Prāṇa - does it really exist?

26 februari 2017 | Av Simon Krohn

Sometimes we might expereince things that we can't really explain. This can be very confusing, and scary. When it comes to yoga philosophy there are many parts of this that might be difficult for our western minds to grasp, such as prāṇa, the energy of life. Simon Krohn, yoga teacher with an MA in philosophy, had one of these experiences, which took him on a journey within himself. Here he explains how we can understand life and open our minds through different approaches to different experiences. 

To experience something you don't really belive in

The base of my spine began to rumble. The feeling grew and it began to feel like an earthquake. Then the craziest thing happened. It was like an explosion at the base of the spine and it felt like the whole spine had turned into a volcano. I felt something shoot up through it and as if a golden, electric fountain erupted out through the top of my head. It only lasted for a couple of seconds, but it sent me on an intense existential journey that would last around a year.

The first two weeks after the incident I went in and out of an extraordinary state of awareness, where it felt like my sense of self had dissolved completely. In that state I felt blissful. However, as time went by I got more and more afraid. The thing was, I had no way to understand or process, what was going on. Obviously, I could read about it and I could easily recognize my experience in the old Indian Haṭha yoga texts. I read that I had experienced something called a Kuṇḍalinī-rise, which was described as a divine form of energy (prāṇa). This, however, did not help me much. I simply did not believe in these words. They were too foreign and they contradicted my western worldview. So basically I was having experiences of something that I did not believe in, and so the fear of loosing my mind grew.

Eventually I calmed down again and after a year the drama was over. Nevertheless, I kept studying the topic and came to realize that a major part of my Kuṇḍalinī crisis came from a problematic, rigid western approach to the experience. The point of this blog post (in fact my first blog post ever) is to share my understanding of the Indian concept prāṇa.

Different approaches
The Indian yoga tradition is based on the experience of yogis; most of the descriptions that you can find in the ancient texts can be traced back to personal experience. This sounds straight forward, but it raises an important question, whether we should regard these descriptions as ‘experiences of reality’ or ‘real experiences’?

If you take the descriptions of yoga literally and consider them to be descriptions of an objective reality, then you are taking an ontological approach to them. On the other hand, if you just consider them to be descriptions of actual experiences, then you are taking a phenomenological approach.

This may sound like a purely technical distinction, but the difference is great. Let us take an example. If you wished to know how many bones you have in your body, you would probably look it up on Wikipedia or in an anatomy book. In any case you would certainly look for the answer outside yourself. This is an ontological approach, which means that it does not rely on your personal experience. Just for fun, you could also try a phenomenological approach. Simply close your eyes and try to feel how many bones you have in your body. Exactly. It is weird and fruitless.

On the contrary if you wished to understand a concept like ‘love’, then a purely ontological approach would soon be equally weird. No doubt it can be interesting to read about oxytocin and neurotransmitters, but it seems somehow to miss the point, and it will not help you to understand a love poem. My point is simply that certain aspects of life are best understood ontologically while other aspects are best understood phenomenological, and the Indian concept of prāṇa is in my opinion clearly in the same category as ‘love’.


Increased prāṇa – expanded awareness
Prāṇa can basically refer to any experience of intensity and flow. It is the softening you feel when you take a deep breath. It is the buzz you feel, when you are nervous, and it is the build up you feel, when you are getting near to an orgasm. These are very normal experiences, and the best way to really know them is by taking a deep breath, go to an exam and having sex. To ask whether these experiences actually exist would be truly odd. 

With the development of Haṭha yoga prāṇa became an important concept. The yogis discovered an interesting connection between awareness and prāṇa. Every time the mind becomes quiet and awareness seems to expand, there is also a sensation of increased intensity and flow. Furthermore the yogis discovered that the door swings both ways. By forcefully turning up the intensity and flow, they found that they could actually calm the mind and expand awareness. Thus the experience of increased prāṇa became an important component in the spiritual progress. ‘Haṭha’ literally means ‘force’, and the traditional Haṭha yoga is primarily concerned with techniques that create and control these sensations of intensity and flow.

What is real, and what is not?
For the old yogis the whole process of yoga was something that takes place inside your self within your own experience. So to ask what prāṇa really is outside of our experience would seem weird to them. Unfortunately this is how most of us relate to prāṇa these days, and then the ontological questions arise. What is prāṇa really? Can it be measured? Do you even believe that prāṇa exists?

This is not just a matter of philosophy. It is also important for two very practical reasons. Firstly, the ontological understanding is always static, and when you try to create a fixed understanding of something that flows, your mind will fail. It seems that the best way to achieve the feeling of flow is to stay open, and as soon as you try to understand, what it is, then something shuts down and the flow stops. Secondly, trying to make ontological sense of a prāṇa experience can be downright scary. This is what I experienced. A clash of worldviews that made my mind freak out, because the mind does not like to be unsure of what is real and what is not.

So there it is. I personally don’t believe in prāṇa or Kuṇḍalinī in an ontological sense. But I most certainly believe in them as very real experiences, and I use the practical wisdom from the Haṭha yoga every day to create more peace and flow in my life.

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Simon Krohn

Danish Simon teaches classes, workshops and trainings around the world. His warmth, humor and wide knowledge within yoga philosophy makes his classes an experience out of the ordinary.

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