You have already experienced what I’ve outlined in this article. You know what it feels like to root down into the ground, or to lift up toward the sky. You know how it feels to get really big and expansive, and how it feels to get really small and contracted. Your body knows what it feels like to receive and take in, and what it feels like to release and let go.
My intention here is to offer some guidance on ways to attune to that which is already occurring within you. When we build awareness of how our bodies and minds move, we have a greater capacity to utilize our yoga tools therapeutically. With a heightened sensitivity of these movements and actions, we’re able to refine our practices to best support our needs, and our needs as they change.
I’ve mentioned movement a couple of times so far. Through the lens of Yoga and Ayurveda, the element Air is responsible for all movement: the movement of our bodies, our minds, and all of the movement in the world we live in. For an introduction to the element Air, read this.
There are five basic manifestations or subtypes of Air, (called vayu in Sankskrit), and each of the subtypes has:
- A seat in the body (though, the actions are global)
- A direction it flows
- Actions it’s responsible for
THE FIVE VAYUS
- Prana vayu – seated in the head – inward moving air – responsible for reception
- Samana vayu – seated at the navel center – balancing air that moves from the periphery to the center – responsible for digestion
- Vyana vayu – seated in the chest – outward moving air that travels from the center to the periphery – responsible for circulation
- Apana vayu – seated in the low abdomen – downward and outward moving air – responsible for elimination
- Udana vayu – seated in the throat – upward moving air – responsible for expression and growth
Let’s take a moment to clarify the word prana. Prana first and foremost is our life force, chi, our vitality. Without Prana, we could not exist. We’ll refer to life force as Prana with a big/uppercase “P”, or Maha Prana – the Great Prana. The vayu of the same name, prana vayu, is the term used to describe the manifestation of Air the moves inward and allows for reception. For clarity, we’ll refer to this vayu as prana with a little/lowercase “p”.
Prana vayu governs reception of air, food, water, sensory impressions and experiences. It’s considered the most fundamental quality of Air, because without it we wouldn’t be able to absorb Prana from the air we breathe, the food we eat, and from all the other sources of Prana.
When we’re feeling drained, depleted or exhausted, prana vayu allows for us to fill our cups, recharge, build strength and vitality.
PRACTICE WITH PRANA VAYU
- Rest into the experience of “receiving” in your practice: receive your breath, receive the posture, receive the support of the props and ground, etc.
- Inhale / Puraka: Focus on the feeling of breath naturally flowing into your body, highlighting the inward, receptive action of prana vayu
- Postures, Breath and Mindfulness that encourage the flow of Prana to the head
Samana vayu translates to “balancing air” and is responsible for digestion on all levels: digestion of food, our experiences and emotions. Samana allows us to extract Prana and other nutrients from everything that we take in.
In those moments where we find ourselves too full… of food, media or news, samana processes what we’ve received, so we can absorb the useful bits, all the while providing a sense of centeredness and balance.
PRACTICE WITH SAMANA VAYU
- Center into the experience of “digesting”
- Internal Retention / Antara Kumbhaka: In the first half of your internal retention, samana extracts Prana and other nutrients from the Air you receive (*see note below on retention guidelines)
- Postures, Breath and Mindfulness that direct Prana to the navel center
Vyana vayu is responsible for all circulation: circulation of blood, oxygen, nutrients, and Prana, as well as circulation of thoughts, ideas and emotions. An expansive force, vyana governs the movement of Prana through the energy channels / nadis, the circulatory and nervous systems.
Connect with vyana to when circulation feels hindered – maybe that’s cold hands and feet, numbness, stuck movement patterns or writer’s block. Vyana is also said to integrate and coordinate the actions of the other four vayus.
PRACTICE WITH VYANA VAYU
- Expand into the experience of “circulating”
- Internal Retention / Antara Kumbhaka: In the second half of your internal retention, vyana vayu spreads Prana and nutrients throughout your body and mind
- Postures, Breath and Mindfulness that promote Prana flow from the heart center to the periphery of the body
Apana vayu is all about release – physical, mental, and emotional release. Apana eliminates anything that obstructs good health. It’s the basis for our immune function, determining what’s useful and what’s not, what’s self and what’s not.
Whether we need to let go of a limiting belief, pent-up frustration, anxiety or tension, we can turn to apana for support.
PRACTICE WITH APANA VAYU
- Root into the experience of “eliminating”
- Exhale / Recheka: As you breathe out, in the first half of your exhale apana vayu allows for the release of wastes and everything that you don’t need to integrate
- Postures, Breath and Mindfulness that guide Prana down
Udana vayu is seated in the throat center, influencing growth, speech and other refined ways of communicating.
When udana is balanced and strong, we stand tall and hold our head up high. We feel joyous, enthusiastic, alert, articulate, and strong-willed. When udana is out of balance, we may feel tendencies toward negativity, inappropriate or excessive speech— or we may feel we can’t express ourselves at all.
PRACTICE WITH UDANA VAYU
- Ride the experience of “expressing”
- Exhale / Recheka: In the second half of your exhale, udana utilizes the positive energy from receiving, digesting and circulating prana and nutrients, and eliminating wastes for expression
- Postures, Breath and Mindfulness that usher Prana upward
I encourage you to lean into these vayus, their movements and actions, and to continue to grow your awareness of them. You may find that one vayu speaks to you and your needs at a certain point in your day, month or year.
Our bodies, minds and hearts are expressing their needs all of the time… the practice is to continue waking up to that which is right in front of us.
In seva and in connection,
Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-healing and self-realization by David Frawley
* Holding your Breath / Retention Guidelines: There are certain times that we don’t want to hold the breath in, as this practice increases pressure in the body cavities. Refrain from this breathing practice if any of the following apply: high blood pressure, glaucoma, hernia, pregnancy, diastasis recti, prolapse, or any other pressure sensitive circumstance.