That Old Prana Magic

He may not understand how it works, but Neal Pollack can attest to the powerful experience of activating prana through yoga.
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He may not understand how it works, but Neal Pollack can attest to the powerful experience of activating prana through yoga.
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Pattahabi Jois, who taught some of the most fervent students in the history of yoga, used to hear all kinds of wackadoodle things from them. They'd claim transcendence of their earthly bodies, samadhi (union), enlightenment. He'd gently laugh them off as the foolish mortals they were.

"Oh, guruji," they'd say. "When I'm in Savasana, I can see a white light."

"Don't worry," he'd say. "It will go away."

I try to keep this in mind whenever I'm in my final resting pose and my body is tingling ecstatically. Waves of wonderfulness move up and down. I feel my joints healing magically, my mind soaring toward the heavens. We've all felt it, and we all want that feeling to go on forever.

That's the dirty secret of yoga that no one ever talks about outside of the most private circles. It almost always ends with something close to an orgasm. It's a subtler feeling, for sure, and longer-lasting. You feel fuller after it's over, not drained. But you still have that sharp exhale of breath and a quiet, satisfied, internal, "whoa." There's a reason why people get addicted to yoga, and it doesn't have much to do with flexible hamstrings.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this feeling is, and why it happens. Some modes of yoga thought say that when you tingle and throb after class, you're experiencing the sensation of oneness with the universe. Through your asana and breath practice, you've unspooled your kundalini and connected with the essence of creation. That's all fine and good, and, I suppose, technically possible, but it's not much use to those of us who have to do mundane things with our day like rake the leaves and drive carpool.

But the feeling persists. My teachers have taught me that it's called prana, the universal life force that animates all things, but they don't get too hippy-dippy about it. Prana offers itself up to a number of different definitions. My personal take is that when you lie on your mat after a solid practice, and you feel that feeling, your body is actually working as it's ideally supposed to. Your parasympathetic nervous system has taken over, and you're healing, mentally and physically.

When you practice yoga, or tai chi, or related disciplines, you're opening up the central channel of the body's nervous system, feeding your muscles and veins and joints with healing energy. Yogic literature calls these channels nadis. The central channel of the body, the one that moves through the chakras and opens up out the head, on toward infinity, is the shoshumna nadi. When we practice yoga, we open up the central channel and it makes us feel good.

At least that's what the books say. I'm not sure where I stand on the terminology. For someone raised on Western medicine, where doctors prescribe massive antibiotics for something as simple as an acne outbreak, it's hard for me to do a daily exercise routine where I'm thinking about "energy centers" and "divine spirit channels." But whether it's called the "shoshumna nadi" or the "left anterior giblet," anyone who practices yoga with any degree of seriousness knows that it's there, and that it works. Words are temporary, but the sensation of connectedness goes on and on.

After yoga is over, you feel the lingering effects of prana,an afterglow that carries subtly throughout the day and beyond. Gradually, it fades. But the best thing about prana is that it can be accessed at any time. As my teacher Richard Freeman says, it's a "constantly renewable source of fresh energy." It really doesn't matter what it is, or why it exists, but it's there, seemingly eternal.