Editor’s Note: This post is part 2 in The Enchanted World of Tantra, a blog series by Sandra Anderson exploring the many dimensions of the tantric path.

“Breathe into your toes . . . your liver . . . your sacrum. . . ” No doubt you have heard or given this kind of instruction in a yoga class. Of course we don’t literally breathe into anything other than the lungs, yet most people understand these instructions, and we dutifully bring mental awareness of the breath to the area of interest. We intuit something profound: the intimate connection between the breath, the mind, and the mysterious variable in the equation—prana.

Prana is the energy that sets our life in motion.

In this context, prana is succinctly defined as the “life force”—a special version of the cosmic intelligence that governs the sun and the stars, and the atoms in a rock, as well as the complex cells, organs, and mind of a human being. Imbued with consciousness, prana is the pillar supporting all the functions of the body and mind, from digestion and immunity to growth and cognition. Prana is the energy that sets our life in motion and empowers us to think, speak, and act.

When this creative energy is manifest, the tantrics refer to it as prana shakti, or just shakti. The unmanifest fundamental force of intelligence is called kundalini shakti. Together, prana shakti and kundalini shakti are the ultimate creative force of being—the Divine Mother.

Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Although we are prana shakti, it is so close that we fail to notice it—a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. As long as we are unaware of this power behind the momentum in our lives, we are mostly on autopilot, drifting along like an iceberg, at the mercy of deep unseen currents. The instinctive functions of embodied life and our mysterious mind operate below the level of our conscious attention, and often to our disadvantage.

On a deeper level, our lack of conscious awareness results in what my teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, calls “missingness.” Others have called it an existential hunger or a longing for the divine. A sense of incompleteness and a lack of lasting, unconditional contentment haunt us as long as we identify exclusively with our personality, the roles we play in life, and the ephemeral outer world of the senses.

This is why simple yoga practices can be so powerful. The sense of well-being even a fledgling yoga student can feel from breathing into her toes is a fleeting moment of experiencing our essential perfect and complete nature—not defined by our previous experiences, expectations, or thoughts.

Linking Mind, Breath, and Body

The capacity to bring the mind and breath together in body awareness is the first step in exploring prana shakti. “The most tangible and identifiable movement of prana is the breath,” Pandit Tigunait writes in The Practice of the Yoga Sutra. When we breathe into our toes, our liver, or our sacrum, we are linking conscious awareness to the breath, becoming sensitive to the finer aspect of the breath—prana shakti.

Since our breathing patterns closely reflect the pranic patterns, paying attention to the breath can lead to awareness of the subtle life force at the core of our being. Prana and the breath are so closely related that the terms prana and breath are frequently used interchangeably in practice and in modern translations of Sanskrit texts. In fact, in many contexts, the Sanskrit words for “wind” and “air”—marut, vayu, and vata—are also translated as “prana” or “breath,” alluding to the tantric aphorism “yatha pindande, tatha brahmande” (as in the microcosm, so in the macrocosm).

Linking our awareness of the flow of the breath to the body is a foundational practice of tantric yoga.

Based on this understanding of how prana shakti, the mind, the body, and the breath are interrelated, the tantrics developed many elegant techniques for acquiring both worldly and spiritual power. On the worldly end, tantric practices are traditionally used for purposes such as building prosperity, having a child, overcoming an affliction, or achieving victory in battle. Applied to spiritual goals, tantric practices lead to self-realization.

Linking our awareness of the flow of the breath to the body is a foundational practice of tantric yoga, bringing us into closer alignment with the deeper source of consciousness. This profound connection has the power to heal and restore balance to the body and the mind, giving expression to our true nature.

Enhancing and Harnessing Prana

To enhance and harness prana shakti and make the most effective use of the tantric practices, we need to understand the flow and operation of prana, and we need training to become sensitive to and conscious of pure beingness.

How does prana operate? How can we become aware of the subtle force behind breathing and thinking? Our next post in this series will look at the tantric anatomy of the subtle body and explore how to use it to empower ourselves at every level of our being.

More in this Series

The Enchanted World of Tantra