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A few months ago, my father lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. In the final stretch of his life, I continued teaching a full schedule of yoga classes, but I visited with him daily. One afternoon between classes, I hurried home so I could change my clothes and then get to his side—but I couldn’t find a parking spot. I double-parked in the alley outside my apartment, threw on my hazard lights, and dashed inside. I’ll be fast, I thought.
Two minutes later, someone laid on their car horn. I darted downstairs and a small, angry, elderly woman stopped me in my tracks: She had her head stuck out her car window and was hurling profanities my way. I took a deep breath, looked at the woman sincerely and said, “I’m so sorry.” As I moved my car, she unleashed another deluge of obscenities laced with assumptions about my “entitlement,” ending the diatribe with, “I’m headed to a doctor’s appointment and I’m afraid I’ll be late!”
As I watched her furiously speed away all alone, I was reminded of a quote I often repeat to myself when I’m frustrated by others: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” In that moment, I was overwhelmed with empathy for my neighbor. Going to the doctor can be difficult. Going solo can be even harder. Of course, she likely didn’t consider I might be fighting a battle of my own—that my visits with my dad were some of the last moments I’d spend with him.
When I think back on this interaction, I’m grateful for my yoga practice—and particularly the ways in which it helps me to embody the prana vayus. Translated, prana means “life force” or “vital energy,” and vayu means “wind” or “direction of energy.” The prana vayus are the various directions in which life force flows, and our understanding of them can help us regulate the physical body and its systems—and support us in responding to challenges with greater steadiness and balance. For instance, in my one-minute interaction with my neighbor, I was able to ground down through my feet (apana vayu), take a deep breath and feel into my center (samana vayu), hold my head up (udana vayu), soften my eyes as they gazed outward at her (vyana vayu), and simply say, “I’m sorry” about the circumstances surrounding us (prana vayu).
Experiencing the prana vayus in my practice keeps me connected to the flow of energy within me and the world around me. The result is that the flow of energy within me is reflected externally in a way that aligns with my values and my highest self. Get to know the five prana vayus in the pages that follow, along with five yoga postures that can help you experience each vayu in your body. Learn them. Embody them. And watch as they train you to move through your yoga practice—and your life—from a place of peace, power, and connection.
Movement Direction Upward
Centered in The diaphragm; it moves through the lungs, bronchi, trachea, and throat, governing exhalation.
Expressed Verbally; when udana vayu is in balance, we communicate based on what we feel in our hearts, as opposed to what we think we should say; udana vayu helps these emotions move up and out of us.
The Pose Dandasana (Staff Pose)
Sit tall with your legs stretched out in front of you, your sit bones rooted into the ground. Press your palms into the ground and lengthen your spine; feel how energy rises from your sacrum toward the crown of your head. With udana vayu as a guiding force, Dandasana becomes the physical embodiment of rising, owning your truth, and expressing yourself fully and clearly. Hold this pose for 15–20 breaths.
Take it off the mat Imagine a conversation with a loved one or co-worker in which you feel uncertain about what to say or nervous about how you’ll be received. As you prepare for the conversation, feel the words rising from your center—a reflection of the same upward motion you experience as you lengthen your spine in Dandasana. Feel your willingness to speak honestly and completely, without shrinking back. Udana vayu encourages expansion, even in the moments when we want to contract. So, when you feel uncertain, call on the strength, vigor, and confidence of udana vayu.
Movement Direction All around
Centered in The chest; it governs inhalation.
Expressed Cyclically; prana vayu is reflected in your ability to be within a cycle of ongoing change while remaining connected to your center. Imbalances in prana vayu affect the nervous system and manifest as anxiety or fear, triggering symptoms such as breathlessness or heart palpitations. Yoga teaches us to pay attention to our breath cycle. For beginning practitioners, the initial instinct is to hold the breath when a pose feels challenging—which stops the flow of energy, leading to increased tension and resistance. Over time, we learn to trust the cycle of the breath, and as a result energy flows smoothly.
The Pose Salamba Supta Baddha Konasana (Supported Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet touching. Support your outer knees or upper thighs with blocks or folded blankets. Make sure your forehead is level with, or slightly higher than, your chin. The shape created by your legs and the connection between the soles of your feet are symbolic of the circular nature of prana vayu. As you rest your body in this supported position, you invite your lungs and your heart to open and your focus to gently return to your inhalations. By moving from restlessness to ease, we embody the notion that all things are ever changing—our breath, our feelings, even our yoga poses themselves. Hold this supported posture for 5–8 minutes.
Take it off the mat Each morning, set aside a few minutes to practice samavrtti, a form of pranayama that encourages even, balanced breathing. There are four parts to this cyclical breath: the inhale (puraka), the pause at the top of the inhalation (antara kumbhaka), the exhale (rechaka), and the pause at the bottom of the exhalation (bahya kumbhaka).
Come into a comfortable seated position, and invite your body to soften. Inhale for the count of 4. Pause, and soften your body as you briefly retain the inhalation, then exhale for the count of 4. Pause and soften your body again as you briefly retain the exhalation. The intention is to establish breaths that mirror each other in quality and length. Then, if you ever notice fear, anxiety, or breathlessness arising, practice this breath pattern.
See also The Science of Breathing
Movement Direction Downward
Centered in The lower abdominal region and pelvic cavity.
Expressed As steadiness; through the processes of elimination, making love, and giving birth. Apana vayu is experienced when our energy is grounded, like the roots of a tree. This vayu rules elimination and is felt when we let go of what is no longer serving us, such as shedding waste from our bodies or ridding ourselves of old habits or toxic relationships.
The Pose Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose)
From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) raise your right leg skyward, and then place your right knee just behind your right wrist. Lower your pelvis onto the mat, using a block or bolster beneath your right hip for support if necessary. Remain upright, supporting yourself on your fingertips or hands. Focus your awareness on the outer edges of your right calf and foot, feeling them root into the floor. Now, become aware of your left leg. Feel your shin and the top of your left (back) foot firm down toward the ground. Sense the grounding quality of your legs as your pelvis descends toward the earth. Notice how you feel. You might sense steadiness or solidity penetrating your body and mind. Simultaneously, the upward flow of energy (udana vayu) helps to keep the posture safe. As your legs and pelvis ground, your chest and spine lift. Draw your right thigh back as you pull your left thigh forward, hugging your outer hips inward, lifting through the pelvic floor (a good example of rooting to rise). Hold for 8–10 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Take it off the mat When you find yourself feeling disconnected or unsettled, place
your attention on your feet—or whichever part of you is in contact with the ground.
If possible, place the soles of your bare feet directly on the earth. You may even try lying down on the ground. Being in conscious contact with something solid and firm creates an active connection to apana vayu, which will help you steady yourself and gain purpose and confidence.
See also A Yoga Sequence for Deep Hip Opening
Movement Direction Inward
Centered in The digestive system; it’s experienced in the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of the foods, liquids, and air that enters the body.
Expressed Internally; in a culture that celebrates extroversion, samana vayu is an essential reminder that turning inward helps maintain harmony in our lives and bodies. In the same way a well-sequenced yoga class may peak to a heart-opening pose and then counter with a forward fold, samana vayu is the counter pose for moving through life—a suggestion that turning inward is not only a valid response to life’s demands but necessary for vitality and health.
The Pose Marichyasana I
From Dandasana, bend your right knee, placing your right foot on the floor with your heel as close to your sit bone as possible. Keep your left leg strong, grounding your left thigh bone into the floor. Reach your right arm forward and point your thumb down, rotating your arm inward as you lengthen your torso forward and snuggle your knee into your right armpit. On an inhalation, pull your navel in toward your spine, contracting your abdominals to generate length through your back body. On an exhalation, sweep your forearm around the outside of your leg. Sweep your left arm around your back, using a strap or towel to connect your hands (or clasp your hands together, if you can). Feel samana vayu as you draw your navel in toward your spine and lift upward, hugging in toward your center. Hold for 10–15 breaths, then repeat on the other side. As you sustain this posture, consider how it feels to move toward your center—to be inwardly reliant rather than externally motivated. Notice how different flows of energy are concurrently present as you look inward: The outward flow of energy (vyana vayu) subtly extends your heart forward as your front heel pushes ahead. The downward flow of energy (apana vayu) encourages the sole of your planted foot toward the mat. Each inhalation (prana vayu) helps you stay present to the experience. Your awareness of the other vayus exemplifies that turning inward does not mean shutting down, turning off, spiritually bypassing, or escaping. Instead, samana vayu draws you intentionally to your center in a fully informed, holistic way so that as you move outward, your actions come from the very core of your being.
Take it off the mat Whenever you feel energetically drained, make time to turn inward. Trust your instincts, get quiet, and listen closely for what your body is telling
you it needs in order to feel rejuvenated. Eliminate outside distractions by turning off your phone, computer—anything that makes noise. In silence, take time to simply be.
Movement Direction Outward
Centered in The core of the body, moving in and out of the extremities and in the blood and lymphatic system.
Expressed As alignment. Vyana vayu integrates the energy throughout the body so that your outward expression reflects and assimilates your internal awareness.
The Pose Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose)
Begin on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart. Bring your hands back by your ears, palms to the ground, as if setting up for Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). Press into the ground with the soles of your feet
and the palms of your hands, lifting your pelvis off the mat and reaching your sit bones toward the backs of your knees. Rest the crown of your head on the mat, then slip one forearm to the floor, then the other, interlacing your hands behind your head as you would for Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand). Press down into your outer arms, lifting your head away from the mat. As you hold this posture, notice how energy radiates from your core down to the soles of your feet—and up along your elbows, outer forearms, and wrists (vyana vayu). Hold for 8–10 breaths.
Take it off the mat The next time you are moving through your day and notice you’re no longer present or aligned with your highest self, practice this simple meditation: Stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, observe what you’re feeling without judgment, and proceed from a place of reconnection and awareness. When you are mindful of your internal state, you are better able to express yourself physically and verbally—presently and purposefully—so that your internal and external states align.
Bring the vayus to life
The prana vayus are a pathway for inquiry, giving your practice on the mat broader potential to inform and enliven your life. What we practice we become, and the prana vayus help us move with awareness, compassion, balance, and integrity. Notice each prana vayu in your practice. Pay attention to the liveliness of all five pathways in each moment or breath. Through your own experiences, you’ll develop an understanding that for each direction energy flows, there must be a complementary and opposing flow of energy in order to achieve harmony. Moving from this place of awareness, watch as your practice comes alive in every relationship you value, beginning with the one you have with yourself.
About Our Pro
Teacher and model Lauren Eckstrom is a yoga and meditation teacher in Los Angeles and co-author of the book Holistic Yoga Flow: The Path of Practice with her husband, yoga teacher Travis Eliot. The husband-and-wife team leads Holistic Yoga Flow workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings, and they co-created Yoga 30 for 30—a 30-day online yoga program of half-hour daily practices. Learn more at laureneckstrom.com.