The science and philosophy of yoga offers us many fascinating models with which can we can view the human organism. In past posts I’ve written about the koshas (sheaths, or layers of being) and the chakra system (energy vortexes) that comprise both the physical and subtle bodies. Today I’ll share about the 5 prana vayus, or “winds” that are responsible for the motion of prana, or life energy.
Vayu means “wind, air or unseen forces.” Vayu is also the wind-god, who in the Vedic system is the Master of Life, and the inspirer of breath and the dynamic energy of prana.
Prana is continually moving through us and the universe in all directions. Yoga practice allows us to tune into and harness this flow so that we can increase our vitality and power. The prana vayus, also simply referred to as the vayus, are 5 vital currents:
Apana Vayu is the downward flow of energy, associated with elimination, the release of bodily fluids, and the exhale of the breath. In the world, we see Apana manifest through the force of gravity, and through the roots of plants. It is associated with the element of earth.
Prana Vayu* is the upward flow of energy, associated with the inhale, the receptive sense organs, and the element of air. We see prana vayu manifest in photosynthesis, as leaves reach up to draw in the light of the sun.
Samana Vayu is the inward flow of energy, which moves in an inward-turning spiral. It is associated with the digestion and assimilation of nutrients, and the element of fire. Anything that spins toward a center point is a manifestation of samana, also known as centripetal force. The practice of meditation, in which we turn inward toward our center, is one way in which we engage in the flow of samana vayu.
Udana Vayu is outward movement, associated with speech, sound, space/ether, and the limbs of the body. Udana moves in an outward turning spiral, spinning away from center; it is centrifugal force. When our vital energy manifests through our full self-expression, udana vayu is present.
Vyana Vayu is the energy of expansion, moving simultaneously in all directions. It is all-encompassing. It is the interwoven matrix of life, the web of the connection, what is known in Eastern mythology as “Indra’s net.” The energy of vyana pervades the entire body and is the bridge that leads from the physical to the ethereal realms. It is connected to the element of water.
These five forces are not discrete or firmly delineated; they all interweave and interrelate. Naming them and describing them as separate phenomena simply help us to understand their essence and give us a framework through which we can view the unfolding of all life.
On the mat, we can bring our attention to these five winds of life energy as we move through our asana flow. We can connect to apana vayu as we stabilize and ground through the feet or the sitting bones, and harness the force of gravity to keep us strongly rooted and connected to the earth. Prana vayu helps us brighten the pose and create upward lift, length, and extension. Together, apana and prana are two opposing (yet complimentary) forces that make the pose come together. First we stabilize, then we expand.
For example, in warrior 1, we begin by grounding through the 3 points of the feet, engaging strong thighs and drawing the tailbone downward as the front knee bends. We keep engaging this downward-flowing energy while at the same time lengthening upward through the spine, pressing the crown of the head toward the sky. The upward lift of the arms invites prana to flow out through the fingertips. The simultaneous flow of apana and prana creates the pose and makes it come alive.
Samana in postures invites us to wiggle and move, with sense of inward exploration. Kripalu yoga emphasizes inquiry as we deepen into a pose, turning inward with our awareness.
Once we are stable and aligned in our joints, muscles and bones, we can play with udana, extending outward both physically and energetically. Udana invites us to come into full expression of the pose, reaching out through limbs and crown, and lengthening the spine. We can also embody the pose as self-expression, sending our inner radiance out from our center.
When we rest in savasana, we allow space for the life force we’ve generated through asana practice to permeate the whole body, though every cell, organ, muscle and bone. It flows through us in all directions. As we let ourselves dissolve into emptiness, we might be able to glimpse the expansive energy of vyana. We drop into boundarylessness, and at the same time, awareness of connection with All That Is.
May the awareness of these vital currents, or winds of energy, enhance and enrich your practice and your life.
*note: the word prana refers to the life force in general, and in the context of the 5 winds, also means upward flow of energy.