Of Prana, Metabolism and the Breath of Life

In Andromeda Strain, author Michael Crichton writes about a fictional incident of a U.S. military satellite crash in an Arizona desert which brings back an extraterrestrial organism responsible for the death of people who come in contact with it. The novel confronted me with what constitutes life and left me intrigued.

Few decades later, there is no unanimity on how we define life but fortunately there is increasing convergence towards and acceptance of the systems view of life. Using a multi-disciplinary, approach, and incorporating the work of several scientists, systems thinkers Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, proposed that every living system needs to meet two conditions essential to life. First, a living system must be cellular and cells must possess a cell membrane and second, the organism must exhibit metabolism.

Capra defines metabolism as the “ceaseless flow of energy” and he also refers to it as the “breath of life.” However, for people like myself who were brought up in the cradle of Yoga, for us the term prana [also referred to a chi, qi, ki in Chinese] is what depicts the breath of life. Thus began an inquiry into the connection between prana and metabolism. Are these the same or are they distinct? Are they related, and if so, what is the relationship? And what is the connection between prana, metabolism and health outcomes? As a participant of the Capra Course, I had a chance to validate my assimilation on this subject with Capra.

According to the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY), prana, a Sanskrit word, means “essence of life, a vital energy force that functions in various ways for the preservation of the body and is closely associated with the mind.” Late Swami Satynanand Sarawati from BSY, described prana as the “active aspect of existence and that the pranic body serves as the agent for body-mind communication. Prana does not specifically mean air or breath but it is obtained from the air we breathe.” Swami Satyanand also mentions that all living beings possess prana whether it is a human, an animal, an insect or a microorganism.

According to Capra, we tend to associate prana with energy but equating prana with energy is problematic because science defines energy as a quantitative construct and because prana does not lend itself to measurement, it cannot be treated as energy. Capra concludes that “prana is not the energy involved in the (metabolic) flow but rather a concept to describe the dynamic patterns of flow of energy. There is therefore no such thing as ‘good’, ‘bad,’ ‘healthy,’ or ‘unhealthy’ energy.” The key learning here is that prana is a qualitative concept and that we need to make a distinction between energy; its flow (metabolism) and a dynamic pattern of flow (prana).

Why is the understanding of prana necessary and why is it important to make a distinction between energy and life-giving energy? Let’s first understand energy in its raw form. The rays of the sun fuel life on earth but the same rays don’t create life on Mars. Why is this case? It’s because conditions on Mars do not support cellular life, metabolism and particular patterns of energy flow. Metabolism and prana are thus intertwined.

“The essence of yoga and meditation is to strengthen prana and it is for this reason prana is called life-energy or a pattern of energy that is life and health enhancing”

Can an understanding of prana help us to make better lifestyle choices and thus better health outcomes? Almost a century ago, American physician Dr. John Tilden M.D., in his book, “Toxemia Explained- The True Interpretation of the Cause of Disease” brought out the connection between aliveness, good health and prana. He referred to prana as nerve energy. In his book, he writes, “In the process of tissue building- metabolism- there is cell building- anabolism, and cell destruction- catabolism. The broken down tissue is toxic and in health- when nerve energy is normal- it is eliminated from the body as fast as evolved. When nerve energy is dissipated from any cause –physical or mental excitement or bad habits the body becomes enervated. When enervated, elimination is checked, causing a retention of toxin in the blood or Toxemia. This accumulation of toxin when once established will continue until nerve energy is restored by removing the causes. So-called disease is nature’s effort at eliminating toxin from the blood. All so-called diseases are crises of Toxemia.”

In the illustration, Tree of Toxemia, Dr. Tilden presents the causes for enervation. The loss of prana or nerve energy is represented by all the root factors and manifest themselves in myriad ways which are represented by symptoms that appear as branches. Dr. Tilden established a very clear relationship between prana, enervation, metabolism and the occurrence of wellbeing or ill health. These are the agents that underlie the complex adaptive system of human existence and the lack of understanding of the simple rules that govern these agents has led to a pervasive, mechanistic mindset that dominates modern medicine and healthcare The essence of yoga and meditation is to strengthen prana and it is for this reason prana is called life-energy or a pattern of energy that is life and health enhancing.

Michael Crichton was one of my favourite authors; he was exceptionally versatile and a compelling story teller. Yet, his science had mechanistic leanings and lacked a unifying vision. Dr Tilden wrote Toxemia in 1926 when cybernetics had barely got initiated, still he demonstrated a remarkable understanding of holistic health. Swami Satyanand Saraswati showed us how, through yoga, we could achieve unison with the universe but it is Capra whose work has helped many lay people like me integrate the science of the West with the mysticism of the East. Or should I say demystifying Life.

Feature image: Courtesy: Bihar School of Yoga

Shakti Saran is an Inclusive World Citizen, Writer and Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own. He wishes to express his gratitude to Fritjof Capra for his inputs and to Ravi Khanna for lending further clarity.

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