Yoga has the power to touch and transform our lives. But what is that power and where does it come from? Can it even be named or described?
In this interview, Iyengar Yoga teacher John Schumacher discusses the yogic concept of Prana, the life force or creative energy, and the role it plays in the practice of yoga. While Prana may be intangible and elusive, a consistent yoga practice helps us develop the ability to tap into it by aligning our physical and energetic bodies through asana, breath work, and meditation, explains Schumacher. In doing so, it becomes possible to live freely, effectively, and joyously.
John Schumacher has taught in the Washington, D.C. area since 1973 and is the founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center, Washington, D.C.'s premier yoga studio. He has written for or appeared in numerous national newspapers and magazines including US News and World Report, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times.
This interview is an excerpt from a longer talk with John Schumacher featured as part of Sadhana Sundays -- a free online series with leading yoga teachers, which explores the transformative aspects of yoga practice.
Q: Anyone who practices yoga over a period of time usually feels their lives touched and transformed in profound ways. Where does this come from? From where does yoga derive its power to change our lives in so many unique and unexpected ways?
John Schumacher: Well, it's really from within us. To a large extent, with regular yoga practice, you learn to tap into the source of energy within yourself. But that's just a manifestation of the vast pool of energy that's moving the entire universe, known in Indian philosophy as Prana. An asana practice does that, but a Pranayama practice even more puts you in touch with that energetic level of existence.
I opened BKS Iyengar's book on pranayama this morning and the very first section on his description of Prana says, "It's as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God. Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, and cosmic energy. It is energy which creates, protects, and destroys. Vigor, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of Prana." So if you think of the very well known equation, E=mc2, E is Prana: energy.
Q: That's beautiful. Do you feel that the ability to tap into Prana is the key to the effects and the benefits we experience from our yoga practice?
John Schumacher: Yes, I do. I think that energy, the Pranic energy carries us. It's like we are living our lives and moving through our lives in an ocean of energy, with its own currents. In classical yoga literature, Prana is broken down into various Vayus or winds. So these currents, these winds, these different movements of aspects of energy within us, are a great big vast ocean of energy. We are these little boats that are floating along in that current of energy.
A part of the skill of the practice of yoga is to tune in to that flow of energy and to learn how to adjust oneself so that one is moving with that flow in a harmonious and balanced way. That's really what the practice becomes. In Iyengar Yoga, particularly (but it's pretty commonplace in other forms of yoga now), we talk about alignment. Oftentimes, people think that means that you align the upper leg up with the lower leg so the knee is not twisted and points the same way the toes are pointing and all that sort of stuff.
That physical alignment is very important for the health and well-being of the joints, the organs, and the body in general. But it's also a way to align the body so that there is a free, unfettered flow of energy. As we tap in to that flow of energy within ourselves, we become sensitive and attuned to the fact that we are in an ocean of energy. We can then align our entire being with that flow of energy so that we can move freely, effectively, and joyfully through our lives.
Q: That's a very beautiful point. You mentioned the concept of alignment as one way that yoga helps free up this flow of energy in the body. How else can we tap into the flow of Prana in our practice?
John Schumacher: Well, it is true that we create blockages in that flow of energy on a physical level with knotted muscles and misaligned joints. When we release the muscles, align the joints, and relax the organs, then Prana flows more freely and readily through the body. When we begin to observe the breath in the postures and see how our breathing either helps or hinders our movement into and out of the poses, then we're tapping into the flow of Prana on a slightly more subtle level.
If we start the practice of pranayama, then we start to work very directly through the breath towards tapping into that energy. We learn how to restrain and focus that energy. So pranayama itself is the beginning of working consciously and directly with that energy which then, as we sit in meditation or whatever our meditative practice is, we begin to see how the mind allows for a free flow of energy. Being conscious of Prana and the flow of energy within us touches all the levels or our being. We get sensitive and begin to work in ways that keep us from blocking that up.
Q: So how do you teach people to become more sensitive to the movements of Prana in our bodies?
John Schumacher: I don't often address it directly that way. But whatever practice I'm teaching -- be it asana, pranayama, or sitting meditation -- I simply get people to observe what is happening in their bodies, and breath, what is happening with them emotionally and mentally. Just by having them observe and become aware of themselves on their own, through their own perceptions, they start to tune in. It starts to reveal itself as there's a quieting and deepening of focus.
I mean, as Mr. Iyengar was saying in the book, it's impossible to describe, really. He does as good a job as anybody with that. But it's like trying to explain what chocolate tastes like to somebody who's never tasted chocolate. You just can't do it.
To learn more about John Schumacher and how to join the free Sadhana Sundays series on YogaUOnline.com exploring the transformative powers of yoga, go here: John Schumacher on Sadhana Sundays.