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Unfounded Etymologies

Mikel Burley
28 Belleville Drive

3 January 2001

Dear Editor,

I would like to congratulate you on your issue on prana. It provided a useful overview. I thought, however, I’d write to correct a couple of points regarding the etymology of the terms prana and pranayama.

Sanskrit terms often fall prey to folk etymologists, who provide spurious accounts of a word’s derivation in order to suit their own preferred interpretation of its meaning. This habit is perpetuated by some Indian exegetes and by western commentators who do not have a scholarly background.

On page 2 of Breathe No.82 Bill Feeney claims that ‘prana is composed of two words. Pra meaning "first unit" and na meaning energy.’ He does not say from where he has gleaned this idea, and I have not previously come across this pseudo-etymology. My understanding is that prana comprises the prefix pra, meaning roughly ‘forth’ (as in ‘going forth’), and the stem ana, which denotes breath or life-force and which shares a likely etymological link with the Latin animus and modern English derivatives such as ‘animate’ and ‘animal’. Etymologically, therefore, prana can be said to mean ‘breathing forth’, an expression which Lisa Askem (citing Georg Feuerstein) uses on page 10 of your same issue. In most contexts, however, the terms ‘life-force’ and ‘vital energy’ adequately approximate to the sense of prana, and this is evidently understood by Feeney.

In his definition of pranayama Feeney makes a more common error, which is to assume that the term is a composite of prana and yama. If you could include in your publication the diacritical marks that are commonly used by scholars to specify the pronunciation of Sanskrit terms then the inaccuracy of this account would be obvious, since the term we are concerned with here is pronounced (roughly) ‘praa-naa-yaa-ma’ and not ‘praa-na-ya-ma’. Pranayama actually derives from prana plus ayama (‘aa-yaa-ma’), this latter term having the general meaning of ‘extension, lengthening, prolongation’ and, in the present context, the sense of an ‘extended retention’. One possible definition of pranayama would therefore be ‘the extended retention of prana (vital energy) within the body’, though such a definition might need to be modified in certain contexts.

One further point that needs to be made concerns Feeney’s use of the term Hatha Yoga. It is unclear from his article whether he is aware that pranayama is in fact the central and most important disciplinary component of Hatha Yoga in its traditional form. I presume that he is aware of this, since he begins the piece with a particularly apposite quotation from the Hatha-yoga-pradipika; but in the second-from-last paragraph Feeney implies that Hatha Yoga is coextensive with asanas (yoga postures), which is only correct in relation to certain popular and severely impoverished westernised versions of this type of Yoga. In its original form Hatha Yoga is a comprehensive and systematic approach to psychophysical transformation. It seeks to suspend the flow of breath and prana for increasingly prolonged periods in order to engender a corresponding tranquillity of the mind. It involves the application of forceful bodily contractions or ‘locks’ (bandha), which are intended to divert prana into the central channel of the subtle bodily matrix, the ultimate purpose being to generate enough internal heat to stimulate Kundalini-shakti from her dormant condition in the ‘root-support centre’ (muladhara-chakra) in the region of the perineum, and to consequently engender full spiritual illumination. I mention this simply to counteract the persistent misconceptions that surround Hatha Yoga.

While I have this opportunity I’d like also to comment upon Gerd Lange’s article (‘Prana: Mystery building stone of the universe’) in the same issue of Breathe. Though I was somewhat put off by Lange’s tendency to present wildly speculative claims about human prehistory and subtle physiology as though they were well-supported facts, I was nevertheless intrigued by the experiences that he and his partner Yamini report to have had with the ‘living on light’ phenomenon. Having had some experience of fasting myself—my longest fast to date being 27 days consuming only distilled water—and having done some research on the subject, I feel that I have at least a little understanding of the effects on the human organism. I know, for example, that if one is grotesquely overweight to begin with, or one is able to conserve energy very efficiently, then it is possible to fast for periods of two or three months or, in exceptional cases, even longer, without detrimental effects to one’s health (indeed, the effects are usually very beneficial). There is a sufficient number of well-documented case studies to support this idea. It remains necessary, however, to consume water (distilled water if the fast is to be a genuine one) at regular intervals. Evidence that supports the possibility of prolonged ‘dry fasts’—i.e. fasts in which no solid or liquid material is consumed—is very sparse. The only case I know of beyond three days is that of a young Korean woman who was trapped under rubble following an earthquake. I don’t have the details to hand at the moment but the incident occurred in 1994 or 1995, and I think it was somewhere between eight and eleven days that she remained trapped before being rescued, during which time she consumed neither food nor water. The reports I read at the time stated that the woman had suffered some kidney damage due to severe dehydration, though she was expected to make a reasonable recovery.

In November 1998 I attended a talk that Jasmuheen gave in London, in which she outlined her beliefs and personal experiences concerning the possibility of living without eating or drinking, and I’ve read her book Living on Light, so I know roughly the extent of what she is claiming. The ‘21-day process’ that she recommends seems to involve an initial 7-day dry fast, which to me sounds extremely dangerous, even for an experienced faster, and thus I was surprised to read Lange’s assertion that ‘thousands of...people [have] done this 21-day re-programming process successfully’ (Breathe 82, p. 13). What surprised me most, however, was Lange’s declaration that ‘It is now over 160 days...since I stopped having to eat and Yamini is over the 200 days mark by now’ (ibid.). I take this to mean that Gerd and his partner have, in actual fact, ingested nothing or virtually nothing during that time period, though there is an ambiguity in the statement that he has ‘stopped having to eat’ which allows for the possibility that he no longer feels the requirement to eat but continues to eat nevertheless. I noticed that Jasmuheen adopted similarly ambiguous terminology when discussing her own relationship with food during her talk, and its a use of language that I find highly suspicious. I wonder if Gerd Lange, or anyone else who has gone through the ‘21-day re-programming process’ (sic!) and come out the other side, could clarify the facts of the matter.

Mikel Burley

Teacher of Yoga, Indian philosophy and Sanskrit chanting for The Devon School of Yoga

Read Response by Gerd Lange

PS. You will have gathered that the above letter is intended for publication in Breathe, if you consider it worth including. If you do decide to publish it, may I urge you to take care with the spelling of the name ‘Georg Feuerstein’ (to whom I refer once). It is not ‘George’ as is written on page 10 of the current issue. I’m aware that the letter is rather long, but if you intend to edit it I would greatly appreciate your consulting me if possible. Many thanks.—M.