I invite you to bring your attention to the tip of your nose and the fact of your breath. Let your attention flow with that tidal like rhythm of inhale becoming exhale… exhale becoming inhale…
As the breath continues to flow in and out, I invite you to ponder your first moments of life. You might not have conscious memory of those moments, but you can be assured of your first action. You took an inhale. It was a powerful, transformative inhale—one that welcomed you to life in this world. In the same way that we know our first action, we can look ahead to our last. None of us know when death will come. But we all know our final action. We will exhale. We will let go of our breath. We will let go of our life in this world.
This week we’re exploring the element of air, which might be the easiest element for most folks to connect with—even folks deeply disconnected from the fact that we humans are nature—because the element of air is connected to the life giving force of breath. In fact, if I asked you to say the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word air, I would be surprised if you said anything other than breath. But, of course, the element of air is connected to much more than breath. What else comes to your mind?
I think of the power of a wind storm. I think of birds flying high. I think of the ever shifting shape of clouds as they float through the sky. I think of tree tops swaying and leaves shimmering. And what do all these things have in common? Movement. When we think of the air element, we think of movement. If space is the vast container, then air is the element that moves within that container. The element of air is characterized by movement and direction. And, of course, it matters how and where it’s moving.
For instance, we might describe a cool breeze on a hot day as a gift we’re grateful for. While a hurricane is seen as a destructive force that we pray won’t come. These are both examples of wind—the air element—but they’re different.
In the practice of yoga and Ayurveda, there’s an important teaching about the movement and direction of air that can help us understand the workings of our energy body. It’s the teaching of the five pranas—or the five vayus, which means forces of the air. Before we explore them, let’s pause to remember the power of prana, which is a Sanskrit word I’m sure you’ve heard before. It means primary energy. It’s often translated as vital life force, or simply, breath. And its power is described in all the ancient texts of yoga. Let me share a story with you from the Prasna Upanishad, where prana is personified. Like many of the Upanishad stories, this is a conversation between a student and a teacher. The student asks:
“Holy sir, how many several powers hold together this body? Which of them are most manifest in it? And which is the greatest?”
And the sage replied:
“The powers are ether, air, fire, water, earth—these being the five elements which compose the body; and, besides these, speech, mind, eye, ear, and the rest of the sense organs.
Once these powers made the boastful assertion: ‘We hold the body together and support it,’ whereupon Prana, the primal energy, supreme over them all, said to them: ‘Do not deceive yourselves. It is I alone, dividing myself fivefold, who hold together this body and support it.’ But they would not believe him.
Prana, to justify himself, made as if he intended to leave the body. But as he rose and appeared to be going, all the rest realized that if he went they also would have to depart with him; and as Prana again seated himself, the rest found their respective places. As bees go out when their queen goes out, and return when she returns, so was it with speech, mind, vision, hearing, and the rest. Convinced of their error, the powers now praised Prana, saying:
As fire, Prana burns; as the sun, he shines; as cloud, he rains; as Indra he rules the gods; as wind, he blows; as the moon, he nourishes all. He is that which is visible and also that which is invisible. He is immortal life. As spikes in the hub of a wheel, so is everything made fast in Prana.”
In other words, without prana, without breath, without air, there is no life. And if we want our life to move in the direction of integration and healing, we have to pay attention to the movement of prana. Or more accurately, we have to pay attention to the movement of the five pranas. Which brings us back to the vayus—the five forces of air.
The five vayus begin with prana, which moves down and in. Apana moves down and out. Samana moves in toward center. Vyana moves out toward the edge. And Udana moves up and out.
Prana Vayu, centered in the chest, is inhalation, but it’s everything else that comes toward us as well. It’s the intake of our experience. What sensory information is coming toward us? What are we eating and drinking? What are we watching or reading? How are we filling ourselves up? The quality of our prana—the forward moving air—directly affects the quality of our life force. It’s our vibrancy!
Balancing the intake of prana is the vayu of apana, which is the air that moves away. Apana vayu governs elimination. We can’t just fill ourselves up indefinitely. We can’t keep everything that we take in. Some things need to be eliminated. Apana Vayu governs the lower half of the body. It’s a downward, outward moving force of air. It’s the force behind urination, defecation, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth.
The forces of air move in and the forces of air move out. The forces of air also participate in digestion, assimilation, and growth.
Digestion is governed by Samana Vayu, which is the air that moves from the periphery to the center. It’s the energy at the navel center. Think of fanning the flames of the digestive fire in our belly. On a physical level we digest food. On a mental level we digest experience and emotion.
After digestion, assimilation and circulation are governed by Vyana Vayu, which is the air that moves from the center out to the periphery. It moves through our entire system. Think of all that moves through our bodies: nerve signals, blood, lymph, hormones, food, water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide.
And finally there is the energy of growth, Udana Vayu, which is the upward moving air. Udana gets us out of bed in the morning. It allows us to stand, to speak, to put forth effort and passion. Udana is the force behind laughter, enthusiasm, and will power. Behind physical and spiritual growth. Udana Vayu, which is centered in the throat, is what comes out of us. It’s the outward reflection of the state of all the other vayus. It’s what comes out of us after we’ve taken in, digested, assimilated, and eliminated.
Life is an ever changing journey of movement. And as we work to move in the direction of healing and inner freedom, we can look to the five forces of air, the vayus—or what I like to call the five winds. We can look around our collective and individual lives and ask: what’s moving forward? What’s moving away? What’s moving in toward center? What’s moving out toward the edges? What’s moving up and out?