The Aromatic Journey of Prana
By David Crow, L.Ac.
Published in Light on Ayurveda, September ‘07
Traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine (TCM) are fundamentally systems of eco-physiology, which describe the functioning of the human body using terms and concepts derived from observing the elements and energetic patterns of planetary biospheric physiology. If students contemplate these principles deeply, they begin to develop a kind of macro-thinking that reveals not just the basic elemental correspondences taught in Ayurvedic and TCM colleges, but vast patterns of interrelationships between living beings and the underlying commonalities of biological functions. When this type of synthetic and integrative thinking is combined with an understanding, even rudimentary, of botany, physiology, and chemistry, a truly holistic vision of life emerges. A holistic vision of life awakens a sense of reverence for the intelligence operating within every aspect of nature, and this awakening in turn is the foundation of spiritual wisdom.
The subject of prana is an excellent contemplation for developing the type of macro-thinking that forms the basis of Ayurvedic philosophy. Functioning both at the universal and at the microscopic level, prana unites all life into a unified field yet functions in specific ways within the anatomy, physiology and consciousness of living beings. Any aspect of life could be the entry point for this contemplation, as we could examine the nature of prana in any field of science or in any path of spiritual study and practice.
For the purpose of this article we will follow the journey of essential oils used in aromatherapy from their origin within aromatic plants until their absorption into the limbic system of the human brain and their subsequent impact on physiological functions and ultimate metabolism into consciousness. The subject of aromatherapy is especially relevant for this contemplation on the nature of prana, as volatile aromatic molecules, distillation, respiration, olfaction, and the effects of fragrance on the central nervous system all share prana as their primary elemental medium.
The journey of prana as an essential oil from aromatic plants into the recesses of our limbic systems and inward to states of consciousness must begin ultimately at the source of the elements that nurture the plants.
All that exists in the three heavens rests in the control of prana, states the Prashna Upanishad. According to this all-encompassing description, prana is the original creative power of the universe, inherent within both Purusha and Prakruti before its projection and manifestation into all levels and forms of Creation. It is therefore to be found in the fertility of the soil, in the nourishment of the waters, in the luminosity of fire, in the life-sustaining power of air and breath and diffused throughout all space. This is the deepest origin of all the healing powers inherent within medicinal plants: the pancha mahabhutas as the expression of Prakrutis prana, made available to nourish, strengthen, and cure all beings.
The biological process of creating essential oils begins with the assimilation of the environmental pancha mahabhutas into the bodies of plants. Being the original inhabitants of the earth, plants have the capacity to live by directly consuming the elements of the biosphere, while humans, who appeared relatively recently in planetary history, are completely dependent on plants for both the food chain and the atmosphere. In this way, plants might be described as higher beings living in a lower realm of biological evolution.
Using the example of a sandalwood tree growing in the forest of Tamil Nadu, we can observe how the external elements of the surrounding forest are assimilated by the tree: the earth and water elements in the form of nutrients and liquids in the soil are absorbed by the trees roots; the process of photosynthesis captures the radiant energy of the sun and transforms it into carbohydrates; the air element is inhaled and exhaled through the leaves; these four elements circulate through the channels of space within the tree. Over time these elements slowly undergo metabolic alchemy within the heartwood and roots, resulting in a clear, slightly viscous liquid with a golden-yellow hue that has a rich and subtle bouquet of soft, sweet and woody aromatic notes.
This process is not unlike the creation of ojas within the human body, where nutrients of food undergo transformation resulting ultimately in a substance that Ayurveda describes as the distilled essence of the solar and lunar influences metabolized by the plants we have consumed, a nectar gathered from the flowers of the dhatu agnis.
What is it that guides this assimilation of the pancha mahabhutas and their metabolism within the tree and leads to the final alchemical result of sandalwood oil?
The Kaushitaki Upanishad says: “From prana indeed all living forms are born and having been born, they remain alive by prana. At the end they merge into prana once more. ” It is, therefore, the presence of prana that distinguishes a living body from a dead one, whether it is human, animal, or plant. We can infer from this quote that prana is present within the seed, that it is part of the power of germination, that it supports the development and birth of every organism and that it is the sustaining power that supports the survival of every being. We can also infer that it is the force that is energizing the metabolic transformations taking place inside our sandalwood tree and therefore an inherent ingredient of the oil that gradually appears in its heartwood.
However, prana is not only energy, but also intelligence. How many trillions of events are taking place this moment within the sandalwood tree as it metabolizes the elements of the forest environment into oil? What controls the myriad physiological events that occur every instant in our own bodies?
What force pumps the heart, breathes the air, digests the food, regulates the hormones, excretes the wastes, fires the nerves, balances the liver enzymes, gives power to immunity? Furthermore, what control do we actually have over these events? Obviously, the human body, and likewise all living things, possess an innate and profound intelligence that knows how to grow, evolve, sustain and multiply itself, in spite of interferences from the negative habits of individual consciousness. Remembrance of our utter dependency on this intelligence, present within us from the moment of conception until the last exhalation, is a profound spiritual practice, another of Ayurvedas gifts to the world.
As in humans, metabolism in botanical species can be understood in terms of prana. The subdoshas of vata, also referred to as the five pranas, are regarded as the outer manifestations of prana, or lower forms of prana that are directly connected to the gross physiological elements of the body as compared to the more refined levels of prana residing within consciousness. These pranas function within the bodies of plants in ways that parallel their functions in the human body. Prana vata could be described as the plants metabolic intelligence that governs its respiration, intake of nutrition, and immunological power; udana vata is the plants exhalation cycle; samana vata is assimilation of nutrients within the plants tissues and cells; vyana vata is the plants circulatory power; and apana vata is the plants excretory system.
While sharing these similarities of pranic functions with humans, plants have one fundamental difference: they do not have nervous systems as the primary conduit for prana. Here we might postulate that plants do not have sthula prana, the prana connected to a physical nervous system, but that they have sukshma prana, the prana that flows through a subtle nervous system, or at least some form of nadis. This hypothesis is plausible if we consider that there are many documented experiments proving that plants have sentient awareness in spite of lacking a physical nervous system, expressed by liking and disliking of different kinds of music, responsiveness to individuals, and so on.
Approximately ten percent of plants produce essential oils. The biological process of creating essential oil molecules within a plant is referred to as a secondary metabolic pathway, meaning that it occurs subsequent to more fundamental physiological processes.
It is interesting to note that most aromatic plants are not vulnerable to common pathogens and pests that affect non-aromatic plants; it is therefore likely that the appearance of these secondary metabolic pathways represent botanical immunological evolution. What is even more intriguing is the historical evidence that those who have worked with essential oils during times of epidemics, such as distillers, perfumers, and physicians specializing in the use of aromatic medicines, were less vulnerable to contagious illnesses than the general population. This empirical observation points to the possibility that chronic exposure to the aromatic molecules produced by enhanced botanical immunity has the potential to stimulate, enhance, or somehow educate human immunological responses, a possibility that is now receiving increased attention among researchers.
It is also fascinating to discover that after millions of years of gradual evolution during the early formative stages of the biosphere, the sudden appearance of flowers and their aromatic attractant molecules within the botanical realm was the original stimulus for the explosion of biodiversity in our current planetary epoch, culminating in the appearance of Homo sapiens. In other words, we are the descendants of flowers.
Here we can observe more dimensions of prana at work within the world of aromatic plants. The first is the appearance of essential oils as a botanical evolutionary development; likewise, prana is the force behind evolutionary processes, the unfolding of Prakruti through time and space, whether it is evolution within species based on adaptation or spiritual evolution within an individual. The second is the biological role of essential oils in plants as immunity from a wide range of pathogens; likewise, prana is a fundamental aspect of immunological strength and potency. The third is the affinity that volatile aromatic molecules have with the air and space elements that promote the diffusivity of their attractant and repellant molecules into the atmosphere around the plant; likewise, the elemental nature of prana is that of air and space.
A perfect example of prana functioning within these dimensions is a conifer forest. The air and space (prana) of the forest is diffused with the rich, sweet, balsamic green notes of the essential oils produced by the trees. These oils are the expressions of the trees collective immunological intelligence (prana), which we could call a type of community immunity. This intelligence developed over time in response to exposure to multitudes of pathogens, and represents evolutionary forces (prana) at work within the trees.
In this example of the conifer forest there are direct anatomical and physiological parallels that point to the deep underlying biological unity between humans and plants. The lungs have a similar anatomical structure to trees: the trachea is the trunk, the bronchi are the large branches, bronchioles are smaller branches, and alveoli are the leaves. Likewise, the majority of essential oils used for treating upper respiratory conditions and mucous membranes of the lungs are derived from the leaves of trees, such as eucalyptus and tea tree, or from needles of conifers such as pine, spruce, and fir. In Chinese medical terms, the antimicrobial, decongestant, mucolytic and immune-enhancing properties of these oils are specifically for treating wind cold and wind heat, i.e. airborne pathogens affecting the upper respiratory system; likewise, the oils produced within the leaves and needles are released by the trees directly into the air to be carried on the wind. Here we find one of pranas most important definitions, given by the ancient Greek physicians and philosophers: pneuma, the breath of life, upon which we are directly, inseparably, and biologically dependent with each respiration.
For many people who are familiar with both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, prana and chi are similar, if not synonymous, concepts. Like prana, chi is a fundamental principle underlying both medicine and spiritual practice. Like prana, it is conceived as a vital energy that is part of every living thing. Like prana, the flow of chi is described as being associated with both respiration and with subtle and refined currents within a non-physical nervous system: the meridians and acupuncture points. Like prana, chi is the foundation of health, vitality, and immunity, while its disturbance and decline are the cause and result of illness. Like prana, chi is also described in macrocosmic terms, such as tian chi, sky breath, used in ordinary language for weather.
The Chinese character for chi is comprised of two ideograms that signify steam rising from rice as it cooks. In medical terminology this image describes the vaporous essence that is released from nutrients under the influence of digestive fire: the pranic energy of food released from rasa under the influence of agni.
This image also offers an excellent analogy for the process of distillation of essential oils.
During distillation, fresh aromatic plant material is placed inside the still, either submerged in water or subjected to steam. As the water boils, the heat breaks apart the cells containing essential oils, releasing the volatile constituents. The aromatic steam, consisting of water and volatile constituents, rises from the still, travels through a condensing coil, and emerges as aromatic water. The volatile molecules then separate, creating a layer of essential oil and a layer of hydrosol.
What exactly is this fragrant liquid that we have extracted from the aromatic plants? Analysis with gas chromatography would reveal that it is composed of a complex mixture of molecules – terpenes, phenols, aldehydes, alcohols, esters, oxides, ketones each of which can produce a wide range of effects on the doshas and dhatus. If we look deeply into the origin and nature of these molecules with the universal macro-thinking of Ayurveda, we realize that an essential oil is not an inert liquid, a collection of compounds devoid of life, but the distilled essence of prana: the cosmic prana of Prakruti, projected into the earthly pancha mahabhutas, assimilated by the metabolic power of botanical prana and alchemically refined into molecular expressions of pranic immunological intelligence.
The journey of prana has reached the stage where we now hold it in our hands as an essential oil in a bottle. It is now ready to continue to its last phase: to be used in aromatherapy, where it will directly influence the prana of our respiratory, circulatory, neurological, and immunological functions.
Although there are ways to use essential oils orally and topically, the safest and generally most effective way is through olfaction. Ayurveda states, with a valid logic of natural correspondences, that the sense of smell is connected to the earth element, and the element of air relates to the sense of touch; simple observation, on the other hand, would link the sense of smell more directly to air, as that is the primary elemental vehicle that carries diffusive aromatic molecules. Furthermore, aromatic molecules pass through space, not only that between the source of the aroma and the nose, but ultimately the space within the sinus cavities. Now, we can see the affinity between atmospheric air and space, aromatic diffusivity and inhalation into the sinus cavities as one unified field of prana.
As the aromatic molecules pass from the flower, root, spice, or bottle of essential oil into the sinus cavity, we can observe how prana links the inward conscious to the outer world, and how it brings about the inner perception of external phenomena.
Neurologically, meaning governed by prana, all perception of the outer world arises through a three-phase process. The first phase occurs as sensory stimulation to the peripheral nervous system caused by different types of energies: radiant energy of light, chemical energy of taste and smell, thermal energy of heat and cold, mechanical energy of pressure and movement, kinetic energy of sound vibration. All of these energies could be described variously as forms of prana, the forms that act as the expression of prana, the vehicles that carry prana, or a combination of all.
As each of these forms of energy reach the body, they stimulate receptor sites on the nerve endings of the sense organs. In the sense of smell, aromatic molecules bind at the receptor sites of the olfactory nerves, located in the olfactory epithelium in the sinus cavity. In this first phase of perception, external energies are decoded as they stimulate the receptor sites and transformed into bioelectrical energy of neuronal stimulation. In other words, the various forms of environmental pranic energies are changed into nerve current, another form of prana. This pranic transformation can be thought of as taking place within the fires of agni, as the various metabolic pathways between receptor site stimulation and neuronal activation occur with corresponding enzymatic processes.
The second phase of perception occurs as the nerve current passes into the central nervous system and the brain. In the case of smell, this means the neurological impulse, prana, passing from the olfactory epithelium into increasingly large branches of the olfactory nerve, across the cribriform plate of the skull and finally into the limbic system at the olfactory bulb.
The third phase occurs as the prana of neurological current spreads across the neural networks in the brain and stimulates the endocrine glands. These synaptic networks could be said to be under the control of prana vata, the subdosha that governs the senses and consciousness, assimilates sensory information, feelings and knowledge, and in turn controls the other subdoshas of pitta and kapha that reside within the brain. As the electromagnetic holographs of prana arise and dissolve within the brain, corresponding sensations arise within the mind, internal recreations mirroring the three-times-removed realities of the outer world.
Simultaneously, as each breath is inhaled, the aromatic molecules of our essential oil pass into the respiratory system, penetrate through the water element of the mucus membrane of the lungs, and begin their journey through the circulatory system, once again under the influence of the five pranas governing physiological activities.
Here the aromatic journey of prana is completed: from the cosmic prana of Prakruti to Her manifestations within the universal elements; assimilated into plants by their life force, metabolized into fragrant molecules by their immunological intelligence; released into the atmosphere as botanical community immunity and distilled as a living pranic vapor; inhaled into the space of the sinus cavities, transformed into holographic neural networks; carried into the lungs with each breath of life, circulated throughout the body by its pranic currents, until they are released once again into the atmosphere.