If you have ever been to any of our classes either in Berlin or soon this upcoming week in Bali, you will for sure have heard us talk now and again of the importance of breath and the very 'infamous Vayus.' Often not a part of a yoga teacher’s most basic training, the vayus are, however, incredibly important. Learning to work with them both through pranayama and asana can make all the difference to your practice –including, as well, your meditation.
In class, we generally provide a very short contextual explanation of what the vayus are, what are they supposed to do in general, and how we will be using a particular type of vayu during the class; but time constraints make these explanations very basic and short. Today’s entry will remedy this by diving a bit deeper into the topic. So, let’s go with the winds!
Prana, you good for... EVERYTHING!
We are living creatures, right? As such, every single activity we pursue while either asleep or awake depends on one simple fact: our breath. Of all the processes essential to our survival on this planet –which include things such as nutrition and excretion too– none is of such vital importance as breathing. Able to survive for up to three weeks without eating and a maximum of one week without water, try going without breathing for longer than a minute. Not fun. But have you ever considered where does our drive to breathe come from?
Of course, there is the physical side to the entire process, involving things such as your lungs, your diaphragm, your nasal cavities, the cells and blood vessels on your body. This part we all know well. Simple googling renders a variety of entries on the mechanics of breath –often disingenuously labelled as ‘Why We Breathe.’ But these don’t normally actually explain the ‘why.’ Indeed, what is the impulse dictating to our lungs to expand and contract? What force triggers the constant rhythmic movement of the heart? What is behind all those purely physical processes truly motivating breath to even be a thing?
It ain’t easy to answer these questions, and of course the available answers may not satisfy the pragmatic curiosity of most ears. But yogis have since millennia postulated a theory of breath that clearly estates where it all begins to take place. And, sorry to say, it’s NOT in the physical body!
The basic laws of a yogi’s universe
For yogis, our bodies are not one but many. There are, in fact, quite a few postmodern feminists out there that have argued the exact same thing, albeit with a slightly different take! Regardless of the number of bodies we allegedly may or may not have, the entire universe, so-to-speak, responds to the basic laws of magnetism, or attraction/repulsion.
Because of these magnetic forces and their interplay, electrical impulses surface. We are not physicists here, but a simplified understanding of electricity and magnetism suffices to get the gist of how this must work. These impulses, present in any of our three main bodies according to yoga –the causal body, the astral body, and the physical body– are, in fact, the very thing motivating our breath. Because, it is in the astral plane, the second of these three bodies –which are nothing but increasingly subtler aspects or onion-like layers of our soul, our Atman, heart, or what-have-you– that the impulse for breathing is said to begin.
Think of a small scale Big Bang taking place at the heart of your soul, your innermost Self. The expansive waves of energy which are initially truly ethereal, solidify more and more as the initial explosive vibration expands and calms down. The end-stream of this massive detonation – its most materialist or solid part– would constitute our physical body. And everything before it, energy in other estates of manifestation, would encompass the other two bodies according to traditional yogic philosophy.
This is where Prana or life-force comes into the scene. Because, in its most essential aspect, Prana –a.k.a., the thing animating us and going by different names in different traditions– is already this magnetic impulse of attraction/repulsion dictating how matter and energy move in this universe –and, if we are more precise, beyond this universe too. And so, the laws of attraction (Pran) and repulsion (Apana) regulating the movement of energy trigger the processes of inhalation (attraction of oxygen) and exhalation (repulsion of dioxide), eating (attraction of food energy) and elimination (expulsion of waste), and so on and so forth.
The 5 movements of Prana
The above is a slightly simplified take on a more complex process rendered in full by traditional yogic texts, but we hope it carries the gist of the message. Now, at least in our universe, Prana exists in space. That means, the movement of our life-force can take on different directions. These different directions are what yogis call the Vayus (from the Sanskrit for ‘winds’), and they operate both at the level of the physical body and the immaterial mind. They are 5, and are those of Pran, Apana, Udana, Samana, and Vyana:
➜ Pran Vayu, or inward-moving air, would be the type of energy moving inwards. Our inner wind. It would thus be the responsible vayu for attracting energy into our system, allowing for the actual movement and dynamism of our entire being. It is the wind most directly related to the head and the three upper chakras (those of vishuddha, ajna, and sahasrara, or the place where eyes, nose, ears, and mouth reside) and to the movement of their input into our navel chakra (where we digest this input, allowing our inner fire to process it all).
In essence, Pran regulates our absorption of stimuli and information at all levels, encompassing the absorption of oxygen but going also far beyond this. In practice, Pran Vayu is located in the area of the chest, affecting the lungs and the heart, and can be directly mobilized through a variety of Pranayama breathing techniques on their own or in combination with asana. It regulates inhalation.
⬇ Apana Vayu, or outward-moving air, is the type of energy moving away. It would thus be the responsible vayu for repelling energies from our system, allowing for the release of material and energetic waste from our entire being to the outer world. It is the wind most directly related to the lower abdomen and the two lower chakras (those of swadhisthana and muladhara, where the excretory and reproductive systems reside).
Apana regulates the elimination of energy at all levels, encompassing the elimination of dioxide from our lungs, the fetus during childbirth, sexual fluids, as well as emotional and sensory impressions. In practice, Apana Vayu is located in the area of the pelvic region and affects the kidneys, bladder, and bowels, and can also be acted upon through Pranayama and asana. It regulates exhalation.
⬆ Udana Vayu, or upward-moving air, is the type of energy in ascent. It lifts energy up through our bodies allowing for the evolution and transformation of all types of processes within and beyond our being. It is the wind most directly related to the throat and neck, and thus, to the chakra of Vissudhi, which relates to self-expression and speech.
Udana, then, regulates expression at all levels, from the expression of basic information through sound (or the mouth), to the expression of emotions, feelings, enthusiasm, or our very drive by any other means. And like the other vayus, it can also be directly affected by the combination of pranayama and specific yoga poses.
⟲ Samana Vayu, or balancing/equalizing air, is the wind moving from the periphery of our being and into our center (navel). It is thus responsible for the digestion of input at all levels, involving the intestinal tract, our lungs, and even our mind.
Located in the manipura chakra or navel area –our literal and metaphorical center– it is the vayu in charge of balancing the energies of all the others to make assimilation possible. Most directly located in the abdomen, this vayu permits the one-pointedness of mind necessary for fruitful meditation.
⟳ Vyana Vayu, or outward-moving air, is the vayu moving from our center (navel) to the periphery, the wind most directly connected to the circulation of everything, including food, air, and water, but also emotions and thoughts.
In a way, Vyana integrates or assists all other vayus, being an inherent part of them all. Expansive and circulatory in nature, it emanates most directly from the area of our heart and lungs, rules over the nadis, and is responsible both for our expansion and for the integration of all other input into our world.
These 'wonderwinds' –at once material and ethereal, of this world yet of another one too– can be localized in our bodies to some degree but go well beyond our pragmatic/matter-based way of understanding the body and its processes. In class, our goal is to utilize each vayu’s main force, since yoga poses and breathing patterns can shape Prana to enable expansion, growth, circulation, assimilation, or release to happen, depending on the overall theme or purpose of a program. Which explains why one can often come to class feeling depleted and leave feeling replenished and full; or come to class feeling hyper and leave feeling grounded and at peace with the world.
So next time you are in a yoga class, pay attention to the words of your teacher at the beginning, the type of movements you are performing as well as the breathing pattern, and how you feel during and after practice. If your teacher nows his 'game' well, his sequence will mobilize your vayus in such a way as to make you centered when you're feeling confused, lighter when you're feeling heavy, as well as more conscious and awake. May the winds be with you!