Vital sheath

Picture of Vital sheath/Pranamaya Kosha


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Five Pranas

The Chandogya Upanishad (3.13.1-5 and 5.19-5.23) and the Prashna Upanishad (third question) mention the five Pranas.

The Upanishads speak of the Life-Force as the first or supreme Breath; elsewhere in the sacred writings it is spoken of as the chief Breath or the Breath of the mouth, mukhya, āsanya; it is that which carries in it the Word, the creative expression[1].  According to Sri Aurobindo, this true movement behind respiration is the same as the one governing electrical and magnetic fields; it is what the ancient yogis used to call Vayu, the Life-Energy. The breathing exercises (prānāyama) are simply one system (among others) for acquiring mastery over Vayu which eventually enables you to be free from gravitation and gives certain powers know to the ancients: the power to be extremely light (laghima), extremely heavy (garima), very big (mahima) and very tiny (animā) [2].

In the body of man, there are said to be five workings of the life-force called the five Pranas.

  1. Prana = forward moving air.  It moves in the upper part of the body from the top of the body to the navel.
  2. Apana =air that moves away.  It moves in the lower part of the trunk from Muladhara to the navel.
  3. Samana = equalizing air.  It has its seat in the stomach.
  4. Vyana = outward moving air.  It is all-pervasive.
  5. Udana = upward moving air.   It is the breath that rises, goes up, rising from the feet to the head.

The collection of five Pranas is like the working of a machine.  The key to health and well-being is to keep our Pranas in harmony. When one Prana becomes imbalanced, the others also tend to become imbalanced as well because they are all linked together. Generally Prana and Udana, which are the forces of energization, work opposite to Apana, the force of elimination.   Similarly Vyana as expansion acts opposite to Samana in contraction[3].

As we practice Yoga, the subtle aspects of these Pranas begin to awaken. This may cause various unusual movements of energy in body and mind, including the occurrence of various spontaneous movements or kriyas.  We then see the subtle application of these five Pranas:

  1. subtle Prana : heightened vitality and sensitivity
  2. subtle Apana : deep groundedness and stability
  3. subtle Samana : great peace
  4. subtle Vyana : new expanses of energy
  5. subtle Udana : a sense of lightness or levitation

We will now cover the various aspects of Prana.   In the Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo discusses the purification of physical and psychic Prana[4].

  1. Physical Prana
  2. Psychic Prana
  3. Spiritual significance of Prana

Physical Prana

Physical Prana is life-energy acting in support of the physical body in various functions such as digestion, assimilation, etc.

  1. Prana: concerned with inspiration and expiration of the universal Breath, with the chest as its normal base of operation.   It brings in the fuel.
  2. Apana: engaged in the expulsion of what is not assimilated or not necessary in the system.  It functions below the chest.
  3. Samana: is concerned with digestion of what is taken in and has its seat in the stomach.   It converts fuel into energy.  Prana and Apana meet together near the navel and create samana.  It regulates the interchange of these two forces at their meeting-place, equalizes them and is the most important agent in maintaining the equilibrium of the vital forces and their functions.
  4. Vyana: regulates both the Prana and the Apana and keeps them in harmony, the breath which sustains when prana is held in abeyance as in actions requiring effort.  It is all-pervasive, distributes the vital energies throughout the body.
  5. Udana:   It governs the positive energy created and determines the work that the machine is able to do.

Psychic Prana

Psychic Prana is the life-energy acting in support of the mind.   Every fibre of mentality is pervaded by psychic Prana

  1. Prana:  governs the intake of sensory impressions. It governs our receptivity to positive sources of nourishment, feeling and knowledge through the mind and senses. When deranged it causes wrong desire and insatiable craving. We become misguided, misdirected and generally out of balance.
  2. Apana: governs the elimination of toxic ideas and negative emotions. On a psychological level governs our ability to eliminate negative thoughts and emotions. When deranged it causes depression and we get clogged up with undigested experience that weighs us down in life, making us fearful, suppressed and weak.
  3. Samana: governs mental digestion. It gives us nourishment, contentment and balance in the mind. When deranged it brings about attachment and greed. We cling to things and become possessive in our behavior.
  4. Vyana: governs mental circulation. It gives us free movement and independence in the mind. When deranged it causes isolation, hatred, and alienation. We are unable to unite with others or remain connected in what we do.
  5. Udana: governs positive mental energy, strength and enthusiasm. It gives us joy and enthusiasm and helps awaken our higher spiritual and creative potentials. When deranged it causes pride and arrogance. We become ungrounded, trying to go to high and lose track of our roots.

Spiritual significance of the Five Pranas

  1. Prana: It is pre-eminently the breath of life, because it brings the universal Life-force into the physical system and gives it there to be distributed.  It gives proper aspiration for our spiritual development.
  2. Apana: It is the breath o£ death for it gives away the vital force out of the body.
  3. Samana: On a spiritual level, Samana Vayu governs the space within the heart (antar hridyakasha) in which the true Self, the Atman dwells as a fire with seven flames, governs the central internal space or antariksha. Samana regulates Agni with fuel, which must burn evenly. Without the peace and balance of Samana we cannot return to the core of our being or concentrate the mind.
  4. Vyana:  Vyana governs the movement of Prana through the Nadis, keeping them open, clear, clean and even in their functioning.
  5. Udana(upward): It moves upward from the navel to the crown of the head and is a regular channel of communication between the physical life and the greater life of the spirit.   It’s work is to carry the virya (tejas) to the head.  The movement of udana is different to the Yogin, for then its movement is from the Muladhara from where it carries the virya to the crown of the head and turn it into ojas.   It is the breath by which one can take one’s stand above the body in meditation [see Ascent Experience] or the means by which one shoots above the head at the time of death.   It governs our growth in consciousness and takes the mind into the state of sleep and into the after death realms.  Udana also governs the movement up the sushumna channel.  Udana is often the most important Prana for spiritual growth [3, 4].


  1. Sri Aurobindo. Kena and other Upanishads, CWSA vol. 18, p 19.
  2. The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 5, 20 May 1953, p 60.
  3. David Frawley.  Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-realization, Wisconsin: Lotus Press, 1999. (Click here to view the PDF file for the chapter on Five Pranas)
  4. Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga, CWSA vol. 23-24, p 521.
  5. Sri Aurobindo.  Synthesis of Yoga, CWSA vol. 23-24, pp 348-355, 648-662 passim.
  6. Sri Aurobindo.  Record of Yoga. CWSA vol. 10-11, p 1462.
  7. Sri Aurobindo.  Isha Upanishad,  CWSA vol. 19, pp 237-238.
  8. M.P.Pandit. The Upanishads, gateways of knowledge, 2nd edition,  Madras: Ganesh, 1968, pp 209-219.

See also

  1. Pranayama
  2. Descent experience.
  3. Vital immobility
  4. Four movements of consciousness
  5. Four Austerities and Four Liberations
  6. Stabilizing the body before meditation
  7. Transcending the work-leisure cycle
  8. The transmutation of sexual energy
  9. Sublimation of the sexual urge through Yoga
  10. Equanimity as the foundation of Integral Yoga
  11. Rising above ennui or boredom
  12. Discussion on Five Pranas in the Gorakshashatakam of Gorakshanath
  13. Webpage on Pranas at the Moscow Integral Yoga Center

25 thoughts on “Vital sheath

  1. Sandeep Post author

    Two of these five Pranas (udana and samana) have been mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

    3.40 udana jayat jala panka kantaka adisu asangah utkrantih cha

    By the mastery over udana, the upward flowing prana vayu, there is a cessation of contact with mud, water, thorns, and other such objects, and there ensues the rising or levitation of the body.

    3.41 samana jayat jvalanam

    By mastery over samana, the prana flowing in the navel area, there comes effulgence, radiance, or fire.

    translation from

  2. Sandeep Post author

    The five Pranas are also mentioned in the Linga Purana chapter 8, verses 63-67

    The wind which traverses through the body is called prana; that which brings down food and drink is calIed apana; that which enables the limbs of the body to bend is called vyana which incites the ailments too; that which excites and afflicts the vulnerable points (in the body) is called udana. That which normalizes the functions of the organs is called samana. Thus the first set of five winds has been explained to you. The wind Naga functions in the act of belching; the Kurma in the opening of eyes; Krkala in sneezing; Devadatta in yawning and Dhanajaya in making a loud report (fart). It is present even in the dead body. By restraining these winds, one can attaiin prasada.

    (Linga Purana, Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1973, pp 33)

  3. donsalmon

    Hey Sandeep: Nice post. Was the information on the 5 pranas from the psychological and spiritual point of view entirely from Frawley? I don’t remember seeing anything about this in Sri Aurobindos’s writings?

    Nice job on your site, by the way.

    1. Sandeep Post author


      Frawley has presented the information in an integrated fashion in his book but yes, Sri Aurobindo has also discussed the spiritual and psychological aspects of Prana. See the references mentioned above (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, ) – particularly his discussion in the Record of Yoga and the Upanishads. I believe Frawley may have got the information from Sri Aurobindo, but not sure.

  4. donsalmon

    Actually, as far as I know, Frawley derived extensive information on yoga and tantra from various yogis he studied with in India, several of whom had studied with Ramana Maharshi. Thanks for the references from Sri Aurobindo. It’s amazing one can study Mother and Sri Aurobindo for a life time and always continue to discover new things about them and what they have said.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      I had forgotten what I had read. After re-examining the references (1, 4-7), it would be fair to say that Frawley’s text contains more information on spiritual significance of Prana than Sri Aurobindo. The latter has written on the spiritual significance of one Prana only – the Udana Prana.

  5. Sandeep Post author

    For a survey of all scriptural references to the five Pranas (Prana, Apana, Samana, Vyana, Udana), see the PhD Thesis by Arthur Ewing (1901) “Hindu conception of the functions of breath. A study in early Hindu psycho-physics”.

    He has scrupulously collected all the references to it in the Vedas, Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Ayurveda,etc. Available online @

    Other references on the topic

    1. Zysk, Kenneth G. The science of respiration and the doctrine of the bodily winds in ancient India. Journal of the American Oriental Society , Vol. 113, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1993), pp. 198-213. Available online @

    2. Bodewitz – Prana, Apana and Other Pranas in Vedic Literature. Adyar Library Bulletin 50: 326-48 Available online @

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    1. amsha

      Astral is a part of what could be termed subtle. I’ve seen couple of times something which I presume is astral body, it’s like a small human figure bluish -yellow or blue, guess it might have another colours in it. It was not nervous envelope not chakra system, neither psychic and it can move relatively independently. You should read Letters on Yoga for better understanding of these things.

  8. donsalmon

    Just adding my 2 cents here. I think it’s accurate to say, as you do, Sandeep, that astral and subtle body are often interchanged. I might even add, before going on, that Sri Aurobindo often reminded his disciples that mixing up terms from different systems can cause significant confusion.

    however, I guess with the advent of the 21st century and instant access to zillions (a google?) of systems, that “ship has sailed.” So a little background might help.

    Both “astral body” and “subtle body” were coined by 19th century European occultists, some of whom may have had genuine occult knowledge, but the majority of whom probably mixed together minimum knowledge of Indian and other eastern mystical traditions and just as minimal and perhaps confused understanding of Western occult traditions.

    As far as I’ve seen the terms specifically used in Sri Aurobindo’s writings (and y’all could probably find a number of passages contradicting what I’m going to say), the ‘astral body” specifically is related to the vital sheath, whereas the “subtle body” may refer to the subtle physical, vital and mental sheaths together.

    But again, I don’t think there’s any rule on this. You might easily find a reference to the “astral” body that refers to both the vital and mental sheaths. All of which is to say the best thing, it seems to me, when you’re trying to communicate about subtle (i don’t mean subtle body, i just mean things that are beyond the ordinary) experiences, is to spend some time with a very quiet mind and open heart (psychic if possible – that is, psychic being, not occult), and communicate to each other using whatever terms are helpful and keep checking, checking and checking – the way a good scientist would do – to see what you are communicating and how well it is goin.

    You may have noticed Matthijs and a few psychologists have organized an Indian psychology conference this month exploring how yoga and Indian psychology in general can contribute to a different kind of research, one which honors our contemplative, yogic experiences. What I described in the last paragraph is my sense of one of the foundational needs for such research.

    Finally, you might enjoy my blog over at; just click on “blogs” on the home page. I welcome comments. It’s not a very busy site, and if you like (or even intensely dislike!) anything you see there, please feel free to comment, criticize, rant, etc:>))

    1. Sandeep Post author

      thanks Don for filling in the details. I am busy with my professional life so don’t have time to attend to these queries. Feel free to post comments to other questions/comments as well.

      1. donsalmon

        Hi Kian – thanks for putting the “India” back in “Indian psychology”! Probably will be (we hope!!) some time in 2014. We’re hard at work on the videos and music (they just came out with a new software update of the music software I’m using, so it’s back to “school” for a week or two – yikes!) which we hope will be up by October or November. Let’s see if I can get this URL correct: Kian, how is your subtle body doing?:>)))

  9. Sun

    What is the significance of feeling the prana or vital airs when you are meditating? I keep feeling these vital airs and I have no idea why or what to do with it, if anything. I found this site by a search, I have no knowledge of this stuff at all. I have only been meditating for a few years and I am not following any religion or spirituality.

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  11. Arya

    Does Aurobindo/Mother or anyone familiar with their teachings have anything to say about neurological diseases like Multiple sclerosis, parkinson’s etc.? Are these diseases related to a weak nervous system/vital sheath?

      1. Mark

        Book title:

        Health and Healing in Yoga: Selection from the writings and talks of The Mother


        Part 1

        Causes of Illness


        Cures of Illness

        Part 3

        Foundations of Health

        Part 4

        The Cycle of Life

        ISBN 81-7085-02304

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