A mortal lives not through that breath that flows in and that flows out. The source of his life is another and this causes the breath to flow.—Paracelsus
Cycling continuously through day and night, the breath empties the lungs and fills them with air. Each breath rids the body of wastes, replenishes the bloodstream with oxygen, and nurtures the cellular fires of metabolism. 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. They are connected to a vast system of energy, a latticework of activities all woven around a central hub. Contained in that system are mechanisms that process and put energy to use. Thus, without conscious effort, we are able to maintain body temperature, circulate blood to cells, digest the food we have eaten, and eliminate the wastes accumulating inside us. This mobilization of the entire array of human functions—functions propelled by a living, vital energy—is what we really mean when we say that breathing sustains life. Under the influence of this “inner breath,” the body/mind comes alive.
According to the yoga tradition, this far-reaching system of vital energy functions through five sub-energies called the prana vayus (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 how disturbances among the pranas lead to illness and reduced quality of life. Let’s take a look at each of the five prana vayus.
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, it 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 the sights, sounds, and smells gathered 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 ajna 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 into the body.
Prana is the body’s support. If we are unable to absorb it, the body will die. The great ayurvedic physician Sushruta said that it “makes the food travel inward,” and that, by so doing, it supports the other four functions of energy.
When we understand the role of each prana vayu we can grasp how it serves the whole person.
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 (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 functioning in a balanced way, it allows us to make wise and healthy choices as to which sense impressions and thoughts we allow to enter our mind. Ailments associated with samana imbalance include gaseous swelling and abdominal discomfort, weak digestive fire, as well as overactive digestion leading to diarrhea. When our “eyes are bigger than our stomach,” both prana and samana are involved.
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.
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. Thus vyana is spread throughout the body, coursing through the nadis. The hub of vyana is the anahata chakra, where it is involved in the functioning of the lungs and heart. When vyana is disturbed it creates systemic problems that travel through the whole body.
The pranic function called udana is a bit more difficult to conceptualize. Ud connotes upward movement, such as the movement of energy in the windpipe. As air rises and passes through the larynx, it produces speech and song—communication. Thus udana is associated with the vishuddha chakra, the throat center, and the regions above it.
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 us to the revitalization of will and to self-transformation. It causes us to hold our heads up, both figuratively and literally. And at the time of death, udana is the energy that draws individual consciousness up and out of the body. Disordered udana is associated with illnesses occurring in the throat, neck, and head.
Through the practices of yoga we can learn to balance the 5 prana vayus.
The final prana, apana, is responsible for exhalation and for the downward and outward movement of energy—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. Defecation, urination, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth are all under the influence of apana.
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.
Balancing the Energies
The chakras act as homes for the five prana vayus. 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.” The good news is that through the practices of yoga—especially relaxation—we can learn to balance these five energies.
Source: Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation (Rolf Sovik, PsyD)