What is Prana-Vayu?
We should distinguish between “prana” and the “prana-vayus.” “Prana” is life force; the “prana-vayus” describes the way that prana moves in the body. Prana is life force or vital essence; the vayus are the winds. Yogi’s seek to draw panic life force into the body and retain it; using it only for achieving the goal of union with god. The Ayurvedic perspectives seeks to keep the channels open and the energy moving. Of course there is a lot of overlap between these two projects; but the difference is notable. Prana is movement so Ayurveda considers the way things move. Most of our physical life force is maintained through intake of food, water, and air. In other ways we get power for praise or accomplishment, overcoming challenges, winning competitions, and sacrifice when properly carried out. We can gather a kind of false prana thru insincere praise, unearned advancement, pretentious sacrifice and any number of ways including using drugs or alcohol and other addictive and temporary “uppers.” These kinds of pranic increases are short and can be fatal in the end.
Prana represents the two elements space & air. It can be incredibly fickle. Yoga teachers talk about inhaling or increasing prana, but few warn about the dangers of unnecessarily leaking our prana out all over the place as we promote our “spiritual practice” and pretentiously signal our virtues. The Buddhist Diamond Sutra warns about seeking merit through mercurous deeds; merit or life force is only increased when the good deed in spontaneous.
The prana vayus are said to move between the heavens and the earth. The vayus are the vehicle of lord Rudra and his Maruts. This is why we visualise the movement of breath from heart centre to the 12 finger space above the head.
Ayurveda offers us five prana vayus which we can also use as visualisation tools for meditation. We can become very sensitive and aware of the body by practicing visualisation along with our pranayama.
5 Prana Vayus:
- Prana: Represented by the Sun. Rules over respiration and sensory perception. It’s produced in the chest or heart. It typically moves inward and upward. Prana is emission, like when we exhale, our vital force goes out through our breath. When we use our senses energy is used to illuminate the world much like the Sun illuminates the world. If we look at a pretty girl we give energy to her and lose a bit of our own. If we listen to gossip we waste our energy. Whenever we project our thoughts or words or actions into the world we lose energy. When we turn all our awareness inward we illuminate the heavens and are gifted with true energy.
Pranayama is one of the best ways of building our life force. Pranayama can be understood in different ways. Some say that it’s prana + ayama and others say it’s prana + yama. On one hand pranayama brings life, power and vitality to the body and the senses; on the other hand, we can practice pranayama in order to still the senses and slow all the vital functions to preserve energy and ultimately ride the breath to heaven leaving the duality of earthly existence behind, (Incidentally, it seems there must also be some connection with pranayama and Bharani nakshatra since it is ruled by Yama.) Prana brings warmth and movement to whatever is inert, lifeless and dead. Yama drains the live force and makes things inert, motionless and dead. The senses do not reach out for satisfaction, they become motionless as we life without desire or attachment. We become dead as individuals or distinct beings, and we come alive to universal flow and consciousness.
When we exhale prana, that life force which was given to us by god, reaches out to the world through our senses to colour and flavour the objects with whatever flavour we might crave; whatever we have inside of ourselves at the moment reaches out to the world to create a counterpart. When we inhale and bring back all of that sensory material we generally forget that we have just created it, so we react. We forget that we always get back what we give. As long as we have forgotten this fundamental rule we will suffer from our karma; once we learn it, life becomes a spontaneous play whatever might be your circumstances.
“The vital breath is essentially a state of consciousness which manifests as the movement of two breaths; prana and apana (exhale and inhale).”
This is a major theme of Tantra: that one thing appears to be two separate things; or, as is the case in waking life, as a multiplicity of distinct objects. As we look at things more and more closely and understand them for their subtleties rather than accepting them at face value, they begin to merge together as though they were never separate. As it says in the Stanzas on Vibration:
“Whatever else may exist apart from you, if subjected to sound reflection, simply disappears like the fables palace of celestial musicians and you alone, changeless remain….” Stanza 10 goes on to say that , “then the soul realises that his true nature (dharma) is universal agency and perceiving subjectivity, and so he knows and does whatever he desires.” ~Stanzas on Vibration~
In yoga we often talk about the body, mind and soul. We can think of this as three worlds or three layers of our being. The prana lives in the intermediate region of the mind, in our highest intelligence, but prana moves between heaven and earth; the soul and the body; the subject and the object. It’s through the prana vayus that we are connected with everything. Vayu is Air and Ether, which allows it to pervade and move between all 36 tattva. Tantra associates the prana vayu with the right pingala nadi.
The prana vayus are known as the vehicle of Rudra, an ancient name for lord Shiva that means “the Howler.” Rudra is known as the “Lord of Beasts.” He is often associated with the 11 Maruts which signifies his rulership of the mind and the 10 indriyas (5 sensory and 5 motor functions). Rudra and the Maruts are said to ride upon the vayu.
Prana is the expression of our life force which penetrates the world and forever leaves our mark upon it (which will come back to us again through the 5 fold cycle of the vayus). Prana also represents what we give to the world. It’s said that people who belong to traditional cultures will begin a deep breath with an exhalation whereas modern people are much more likely to inhale straight away when told to take a deep breath. It’s the difference between giving to the world first before expecting rewards, and asking for the world to give to you before you’ll give anything to the world. The second modern perspective is, of course, an unhealthy aberration.
- Apaana: Represented by the Moon. In Ayurveda it’s the downward movement that aids in urination and elimination. Tantra associates apaana with the left Ida nadi channel of the kundalini.
- Samaana: They call it the equinox; “the equalising breath.” Ayurveda describes the movements as spinning inward towards a centre point. This is the energy of digestion, assimilation and meditation. It purifies things to their essence. Most of this activity takes place in the navel region and it’s related to the element of fire. It’s said that in the waking and dream state, prana-apana is active, however in states of deep-sleep samaana balances the inhalation and exhalation.
- Udaana: The Ascending breath. This is the central channel; the sushumna. This is the upwards rising force. Most of its action takes place in the head (though others include all the extremities of the body. According to Ayurveda, it also moves outwards to produce speech and any kind of coordinated activity, including that of the five senses.
- Vyaana: Expands in all directions radiating outward from the navel Often considered the nadis energy system similar to the meridians of Chinese Medicine that provide nutrients and energy to the whole body. This is a windy airy quality to it and some say that it doesn’t live in any particular place in the body, but rather pervades every part. This is the most etheric of the Vayus.
To this list should be mentioned the other five vayu’s for the sense of mystery evoked by them since they seemed to have been forgotten by history other than a few esoteric mentions. 1.Naga: releases energy that is stuck by causing us to burp, vomit, hiccup… 2. Kurma: related with winking and blinking. 3. Krikala: induces sneezing to clear the blockages in the respiratory system. 4. Devdatta: yawning. 5. Dhananjaya: regulates the opening and closing of the heart valves and controls the fragmentation of a body after death.
Prana Vayu: the most essential function
Once upon a time all of the organs and functions of the body got into a debate about who was most essential. Many were praising the way the skeletal system gave shape and standing to the body, or how the blood carries nutrients to maintain the body, others marvelled the how the heart pumped blood and how the lung found it’s own way to pump air, then prana-vayu came along and everyone silent, for they knew that without the warmth of prana and the movement of the vayus that all life would stop. The hearth would not beat, the blood would pool and go stagnant, and the breath stops; the body becomes cold and inert.
Shiva: the most essential
Once upon a time, the Gods entered into a timeless argument over who was most powerful and essential for the functioning of life and this universe. Shiva happened to be moving about rather than sitting peacefully upon the peak of Mount Kailash. Something always seemed to be happening whenever Shiva was moving about. Then Shiva came across this childish argument and sought to quell it by simply pointing out that none were as powerful as him and they should all just go home and forget this pettiness. Of course some of the big gods who were standing around took offence to this, namely Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver. To their protests, Shiva merely revealed his true form as a mystical shaft (lingam) of light (jyoti) and said, “see if you can find where I end.”
The two who remained standing laughed at the challenge and quickly set off in opposite directions to find Shiva’s loose ends and bring the argument to a close. Truth is that because of Shiva’s filthy appearance, they would all be happy to bring his pride down a notch or two. But after eons searching through the vastness of Shiva’s light they finally decided to meet back in Kashi where it all began. When they got here, Vishnu immediately fell to his feet to offer his most respectful pranam to Shiva. But Brahma, who, despite his capacity for creation, has no eye for consequences, lied and said that he had found an end. It was just over the horizon not so far and it had only taken so long to return because he had decided to rest there for a while and fell asleep. Brahma had meanwhile made a deal with the Ketaki flower to tell a lie about finding the end of Shiva.
Almost nothing enrages Shiva more than arrogance, false pride, egoism and lies; so from this instigation (or was it a deliberate provocation) all of Shiva’s most fearsome aspects rose to the surface and with an upsurge of impulse he took the form of Bhairava and chopped off one of Brahma’s five heads. The greatest crimes in India are those that go against pure knowledge and wisdom; they call this killing a Brahmin. Even the Gods are subject to karma so this fierce Bhairava form of Shiva became Aghore and took up the skull and walked to four corners of India as a form of tapashia and renunciation of his life. This is the version of Shiva most emulated by modern naga babas and Aghores: naked, fearsome to behold, covered in the ashes of the funeral pyre from the cremation grounds where they often make their home. Every part of his external image brings fear and revulsion. But if we take the time to get to know a true aghore we will get to know and overcome our own fears. For that’s the social role of the Aghore, to show us that this is the worst it can get; this is our greatest fear; but actually, it’s not so bad.
After 12 years of wandering like this, Bhairava returned to Kashi, and not far from the train station washed himself in a small pond. All of his impurities (malas) dropped away, along with the skull which had been his companion for the past 12 years. He once again brought balance to the three gunas within himself, overcoming their excess and deficiencies, freeing himself from the wheel of time and the cycle of cause and effect. In short, even the most fearsome evil was able to overcome the inner turmoil of self and social recrimination and realise himself as that same light of the universe that is in all things without distinction of good or bad or any of the other opposites.