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By Stephanie Given, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate
“To change something we must alter the energy which creates it.” —David Frawley, author of Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization
When I first began to practice yoga, what motivated me to come back for more was the happy-go-lucky, full-of-energy, floating-out-of-the-room feeling I experienced after each class. I would literally count down the hours until I could get my next yoga fix.
As my practice deepened, that same yogi stoned feeling was no longer present after every class and I couldn’t understand why. Sometimes it seemed like a switch was flicked partway through class and I would leave feeling angry, sad, or depleted. I struggled to comprehend how yoga could make me feel this way and I’d usually tell myself that it was because the pace was too fast or too slow, that I was off balance, that the music was wrong, or that the person next to me was too close or too smelly or breathing too loudly.
Of course it was none of these! I learned during yoga teacher training that how we feel at the end of class is largely a function of the sequencing of the class. The structure and focus of a class will elicit different emotions depending on which vayus are being activated. The word “vayu” translates to “wind,” commonly referred to as currents or functions, and in the yogic tradition there are five separate vayus which govern all activities, from the overt to the subtle, throughout the body. This includes everything from nerve impulses to physical and mental digestion.
Although the vayus work together as a whole, each vayu also administers to its own specific body parts and functions. During the physical practice of yoga, ideally you’re igniting all five vayus, or energy sources, including prana, apana, udana, samana and vyana. When a class is heavily focused on a single type of pose that ignites a particular vayu, such as twists or forwards folds, or when certain vayu-stimulating postures are held for a lengthy amount of time, emotions or memories will begin to arise. When all vayus are balanced and working to their fullest potential, optimal health is created and we’re motivated to achieve our true and higher purpose in life.
Prana vayu is translated as “forward moving air” and is the vital energy that moves inwards towards the center of the body. Prana vayu governs everything that we take in from our environment, including food, water, air, and sensory stimuli, and it increases energy and motivation. Back bending postures create an explosion of prana energy. If you’re starting your day with a morning yoga practice, it’s not a bad idea to hold bow pose (dhanurasana) or bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) for a few extra breaths.
Apana vayu translates to “air that moves away” and moves energy downwards and outwards. It helps eliminate anything that is no longer needed by the body, including mental and physical toxins. It also governs the reproductive organs. Poses that ignite apana vayu also support your immune system and keep you grounded. Forward folds, such as pyramid pose (parsvottanasana) and seated forward bend (paschimottanasana), stimulate apana vayu. It may be better to end your day rather than begin it with a forward folding practice as an overly grounding practice can make a person feel depleted of energy.
Udana vayu translates to “upward moving air” and opens energy channels in the throat and neck to allow self-expression and speech. It helps to provide positive mental energy, determination and strength. Have something on your mind that you want to express? Light up udana by welcoming more poses into your practice that direct energy to the head and throat, such as shoulder stand (sarvangasana), wheel (urdhva dhanurasna), or headstand (sirsasana).
Samana vayu translates to “balancing air” and moves in a turning motion from the navel to the heart. Samana vayu is ignited in twists such as revolved half-moon pose (parivrtta ardha chandrasana), revolved side angle pose (parivrtta parsvakonasana) or a seated twist (marichyasana III). It aids digestion, whether physical or emotional, and gives us balance, concentration and discrimination. A practice heavily focused on twists can lead to deep introspection. It can also be quite provocative and cleansing.
The final vayu is vyana vayu, which translates to “outward moving air” and moves from the center of the body out to the periphery. It governs the circulation of everything, from food in the body to thoughts in the mind. It gives us coordination, mental balance and concentration and provides us the energy to move forward into whatever we want to set as intentions for our hearts and minds. Standing and balance poses, such as mountain pose (tadasana), tree pose (vriksasana) and warrior two (virabhadrasana II), activate vyana.
Learning about each individual vayu helped me realize that I have far more control over my mental and physical state following yoga than I’d realized. There are many ways yoga opens and mends the many layers inside myself. Although I can’t control the sequencing in an instructed yoga class, I can create my own at-home practice to include what I feel I’m lacking or need on any particular day. Some days I need to ground myself. Some days I need to fly. I can now recognize that the beauty of yoga doesn't lie solely in that happy-go-lucky feeling.