The 5 Pranas: Yoga Physiology
All living beings are complex open systems, which essentially means that they are continuously exchanging energies from outside of themselves to provide for growth, development and transformation of their forms. As humans, we take in sunlight, water, food, air, and love, as well as information pouring in through the sensory portals, to keep aliveness flowing. We also need to eliminate, release or let go of what is either harmful or no longer needed. Not only solid, liquid and gaseous materials, but also attitudes, ideas, emotions and belief systems can be released. The yogis of old, recognizing these processes of life, described the nature and functioning of ten different on-going energy exchanges, five of major importance and 5 minor ones. Known as vayus or ‘winds’, from the Sanskrit word for the element air, (the Sanskrit root ‘va‘ means that which flows,) these energy flows are not only integral to healthy physiological, psychological and emotional functioning, but are also gateways to the cosmic fields and an intimate experience of the infinite.
The Sanskrit word prana refers to the fundamental energy of the cosmos, but is often used to refer to the vital life force energy we experience as aliveness. The Chinese use the word chi or qi, the Japanese ‘ki’ (as in aikido) to describe this, but alas, the is no English equivalent. Thus the vayus are often called the 5 prana vayus, or just the 5 pranas. The five major pranas (there are also 5 minor ones) are known in Sanskrit as: prana, apana, vyana, samana and undana, and together these five make up the Pranamaya Kosha, one of the three subtle sheaths or layers in yoga anatomy.
The first vayu is, confusingly enough, also called prana and refers to the process of taking in energies from the outside. The most obvious expression is inhalation, where we expand the chest cavity to draw air in and absorb the vital element oxygen, and the organizing center of the prana vayu is said to be the mid chest or heart chakra region. But eating, drinking, reading, listening, or taking in energy and information on any level is included in the category of prana. As the energy of oxygen is the major mover in physiology, the prana vayu is also said to be the energy that sets things in motion. Prana is associated with the element air and the fourth chakra.
Apana, or the apana vayu, is the complement to prana, and is involved with expelling energies and materials out of the system. Apana means ‘moving away’ and refers to all levels of elimination. On the organic level, it engages the large intestines/colon/rectum, bladder/ureters/kidney and lungs, and on the psychological level it facilitates the letting go of negative thoughts, emotions and beliefs. Centered in the pelvis, apana also governs the expelling processes of insemination, menstruation and child birth. Apana is associated with the element earth and the first or muladhara chakra.
Samana vayu governs digestion and the ability to absorb what we need from the energies we have taken in through the prana vayu. The solar plexus or third chakra is the organizing center, the element fire, and the organs involved include stomach, small intestine, liver, gall bladder and pancreas. The samana is the ‘balancing’ energy, mediating between what comes in, prana, and what goes out, apana. It extracts the nutrients while leaving the bulk and toxins behind. The lungs, as they absorb the oxygen and leave the nitrogen behind, also have a samana component. Digestion is a form of discernment and thus samana is also associated with the process of learning and discriminating between wise and not so wise life choices. In posture and asana practice, samana balances the action of the upper limbs governed by the prana vayu and fourth chakra, with apana governing lower limbs.
The vyana vayu takes the energies that have been absorbed and distributes them throughout the entire body. Vyana means ‘outward moving’ and represents the element water and the second chakra. The circulatory system is its the most obvious physiological component, but on a more subtle level, the nervous system (western model) and the nadi system (yogic model) also function through the vyana. It is the most integral of the pranas as the circulatory and nervous systems are interwoven through all levels of the body. The musculo-skeletal system and skin are also engaged through the vyana as a coordinator of movement. Because of its global activities, it does not have a true center of organization.
The udana vayu, ‘the air that carries upward’, regulates growth, development and creative output of the organism, from conception through death. It even extends beyond death as it governs the moving of the soul or karmaskaya out of the body through the crown chakra at death. Very active in the head as the brain is where the most continuous development takes place in the adult, the udana is centered in the fifth chakra region of the throat, supporting the thyroid and parathyroid glands. The voice is a vehicle for creative expression and udana energies create speech. In embryology, udana works with the apana to precipitate the birthing process and this continues in life as the rising of the kundalini energies of integration and awakening. In the Prasna Upanishad, udana is said to guide the mind from dream sleep into dreamless sleep and thus realize Brahman, the ultimate unity of all.
The five minor pranas, also known as upapranas or upavayus are as follows.
Naga, which releases abdominal pressure and protects the digestive system through belching and vomiting.
Kurma controls the eyes by adjusting the size of the iris to adapt to changing light intensities, and also protects the eyes through blinking.
Krkara protects the sinuses, nasal passages and throat through sneezing and coughing.
Devadatta brings about yawning and sleep.
Dhanamjaya works through the opening and closing of the valves of the heart.
Beginning: Related Links
1. Developing Mindful Awareness
2. Attending to the Breath
3. Orienting to Grounding and Lightness