Most of the modern-day practitioners of yoga are introduced to this ancient art through the lure of physical exercise. Even the Romans praise physical exercise as one of the noble pursuits of humankind. Immediately after battle, the stinky sweat and grime are scraped off a gladiator’s body with olive oil (ancient Romans did not use soap to wash) and repackaged as very expensive face cream that’s highly desirable to the wealthiest of Roman ladies.
There might be something to this attraction to human sweat. Classic yoga texts say that sweating is sign that “prana,” or the life force, is moving. The manuscripts also describe death as when prana leaves the body. Therefore, the management and manipulation of prana is of utmost importance in order to sustain life.
Imagine that prana is water, wild and relentlessly moving through two major rivers in the human body:
The first river is called “ida.” It is the cool river of moonlight. The origin of this feminine, blue stream is in the left nostril. When it predominates, one is negative and cold. The second river is called “pingala,” the heated river of bright sunshine. The origin of this masculine, red channel is the right nostril. When pingala dominates, one is hyperactive and easily irritated.
One of the basic aims of yoga is to coax ida and pingala to come into balance so that the two opposite rivers dump into the great, calm ocean called “sushumna.” Sushumna is the center position, shape or condition between two polar extremes, both internal and external. The ancient sages witness such events when the day melts into the night at sunset and when dawn erases the darkness into the light. They call such moments “sandhya.” Geographically sushumna is represented by the equator (though interestingly not the prime meridian).
Prana, then, is in a constant state of movement in the body. Sometimes it is directed through the external senses such as sight, taste, sounds and sometimes it is directed toward the internal organs. Yoga practice moderates these extreme fluctuations between ida and pingala. The cultivation of an awareness of such extremes is a virtue celebrated not only by yoga but many eastern philosophies as well. It means learning to train the mind so that it is neither extrovert nor introvert, no matter if you are resting, working, eating or exercising.
The more you train the mind to be steady, the more you are prepared for transformative events such as death. When prana leaves the body, it should be a conscious experience. You should have the strength to witness your own death as calmly as any other events in life. Only then can the experience of death be altered; only then can one be truly beyond death.