From Prāṇa to Prāṇayāma : ancient sources, modern interpretations

Keehu, Kayla Remi
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[Honolulu] : [University of Hawaii at Manoa], [August 2013]
It is not uncommon for religious concepts to change over time, as practitioners gain knowledge of and insight into the subject at hand, or new revelations are made. This can be seen in the Abrahamic traditions with the concept of a Messiah, or the receiving of new prophets or covenants. The Hindu tradition, which pre-dates Western monotheism by centuries, has not been immune to this occurrence. Though what is considered to be authentically "Hindu" in antiquity is very much unsettled due to debates about the Aryan Migration there are fragments of ancient belief and practice that survive today. Whether categorized as Indus Valley Shamanism, Vedic Religion, or the Puranic Tradition, certain elements of these beliefs and practices have persisted in contemporary Hinduism, with elements even making their way into the West. Prāṇa, the Sanskrit word most commonly translated as "breath", is an example of a Hindu concept, mostly associated with yoga, which has undergone change through the ages. The concept of "controlling" prāṇa, through the practice known as prāṇāyāma began to appear in ancient texts several thousand years ago. Both practice and theory have continued to evolve up through the introduction and subsequent popularization of yoga in the West. Although the word "prāṇa" is not necessarily a part of yoga instruction today, most students are made aware that restricted breathing techniques are a part of the practice. With this in mind, a recent change in the understanding of this concept becomes not only obvious, but also expected, as a concept rooted in Indian religion is taught to non-Indians for nonreligious purposes. The topic of prāṇa has narrowly been explored by Western academics; those who have chosen to acknowledge it tend to either limit their discussion to the practice of prāṇāyāma, or often attempt to describe it as a "vital life force"1, neglecting to shed light on the complex history of and in depth philosophy regarding this concept. What they fail to recognize, or perhaps choose to ignore, is that their very concept of prāṇa often falls in line with that of the modern yogi, that is, the contemporary masters of yoga who compose and publish guidebooks on the practice of yoga and prāṇāyāma for a western audience. Scholars often skip over the vast body of ancient literature that depicts prāṇā in ways other than how they currently identify it, thus remaining bound within their own depictions that lack depth, substance, and clarity. It is essential, however, to explore the evolution of this concept if one is to truly understand what prāṇa is, and what can be done with it, and its place in the modern world, according to practitioners of prāṇāyāma.
M.A. University of Hawaii at Manoa 2013.
Includes bibliographical references.
Western monotheism
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