What is Prana Vayu?
Prana is life force or vital essence. Vayu is air and movement. Pranavayu is the movement of vital energy. Western Yogis have been talking about prana for many years already and it’s a relatively common term now. Modern Sanskrit scholars now tell us that we may have misunderstood the meaning of this word (see Wallis or Dyczkowski for confirmation).
Yoga teachers will commonly cue student to “inhale the prana” and “to visualize prana coming down into the body to give it energy. Ayurveda has followed with this classification of prana being a downward movement connected with the inhalation. Prana vayu is actually a bit of an awkward arrangement of terms since anything with prana moves and anything that moves has prana. This means we can refer to all five movements of the prana vayus as movements of ‘prana;’ we can also drop the use of prana and just call these movements the vayus.
What modern scholars tell us is that the word ‘prana’ actually refers to the upward outward movement of our exhalation rather than the downward inward movement of our inhalations. The implications of this research is just starting get filtered down to us ordinary yogi and even very respected Ayurveda Institutes have still not taken the time to consider their own teachings and understanding of this topic.
I have written elsewhere about the ignorance of the colonial mindset so I won’t talk about it here. Most ordinary yogis in the west are so far removed from the yogic scriptures that such finely tuned understanding of the terms they use is of little importance. The larger institutes and colleges are typically more concerned with reputation and profits they have little incentive to seek after the truth. It almost seem to be a kind of “little mans syndrome” of academia. Only the the great scholars care about such things and nobody listens to them since we can find the (wrong) definition of of prana anywhere on google.
So, getting back to exhalation which is connected with prana vayu. When we exhale, our vital force goes out thru our breath and the five senses to illuminate the world much like the Sun as it follows it’s daytime course thru the heavens. It’s rises with the beginning of our exhalation and moves thru the sky (of consciousness) until setting in the 12 finger space above the crown of the head to give way to the movement of the moon which rises full when the sun sets. This is where the exhalation has ended. As we inhale to passively and graciously receive the gift of life one nitya (goddess) leaves the Moon and enters into our bodies to nourish us and give life to the soul (the Sun) thru the body until she is herself drained of life, dark and dry as the Sun gains exaltation begins to penetrate the cold darkness of death with heat of life and the illumination of consciousness.
This is also the meaning of pranayama (prana + ayama): the life force which defeats death bringing life to the sense, allowing them to move. Prana brings movement and warmth to whatever
is inert, cold and dead. (I have also seen the opposite interpretation (prana + yama) suggesting that we do the breathing practices in order to still the breath, slow all the vital functions, an ultimately ride the breath to the heavens leaving the duality of earthly existence behind. Of course we continue on with our life, but without attachment, free of the limitations of the three gunas and they individual vital breath. One moves instead in perfect harmony with the universal flow of 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 whatever 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 realizes 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 layer of our being. The vayus live in the intermediate region of our highest intelligence but they move between the heaven and earth; the soul and the body; the subject and the object. Vayu is Air and Ether, which allows it pervade and move between all 36 tattva.
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 Mahurts which signifies his rulership of the mind and the 10 indriyas (5 sensory and 5 motor functions).
There are 5 Prana-vayu (movements of essential vital force), the sacred spaces associated with them. I have described them both in Tantric terms as well as in terms of Ayurveda
Prana: Represented by the Sun. Prana is moving when we exhale; this is a movement upward & outward from the body, when the vital force of the senses reach out to their object. This is the expression of our life force to penetrate the world and forever leaving our mark up it (which will come back to us again thru the 5 fold cycle of the vayus). Prana also represent what we give to the world. Many 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. In the later Tantras, this movement became associated with the pingala channel of the nadi system.
Apaana: Represented by the Moon. Apana vayu is the inward & downward movement which first comes to us thru the crown of our head in the form of grace or shaktipat as we receive the gift of life. In Ayurveda it’s the downward movement that aids elimination. and moved down the body Ayurveda they say move downward and outward. Like for the elimination of bodily waste. In later Tantras this became associated with the Ida channel of the nadis system.
Samaana: According to Ayurveda, it moves inwards, spinning towards a centre point like meditation. In the waking and dream state, prana-apana is active, however in states of deep-sleep samaana (the Equalizing breath) balances the inhalation and exhalation. The call it the equinox
Udaana: The Ascending breath. This is the central channel; the shushumna. This is the upwards rising force. According to Ayurveda, it also moves outwards like speech.
Vyaana: expansion in all directions radiating from the navel outward in all directions. Often considered as the nadis energy system similar to the meridians of Chinese Medicine.
What is the most essential quality?
The first story
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 the way the skeletal system gave shape and standing to the body, or how the blood carried nutrients to maintain the body, others marveled the how the heart pumped blood and how the lung found it’s own way to pump air, then pranavayu 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.
The second story
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. When Shiva came across this childish argument he 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 offense 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 and said, “see if you can find where I end.”
The two who remained standing there laughed at the challenge and quickly set off in opposite directions to find those loose ends, finish off the argument, and, for once, make Shiva look live the fool; because after all, everything has to come to an end. But after eons searching thru the vastness of Shiva’s light they finally decided to meet back in Kashi where it all began. When they got there, 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.
Almost nothing enrages Shiva like arrogance and upon this insult all of his his most fearsome aspects rose to the surface and with an upsurge of impulse he chopped of 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 form of Shiva, whom they call Bhairava, took up the skull and walked the four corners of India for the next 12 years. This is the version of Shiva most emulated by modern Naga babas and Aghore: naked, fearsome to behold, covered in the ashes of the funeral pyre where he makes his bed. 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 over come 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, Bharava 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 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 realize 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.
Head Chopping in Hinduism
In Kashi, whenever Shiva takes this fierce form and starts chopping off heads they call him Bhairava and have given him a rather bureaucratic job of welcoming and signing in all the pilgrims to give them access to the spiritual vision necessary “to cross the river that is so hard to cross.” You could say that he does this by metaphorically chopping off their heads. This head chopping metaphor is a relatively common one in Hinduism. Shiva chopped Ganesh’s head in Ujjain. They have built their own Bhairava temple there to commemorate the great event. Of course it was a little bloody and gruesome, but due to that Ganesha received blessings from all of the gods and was given guardianship over the directions. Kali is also famous for her necklace (mala) of heads. Ravana, the main antagonist of the Ramayana was given his great powers by Shiva when he cut off his own head in offering to Shiva. My teacher once told me that “only Ravana can cut off his own head and get away with it.” Due to his great power of penance his head grew back every time. Ravana was actually said to have ten heads due to the vastness of his knowledge and wisdom. All of this suggests that a jnana yogi needs to acquire, by penance and blessing, knowledge which faces in all ten directions.
In Jyotish we also have the story of Rahu and Ketu, the north and south nodes. This all happened in the very beginning when the gods and demons (the bureaucrats and bohemians) figured out that they had to work together to retrieve the elixir of immortality by churning the ocean of milk; pretty much all the divine being had to help in some way. In their greed to get the amrit, they didn’t think much about the side effects which was the creation of the physical universe and it’s cycles. Laxmi and Kamadenu came from this churning as did some great toxins that Shiva was able to swallow to save everyone. When the amrit arose and they were getting ready to pass it around a beautiful dancing girl appeared, seductive and scantily dressed. This was a ploy by the gods who knew the demons could be easily distracted by their senses. From the start, they never intended to share the amrit with the demons from. Swarbhanu was watching and saw all of this happening so he disguised himself as one of the gods and lined up with them for the amrit while the rest of the demons were being pushed to the back of the line. But just as Swarbhanu was taking a drink Sun and the Moon alerted Vishnu who swiftly cut off his head, but it was too late, the amrit had made it down his throat and both halves of him were immortal. The called the head Rahu and the body Ketu and gave them an abode in the starry heavens with the planets. The continue their vendetta against Sun and Moon whom they’ve never forgiven. At the time of the eclipse they get their chance to exact revenge thru various methods of disruption. Rahu brings intense desire while Ketu brings an almost equal intensity to his ambivalence. While Rahu brings our focus to the material world an ensures that the wheel of karma keeps turning; Ketu cuts us from our material ambitions allowing us to surrender to what is.