solar Plexus, and prize fighters recognize its vulnerability and frequently temporarily paralyze their opponents by a blow over this region.
The name “Solar” is well bestowed on this “brain,” as it radiates strength and energy to all parts of the body, even the upper brains depending largely upon it as a storehouse of Prana. Sooner or later Western science will fully recognize the real function of the Solar Plexus, and will accord to it a far more important place than it now occupies in their textbooks and teachings.