What is “life energy?” It is a vital force that we all have within us. This energy is what animates the entire universe, all beings, and each individual. For as long as societies have existed, each culture has had their own unique way of describing this special force in some way, paying reverence and respect through drawings, language, sacred text, ritual, prayer, holy figures, ceremony, and so on. In every culture, the idea of a life-giving force, or energy, has been — and still remains — central to spirituality, medicine, healing, and the whole-life experience itself.
Another commonality among various forms of life energy is that this invisible force emanates from our breath, mind, body, and spirit. Yet where does it come from? It’s a question that the individual seeks to answer, and cultures attempt to garner understanding in their own unique ways. Here are three versions of life energy, drawn from the wisdoms of yoga philosophy (prana), Hawaiian culture (mana), and Chinese arts and sciences (chi or qi). While each culture describes life energy in their unique way, there are many similarities.
Prana is a Sanskrit word, meaning primary energy. It is sometimes translated as breath, or vital force, though it is more than this. The Sanskrit word broken down is “Pra” (constant) and “an” (motion). So the specific word “prana” means constant motion or constant movement. Every living thing is infused with prana. In some yoga traditions, it is believed that prana comes from the energy and light of the sun, and connects all the elements in the known universe. Prana has many levels of meaning from the breath, to the energy of consciousness itself. Prana is not only the basic life force, but the master form of all energy working on the level of mind, body, and life experience. In that sense, the entire universe is a manifestation of prana, which is the original creative power. Within the mind and body of an individual, a healthy flow of prana through physical channels called “nadis,” is essential to well-being and vitality. Through the practice of Hatha yoga, these channels are unblocked and pranic flow is regulated during asana (posture) practice, pranayama (breath), and meditation.
Chi also means life force. It animates the forms of the entire universe. It is the vibratory nature of phenomena, the flow and contraction of all that is, happening continuously on a molecular, atomic and sub-atomic level. In Chinese practices, great emphasis is placed on the well-being of an individual or an environment, based upon the flow of chi. Any area where chi is constricted, out of balance, or not flowing, can be affected by lower vibrations of wellbeing. This flow of energy is believed to be directly connected to the flow of an energy greater than the individual self — in other words, the higher self. The energy flow between the individual self and the higher self is connected through meditation, creative expression, as well as pathways in the physical body called meridians. Also paramount to a healthy flow of chi, is balancing opposite energies, such as hot and cold, dark and light, masculine and feminine. Seeking harmony between opposing energies helps cultivate balance in everyday life, and enhances a feeling of wellbeing.
Mana means empowerment. All power comes from within. When the mind is calm, creative life energy and charisma flow within the individual. Calm is achieved through awareness of one’s breath and surroundings at all times. Hawaiians teach individuals to be in the present moment — not in the past or future — thus allowing mana to increase and reveal itself with appropriate action. Mana within, or personal power, is cultivated within those individuals who develop their talents over time and with great patience. Empowered individuals have a magical ability to make things happen. Westerners refer to this seemingly natural confidence and ability as charisma. Like mana, charisma is the power to lead or inspire others by manifesting an energy that makes an individual irresistible. Many people believe that you have to be born with charisma, but everyone has the potential to gain charisma by increasing mana. Breathing meditation is one exercise to increase mana. Breathing mediation leads to the calmness of your mind, and enables you to envision how to make the best use of life energy. When your mind is calm, you are able to perceive how the thoughts and actions of yourself and others affect your energy and experience. Mana flows when you move in harmony with the universe. Calmness of body and clearness of vision allow you to tap into the universal supply of mana. When you tap into the power of the universe though your breath, you open yourself up to be filled with mana. As mana empowers, enchants, flows, and radiates, so does the individual.
It is clear to see that within these three very different cultures, there are many similarities in their teachings of prana, chi, and mana. Each culture emphasizes the importance of a healthy flow of life energy, as well as cultivating a balanced state of well-being and presence. Life energy is also the source of constant change, shifting and shaping, creating and expressing itself. Without this life energy, you wouldn’t be here reading this article, or sipping your tea, or doing anything at one given moment. In our surroundings, without life energy, the sun wouldn’t shine, the flowers wouldn’t bloom, and all of creation would come to a halt. Perhaps that is why all three cultures encourage us to wake up with awareness and gratitude, so that life energy can be fully experienced.
“We all have a beautiful light within…We just sometimes forget it is there.” -John Holland
A certified 200-hour Akhanda Yoga teacher, who has loved yoga since her stay in a Poona Indian Ashram as a small child. She’s been on her mat for more than 25 years and is currently focusing on Yin yoga practice, with an emphasis on mindfulness and meditation, as well as incorporating the healing art of Reiki.