Internal Spring Cleaning – Prana, Apana, and Agni

A Practice for Internal Spring Cleaning:

You’ve probably heard the term prana before. But have you heard of apana? Or udana? There are actually 5 pranas. They’re called the vayus or the “forces of the air.” They are:

Prana vayu, which governs reception (eating, drinking, inhaling).
Apana vayu, which governs elimination (going to the bathroom, giving birth, exhaling).
Udana Vayu, which governs growth and transformation.
Samana Vayu, which governs digestion (of anything… food, thoughts, etc.).
Vyana Vayu, which governs circulation.

Much could be said about the vayus and I plan to study and write more about them throughout my therapy training. But for today, I want to focus on the forces of prana and apana in the body—the forces of taking in and taking out.

We are currently in the heart of spring, which is a traditional time of year for deep cleaning (for taking things out). Spring cleaning is a reaction to being locked up indoors all winter. When spring comes around we’re ready to open the windows and breathe fresh air and feel warm air against our skin. We’re ready to clean out the closets and sweep the floors. We are ready for a sense of spaciousness and freedom in our lives.

And sometimes spring cleaning can become quite extensive. We can spend several days cleaning out every last bit of space in the house. We can work to make sure that we’re not carrying around or storing anything that we no longer need or use.

As you read these words, what’s arising for you? Are you thinking about that closet that has needed cleaning out for quite some time? Or that box that is tucked away somewhere and filled with things you haven’t looked at for years? Sometimes these memory boxes bring a sense of joy and it’s wonderful to sit down and go through each item. But sometimes these boxes hold painful memories that we have no desire to sift through. And yet, we hold on to the box.

What if you decided it was time to get rid of this box of painful memories. How would you do it? Would you just dump it in the regular Tuesday trash? Or would you want to pause and mark the occasion somehow?

One of the most common ways to dispose of emotionally laden items is through a fire ritual. You’ve probably had the experience (at camp when you were young or at a retreat as an adult) of writing something painful on a piece of paper and then burning it. It can be an incredibly powerful and cathartic thing to watch your words transform into ashes.

Through an understanding of the forces of prana and apana, we can experience the power of this external fire ritual internally whenever and wherever we need to.

The tradition of yoga teaches us that agni, or fire, is present in the center of our bodies. You can easily imagine it when you think of the digestive fire in your stomach.

Apana vayu governs the forces of elimination—the act of releasing, or taking out. Apana is usually a downward movement (going to the bathroom, giving birth), but the exhalation is an upward movement of apana.

If you’ve practiced yoga with me for any amount of time, you know that I teach a pattern of breathing that moves downward on inhale and upward on exhale. I ask you to expand your chest as you inhale and engage your lower belly as you exhale. This pattern follows what’s happening in the anatomy of the body, but it also supports the subtle movements of prana and apana.

Prana, apana, and agni

We often think of emotions as a mental activity, but emotions live in our bodies. Difficult emotions can end up as stored tension. We can tie ourselves into knots through our anxiety and fear. A common knot of tension happens in the center of the body, which weakens our agni, or internal fire (which can lead to all sorts of problems).

These knots of tension need to be removed. This is the work we do through the yogic practices of asana and pranayama. We can move our body and breath in ways that expand and contract, that engage and relax. We can search ourselves for the deeper, hidden knots of tension and work to release them.

But in order to untie these knots in a way that will last, we have to uncover the patterns that created them. We have to reflect on the mental and emotional habits that led to them in the first place.

As we do the physical work of releasing tension in our bodies and the reflective work of uncovering the habits that created the tension, we open up pathways in our bodies. We create space. This is the necessary first step. This is the deep spring cleaning that prepares us for our fire ritual.

In an external fire ritual you throw something into the fire. You watch it slowly burn and turn into ash. Bring this experience into your internal fire ritual. As you exhale and draw the muscles of your abdomen up, feel yourself lifting your negative patterns into the flames of agni. Allow them to be transformed into ash. Allow your inhale to fan the flames of agni, to strengthen the transforming fire.

I encourage you to work with the idea of spring cleaning, both in your external and internal life.

  • Do you have a closet that needs to be cleaned out?
  • Or an old box hidden somewhere that’s taking up both physical and emotional space?
  • How can you harness the power of awareness, movement, breath, and intention to “clean out” and transform your inner life?

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