Prana is defined as the "life force" and flows through all living and inanimate objects, comprising all the energy in nature and the universe. Prana primarily enters the body through the breath but is also in what we physically ingest and mentally perceive. It feeds our cells and existence, bringing awareness, intelligence, introspectiveness, and higher consciousness.
On a physical level, Prana is responsible for respiration, food digestion, the absorption and circulation of nutrients, the elimination of wastes, and energy utilization. On a mental, emotional and spiritual level, it governs the intake, digestion, absorption, and circulation of information, removes mental and emotional wastes, and brings expansiveness, growth, and balance.
To understand prana and its five winds (vayus), it's helpful to know how energy moves within the body and its effects and functions. There are thousands of channels (nadi) in the body that transport everything physically and mentally. The three main channels that directly affect prana energy in the subtle body are sushuma, the center channel of the spine. Ida is the channel that is responsible for the left hemisphere of the body (lunar and cooling), and pingala is the right hemisphere of the body (solar and heating). These nadis crisscross through each of the seven cakras (energy centers) located along the spine. The cakras control subtle energy physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, creating balance and well-being with breath practices, mantras, mudrÀs, marma points, sounds, and color therapies.
Crown: Sahasrara cakra connects to self-realization and purpose, universal consciousness, and bliss.
Third Eye: Ajna cakra relates to presence, intuitiveness, spiritual introspection, and pursuits.
Throat: Vishuddha cakra brings communication, confidence, speaking your truth, and creativity.
Heart: Anahata cakra encompasses love, compassion, faith, and the ability to connect to spirit.
Naval: Manipura cakra establishes confidence, ambition, achievement, and the ability to take action.
Sacral: Svadhistana cakra brings a sense of individualism, ego, and the power of creation.
The prÀna vayu is the most fundamental of the five vayus because it encompasses all creation. Its movement is inwards and forward, and its location is between the brain and heart. It is associated with the air element (cool, light, and mobile) and the Anahata (heart) cakra. It is responsible for everything we take in; breath, awareness, perceptions, and nourishment. Overstimulation and excessive information intake can create imbalanced digestion, poor immunity, breathing or respiratory irregularities, and mental and neurological disorders.
Pranayama practices that engage this vayu includes the use of the three bandhas and kumbhaka's in ujjayi and viloma along with bhastrika, nÀçÁs shodhana, and bhramari.
2. Udana Vayu - Upward-Moving Breath
The udana vayu is located in the throat region and extends to the top of the head. Understood as the upward and outward breath, and is associated with the ether element (cold, light, and stable) and the Viœhuddha (throat) cakra. It governs speech, self-expression, enthusiasm, perception, and higher consciousness. Its connection to the thyroid gland controls growth, immunity, and metabolism. Imbalances with this vÀyu can be associated with the respiratory, throat, and nasal dysfunctions, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus, expression, and self-esteem.
Pranayama practices that engage this vayu is jalandhara-bandha (throat lock), antara kumbhaka, all ujjayi with extended exhalations, viloma exhalations, kaplabhati, bastrika, and Nadi shodhana.
3. Samana Vayu - Energizing & Equalizing Breath
The samanavayu is found around the solar plexus extending from the diaphragm area to the navel where the upper and lower body winds meet, moving from the periphery to the center. It is associated with the fire element (hot, light, and unstable) and the Manipura cakra governing all digestion (Agni), the absorption and assimilation of nutrients and information. Its actions regulate metabolism and immunity, remove toxins, transform emotions, thoughts, and experiences, which help balance all bodily systems.
Pranayama practices that engage this vayu are extended exhalations with bahya kumbhaka, udiuanna- bandha, kapalbhati, bhastrika, surya bhedana and sitali, and chandra bhedana for cooling.
4. Vyana Vayu- Diffusive-Pervasive Breath
The vyana vayu is located in the heart and lung region. It encompasses all circulation and movements in the body, from the crown of the head to our foundations. It is associated with the air element (cool, light, and mobile) and the AnÀhata cakra, which moves from the center to the periphery. It circulates blood, oxygen, and nutrients, assists digestion, absorption, and eliminates wastes. It controls the muscles regulating movement and locomotion. Mentally it governs all thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions, and impulses. When deficient, there can be a sense of weakness, anxiety, and disorientation.
Pranayama practices that engage this vayu includes the retention of the breath on the inhalations and long, deep, wide diffusing exhalations. Nadi shodhana brings overall balance and equilibrium.
5. Apana Vayu - Downward Moving Breath
The apana vayu is located between the navel and anus in the pelvic region. It is responsible for all downward and outward movements. It is associated with the earth element (cool, heavy, and stable) and muldhara (root) cakra, which governs stability and groundedness. Its actions include all excretions, including urination, feces, sweat, semen, menstruation, and childbirth. Its location is the seat (home) of the Vata dosha, whose qualities are cold, light. When imbalanced, pain can be experienced in the bones, joints, and muscles, along with imbalances of the mind. Heavier qualities create stability and grounding.
Pranayama practices that engage this vayuincludes longer exhalations in ujjayi, viloma exhalations, uddiyanna, and muha-bandha, along with bahya kumbhaka and surya bhedana.
The Prana Vayus in the Yoga Practice
The prana vayus play an essential part in our yoga practices directing energy and enhancing our postures. For instance, when moving upwards in inversions, arm balances, or standing poses with the arms lifted engages the udnaa (upward) vayu. When we are grounded to the earth in standing or seated poses, this is the apana vayu (downward). When practicing backbends, the movement of prÀna and vyana (inwards and the periphery to the core) vayus protects the lower back and opens the heart. Finally, twists and abdominal postures engage the samana (core to periphery) vÀyu, allowing us to move deeply from the center and connect to inner power and strength.