The 5 Pranas: Yoga Physiology

                                     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 Unknowneliminate, 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 images-2undana, 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.

imgresSamana 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.

images-1The 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 imgres-1creative 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


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Micro-Cosmic Orbit: Pt 2

Exploring and Embodying Three Dimensions

In the previous post we explored the micro-cosmic orbit as a means to refine our focal attention (samadhi) through bringing our attention to specific points along the orbit and linking these points into lines, arcs and circles. As we work more deeply this way, we may discover that we can find these points at three levels. The first is out beyond the confines of the skin, in an ‘orbit’ in the energy field around the body. The second is directly on the skin, where an acupuncturist or shiatsu practitioner would apply needles or pressure. The third is in the interior of the body along the planes of fascia interwoven through the organs, blood vessels and nerves. When we can feel all three of these levels simultaneously, we are inhabiting our spherical energy field and can begin to fully realize the possibilities of having three dimensional/spatial sensitivity, perception and consciousness.

images-5The girdle vessel (Dai Mai,) the fourth vessel we use, is a latitude line and is essential in finding our three dimensional perceptual field. This yang vessel pairs with the yin ‘thrusting vessel, the vertical center axis, creating horizontal stability, and allowing us to rotate/twist. Rotation inherently builds the third dimension of depth ( A circle has length and width. To create a sphere you add depth. ) and is the gateway to cosmic awareness as well as a more vibrant embodied presence.

Rotation drives the whole manifest universe. In our solar system, the planets spiral around milky_waythe sun. In our Milky Way galaxy, the stars, including our sun, spiral around a center (probably a giant black hole! If you can find Sagittarius in the night sky, and you will probably have to wait until next summer, look through and imagine 26,000 light years off in the distance.) The earth rotates on its own axis creating weather patterns as well as a sense of day and night.

The spinning top (one of the oldest toys known to humans, found in archeological sites all over the world) demonstrates the cosmic principle in physics we are embodying. The faster it rotates, the more stable the vertical line. When the top slows down it starts to wobble and when it stops spinning, it falls over. To keep the rotation, you need to keep feeding it with energy. The bicycle uses this same principle, flipped 90 degrees. Another aspect we explore is the radius of the horizontal circle. Rotation pushes from the center outward (yang) in what is called centrifugal force. As this is counterbalanced by theGM2434B-1 yin centripetal (center seeking) force, we can change the volume of the energy field by playing with this ‘expanding – condensing’, yang – yin relationship.

In this top, the widest circle with the most outward thrust, the purple one, is below the center of the vertical axis. Lowering the center of gravity adds even more stability, which is why we emphasize the lower dantien in our breathing, movement and meditation practice. When we discover how to work with this principle in the energy field, our twisting poses can actually help expand the body. If we work muscularly, you will feel constricting in twisting poses.

SBK_1711254-24Traditionally the ‘dai mai’ girdle vessel surrounds the body at the level of the pelvis in the lower dantien. but we can move our attention to awaken other ‘latitudes’ of the body. To begin in the feet, stand with the right foot forward, the left foot back, as if you are about to move into a standing twist (without the forward bend), but haven’t yet begun. Before you move any further, imagine a spiraling coil of energy beginning below the floor (the Antarctic Circle) and traveling up the center. Notice how this mimics the girdle vessel. Now imagine the coils widening as they rise up from the base ( moving toward the equator), as the yang energy expands outward. The girdle vessel is very yang so this is quite natural. Feel the energetic volume expanding and condensing with the breath, but slowly expanding in overall volume

To awaken the front body-yin energy field, we can take the hoop forward to fully engage the arms and shoulders. Now imagine the hoops extends through the back body, receiving the rising spiral and expanding as the action of twisting. SBK_1711254-2SBK_1711254-9Most students eventually leave half of the body behind and end up contracting rather than expanding, especially along the spine column. Imagine the center of the spinal canal opening outward in an expanding circle/spiral, melting the tissue, feeling spaciousness, transcending the limitations of structure.SBK_1711254-4 (My front foot turns out much more than average to release the inner groin. Don’t feel you have to imitate this, but find out for yourself where openness and balance meet.) The hoop is moved to the front to expand the yin/organ/front body qi field and expand the ‘wings’ of the body, but also feel the back body softening and opening. This feeling can be evoked in sitting, lying and inverted twists as well. If you do not have a hula hoop handy, you can also use a thera-ball to find the volume.SBK_1711254-8


Another key component awakened here is the Pericardium 8 point, PC-8 (or P-8) in the center of the palms. Analagous to the K-1 points on the feet, P-8 is a gateway between the inner and outer qi fields. The SBK_1711254-11Pericardium, the fascial connective tissue membrane surrounding the heart, arises embryologically from the same cells and tissues that create the diaphragm and liver. The ‘heart protector’ literally does this, on many levels. As someone with a well-armored heart, I am finding that opening and nurturing the heart protector so that is does its job with over doing it is awakening a level of sweet vulnerability that is both precious and scary.

SBK_1711254-12In acupuncture, the pericardium meridian is part of the JueYin channel and connects all the way through the femoral canal to the legs. For those of you who have been practicing ‘climbing the wall’ for the last few years, you can actually trace the whole fascial continuity of the Jue Yin. (Use imagination to fill in the blanks.) Rise up from K-1 (not the heels, even though they do rise on their own) (DFL for those of you who know Tom Myers’ ‘Anatomy Trains’ system) to P-8, passing through liver, diaphragm and pericardium.

You can also track the qi from P-8 back into the body horizontally, again using the wall.SBK_1711254-14 Using the tip of the  middle finger of your other hand (PC-9) to feel the connections, trace the qi from the the wall and P-8 into the area around the pec minor muscle and then go inside the body to the pericardiam itself, along with the liver and diaphragm. Use the breath and your imagination. Then go back and try the twistings shown above with these new perceptions.

SBK_1711254-20To continue our building of a three dimensional perceptual qi field, we can return to the thera-ball to provide sensation and visualization. I like the feel of my third chakra having organ support, so I find placing the ball there and using a wall creates a powerful presence on the inside. Embryologically speaking, this is the extemely yin yolk sac which becomes the entire gut body. The conception vessel points on the micro-cosmic orbit are stimulated by the ball, bringing sensation and perception here. The liver comes from the yolk sac, so I can use this position to also find the Jue Yin channel we explored above. Lying SBK_1711254-19over the ball in a forward bend creates a similar feeling, with even more yielding and softening to the yang back body erector muscles. By moving the ball to the sternum, I can activate a new set of points on the conception vessel and engage the inner tissues surrounding the 4th chakra

If I want to build up my back field perception, I use the ball from behind and awaken sensation on the yang Governing Vessel.SBK_1711254-16 Here I have dropped it a bit lower to find the sacral-lumbar junction and here I can feel the possibility of both lumbar flexion and extension, from S curve to C curve and back.  The very important GV-4 Qi gong Image‘gate of vitality’ is here The inner abdominal space also opens and the front back and center plane begin to become conscious. This becomes trickier as you move upwards towards the liver. You can place the ball anywhere and feel different points coming alive. Feel their inner as well as outer presence. Back support can also help open the front. I haveSBK_1711254-17been trying to open my throat more for my sax sound and using the ball (or any elastic support) helps soften and melt tight tissue.

SBK_1711254-21Fish body support, opening some Gall Bladder Meridian points is another way to use the ball. I am using the wall, but this can be done on the floor as well, with slightly different effects. All of these ways of playing with the three dimensional field are ways of awakening and establishing a dynamic energetic field, centered in your heart, and radiating out throughout the whole of the cosmos. When you are out in Nature, feel this. When you are out and about in the human sphere, feel how you respond. It is fascinating to see what happens.

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