By Patty Townsend
Prana and the Vayus
Prana is life force. It is the creative and intelligent spark of life that animates everything. It flows through channels in our subtle body and infuses our body-mind system completely. When our prana is flowing evenly and undisturbed, we are healthy; prana is balanced and calm. It is ready to respond to the needs of body-mind. It can express as light and quick, undulating, rising, heavy or expansive, inward drawing, or dispersive. All of the inner actions that animate us and keep us alive are movements of prana.
Prana spreads through us via the intricate system of the nadis (channels that contain and direct flow). These channels of flow are sometimes felt or described as rivers of light or vitality. The nadis are the pathways themselves, the banks of the river, and the prana, like liquid light, flows along and within the banks.
The vayus are the winds, or the directional forces, that propel the prana. Together the vayus support and motivate the various movements of life force that motivate different bodily functions. In other words, the vayus coordinate their movements and balance the flow of prana.
When prana flows evenly and healthfully in our body-mind we feel well. When it is obstructed, erratic, overly stimulated, or dull we feel less well. When it flows in a balanced way, prana seeps through the entire body-mind and penetrates like an even mist of vitality. We feel settled and calm. The combination of yoga asana and pranayama does a great deal to balance the flow of prana. The balancing of prana is one of the main reasons that people generally feel better after attending a yoga class.
There are said to be forty-nine vayus, ten of which are of major importance. Of the ten, five are considered to be of primary importance. Each of the five vayus has its own qualities and movement. And although, each is centered in a particular region of the body, they are also all present in every cell. Prana is the umbrella term that includes all of its discretely defined directional flows – so; the prana vayus are all movements of prana. However, it is important to understand that one of the vayus is also called prana, and the prana vayu is not to be confused with the unified prana that includes all life force.
Since there are many different descriptions of the vayus, and some are confusingly dissimilar, it seems fair to say that each serious yoga practitioner should explore the fascinating world of pranic movement for him or herself. In the descriptions below I have included material that I have read (and is easy to find in yoga texts) with my personal experiences. My hope is that this may prompt you to explore for yourself.
The Five Major Prana Vayus
Prana vayu is situated primarily in the thoracic region, specifically in the heart. It governs respiration and is active in the lungs. Prana vayu absorbs subtle elements from the breath and provides an overall vitality and zest for life. It collects inward toward center, drawing life-force into us from the air we breathe. Then it spreads and rises upward in the thoracic region. It provides a lightness and buoyance in the heart and lungs.
It can be experienced as a radiance and glow emanating from the heart center. Its presence in balanced quantities helps us to be sensitive to the inner environment of body and mind, increasing our levels of joy by opening the doorway to experiencing our subtle senses. The upward and expansive feeling of the prana vayu is balanced by its opposite – apana vayu.
Apana vayu is the downward movement of life force that finds its home in the central structure of the pelvic floor – the perineal body. It’s gathering, condensing, and pulling downward balances the upward movement of prana vayu. Apana draws downward and into the perineal body. From the perineal body apana vayu pulls eliminative products to our root and out of the body. It is the “down and out of the body” balance to prana vayu’s “into the body and up”.
The sensation of apana vayu is particularly strong in the perineal body and it can be clearly felt there. As the home of this vayu, the perineal body has a strong gravitational pull. It magnetizes life force to it and tethers it at the center of the pelvic floor. Apana governs the eliminative functions of the pelvis. It draws the products of the eliminative organs down and out of the body. Urinating, defecating, menstruating, and childbirth are regulated by apana
Apana’s strongly condensing and drawing nature also pulls the vitality of the breath inward and downward into the body. The downward doming of the diaphragms that initiates inhalation is governed by apana. The natural coordination of the diaphragms doming downward with inhalation brings the experience of inhale all the way to the pelvic floor. Then the upward movement of prana and udhana vayus takes over and the diaphragms dome upward and breath flows up and out.
The tricky thing is that without mulabandha apana draws life force in general, down and out. When we practice mulabandha we contain the downward force, right at the perineal body, so that prana doesn’t drain unchecked out of our bodies at the root. With the skillful use of mulabandha, apana stabilizes our embodied existence into the depths of our core. It tethers awareness into our root and likewise, into every cell in the body. It maintains the prana in our bodies. Then apana can accomplish its useful functions of aiding the processes of elimination without excessively draining life force from the body.
Samana vayu is a centripetal force centered in the navel. It draws inward to our navel core and governs the churning and the breaking down of the nutrients from our food – our digestion and assimilation. Samana is concentrating, absorbing, and consolidating. It is midway between prana vayu in the chest and apana vayu at the pelvic floor.
This is another key area in the body. A balanced samana vayu is important to our health in that how we digest the nutrients from our diet has so much to do with overall well being. It relates to our navel center and therefore is infused with qualities of heat and mental activity as well as physical digestion. How we digest our thoughts and perceptions, and our willingness to accept life-as-it-is affects samana vayu. Resistance to life-as-it-is can create excessive heat, too much fire, irritation, and burning in the navel region. In contrast, a quality of collapse in relationship to life’s challenges may cause sluggish digestion. Natural and healthy digestion is the product of a balanced samana vayu. When samana is appropriately toned our physical digestion improves dramatically.
In Tantric practices we are taught to draw apana upward from the pelvis (mulabandha) and to draw prana downward. We are learning to unite prana and apana in the navel. This ignites agni. Agni, digestive and spiritual fire, relates to the health and vitality of samana. And agni is purifying, on both subtle and physical levels. A balanced samana vayu will help to maintain a balanced agni. If the wind of samana vayu blows too hard, the fire of agni rages excessively, and if it is too light the fire dies. The digestive and spiritual fires are linked in this way.
Healthy samana and agni affect the first awakening of the latent kundalini from her coil at the base of the spine. Agni dislodges kundalini and the kundalini shakti rises up and takes up new residence in the lower belly – the pit of the belly. This becomes the new resting place for kundalini and primes her for further movement up the spine. This combination of samana and agni, working harmoniously together, clear pathways to help us to feel more balanced and powerful in our life. A security and a sense of being at cause in ones own life develops. Action becomes clearer and one’s dharma reveals itself.
Vyana vayu is a centrifugal force, from core to periphery. It spreads and disperses life force and nutrients to the whole body. It is involved in assimilation and communication at the cellular level. Vyana governs cellular respiration and can be felt as an awareness and comfort in the cells themselves. It supports the absorption of nutrients into the blood, and the releasing of nutrients into the cells.
It emanates from the central body – the region of the spine – especially in the torso. It creates an even spreading of prana from center to periphery – all the way through the limbs. Vyana is especially recognizable in the limbs. Its flow supports the embryological spreading of prana from core to periphery that is the growth of the limb buds into fully developed arms and legs. I feel that vyana vayu governs the movement of cerebrospinal fluid away from the spine, along the nerve roots and facilitates its spread through the fascia. Vyana provides vitality at the periphery – good circulation to hands and feet, and sensitivity and awareness throughout the entire body.
Udhana vayu is the movement of radiant force that flows upward through core from the heart region and into the head. It is a thick tube of rising prana that penetrates through the central thorax, neck, head, and brain, feeding all of the structures and glands of the head and neck. Free and balance udhana provides nurturance and life force to all of these critical structures and their functions. This is a powerful force.
Udhana spreads prana into all aspects of the upper extremity. Its rising energy brings clarity and vitality to the brain. In flowing through the throat it governs our verbal expression. Udhana is tethered downward around the base of the heart and diaphragm. This provides stability and root to our expression. As with all the vayus, udhana can be agitated, deficient, weak, or strong. When udhana is strong and in balance, our words are rooted deep inside and their expression follows the entire arch of the cave of the mouth and the soft palate. The voice is refined and powerful. The words ring true. Silence calms udhana.
At the subtle level udhana governs the movement of awareness from the obvious to the more subtle. It takes us inward through the layers of kosas and into the deep levels of meditation. When kundalini rises into the brain it follows the path of udhana. Then kundalini washes the brain.
Embryologically, udhana supports the development of the pharyngeal arches, the growth of the head, neck, and brain. The shape of the flow of udhana is remarkably similar to the shape of the early developing pharyngeal arches. The growth of throat, mouth, tongue, soft palate, nasal cavities, pharynx, and brain all follow the directional flow of udhana. The shape of this flow, when recognized in our adult form, can provide important information and support to the structures of head and neck. Some of the most critical aspects of yoga practice have to do with cultivating a more subtle appreciation of these upper body functions and structures. Freeing and following the flow of udhana can be helpful for creating more ease and natural function in this region of the body: upper thorax, neck, and head.
The udhana vayu is an energetic river of flow that can take the stress off of all of the structures of the neck and head when we can find it and tune into it. Rather than supporting our cervical spine and head from the bones, we are invited to go to the level of the flow of the life force. Following this thick tube of current inside we relieve the stress on the more solid joints and structures. They can rest, while the natural life force that supported the development of the structures in the beginning, maintains their integrity now.
Prana and Apana in Relationship – Of the five major vayus, two – prana and apana – are considered to be primary. They help to define a vertical core and balance one another. Prana, residing primarily in the heart is expansive and spreads upward. The apana vayu draws downward and into itself very strongly. The density of the apana vayu tethers the prana vayu into our root. And equally the prana vayu tethers the apana upward. Prana needs its partner apana to tether it into the body, just as apana needs prana so that it doesn’t just disappear into darkness. This is an ongoing energetic dance of magnetism right through the center of core – from the middle of the pelvic floor and up into the heart. We are supported and contained by the play of these forces. This energetic play continues to be part of our definition of core.
The balance of the vayus, especially prana and apana, is a key for maintaining comfort, vitality, and effectiveness in life. The prana vayus are constantly moving in harmony with prana itself to create and recreate our structure. They are underlying templates of movement and vitality that can be felt consciously and clearly if we practice intelligently, inquire, have enough interest, and are moderately patient.