Breathing sustains life. Cycling continuously through day and night, the breath empties the lungs and fills them with air. In due course, each breath rids the body of wastes, replenishes the bloodstream with oxygen, and nurtures the cellular fires of metabolism. Durable and able to accommodate to an enormous range of circumstances, the momentum of breathing forms a backdrop for every activity.
But exhalation and inhalation, the two great tides of the breath, do not give us a complete picture of breathing. Exhalations and inhalations are connected to a vast inner system of energy, a latticework of activities all woven around the central hub of the breath. And contained in that system are mechanisms that process and put energy to use. Thus, without conscious effort, we are able to maintain the temperature of the body, circulate blood to each of its cells, digest the food we have eaten, and prepare the wastes accumulating inside us for elimination. This mobilization of the entire array of human functions—functions propelled by living, vital energy, what the yogis call prana—is what we really mean when we say that breathing sustains life. Under the influence of the breath, the body/mind comes alive.
Exhalations and inhalations are connected to a vast inner system of energy, a latticework of activities all woven around the central hub of the breath.
According to the yoga tradition this far-reaching system of vital energy contains five major functions, called variously the five pranas, the five vayus, or the five prana-vayus (the term vayu means “wind, breath, or life-force”). Each function has a distinct role, and each is integrated into the total system of human energy. If we understand the role of each prana-vayu, we can grasp how the forces of prana serve the whole person, and see how disturbances among the pranas reduce our quality of life and lead to illness. So let’s take a look at each of the five prana-vayus in turn.
Prana. The term prana is most commonly used to describe the vital force in its totality, but within the context of the five divisions of pranic energy the term refers to all the ways in which we take in energy. Inhalation is by far the most important vehicle for absorbing prana, but prana is drawn from other energy sources as well. We also absorb energy from food and water, from sense impressions such as the sights, sounds, and smells we gather through the sense organs, and from ideas and impressions communicated to the mind.
Prana is said to enter the body through the mouth (the nose, the ears, and the eyes are also mouths in this sense). While some sources place the primary abode of prana in the chest, the region of the lungs and the anahata chakra (the heart center), others say that prana is focused naturally at the ajña chakra, the center between the eyebrows. It is there that our attention becomes fixed on an object, and this automatically opens pathways that will bring sense impressions and nutrients of one kind or another into the body.
Prana is the support of the body. If we are unable to absorb it, the body will die. The great ayurvedic physician Sushruta recognized its important role when he said that it “makes the food travel inward” and that, by so doing, it supports the other four functions of energy. Sushruta also observed that disturbed prana leads to hiccups, wheezing, and a variety of illnesses of the breath, senses, and mind.
Samana. Samana is the function of prana that digests and assimilates incoming energy. It operates in conjunction with agni (the digestive fire) and is centered in the stomach and intestines. Thus it is commonly associated with the manipura chakra, the navel center. But samana also functions in the lungs, where the breath is absorbed, and in the mind, where ideas are integrated.
Samana (also in conjunction with agni) supplies the internal heat to “cook” the food we eat. And once it is ready for assimilation, samana carefully separates the various constituents of the food, making them available according to the body’s needs. In this sense it serves a gatekeeping function, allowing energies into the body in the proportion and order of importance necessary for health and well-being.
Samana is also the gatekeeper of our mental functions. When it is functioning in a balanced way, it enables us to make wise and healthy choices as to which sense impressions and thoughts we allow to enter our mind. Ailments associated with imbalances in samana include gaseous swelling and discomfort in the abdomen, weak digestive fire, and overactive digestion leading to diarrhea. When our “eyes are bigger than our stomach” both prana and samana are involved.
Vyana. Once energy has been drawn into the body, it must be distributed. Vyana is the force that distributes prana by causing it to flow. It expands and contracts, bends downward and upward, and travels to the side. It induces the movement of blood, lymph, and nervous impulses. It causes sweat to run. At a more subtle level, it creates the sense of living energy that we perceive as radiating throughout the entire field of our body/mind.
As you might imagine, when vyana is disturbed it creates systemic problems that travel through the whole body.
Unlike samana, which draws energy to a focus at the navel center, where it can be assimilated into the energy system, vyana moves energy outward to the peripheries of the body. The location of vyana is thus spread throughout the body, where it courses through various channels, called nadis. The hub of vyana is located at the anahata chakra, the heart center, where it is involved in the functioning of the lungs and heart. As you might imagine, when vyana is disturbed it creates systemic problems that travel through the whole body.
Udana. The pranic function called udana is a bit more difficult to conceptualize. The prefix ud connotes upward movement, such as the movement of energy prevalent in the windpipe that is used in communication. As air rises and passes through the larynx it produces speech and song. Thus udana is associated with the vishuddha chakra, the throat center, and the regions above it.
But the upward motion of udana is not wholly defined by one’s ability to speak. The concept “upward moving” also implies something about the quality and use of energy. A strong flow of udana implies that a person is acting from a higher vision. Thus, udana is energy that leads one to the revitalization of will and to self-transformation. It causes one to hold one’s head up, both figuratively and literally. And it is said that at the time of death udana is the energy that draws individual consciousness up and out of the body. When it is disordered, udana is associated with illnesses occurring in the throat, neck, and head.
Apana. The last of the five pranas is called apana. It is responsible for exhalation and for the downward and outward movement of energy found in the elimination of wastes. Just as the head contains the openings that are suited to the inward flow of prana, the base of the torso contains the openings suitable for the work of apana. Thus apana has its home in the intestines and is focused at the muladhara chakra, the root center. Defecation, urination, menstruation, ejaculation, and the downward impulses that govern delivery in childbirth are all accomplished under the influence of apana.
Since apana moves outward as well as downward, it is associated with the body’s defenses and immune system. Disturbances of apana result in diseases of the bladder, pelvis, and colon, and contribute to immune deficiencies. When both samana and apana are disordered, problems with reproductive and urinary functioning occur.
The chakras, or wheels of energy along the spine, act as homes for the five prana-vayus. And when one of them is disturbed, any of the hubs of energy associated with it (the root, navel, heart, throat, or eyebrow center) will be affected. When there is disorder among all the five pranas and their hubs, Sushruta observes that “it will surely be the undoing of the body.”
Is it possible to correct energy imbalances and enhance the synergistic effects of the five energies using the techniques of yoga? The answer, of course, is yes—yoga includes many practices with just these objectives in mind. The following technique, called “Point-to-Point Breathing,” can be employed as a general tonic by any yoga student. It is powerful and easily integrated into daily practice; it is a wonderfully soothing exercise; and it is especially useful when the mind is fatigued or when the body feels lethargic and heavy.
In this exercise a relaxed, focused awareness is first combined carefully with diaphragmatic breathing. This enhances the cleansing and nourishing properties of the breath and creates a clear, steady mind. Next, the centering power of this fortified awareness is systematically directed toward each of the five pranas. This is accomplished by breathing to each of the centers of energy associated with the pranas. By consciously directing your breath, you nourish and refresh the energies of each center. Smooth, quiet, and unbroken, your breathing will transmit its calming influence and restore healthy functioning.
During the exercise be sure that your awareness and the breath travel downward together through the body with each exhalation, and return to the crown with the inhalation. You will be breathing to nine points, starting with the toes of the feet and moving progressively upward. After completing all nine levels of breathing in an ascending order, the pattern is reversed and the breath is gradually moved back down to the toes.
With regular practice this will result in a refined breath that flows slowly but without jerkiness; your concentration will improve; and at the conclusion of the exercise the entire body will feel refreshed.
Throughout this exercise it is important to let the breath flow smoothly, without pausing between breaths. And even though the distance your awareness travels in the body becomes shorter, the breath nonetheless should remain smooth and relaxed. With regular practice this will result in a refined breath that flows slowly but without jerkiness; your concentration will improve; and at the conclusion of the exercise the entire body will feel refreshed.
Rest in the corpse pose, allowing the body to become still.
Establish relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing.
Observing your breathing, exhale as if the breath is flowing from the crown of your head down to your toes. Inhale back to the crown of the head. Repeat 2–5 times here and at all subsequent points except as noted.
Exhale from the crown down to the level of the ankles, and inhale back to the crown.
Exhale down to the level of the knees.
Exhale down to the level of the base of the spine.
Exhale down to the level of the navel center.
Exhale down to the level of the heart center.
Exhale down to the level of the throat.
Exhale down to the level of the eyebrow center. Breathe back and forth between the crown and the eyebrow center 5–10 times, refining the breath and resting.
Now reverse the order and descend, first to the throat center, then to the heart center, to the navel center, and so on, until you return to the toes.
Finish by breathing as if the whole body breathes. Let the exhalation flow downward as if the breath is flowing through the soles of the feet and on to infinity. Inhaling, breathe as if the breath is a wave flowing upward through the body and the crown of the head and on to infinity. Sense that you are lying in the center of a wave of energy and bliss. Let your breathing remain deep, and watch the breath as you relax your body, breath, and mind.
This point in the exercise:
Toes Ankles Knees Base of the spine Navel center Heart center Throat center Eyebrow center Sweeping breath
is associated with:
vyana, apana vyana, apana vyana, apana apana samana vyana, prana udana, vyana prana, udana all five energies