The Five Pranas
Prana is not only the ruler over the five senses, but it’s also the ruler over all our body parts.
When we first start a yoga practice the big lesson is to breathe through the nose, in and out. This is quite contrary to breathing we do if we are at a health club, (in through the nose, out through the mouth) or doing any other physical training. And then we learn Ujjayi, the victorious breath, that requires us to not only breathe in and out through the nose, but to also adjust the breath so that it’s like a whisper on the way in and out. One could say you sound like Darth Vader, or the gentle waves of the ocean, feeling a slight constriction in the back of the throat so that the breath is more contained, controlled and effective.
Great. So we got all that down and the only thing to work on is maintaining that darned Ujjayi while inhaling, (which is really hard for most of us) and while exhaling. We proceed with our yoga practice, taking classes and having fun. If we end up in one of those really fun classes with cool music playing, most often loudly, the irony is that we can’t hear our breath let alone our thoughts. We think this is what we want, to escape our thoughts while trying to master crazy poses that our teacher pulls out of his/her back pocket. And we leave the class thinking that we are feeling great, because we survived beyond our former limits, drenched with sweat and totally wiped from the whole experience.
But here’s the thing. If yoga means union (and it does), and if the idea of yoga is to help us become more in harmony with ourselves through mind, body and breath (and it does), and we are leaving a class absolutely wiped out, then we are not in union. We could be more fragmented than when we came in, but we just feel better because we are sweaty. Our mind may have been beaten to a pulp in the process, so it’s impossible to be in alignment with it. When our energy is drained after a strong class, we’ve wiped out all the Prana, the Life Force that might’ve been kindling within. Now our body is exhausted and we need to sit on the couch to recuperate.
So in irony, by doing yoga, we sometimes get the opposite effect that is promised. Yoga should be giving us life, not taking it away. As Leslie Bogart, a respected teacher in Los Angeles once said in a workshop, “We should be doing our yoga (asana) to live our lives better, not living our lives to do our yoga (asana) better.”
Prana – Life Giving Force
Not all breathing is Prana, or Life Force. Think about it, when you sit in your car to drive across town, you are breathing, but are you full of life? When you’ve worked behind a desk, inside an office, for an 8-hour day, are you full of life? You have been breathing, otherwise you’d be dead. But most of us are fatigued after the above activities because we haven’t put much quality to our breathing. What we do with our breath determines whether our breath is just breath or if it turns into Prana. And often when we are taking a strong yoga class with lots of effort, we are exhaling and grunting to keep up with the class, and barely find time to take an inhale. No wonder we get tired and can’t do much after a class besides eat and go to bed, or find the need to grab our favorite caffeine dose to get through the rest of the day.
So, breathing does matter, and it matters that the breath is smooth, steady, and balanced on inhale and on exhale. No extra effort should happen to allow the alchemical process of turning breath into Prana. But here’s the thing: Where is your breath going? Did you know that how you breathe can not only help you properly move into a posture but also guide the unfolding of Prana and the release of our greatest potential? For many, this is the ultimate goal of yoga. Once, of course, we get past the desire to have better developed arms or balancing a handstand in the middle of the room.
There are Five Specific Pathways in Yoga
In yoga, there are five specific pathways, channels, properly defined as, “powers of air, “ known as Vayus. Since they describe the Life Force, they are known as Prana Vayus. Why do we care? Well, it is known that Prana gives energy to all the faculties in our body. There is an ancient story of the Five Senses and Prana that they had an argument about who was most valuable for a human to survive. The eyes claimed that without them, a person could fall and get hurt. The ears claimed that they were able to help a person hear sweet things, as well as danger coming from areas the eyes could not see. The sense of smell argued that one could live without seeing and hearing if one could smell and could know the riches of the world. It continued. And then Prana spoke up and said that without Prana, none of the other senses could do their jobs. They all realized this truth and bowed to the significance of Prana.
Prana is not only the ruler over the five senses, but over all our body parts. If a part of the body is not functioning well, it is quite probable that Prana is lacking. Most of us do not breathe into all parts of our body fully, it takes too much time, it’s scary, and for a few of us it’s really hard to obtain access due to stress and trauma. Most of us suffer from the tension of living in the modern world filled with demands and diversions, which leads to shortness of breath and even accidentally holding the breath.
With the Prana Vayus, there are five specific pathways that the Prana moves. When all five are awake and functioning, one is able to progress down the path of yoga, increasing our energy force to help us reach our highest potential.
Apana – The First Pathway
The first pathway that most Westerners miss due to our lifestyle and eating habits is APANA, also known as Apana Vayu. This power of air rules the downward and outward direction in our body, all elimination. Almost anything that goes into our body has to go out, if out another way. This applies to food, drink, and air. In addition to proper elimination of waste, it includes the female menstrual cycle, giving birth, male ejaculation. It also applies to the thoughts, ideas and events in our life that we take in, and either process themselves out or get stuck inside us. No one likes to be constipated with solids, or stuck not able to eliminate liquid. It literally hurts. And it also can hurt clinging to ideas or trauma. When this direction isn’t working we end up fearful and depressed, and our un-digested experiences weigh us down making us weak. We in the West are commonly affected due to eating processed food, living a sedentary life, and dealing with stress that fatigues our Parasympathetic Nervous System. We often live in a fight-or-flight temperament, worrying about finances, our survival, or simply fighting traffic on the way home from work.
This shows up on one who doesn’t feel very grounded, one who is nervous and not able to feel the floor underneath them. The qualities of First and Second Chakra apply here; when using Apana Vayu effectively, it can awaken these areas to function at their fullest. By breathing down the spine, all the way to the Root Chakra and then exhaling out through the legs and feet, one begins to open and connect into the earth, allowing healing and a sense of being grounded. Students who are plagued with anxiety, fear and stress send most of their energy and attention upwards, leaving contact with the lower body. Relief is be found by accessing this lower region, contrary to instinct, and facing the fears that move them through to the other side.
Samana – The Second Pathway
The second pathway that affects many Westerners is SAMANA, also known as Samana Vayu. This channel rules the equalizing and balancing action of that which we ingest. Food and drink go into our bodies and before we can eliminate, we need to digest, assimilate and process the matter. We turn our intake into nutrition and process it, eliminating the waste. This applies to food and drink, the sleep we get, and the air we inhale. And it applies to the information and experiences exposed to us, processing what we learn from them and eliminating what we don’t need. When someone is blocked in this area, indigestion occurs with food and with mental/emotional issues. Many Americans are plagued with digestion problems, again due to the quality and quantity of food consumed as well as the stress upon the individual. Problems result with those who cannot digest food, or digest too quickly and don’t get any nutrition from the food. On a mental level it is affected when one can’t process experiences, which lead to unresolved issues. This leads to attachment, greed and the clinging to wrong attitudes and beliefs. Samana Vayu aligns with our ability to experience life and take what’s nurturing, discarding what we don’t need.
This shows up in a student who is not connected to their center, to their gut, their inner strength and knowledge. One with weak Samana Vayu usually can’t sit still and often can’t get their breath any deeper than the upper chest region. Many women are conditioned in our society to suck in their gut so that they don’t look fat. Thus, when they inhale, the belly moves toward the spine – the opposite of a healthy inhale that expands lungs, ribs, diaphragm, and all things inside – and when they exhale the belly relaxes slightly. While that might work for a photo op, it is starving the body of the nutrition derived from breathing. This Vayu moves Prana into the belly and lets it expand, (remembering that air has no calories), and then exhales that energy throughout the whole body. One is later guided to inhale to the center and exhale the power of the breath into a smaller ball of fire or light that increases with intensity at each round. Each breath feeds this brilliant flame, each exhale moving deeper to the core. This helps students get in touch with their own center, feeling their gut, which leads to accessing the power and knowledge from the Third Chakra.
Prana – The Third Pathway
The third pathway, Vayu, that many Westerners may be deficient due to our stressful lifestyle is PRANA, also known as Prana Vayu, which is different than the title. (One name, two different meanings.) This channel rules that which we take in to our bodies, the inward motion. This applies to the actions of swallowing, eating food, drink and the air we breathe. Are we feeding ourselves properly, or too much so that we can’t digest and eliminate, or not enough so that we are starving ourselves? It also applies to mental and sensory perception. What are we feeding the mind and the senses? Are we depriving ourselves of quality exposure or is the mind overloaded due to living a fast paced life in the city? Being exposed to extremely loud or consistent noise, watching violent television shows or negative news before retiring, and basically any sensory overload is extremely taxing to our system. Quality also matters, which is why many yogis strive to eat pure, healthy food and why teachers encourage positive thoughts and environments. In the yogic perspective, a healthy student can move the mind away from outer sensations, establishing a state of Pratyahara, (sense withdrawal) to begin looking inward and truly see oneself.
When this Vayu is blocked, the mind can’t sit still to meditate; there’s too much information and stimulation that depletes its function. This shows up in students who run after things in the external world to solve their problems rather than following their internal inspiration. I see this channel in two different ways. The first is more physical. Some of us just don’t inhale enough air, and then spend more energy and time exhaling, leading to heaving sighs occurring more often than we realize. These students are starved for a good, tasty breath and are guided to inhale filling the lungs completely, and while exhaling, dwelling in the full feeling in the lungs. Just as it tastes so good to have a glass of water when really thirsty or a piece of warm food when really hungry, taking in a good inhale and truly feeling it, relishing it, is needed for one who is deficient in Prana. The second addresses the mind and the 6th Chakra, which this Vayu relates. Once the physical plane has been addressed, a student then inhales into the Third Eye and exhales a healing, white light over the mind to bathe it free of clutter and noise. By doing so, the mind begins to release tension and the inward journey can begin to unfold. This latter is applied more in meditation, the former method more helpful in many asana poses.
Udana – The Fourth Pathway
The fourth Vayu, UDANA relates to the upward movement of our bodies, which literally can be seen in children as they grow up and in the elderly as they begin to shrink in size. Udana Vayu is expressed through exhaling and is applied to physical exertion. When functioning, one is willing to reach beyond general limitations, challenging oneself in his/her career, personal development and in the mind. Mentally, it applies to growth when present and stagnation when deficient. An example of deficiency is one who chooses to stay at a job that leads nowhere without any mental stimulation, one who has stopped learning and/or one who can’t move on. Examples of deficiency are people who aren’t able to speak up for themselves and their needs, and those with a lack of enthusiasm and will. When one has too much Udana Vayu, it can lead to pride, willfulness and arrogance; there’s too much growing and not enough assimilation to what one has experienced.
In yoga, this is found in students who have a difficult time holding their head up high, or even their body upright. Life Force is not moving upwards. It is also seen in students who stay with the same class level and same yoga teacher for years, resistant to trying something new, and fearful of exploring the unknown. It can be seen in students unwilling to try a new yoga pose because it looks difficult. While Udana Vayu rules exhaling to release the positive energy obtained from inhaling, I like guiding the inhale upward also. I often instruct a student to breathe from the Root Chakra, all the way up the spine and exhaling in the throat, where the Fifth Chakra dwells, and which it rules. Exhaling here can soften any stress or strain in this area and can strengthen any weaknesses. Once that pathway is established, students then inhale up the spine and exhale out through the crown of the head, continuing the ascending development.
VYANA – The Fifth Pathway
The fifth Vayu, VYANA, known as Vyana Vayu, moves from the center outward from the body. This is opposite of the second Vayu, Samana Vayu, which draws everything from the outside inward, to the center. It regulates circulation on all levels; from food, water and oxygen throughout the body to keeping the emotions and thoughts circulating throughout our system. This circulation allows nutrients to reach where they are needed, the absorption of those nutrients, the release of positive energy from the absorption, and the elimination of wastes. Thus, it helps the operation of all the other Pranas. It therefore needs the other four to function before it can become fully effective. On the mental level it allows ideas and emotions to flow freely without any blockages. A student is guided to inhale into the heart, and exhale through the arms and out through the hands. Then, one can imagine inhaling into the heart center and exhaling through every cell and pore of the body. This allows the body to vibrate with energy and expand outward.
Examples of a healthy Vyana Vayu are found in those able to express themselves in a loving way, those who are fearless and outgoing, and those who circulate and expand in the world. It’s the ability to grow from a single idea and flourish. Pure optimum health is another example. When the body is fully functioning and all systems working together, it allows for a radiant being. When Vyana Vayu is not functioning well on the physical plane, it is a block in one of the Vayus, which usually leads to a block in one of the ten systems in the body. Mentally when Vyana is not efficient it leads to separation, alienation and hatred from the extreme limitation of thoughts or emotions. The same separation will result when Vyana is in excess, causing ideas and emotions to disintegrate due to the excess. Based in the heart, the Fourth Chakra, Vyana Vayu also represents the whole body, the skin, and our aura.
The Five Pranas in Action
These five pathways are tools that help us heal aspects of ourselves and move towards the unity of mind, body and spirit. They also come in handy when we practice our yoga poses. Using Udana Vayu with inversions and arm balances helps us get higher with a lighter lift. Apana Vayu helps us get grounded in our standing postures, especially those that balance on one foot, and help us get deeper in our seated forward folds. Using Prana Vayu or Vyana Vayu in backbends guides us to blossom further with less resistance. Samana Vayu helps us in twists and abdominals, moving us deeper than we might imagine.
What’s really cool is experiencing how all the five Vayus occur at the same time in a pose. In Trikonasna (Triangle Pose), we could feel Apana Vayu move down our legs rooting our feet into the floor as we feel Udana Vayu elongate our spine 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. This leads to Vyana Vayu, which celebrates the extension of the arms and the joy of the whole pose. Thus, Trikonasna can become more than just a side body stretch with a little front hamstring lengthening. It could become something that opens the channels of Prana to radiate through our whole being.
If we explore our postures in this way, they become new and exciting to us. There’s more to do in a yoga pose instead of simply waiting for the teacher to call out the next movement while we look to see who’s in the room. There’s exploration to do IN the pose, using our Life Force to cultivate energy in while our muscles create strength. This leads to a true union in our yoga practice. When we build energy we build more strength than muscles provide – we develop power that enable us to become a positive force in our world. And this Life Force of energy provides the fearlessness to take any actions that we desire. When we are aligned with good intentions, we can do whatever we want with this energy, feeling our lives flourish in harmony with Nature.
This is the real goal of yoga. It may also end up giving us great arms and the ability to balance a handstand in the middle of the room. With our limitless potential, we may not even notice the arms. We’ll be too busy radiating with the Prana awakened within us. The world could end up being a better place, due to a wise use of Life Force in the form of Prana Vayus.