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Your Guide to the 5 Vayus and the Vital Energies of Yoga

The Vayus are the currents of vital energy that move through the body. 

Vayu translates as wind or that which flows.

It encompasses the energetic force required to move in a specific direction to control and enhance the body and its functions. 

In yoga and Indian culture, Prana is the term used to describe the life force that moves through the body. In acupuncture and Chinese Daoism, it is called Qui. 

The life force that moves through our bodies is present in all living things.

It connects the subtle and gross elements of the universe. It is affected by how we breathe and move, which is where the Vayus come into play. 

There are five directions of Prana (life force) that enhance our physical, mental, and spiritual health.

This article outlines the role and effect of Prana, the Vayus, the Koshas, and Yoga, plus how these topics work together to express a balanced and holistic state of being.

What is Prana? 

Prana is the life force energy that moves through the body. On a basic level, it is the breath. On a more dynamic level, and when the practices become more integrated, Prana represents the individual’s vitality to the world. 

Pranayama is a tangible tool we can use daily to manage how we think, feel, move through the world, and make decisions.

PRANA = life force, energy, vitality

Yama = constraint.

Pranayama = to manipulate the energy and how it moves through our bodies.

It can be one of the most effective practices to shift how you feel in one minute, in the moment!

Prana and the Breath:

How one breathes, thinks, expresses emotion, and engages the environment affects the flow of Prana in the body. 

The inhalation of breath represents inspiration, taking in life, and nourishment to the physical body.

The exhaled breath represents the dissolution, letting go, and giving back what we have received to create a reciprocal relationship with the natural world.

There is a rhythm to the breath represented by the inhalation, exhalation, and the pause in between. 

The three-part cycle of inhalation, exhalation, and pause before breath is likened to the deities of the Hindu Pantheon.
  • Inhale – inspiration – represented by Saraswati and Brahma, the Creators.
  • Exhale – dissolution – represented by Durga and Shiva, the Transformers.
  • Pause – preservation – represented by Lakshmi and Vishnu, the Sustainers. 

Prana and the Energy Body

The body is made up of energy lines called nadis, which affect the body’s subtle energy.

The body has three main nadis: Sushumna, Ida, and Pingala. Sushumna is the central channel that travels from the spine’s base to the head’s crown. Ida is the channel that travels along the left side of the body, and Pingala is the channel that travels along the right side of the body.

Pranayama aims to understand the flow of breath by understanding how it lights up the nadis, shifts our subtle energy, and transforms how we think and feel.

Prana affects the three bodies, which are contained within the five koshas.

The physical body, the energy body, and the soul body are all influenced by Prana. 

The koshas are the layers of the self that an individual works with to maintain their well-being on many levels. From the physical (grossest layer) to the bliss (subtle layer), the koshas represent the unique aspects of the self. 

On the physical level, our Prana (breath) gives our cells life and keeps the systems running.

Moving to the energy body, the Prana enhances our vitality and ability to act; it can be a soothing agent on an emotional and physiological level.

Finally, on a spiritual level, Prana connects us to all living things and life cycles. 

Our pranic force can be enhanced through breathing techniques (pranayamas), movement (asanas), sacred gestures (mudras), chanting (mantras), and by being more intentional about the food, media, and relationships we bring into our lives. 

Yoga is one of the methods to work with our Pranic force.

As we develop and mature within ourselves, we discover ways to sustain our energy, create more energy when necessary, and also when to soften and release energy when appropriate. 

The Vayus 

The vayus represent how prana moves through the body. 

Vayu translates as wind or that which flows.

It encompasses the energetic force required to move in a specific direction to control and enhance the body and its functions. 

The Pancha Pramas are the five main vayus of focus, though the ancient yogis noted 49 unique vayus in the human body. 

The five main vayus are: 

  1. Prana Vayu
    It is the most vital direction of energy as prana represents the body’s life force. Prana refers to the inhalation, so its direction moves inward. We take prana through our nose and mouth in the air we breathe, but prana is contained in everything. It’s in the water and food we consume, and prana is included in how we see, hear, and feel the world around us. 
  2. Samana Vayu
    It is the assimilation of prana; its location is in the stomach and intestines, as this vayus’s function is primarily digestion. It’s often associated with the solar plexus, Manipura chakra, and Agni—the digestive fire. 
  3. Vyana Vayu
    It moves energy outwards to the body’s peripheries and in all directions to distribute the prana to all parts. It moves upwards and downwards, from side to side, and is centralized around the heart chakra to stimulate the lungs and respiration of breath. 
  4. Apana Vayu
    It moves downwards and is responsible for the exhalation and all down and outward movement of energy. Digestion, elimination, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth are all influenced by Apana.  
  5. Udana Vayu
    Moves upwards and is responsible for inspiration, inhaling breath. Udana influences speech, song, and communication. 

The Vayus are associated with the Five Great Elements from Ayurveda.

  • Apana Vayu – downward motion – Earth
  • Vyana Vayu – circulation – Water 
  • Samana Vayu – assimilation – Fire   
  • Prana Vayu – crystallization – Air 
  • Udana Vayu – upward motion – Ether 

Read more about the Five Great Elements here

Practices to Work with the Vayus

Prana Vayu

Location: Heart
Element: Air
Chakra: 4 – Anahata
Function: crystallization
Movement: all-encompassing 
To work with Prana Vayu, take Nadi Shodhana – try it here

Apana Vayu 

Location: pelvis
Element: Earth
Chakra: 1 – Muladhara
Function: elimination
Movement: downward 

To work with Apana Vayu, take Bhastrika – try it here

Vyana Vayu 

Location: whole body
Element: Water
Chakra: 2 – Svadisthana
Function: circulation
Movement: full-body flow 

To work with Vyana Vayu, take Sama Vritti – try it here

Samana Vayu 

Location: solar plexus
Element: fire
Chakra: 3 – Manipura
Function: digestion
Movement: inward 

To work with Samana Vayu, take Kapalbhati – try it here

Udana Vayu 

Location: throat
Element: ether
Chakra: 5 – vishuddha
Function: metabolizing
Movement: upward

To work with Udana Vayu, take Brahmari Breath – try it here

Outline of the Pranayama Practices

Kapalbhati (skull-shining breath)

Kapalabhati translates from Sanskrit as Kapal, meaning the forehead, and Bhati, meaning light or knowledge. Kapalabhati is an energizing pranayama, also known as Skull Shining Breath, that clears the lungs. This pranayama brings lightness and clarity to the mind and frontal cortex of the brain. 

This style of pranayama involves sharp, active exhales through the nose to stimulate the clearing of the lungs by clearing the stagnant air that collects around the sides of the lung cavity. The sharp exhale pulls the stale air in toward the center of the lungs and pushes it out. Energetically, we’re drawing the air upwards to revitalize the mind and body. The inhalation is passive, and as kapalabhati breath is performed, the abdomen repeatedly contracts on the exhalation and releases on the inhalation. This pranayama is best done on an empty stomach earlier in the day as it’s excitatory and stimulates the digestive fire. 

Benefits include:
  • Enhanced mental focus and clarity
  • Clearing of the lungs and nasal passages
  • Excitatory to stimulate blood flow and boost circulation
  • Tones the abdomen and lower organs
  • Sharpens senses and concentration
  • Balances the nervous system,
  • Stimulates the digestive fire and appetite 
  • Purifies the nadis (energy channels) of the body through prana (breath)

Sama Vritti (4-part breath)

This style of pranayama involves an evenly-paced inhalation and exhalation with breath retention between the inhalation and exhalation. 

Also known as Box-Breath or Four-Square Breathing, this pranayama is a potent stress reliever as it creates pressure in the lungs and teaches the body to stay calm when under duress. 

In Sanskrit, this technique is called Sama Vritti Pranayama. Sama means equal, and vritti means rotation/flow. 

Sama Vritti brings more awareness to the flow and distribution of Prana throughout the body.

The four stages of Sama Vritti are
  1. Puraka (Inhalation)
  2. Antar Kumbhaka (Retention after Inhalation)
  3. Rechaka (Exhalation)
  4. Bahya Kumbhaka (Retention after Exhalation)
How to do it:
  • Inhale for the count of four
  • Hold at the top for the count of four
  • Exhale for the count of four
  • Hold at the bottom for the count of four

Bastrika (bellows breath)

This style of pranayama works to energize and clear slow or stagnant energy. Do this pranayama at any time of the day to clear the mind and body and stimulate the flow of Prana. 

How to do it:
  • Inhale through the nose and arch the spine
  • Exhale sharply through the nose and around the spine
  • Take this pranayama seated and place the hands on the thighs
  • Pull against the knees as you exhale. 
Do three rounds:
  • Round 1: do 5 cycles with kumbhaka (breath retention after last round)
  • Round 2: do 7 cycles with kumbhaka after the last round
  • Round 3: do 9 cycles with kumbhaka after the last round
Benefits of Bastrika Pranayama:
  • Strengthens the digestive system
  • Stimulates the respiratory system
  • Energizes the body and mind
  • Increases oxygenation to the blood to support organs and tissues
  • Tones abdominal area 
  • Drains excess fluids and phlegm from the lungs

Ujjayi (victorious breath)

Ujjayi breath translates from Sanskrit as ‘victorious breath and is used in vinyasa yoga to build heat, connect the body to the breath, and create a rhythmic quality to the flow of the class.

When we build heat from the inside with our breath, we massage the internal organs as we begin to move. Ujjayi is sustained for the duration of the solar portion of the class and released as we enter the softer, lunar part of the class, where the exhales lengthen to help the body cool down. 

This style of pranayam stimulates the nadis (energy channels) to enhance mental clarity and focus. 

Benefits include:
  • Feeling a sense of groundedness and ease 
  • It warms the body from the inside
  • Massages the organs
  • Stimulates the flow of prana to clear the nadis 
  • Releases tension in the body
  • Improves concentration in the mind

Viloma (interrupted breath)  

Viloma breath, aka interrupted breath, is the offering while in supported fish pose.

This technique includes a bit of kumbhaka (breath retention) after each inhale; hold lightly. This pranayama helps to expand the length of the breath and the lung capacity. 

To do this pranayama:
  • Inhale for three counts to the navel
  • Hold for two counts
  • Inhale for three counts to the rib cage
  • Hold for two counts
  • Inhale for three counts to the heart
  • Hold for two counts
  • Exhale everything out

Repeat this several times or breathe naturally 

 

Brahmari (bees breath) 

Brahmari Breath (bees breath) three cycles with various hand mudras. We’ll place the palms where we typically ingest information.

  • Hands placed on the eyes.
  • Hands placed on the ears.
  • Palm at heart and on the belly

This style of pranayama has a calming effect on the mind and body. Brahmari is also known as bee’s breath, as it sounds like a bee humming when performed.

This pranayama grounds the body to calm the nervous system and helps relieve stress, anxiety, or anger. 

Benefits of Bhramari Breathe include:
  • Calming of the mind
  • It soothes the nervous system, thereby lowering blood pressure and decreasing feelings of stress and anxiety.
  • Stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands. 

Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing)

This pranayama carries more oxygen to the blood than regular breathing; it also soothes the nervous system, helps create calm in the body and mind, and balances the subtle body.

Nadi Shodhana set up: 
  • Take your thumb to your right nostril,
  • Take your ring and pinkie fingers to the left nostril
  • Place your index and middle finger on your third eye between the brows.
How to do it:
  • Plug your right nostril and inhale on the left side
  • Plug both nostrils and hold at the top
  • Release the right nostril and exhale from the right side
  • Pause at the bottom
  • Inhale on the right nostril
  • Plug both nostrils and hold at the top
  • Release the left nostril and exhale
  • Pause at the bottom
  • Repeat several cycles on your own. 
Nadhi Shodhana benefits:

Nadi Shodhana lowers the heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety by purifying the subtle energy channels so the Prana (breath, life force) can flow easily. 

Sushumna is the body’s central channel and most extensive energy line. It is the home to the seven chakras. Two energy lines traverse Shusumna—the spine—called Ida and Pingala. Ida and Pingala represent the other two main energy lines that move from the spine’s base to the head’s crown. These two energy lines refer to the right and left sides of the brain; through these energy lines, or Nadis, we create balance in the body and connect the two hemispheres through the breath. 

Kumbhaka (breath retention)

Kumbhaka is a form of breath retention; do not do this pranayama if you have difficulty breathing or anxiety. Breathe normally with longer inhales and exhales. If you take kumbhaka pranayama, hold it to a point where you don’t feel any discomfort. 

Benefits of Kumbhaka include:
  • Better oxygenation improves overall health, and concentration occurs when we retain the breath, increasing the carbon dioxide level. This event activates the respiratory center in the brain and leads to a greater exchange of oxygen. 
  • Improvement of lung capacity
  • Strengthening of the diaphragm

Questions for Consideration

Take some time to perform the pranayama practices listed above. Then, answer the following questions: 

  • How did this pranayama make you feel?
  • What arose during the breathwork?
  • Where did you feel/observe the breath?
  • What was the quality of the pranayama – the mood? (deep, shallow, fiery, soft, etc.)
  • What changed in your body after the pranayama?
  • What changed in your mind after the pranayama?
  • What is the mood of the pranayama?
  • What directions do you perceive in each of the practices? 

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