What is prana, people often ask me when they see the name of my website. I’ve found it best, most of the time anyway, to give the short answer: energy. Prana is energy.
To go deeper though, prana is the Sanskrit word for vital life force energy. The Chinese call it Chi - same thing. It is the energy that flows through all life. I came to see it as the same divine intelligence that causes a flower to bloom, the source of innate wisdom we all possess.
We don’t have to do anything to make this energy be there. We were born with it. But there are many practices that can increase the quality of that energy and our connection to it. Every action is either enhancing the quality of our energy, or creating a block to its healthy flow. And when we become more aware of ways to enrich our prana, we become more connected to our own bodies as well as our own spirit.
Through the healing journey I have been on the past five years, I began to collect a set of practices I now call my Prana Practices. All of these things served to connect me in a more conscious way to the energy in my body, which I believe has allowed me to learn to thrive despite a chronic illness.
THE BACK STORY….
When I became sick five years ago, and even as I struggled for years for a diagnosis, I did not know that I was already on a healing journey. I did not realize that as the illness took hold, the healing had begun.
That is because the healing actually lives in the practices I’ve had to cultivate to be able to thrive despite the illness. The most powerful part of this whole experience for me is becoming highly aware of the role energy plays in my life.
Before getting sick, I had already begun to have a few experiences that connected me to the beautiful energy that is present in all life. The summer before the tick bite that took me down in the fall, I was walking daily under a huge canopy of 100-year-old trees in a nearby park. I began to feel their presence in a new way.
The walks became about more than just physical exercise. I began to feel a connection to the energy in these trees. I imagined myself taking in the chlorophyll from these giant oaks and maples, with sun dabbling through their leaves, and felt that somehow, I was absorbing a share of their energy. Woo woo, I know; but true.
As a food obsessed person, I became interested in how certain kinds of food contain more live energy and how focusing on those foods in my diet could increase the quality of energy in my body. I experimented with eating more raw foods and drinking green juice every day. And I saw my energy levels soar.
That summer I also spent a solid four days resting in the sun at the beach and returned home filled with incredible energy and vitality. It was the first time I understood why people love the ocean so much. I felt so alive.
Then in November, I got sick.
When you’re struck with an illness, you don’t realize you are starting a journey. Every day you think you will get better, that this is temporary. But as time goes on and symptoms continue, you settle into an acceptance of your new normal and begin to find ways to have a better life today, in this moment, as you continue to move towards complete healing.
Aside from seeking help from over 20 doctors, taking various supplements, sleeping A LOT, and some of the usual things we do when we get sick, here are some of the things I started to do that have made all of the difference in my health today. These did not occur in any sort of linear fashion and I can’t really say one is more important than another.
Sometimes I find I need one more than the others for a while. They all live in a sort of toolbox, from where I can grab help at any given moment.
Almost three years into the illness, with little improvement, I moved into a new home with a back yard that is surrounded by huge trees. Having lived in the middle of a busy business district for years before, I had no idea what an impact the quiet of my new back yard was going to make on my health.
There were days when I could barely function, but I would drag myself outside to sit in the sun. I would close my eyes, and with the sun on my face, I would practice just listening to the sounds of the birds, the insects, the movement of the trees. I could feel the breeze on me. And every cell in my body seemed to take a big sigh.
I learned later that this practice is called Shinrin-Yoku in Japan, where doctors prescribe time in nature as a part of a healing protocol. The term means “forest bathing” and its power rests in engaging all of our senses to reconnect to nature.
An Aboriginal tribe in Australia calls this Dadirri, or deep listening to nature.
“From a physiological perspective, significant empirical research findings point to a reduction in human heart rate and blood pressure and an increase in relaxation for participants exposed to natural (green spaces).” This was the conclusion of an August 2017 study on Shinrin-yoku and other nature therapy practices by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“Psychologically and spiritually speaking, humans intuitively know the relaxing, soothing and “awe” effects of being in or viewing forests, plants, flowers, urban green spaces, parks and natural wooden materials.”
We don’t need huge amounts of time to experience the benefits of connecting with nature. Anytime I find myself in the presence of a beautiful sunset, or parked under an old tree in the city, or driving by the Ohio River on my way downtown, I can pause to acknowledge that beauty and feel a similar impact on my well being.
Read more about the powerful affects of spending time in nature here.
Although sunlight is an integral part of the practice of spending time in nature, it deserves its own category. I am in love with sunlight. And I find that paying attention to it on a daily basis is a practice of remembering how incredible this source of energy is to our lives.
Maybe it’s the photographer in me, but I find incredible joy in witnessing the sun as it falls across my kitchen counters late afternoon. Or when I find my dog napping in a sliver of sunlight falling on the living room floor. He is always seeking the warmth of the sunlight. I have countless photos to prove it.
Sunlight is considered one of the main sources of prana in the ancient belief systems that encourage daily short periods of time in the sun. When I take walks in the sun I pay attention to how good it feels on my face. In the midst of my worry or not feeling well, I am able to feel my connection to something bigger than myself.
The sun, wherever I encounter it, has become a huge source of comfort to me.
There is an underlying theme through all of these practices: mindfulness. Any practice we undertake that allows us to become completely absorbed in the present moment can have incredible healing affects. It is when we are in this state of mind that our parasympathetic nervous system can relax, slowing down our heart rate, reducing cortisol and inflammatory responses. (Interesting study here.) True healing cannot take place when the body is in a constant state of heightened anxiety.
Listening to music as a form of meditation was a new experience for me. I mostly choose genres with sounds like ocean waves with Tibetan gongs or crystal bowls in the background. Maybe you prefer classical, or jazz or a thousand other possibilities.
The key is to pay attention to how your body is responding to the music you choose. The practice is done in a chair or lying down, making sure the body is completely comfortable. And headphones are a must. Once you settle in and choose your music, pay attention to your heart rate, your sense of calm.
If the music creates any sense of anxiety or stimulation, then simply select something else. I switch up my music frequently.
During the time that I was very sick, this practice became a source of comfort. I would settle into my bed and check that every part of my body felt supported, and tune in to every chord of the music. I found a greater ability to completely surrender when I listened to sounds of nature, like the ocean waves or forest sounds. (Sensing a theme here?)
This new connection to the power of music led to another practice that continues to be of great support to me: dancing.
As I explored the affects of music on my body to relax, I discovered that certain types of music inspired my body to move, something I wasn’t doing a lot of when I was very sick. When you don’t feel well, movement falls way low on the priority list.
Drum music - especially African, Middle Eastern, Native American - and the slow rhythmic beat that mimics your relaxed heart beat allow you to reconnect to your sensual self, which isn’t always easy when you don’t feel well. Alone in your room, at your own pace, dancing can be a powerful grounding practice. It reminds you that you are alive.
Energy from others
One of the most beautiful aspects of our humanity is our connection to others. And not just in relationship to those we love. As we go about our lives every day, interacting with loved ones and strangers alike, we bring our energy to those interactions. And we are constantly absorbing the energy of others.
If I had to pick one of these practices as the most impactful on my overall well-being, it would be the practice of recognizing how other people’s energy affects my own. If someone has very frenetic energy, I will start to feel anxious. When someone is in a negative state of mind, I might find myself mimicking that feeling, when moments before I was fine.
The practice here is in the recognition of what is happening in your body in the presence of others. It is not a judgment, because all of us have our moments. It is not to say that we can only be around people who are always positive and upbeat. It is simply another mindfulness practice: how is this person making me feel in this moment?
As you become more aware of how you are being affected by another, you can start to make choices that protect your energy. Perhaps by walking away, taking a time out. If it is a persistent problem, you can decide to limit your interaction with that person. And you can decide to spend more time with the people who make you feel good, whose energy is soothing to you.
As a part of my healing, learning to tune in the affect of others’ energy helps me to preserve my much-needed energy.
Meditation + Visualization
I learned to meditate in college. I was drawn to various Eastern religions, so a curiosity around meditation naturally followed. Sitting on a cushion in a little make shift Buddhist temple a few miles from campus, I was fidgety and embarrassed.
But I kept at the practice and over the years, it has saved my life a hundred times. Learning to use the sound of my breath to completely quiet my mind means I can completely relax my body. A relaxed mind/body is fertile ground for healing.
There are countless ways to meditate. There’s the formal practice of sitting on a cushion, cross-legged, palms facing up. That’s one way. But a meditation practice can be as impactful sitting propped up in a chair, or lying flat on your back in bed.
It is ok to put yourself in a position where you feel comfortable, so your mind has one less thing to obsess over. Then you can focus on your breathing, so your mind can become completely still. And in that stillness, all kinds of wisdom can come to the surface.
The act of focused, exaggerated breathing has powerful calming affects on the nervous system. And it is something you can access anytime, anywhere.
Visualization is a fun and empowering extension of meditation, where we have cleared the riff raff of thoughts and intentionally replace them with visions of what we desire for our lives.
“Hold a vision of yourself aglow with energy and vitality, act in harmony with that vision, and you will grow to embody it,” said James Allen, author of As A ManThinketh.
prana is the common thread running through everything i love....the sun on my face...the sunlight through my camera.... breathing the ocean air... the sound of my breath...laughing with family + friends.