In the yoga tradition, life force, or prana, is often categorized into different vayus. Vayu means “wind” or “air,” with each prana vayu described as a different way that prana moves through the body. The tradition holds that when these vayus are functioning optimally, they help the mind improve its function and allows us to realize our greatest potential.
Let's look at the five main vayus and how they can help us in both our practice and our daily lives.
This vayu rules downward and outward movement in our body (i.e., all elimination). Nearly everything going into our body must go out. This applies to food, drink, and breath. This vayu is also associated with the female menstrual cycle, the act of giving birth, and male ejaculation. When a woman’s cycle is on schedule and she is able to conceive and give birth, it is said to be a sign that apana vayu is healthy. Being able to eliminate regularly is considered another sign. If there is too much elimination of any type, then apana vayu is considered weak (due to its inability to control the outward movement).
Apana vayu applies to the mind’s ability to let go of difficult thoughts and memories, rather than hold on to them. When this is healthy, one is said to be able to experience a difficulty, process it, and then release it while maintaining hope and positivity. But when this vayu is weak, the mind may be busy with constant worries.
A weak or blocked apana can create a feeling of being ungrounded and unsupported. By directing prana downward, to the base of the spine (breathing as though we could inhale down to the base of the spine), and then out through the legs and feet (exhaling as though we could exhale down through our legs and out through our feet), we open to and connect with the earth, inviting healing and a sense of being grounded. (Note: Although we understand that oxygen may not move past the lining of the lungs, except via the bloodstream, remember that we are speaking here about prana.)
How to Direct Prana Through Apana Vayu Inhale: Let the breath move in through the nose, and with mental attention, follow it it to the base of the spine (to the pelvic floor).
Exhale: Exhale as if you could feel the breath move down through the legs and out through the feet, plugging you into the planet.
Working With This Vayu in Asana If you feel weak in the areas of elimination, try practicing these types of poses, and see how you feel afterward.
• Seated forward folds
• Seated twists
The second prana pathway is samana vayu. This vayu rules the equalizing and balancing action of all that we ingest. When food and drink enter our bodies, we need to digest, assimilate, and process the matter before we can eliminate. Problems with digestion are considered a result of a blockage in this vayu. A feeling of depletion can be a sign of a weak samana vayu.
On a mental level, the role of samana vayu is to digest information and experiences, taking in what is useful and eliminating what is not. It follows that if samana vayu is strong, we are able to process a difficulty by turning it into a learning experience and then let go of any negativity (via apana vayu) that might weigh us down.
The inability to think and talk about difficult experiences is considered a sign of blocked samana.
To access samana vayu, we need to “direct” the breath to the center of the torso and envision it being evenly distributed around the entire cylinder of the body. For some, breathing into the belly can feel wrong; it might lead to a feeling of self-consciousness (since so many of us are taught to “suck in” our bellies) or of losing control. I often remind my students that our bodies were designed to breathe this way, that air has no calories, and that it’s safe to allow the breath to explore this region of the body. Being able to access this middle region helps us connect to our gut, to our power, and to our inner intelligence.
How to Direct Prana Through Samana Vayu Inhale: Let the breath move in through the nose and fill the front, sides, and back of of the torso evenly. While the front belly will expand somewhat, keeping it gently contained will allow the side waist and mid back to expand equally around the radius of the body’s center.
Exhale: Move the breath evenly throughout the body, distributing the energy evenly.
Inhale: Let the breath fill the cylinder of the torso as before.
Exhale: Move the breath deeper inward, toward a small ball of fire or light within the center of the body that increases in intensity with each round.
Working With This Vayu in Asana Poses that activate samana include:
• Standing, seated, and supine twists
• Abdominal work, including plank and chaturanga dandasana
• Forward folds, especially seated
• Arm balances
A strong, healthy samana vayu is also said to help with balancing in inversions. Many of my students find that focusing on samana vayu in inverted postures helps them to move these poses away from the wall.
The third vayu is called prana vayu. It shares the name of the prana vayus as a whole because it is considered the most fundamental of the five. This vayu rules inward motion, including all that we take into our bodies. Physically, this vayu relates to the actions of inhaling, eating, drinking, and swallowing.
Mentally, prana vayu applies to the five senses and what we feed them. This vayu can be weakened by exposure to extremely loud or consistent noise, watching violent television shows or negative news before retiring, listening to angry or sad songs—basically any sensory overload. Because most of us live in very stimulating environments, we are often unaware of excess stimulation and the need for silence and space. With a healthy prana vayu, one is able to walk away from seductive stimulants and cultivate silence, allowing time to turn the attention inward. When this vayu is weakened, the mind cannot focus in order to meditate.
How To Direct Prana Through Prana Vayu During both asana and pranayama practices, try this:
Inhale: As you allow breath to flow in through your nose, imagine a jeweled chalice pouring the freshest breath into your lungs. Focus on your lungs filling with air, as if you could taste its fresh quality.
Exhale: Rather than imagining pushing the breath away from you, allow prana to linger as the exhale moves through the lining of the lungs. Keep your attention inside, as if enjoying the aftertaste of the most delicious inhale possible.
Try this during meditation:
Inhale: Allow breath to lightly flow through the nose and move to the center of the mind.
Exhale: See the breath turn into a white light, washing the mind free of clutter and noise.
Working With This Vayu in Asana Poses that activate prana vayu include:
• All backbends
• Savasana (corpse pose)
Meditation is also excellent for activating and balancing prana vayu.
The fourth vayu, udana, relates to the upward movement of our bodies and our perspectives. It is said to govern physical growth. Mentally, a healthy udana vayu is associated with the willingness to reach beyond general limitations—for example, by accepting challenges for career or personal growth. When it is weaker, one may have a tendency to become more stagnant in their career, in their life, and even in their yoga practice. An example is choosing to stay at a job without mental stimulation and that leads nowhere, or the inability to speak up for one’s self and needs, or a lack of enthusiasm and will. Too much udana vayu, on the other hand, is associated with pride, willfulness, and arrogance.
To access udana, breathe from the feet or pelvic floor (if seated) all the way up the spine and exhale through the throat (the region of the body that udana is said to rule). Mentally following the rise of the rib cage as you inhale will help you expand in the upper chest and back, open the shoulder joints, and create a brighter perspective.
How to Direct Prana Through Udana Vayu For standing, supine, prone, and seated poses:
Inhale: Imagine the breath moving up from the earth into the soles of the feet and climbing up the legs, through the spine, and up the chest.
Exhale: Invite the energy to continue moving upward through the crown of your head.
Inhale: Same as noted above.
Exhale: Let the breath release through the throat region as you exhale through the nose, releasing any tension in the throat, jaw, and teeth.
For inverted postures:
Inhale: Imagine that the breath begins at the hands and/or arms, whichever is in contact with the floor. Let it continue moving up the arms and torso as you lengthen your inhale.
Exhale: Move the breath through the legs and out through the soles of the feet.
Working With This Vayu in Asana Applying the breathwork described above can be particularly helpful during inversions where you feel compressed in the neck, arms, and shoulders; standing poses where you may be feeling compressed and stuck in your legs, (warrior I, chair pose, eagle pose); and seated forward folds where the spine is collapsing forward.
Backbends—particularly belly backbends—can activate udana vayu.
The final vayu, vyana vayu, moves from the center outward. This is the opposite of samana vayu, which draws everything from the outside inward to the center. Based in the area of the heart, vyana vayu represents the whole body, the skin, the energy that radiates past the boundary of our skin, and supports our optimal health.
Vyana vayu relates to circulation on all levels—from the circulation of food, water, and oxygen throughout the body, to keeping the emotions and thoughts circulating. Healthy circulation allows nutrients to reach where they are needed, the absorption of those nutrients, the release of energy from the absorption, and the elimination of wastes. Thus, this vayu supports the operation of all the other vayus.
On the mental level, vyana vayu relates to ideas and emotions being able to flow freely. Those who are able to express themselves in loving ways, those who are fearless and outgoing, and those who circulate and expand in the world are believed to have a healthy vyana vayu. Inefficient vyana is associated with separation, alienation, and hatred due to an extreme limitation of thoughts or emotions. The same separation is said to result when vyana is in excess, causing ideas and emotions to disintegrate due to the excess.
How to Direct Prana Through Vyana Vayu Inhale: Let the breath draw from the nose to the heart, and even move to the back of the heart (into the deepest, darkest corners).
Exhale: Imagine the breath moving out through the arms and legs and through the length of the torso. Imagine the breath moving out through every pore in the body, expanding you beyond the boundary of your skin.
Working with This Vayu in Asana Poses that activate vyana vayu include:
• Sun salutations
Putting It All Together
These five pathways are tools that help us heal the various aspects of ourselves and move toward unity of mind, body, and spirit. They also come in handy when we practice our yoga poses. For example, breathing with the direction of udana vayu in inversions and arm balances can help us move higher and with a lighter lift. Breathing in the direction of apana vayu helps us to ground ourselves in standing postures—particularly those that require us to balance on one foot—and helps us go deeper in our seated forward folds. It can also bring a sense of calm and inner strength. Using the breathing directions of prana vayu or vyana vayu in backbends can help us protect the lower back by elongating the thoracic spine, allowing the backbends to bloom from our hearts. Samana vayu awareness helps us in twists and abdominal exercises, moving us more deeply from our center and connecting us to an inner power.
It is exciting to experience how all five vayus occur at the same time in a pose. In trikonasana (triangle pose), for example, we could feel apana vayu move down our legs and root our feet into the floor as we feel udana vayu elongate our spines out from the pelvis. At the same time, samana vayu aids the twisting of the center, and prana vayu allows the expansion of the lungs. All of these actions lead to the role of vyana vayu, which celebrates the extension of the arms and the joy of the whole pose. Thus, trikonasana can become more than just a side body stretch with a little front hamstring lengthening. It becomes a means of opening the channels of prana to allow energy to radiate through our whole being.
If we explore our postures in this way, they will be new and exciting for us—as we use our life force to increase our energy while we strengthen our muscles. When we build energy, we build more strength than muscles alone can provide. We develop power that provides the courage to take any actions we wish, enabling us to become a positive force in our world. When we are aligned with good intentions, we can do whatever we want with this energy, feeling our lives flourish in harmony with nature.
That is the real goal of yoga. Our practice may also end up giving us toned arms and the ability to balance a handstand in the middle of the room, but with this newfound limitless potential, we may not even notice our arms. We’ll be too busy radiating with the prana awakened within us. With the wise use of life force in the form of prana vayus, we’ll be well-positioned to do our part in making the world a better place.