The Vayus: An Introduction
From ancient texts come timeless practices. The Upanishads, from which the model of yoga therapy is derived, is one such collection. Each Upanishad is derived from a mystic's experience of the Divine. From its collection, seekers across time have pulled paradigms for understanding, theories whose threads seek to weave a picture of the Universe's--and therefore the Soul's--very purpose.
If we judge a theory by its explanatory power, one of the most successful in the Upanishads is the theory of prana. The word may come from the prefix pra- “forth” (possibly used here as an intensifier) and the important root an “to breathe.” As generally used, prana means “(living) energy”: all the “vital signs” by which we try to identify the presence of life are tokens of the capacity of a body to direct, conserve, and employ energy at a high level of complexity. --Easwaran, Eknath (2009-06-01). The Upanishads (Classic of Indian Spirituality) (pp. 305-306). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition.
One wonderful image you might enjoy exploring: Just as we breathe prana, we are being breathed by the universe itself.
But, we’ll table that metaphysical musing for now, and return to the more tangible.
The basis for these next paragraphs rest in what's called the Pancamayakosha model, a lens through which five layers of self -- Physical, Breath-Energetic, Psycho-Emotional, Wisdom, and Bliss -- are explored. As we explore the Breath-Energetic body, or Pranamayakosha, we begin to understand the blurring between dimensions. The physical would not animate were it not for prana; and, prana would not take tangible shape were it not for the body sheath; The diaphragm provides physical link between prana and the Physical body(Annamayakosha). And, prana is both directed — and sometimes adversely affected — by the Psycho-Emotional (Manomayakosha). How the breath moves within the body, and the health (or disease) we enjoy as a consequence, is often a product of the mind, as we've explored in our overview of the autonomic nervous system’s parasympathetic and sympathetic responses.
There is, in fact, a right amount of breath for every healthy body, and therefore a right amount of intake of both oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Let’s explore, briefly, a concept central to the breath-energy connection: the Vayus.
Prana vayu: The prana vayu shapes our capacity to receive. Take a mental bite of an apple; even before your belly has absorbed the nutrients, the body receives the prana of the apple. Everything you take in — from breath, to energy (yours or others) — enters you through the conduit of the prana vayu. Disfunction in the prana vayu can manifest as an inability to receive.
Apana vayu: Apana is the path for and the energy behind pushing out what is ready to go. Apana rests in opposition to prana vayu. It helps us let go when we are ready to let go. Notice the way a deep breath — an intake of prana — releases from you. Notice the feeling of a forceful, or long and soft exhalation. Notice your innate capacity to release, and to let go of that which no longer serves you.
When there is an imbalance between prana and apana vayus — between our intake, and our output — it can manifest in a breathing disorder. When we are not releasing as much CO2 as we need, or taking in as much O2 as is essential, the body experiences disease. Long term breathing dysfunction can lead to greater physical disease.
Take a moment and notice the dueling, but complimentary forces of receiving, and releasing.
An important aside: there is a strong relationship between the psoas and diaphragm; the psoas is one of the muscles connected with apana vayu, and often correlated with being grounded. When people are under stress the psoas can often tighten, even unconsciously. Any stress relieving class you design should include some work for the psoas.
Samana vayu: As the prefix sama suggests, this vayu is about cultivating equilibrium. In order to achieve a sense of balance, we must digest what we’ve received, so that we can release it. The body is body is always seeking homeostasis, some kind of balance; the space between our prana and apana — samana — represents that balance.
Udana vayu: The prefix ud means “to move upwards”, and so udana vayu is connected to our capacity to verbalize. Udana represents the power of our intention, and its connection to expression. When you’re feeling blocked, unable to communicate, or when the body feels stuck, and unable to healthfully express, there is some disorder in the udana vayu.
Vyana vayu: The vyana force moves throughout, and encompasses every other. Vyana is in charge of carrying the energy that we need from the circulatory and digestive systems to the other parts of the body; Vyana is linked to the fascia, as well as the mechanisms of the nervous system. This greater vayu is also linked to feeling of “oneness” that you may have felt, perhaps even on your yoga mat. Think of vyana not so much as union, but as a removal of separation.
The utility of this explanatory theory of vayus is in how it's composite pieces help us understand the interrelationship of our whole. Spend a moment thinking about the relationship between these concepts and the forces of reception, digestion, releasing, intention, and integration; the breath is not the only system in which these forces are taking shape. Notice that a challenge in one arena promotes challenges in the other, while health in one informs health in the others.
A useful image might be the connection between a falling rain, and a growing tree. Notice the connection between each piece in that process. The parts reveal themselves as being inextricably connected, indeed, as greater than the simple sum of the parts. You, too, yogi friend, are greater than the sum of your parts. Notice the feeling of that idea. Breathe it in.