DeeperThe Prana Vayus
The Meaning of Prana and Prana Vayu
Prana, as we pointed out from the outset of this work, is the Sanskrit
word for the
life force. The root pra means “first” and na means the “smallest (or
most basic) unit
of energy” – so Prana is the first or fundamental unit of energy.
functions by virtue of Prana; all activity and change – mental and
emotional as well
as physical – is a manifestation of the workings of Prana. Prana is
the radiance of
life itself. Within us, prana is the moving force behind sensation and
fire of the metabolism, the carrier of thought, and the force of will.
impurities from the body, maintains the health of the body, and its
is lightness and joy.
A smooth and unobstructed flow of prana is needed if we are to concentrate;
moreover, prana restrains the mind from taking interest in undesirable
unhealthy pursuits. If one’s prana is obstructed from flowing to any
part of the body
– whether physically (e.g. from an injury), or because of mental
or emotions – the health of that area of the body deteriorates, and
can even lose its
power of action. We often have an intuitive sense of where the prana
is ‘stuck’ or
diminished when looking at the appearance of someone with a particular health
problem, even though the cause of the diminishment is not always as obvious.
Prana is lost to a certain extent with each exhalation; just as we take Prana in
through the breath, we also breathe out what we are not able to
assimilate or retain.
The yogic practice of pranayama is designed to minimize the loss of
exhalation, so that prana can be increased in the body. Prana is also
excessive exercise, diminished in times of great emotion, and is lost
speech, the emission of semen, the process of childbirth, and the elimination of
waste from the body.
Notice that the experience of spending our prana can be exhilarating
in the moment;
yet afterward we feel exhausted and depleted, and take some time to
disciplines of moderation and self-control are meant to minimize the
prana as well as to assimilate and store prana. A yogi’s experiences
are all the more
intense and enjoyable because he does not allow the experience to rob him of his
prana; instead he spends his prana wisely, remaining alert and joyful.
As the Prana operates within the body to maintain life, it performs
and is named according to the function that it performs. In each case
function is called a ‘vayu,’ which is sometimes translated as ‘wind.’
The root ‘va’
means “that which flows” – and so a vayu is a vehicle for activities
within the body, or a ‘force’ that moves in a specific way and in a
specific area of
the body that it governs. The practices of yoga – both asana and pranayama – are
meant to optimize the functioning of these vayus as well as bring them under our
control, so that their energies can be used to uplift oneself.
There are 49 prana vayus or types of vayu in the body; ten of these are directly
responsible for mental and physical activities. Of these ten, five are
of interest to
the yogi for progressing in his practice; the others govern
functions (for example, belching and blinking, which are of lesser
interest in yogic
discipline, though they certainly have their role in the mundane affairs of the
Each of these five principle vayus govern specific areas of the body, and can be
thought of as elemental forces in the body that are not just physical,
emotional qualities and mental powers that are fundamental to a
and sense of self. The practice of yoga, by working with the body and breath as
well as the mind, empowers us on every level by increasing the Prana in the form
of these vayus.
1. Prana Vayu – while ‘Prana’ is the general name of the life force, the ‘prana
vayu’ is one of its specific functions. The prana vayu governs the region
from the throat to the bottom of the heart, corresponding to the region
in which we practice Jalandhara bandha. The ‘seat’ of the prana vayu is
the heart, and the prana vayu ensures that the heart goes on beating. It is
associated with the element of air, and has an upward motion associated
with the inhalation. When you breathe in, you feel the ‘lift’ of the breath,
which is the energy of the prana vayu in the upper body. Its movement is
upward in the way the glass is filled with liquid – from the bottom to the
top. The experience is of being filled with energy, which is distinct from
the physical experience of the breath as a flow of air coming in through the
nose or mouth and down to the lungs.
The prana vayu governs assimilation or taking into oneself – as in the
process of inhalation, of swallowing, assimilation through digestion, as well
as the processes of taking in sensory impressions and mentally assimilating
information and experience. It works to maintain the proper temperature
of the body relative to one’s environment, and sustains one’s vital organs,
particularly the heart.
Though its seat is in the heart, the functioning of the prana vayu can be
experienced in different parts of the body. It gathers at the navel and from
there is distributed throughout the body; yet it can also be experienced
strongly as it moves within the head in practices of pranayama and
meditation. An effective way to focus on the prana vayu is to focus on the
sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose during breathing practices.
Another focus is at the navel. By the same token, the strength of the prana
vayu can be experienced throughout the body, right down to the toes.
The prana vayu is the energy of the Anahata chakra, the ‘heart’ chakra, which
expresses that energy, summarized in the familiar phrase, ‘open-hearted.’
2. Apana Vayu – while the prana vayu is the moving force behind the
inhalation, the apana vayu is the moving force behind the exhalation. The
apana vayu is the aspect of the prana that governs the ability to eject or
eliminate what is not needed to the system. Just as with the breath we exhale
what is not needed after assimilating the inbreath, the apana vayu is the force
behind the elimination of waste in general, working in the kidneys, colon,
rectum, bladder and genitals. It is also the moving force in the process of
reproduction – which essentially moves new life ‘out’ into the world – from
insemination to childbirth.
The healthy functioning of the apana vayu is as vital as that of the prana vayu.
If waste is not eliminated from the body, there is no room for assimilation
of fresh energy, and toxins build up. This slows the body down – and slows
us down on the mental level as well. Without the healthy functioning of
apana vayu, one lacks motivation and determination; one feels lazy, dull
and even confused, indecisive and befuddled.
In a subtle but vital sense, the apana vayu has much to do with our power
of decisiveness and self-determination, both of which turn upon our power
of choice. Choice demands not only the affirmation of one possible good,
but also the elimination or exclusion of other competing goods – choosing
one good over another. Clarity in defining oneself demands decisiveness in
eliminating what doesn’t work for us, what is not needed, or what conflicts
with our highest goals. It’s not surprising that the apana vayu is associated
with the element of earth, and is the energy of the Muladhara Chakra, which
is concerned with having a strong, sure and reliable foundation, especially
in fundamental matters of survival.
The seat of the apana vayu is in the core of the pelvis, and it
governs the lower
body, from the navel down through the legs, corresponding to the area in
which we practice Mulabandha. It’s worth noting how our language reflects
this awareness; a person whose decisiveness is rooted in real possibilities
and clear intentions is said to be very ‘grounded’, or to have his ‘feet on the
ground.’ The clearest expression of decisiveness and self-assertion, in fact,
is to ‘put your foot down.’ This kind of language expresses the power of the
The functioning of the apana vayu is enhanced by the rooting or grounding
action of Mulabandha in seated postures for pranayama; this is one reason
why seated pranayama can be more powerful than a reclining practice.
Moreover, emphasis on the exhalation – expression of the apana vayu
– works to enhance grounding, extension and clarity or strength of purpose
in one’s practice. Clarity begins with a good exhalation, making room for
fresh energy and focus.
3. Samana Vayu – this is the power of the metabolism or ‘digestive fire,’ which
of the solar plexus – and its seat is said to be in the navel. It corresponds to
the area in which we practice Uddiyana bandha. While the prana and apana
vayus have to do with assimilation – or taking-in – and self-determination
– or grounding – through choice, the Samana Vayu is concerned specifically
with the power of discrimination.
In its work with food and digestion, this is the force that separates nutrients
from toxins: when it is not functioning well, one may retain toxins, leading
to shortness of breath and gastric disorders. In the case of the mind, the
Apana Vayu is the power by which to separate out or discern good from bad,
which allows us to assimilate information for the sake of making choices.
When there is a disorder, one can be delusional or of unsound mind. For
this reason, in the yoga tradition the power of digestion is very closely
linked to the power of the mind – particularly regarding discrimination
Samana vayu is associated with the element of fire. It is associated with the
Manipura chakra, and when imbalanced, its fiery energy can be used to assert
one’s will or to dominate, especially through anger. In the yoga tradition,
anger is the direct result of a combination of desire, delusion and lack of
discrimination. When the energies and functioning of the vayus are brought
into balance to support clarity of mind, the qualities of Samana Vayu take
on the humble yet expansive self-awareness expressed by the soft opening to
the breath at the back body with Uddiyana bandha. The actions of Uddiyana
bandha support in particular both efficient diaphragmatic breath and the
healthy functioning of the organs of digestion.
4. Udana Vayu – while apana vayu is concerned with elimination or outwardmoving
energy in general, udana vayu is the specific force that expels air
with the exhalation in a way that is particularly concerned with speech and
the production of sound.
‘Udana’ is ‘that which carries upward.’ It rules the region of the throat and
head, and is seated specifically in the throat. Its function is
expressive; it is
the energetic flow that moves upward and out. When udana is imbalanced,
speech is disjointed and one cannot speak or articulate ideas properly.
Imbalances can also cause shortness of breath and other respiratory problems
particularly associated with the throat, which can have their root in obstacles
to self-expression, or emotional repression. Breaking or cracking in the
voice, as well as inability to express musical pitch with the voice result from
irregularities in the udana vayu.
The area ruled by udana vayu is the head and throate; its energy is particularly
stimulated by Jalandhara Bandha. Udana vayu is related to the element
Udana vayu also governs vomiting, and imbalances in udana can produce
nausea or the
desire to vomit. Perhaps this association with udana explains the
association in the mythology by
which the deities produce their creation by a process that is both a
speaking-forth and a vomiting
of ether or space, and is activated during creative vocalization. Udana is
focused at the fifth or throat chakra – the Vishuddha chakra, and this
upward moving energy continues through the upper chakra, the Ajna chakra,
to the Sahasrara, and is purified during this upward journey. The feeling
of movements of energy in the head during pranayama and meditation are
manifestations of the rarified movements of udana vayu. It is this udana
which, when purified through yogic practice, brings the blissful experience
5. Vyana Vayu – this vayu pervades the whole body, and is a coordinating,
connecting force. It has no specific seat, but rather coordinates all the powers
such as sensory awareness, and runs through the whole network of the 72,000
nadis or passageways of prana in the body, connecting the functions of the
nerves, veins, muscles and joints. Its function is cohesive and is associated
with the element of water.
Vyana vayu is fundamental to making one feel and function as an integrated
whole. Though it governs and coordinates all of the senses as well as the
functioning of all muscles, both voluntary and involuntary, it is felt
in the skin. Goosebumps and perspiration, and all of the various actions and
reactions of the skin to the environment are manifestations of Vyana vayu. It
functions at the “surface” or outer boundary of your energy body, much like
surface tension on a drop of water, and is associated with a sense of boundaries
through which we define ourselves and interact with our world.
Within oneself, Vyana vayu governs our internal sense of coordination
and balance. When imbalanced, one feels uncoordinated and clumsy;
coordination between mind and body suffers, and one’s own thoughts can
be disjointed, fluctuating and rambling. Dysfunctions in Vyana vayu can
also lessen our power of sensation.
Though Vyana vayu itself has no particular locus or seat, it is associated
with the energy of the Svadisthana Chakra, located at the root of the
genitals. In general, Vyana vayu is strengthened by the practice of hatha yoga
asanas, through the interplay of strength and flexibility that builds a healthy
sense of self. More specifically, because of its association with the energy
and concerns of the Svadisthana Chakra, the subtler energies involved are
enhanced through Mulabandha.
The energy of the Svadisthana Chakra concerns your sense of self, and
sense of boundaries between yourself and others as you express yourself
creatively in relationships. A healthy sense of boundaries is fundamental to
forming relationships, and work with this chakra concerns the formation of
boundaries and sense of self, just as the surface tension on a drop of water
– the ruling element of this chakra and of Vyana vayu – defines its shape.
Water is the basis of cellular life, but can only function to support life by
the mechanism of cellular walls; the basis of interaction, even on a cellular
level, is strong but permeable boundaries, which define individual cells. The
same is true at other, subtler levels. Water is the element or medium of the
emotions, which pass between and suffuse individuals like a subtle liquid
permeating the walls of self. Emotionally as well as physically, one can be
too open or too closed. Any organic system of relationships is healthy only
when the walls are strong enough to allow discernment and choice, where
choice and discrimination is a process of positive affirmation.
Weakness in the energy of this chakra – which can be due to disorders in
Vyana vayu – leads to a weak sense of self, low self-esteem, problems in
forming relationships, and even problems with the immune system, all of
which concern interaction and exchange with our world through the medium
of a strong and healthy set of boundaries – both physical and emotional.
A lack of boundaries – as well as overly rigid boundaries – depletes and
diminishes life. Thus these are the concerns of how we express ourselves
and relate to others at the level of the Svadisthana Chakra, which is strongly
influenced by the flow of Vyana Vayu.
The Presence and Influence of the Vayus in the Breath
In a single hour we breathe, on the average, 900 breaths. Each
to the text the Shiva Swarodaya, predominates periodically in the body
for a specific
period of time, activating the concerns of the corresponding chakra and thus
influencing the flux of our thoughts and moods.2
. For 20 minutes (300 breaths) the Earth element dominates, activating the
concerns of the Muladhara Chakra.
2. For 6 minutes (240 breaths) the Water element dominates, activating the
concerns of the Svadisthana Chakra.
3. For 2 minutes ( 80 breaths) the Fire element dominates, activating the
concerns of the Manipura Chakra.
4. For 8 minutes ( 20 breaths) the Air element dominates, activating the
concerns of the Anahata Chakra.
5. For 4 minutes (60 breaths) the Akasha element – ‘ether’ or ‘space’
– dominates, activating the concerns of the Vishuddha Chakra.
2 This calculation of the duration of elements in a one-hour cycle of
breath is presented in the
Shiva Svarodaya and Jnana Svarodaya. Harish Johari points out that
experiments by neurobiologists
suggest that the duration in the United States is between two and
three hours. Neurophysiologists
discovered in their research on circadian rhythms a 2-hour cycle of
‘nares’ in adults, which may be
due to differences of climate between the US and India, as well as
differences in historical periods
The last ten breaths of the sixty breaths of Akasha are transitional
the other nostril takes over, during which the breath is active in the
central channel, drawing one’s attention inward. This lasts a bit
longer at sunrise and
sunset, the times of transition or ‘sandhi’ in the outer environment,
and so these are
especially good times for meditation and spiritual practice, because
is naturally and strongly drawn inward when the breath moves in the Sushumna.
When the breath moves in the Sushumna, none of the five elements exert their
influence, and our physical and mental desires are momentarily suspended in this
transitional period of inner silence.
We experience mental fluctuations when either of the two nostrils are operative
– more so when the right nostril predominates. Once we understand how the energy
of the nostril is coupled with the influence of the elements at any
we have something of an insight into the complexity and variety of our shifting
moods and interests, and the profound influence of our physical
existence over our
inner mental world. Yet with that understanding, we also begin to appreciate the
importance and power of our awareness of these influences as manifested in the
breath, our ability to synchronize our breath to the task at hand, and
of meditation and prolonging the period of Sushumna breath flow to
again and again to our center and to a state of balance.
One way of becoming aware of the predominance of a particular element is to
watch the flow of the breath through the nostrils. When the breath is
. Center of the nostril – Earth element
2. Lower part of the nostril – Water element
3. Top of the nostril – Fire element
4. Obliquely or through the side of the nostril – Air element
5. Rotating in the nostril – Akasha or Ether element
The breath also has varying strength – the exhalation extends out
further – according
to the predominant element, indicating how outgoing our energy is at that
As this discussion of the vayus points out, the energies of the
various pranas of
the body express themselves in and through the energy of the chakras.
A chakra is
a plexus of pranic energy in the body that expresses our individual
and energy in particular ways distinctive of our individuality. We are
expressions such as a ‘gut feeling,’ an ‘open heart,’ ‘fire in the
belly’ and so on, all of
which are colloquial expressions of the energy of the chakras.
Our expressions also reflect our recognition that these energies can
be ‘open’ – expansive,
expressive, inclusive – or ‘closed’ – tight, narrow, self-absorbed. Our maturity
and evolution as individuals and as spiritual beings depends upon how much these
energies are ‘opened’ as we progress through life, bringing us into
higher levels of
harmony with the generous, inclusive and expansive energy of the universe, the
Each chakra has its own symbol, representative of its energy; it is
also directly related
to the energy of a specific element and prana of the body. Moreover, through
practice we can see how the principles of Anusara Yoga applied in
hatha yoga poses
relate directly to working with the energy and ‘issues’ of each
chakra, bringing us
into emotional as well as physical harmony with the universe.
Awareness of the Breath