Prana and Food

Prana in Sanskrit means vitality and life force, and that is why pranayama means the expansion of vitality without movement of thoughts or thinking.

To expand prana in the body, pranayama is not the only technique. What else? Let’s take a look at our daily food choices. Regarding the prana expansion, our daily food choices can be categorized into three groups: Positive Pranic, Neutral Pranic, and Negative Pranic. Positive Pranic food ignites life energy within; Neutral Pranic food makes the body lethargic; Negative Pranic food takes life energy away. 

Positive pranic foods are mild in taste including fresh, whole, minimally processed, locally grown, and organic foods, and they’re not supposed to be eaten in excess. Typical pranic foods include honey, coconut, whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, and fresh vegetables.

Negative pranic foods are believed to deprive vital energy including stimulants that give the body instant energy but may lead to a subsequent crash. Over-flavored foods are typical negative pranic foods, in other words, salty, spicy, sour, or pungent foods are said to harm the prana. Common negative pranic foods that negatively affect the prana include onion, garlic, coffee, tea, alcohol. 

Neutral pranic foods, like tomatoes and potatoes, neither increase nor decrease the prana, but they may still make people feel somewhat sluggish.

Yoga and Food

Guna in Sanskrit means “strands” or “qualities”, so, the gunas in general means energetic forces that gather together to form the universe in everything. Regarding their characteristics, gunas can be classified as sattva, rajas, and tamas, respectively corresponding to consciousness, activity, and stability. A guna is one of the three tendencies of the mind, body, and consciousness. Surprisingly, diet can also be categorized under these three gunas.

Sattivic diet includes food that grows naturally under the sun and is pure, natural, vital, and energy-containing, such as whole grains, dairy, and vegetables. Sattvic Diet is considered as the purest diet as it nourishes the body and maintains it in a peaceful state; more importantly, Sattivic diet helps calm and purify the mind, enabling it to function at its maximum potential.

Rajasic food refers to the food that gives energy and can drive the sense organs, therefore, rajasic diet consists of foods that are very hot, bitter, sour, dry or salty. Rajasic diet destroys the mind-body equilibrium, feeding the body at the expense of the mind. An over intake of rajasic food will over-stimulate the body and excite the passions, making the mind restless and uncontrollable. Typical rajasic foods include overly spicy or hot substances, such as sharp spices or strong herbs, onions and garlic, stimulants such as coffee and teas, fish, poultry, eggs, salt and chocolate.

Tamasic food can take the energy away. And a Tamasic diet benefits neither the mind nor the body, because it withdraws prana, or  energy, from the body, making the mind to be filled with dark emotions, such as anger and greed. Typical tamasic food includes overnight food, meat, alcohol, tobacco, fermented foods such as vinegar and stale overripe substances.

After knowing the three gunas and correlated food options, we could be planning a more balanced daily dietary based on the three gunas, then food can be that medicine that leads us to reach a healthier state both mentally and physically. 

Yoga and Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmission is a process that billions of brain cells communicate by passing chemical messages at the small gap between cells, the synapse; and neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that send messages from nerve cell to nerve cell, in other words, neurotransmitters are language of body.

Roughly, there are two types of neurotransmitters: 

Adrenaline: adrenaline is responsible for the body’s fight or flight response. Neurotransmitters like adrenaline can help your body to know how your brain wants to respond to stressful situations 

Acetylcholine: acetylcholine works at the neuro-muscular junction where the nervous system and muscles meet. The presence of acetylcholine triggers an action potential or command in the muscle fiber to make the muscle contract.

Glutamate: glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter in the cerebrum part of the brain. Problems in making or using the glutamate is linked to a number of mental health disorders like Autism, Schizophrenia, Depression, Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Oxytocin: oxytocin is a powerful neurotransmitter that affects many bodily functions. Oxytocin is often dubbed as the ‘love hormone’, serving as a wonderful antidote to the stress response as it lowers your blood pressure as well as decreases the hormone cortisol which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

GABA: GABA is the “downer” neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain. Researchers suspect that GABA may boost mood or have a calming, relaxing effect on the nervous system.

Serotonin: Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone functions as a neurotransmitter that impacts the  entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion. 

Dopamine: dopamine is a neurotransmitter made by the body, and the nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan.

Yoga, Adrenaline, & Stress

Research shows yoga brings measurable changes in one of the body’s neurotransmitters, adrenaline, the one charged with propelling us into action during the “fight or flight” response to stress. 

Modern life patterns tend to our stress response often lingers in the “on” position at times it shouldn’t. Yoga helps dampen the body’s stress response by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol, which not only fuels our split-second stress reactions, but it can wreak havoc on the body when one is chronically stressed.

Yoga = GABA Booster

A 2007 study found that practicing yoga postures increased levels of GABA in the brain. A group of experienced yoga practitioners showed a 27% increase in GABA after 1 hour, compared to the group who sat and read for an hour. Those in the group who were new to yoga had a 13% GABA boost over a 12-week period. To conclude, people can be trained to practice yoga in a relatively short time with a measurable effect, the associated change in GABA levels may increase with experience.

Yoga = a Natural Serotonin Boost

Serotonin controls the mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep patterns, and overall state of well-being. 

Yoga helps release serotonin naturally. Serotonin levels increase while people are concentrating on breathing and putting the focus on mindfully being in the moment. Plus, the areas of the brain that respond to stress and send out hormones in response to such stressors are deactivated during this time.

Yoga = a Natural Dopamine Boost

Low levels of dopamine are linked to reduced motivation and decreased enthusiasm for things that would excite most people. A 3-month study found that performing one hour of yoga six days per week significantly there’s a 65% increased dopamine levels. Many who practice yoga Nidra report feeling fully rested in as little as 30 to 120 minutes of practice. That’s a lot shorter than the eight hours of sleep usually required for that type of restoration. And then 5 percent dopamine boost.

Yoga Therapy & Oxytocin

Yoga therapy has been demonstrated to be useful in treatment of negative symptoms and improving the socio-occupational functioning and emotion recognition deficits in antipsychotic-stabilized schizophrenia patients. 

A study in 2013 supported the role of add-on yoga therapy in management of schizophrenia and demonstrated an improvement in endogenous plasma oxytocin levels in schizophrenia patients receiving yoga therapy.

Yoga & GABA – Glutamate Balance

Glutamate is our main brain excitatory transmitter — it wakes outthought, too much glutamate can be a problem, because it creates too much excitement in brain up.  Balance is important in the brain. Hence, we need a balance between glutamate and GABA.

Yoga has been studied as an adjuvant treatment across a broad range of psychiatric disorders and is shown to have short-term therapeutic gains. Emerging evidence from recent clinical in vivo experiments suggests that yoga improves GABA-mediated cortical-inhibitory tone and enhances peripheral oxytocin levels. 

Acetylcholine & Yoga

Concentration, focus and attention stimulate the nucleus basils to produce acetylcholine, which in turn instructs the brain to repair the memories that are damaged.

Deep breathing, yoga and meditation are great ways to Increase acetylcholine and decrease the levels of stress hormones. 

Chitta Vritti Nirodha

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodha”, says Patanjali, the author of Yoga Sutra. It is a line that I learned from the first yoga teacher training class at Tirisula. Master Sree says “chitta” means consciousness, “vritti” means thoughts, and “nirodha” refers to removal; therefore the essence of yoga philosophy is about the “removal of consciousness and thoughts from mind”. 

The idea of yoga being stilling the mind to experience ultimate reality and move toward self-realization did daunt me at the outset, because it questioned my original understanding of doing yoga, which is about perfectly performing challenging asanas. And quitting all the thoughts and the thoughts haven’t reached the mind? That sounded even more impossible — how could one remove the fluctuations of the mind because the mind is always thinking. 

But, frankly speaking, aren’t depression, frustration, and irritation all deriving from mind fluctuations? For example, sometimes, people might focus too much on one thought, or be occupied with too many thoughts at the same time — those moments are terrible. So, if one could deactivate intellect while still being fully conscious, then it means they could experience life through the clearest of lenses which are not colored by thoughts of good or bad, or mine or yours, then they can be experiencing mental peace.  

By realizing the state of “chitta vritti nirodha” could help one reach mental calmness, I started to find yoga is even more intriguing than I thought.