Our experience of the body is shaped by many things: gravity, genetics, the environmental switches that turn our genes on and off, the ways we touch the world (if we regularly sit at a desk our body will shape itself around that desk, for example), the dance between water and fiber in our body, our emotions (particularly those we don’t express – repetitive emotion eventually becomes stuck in a holding patterns in the body) and, for those of us who practice yoga, through the specific practices we choose to work with (for example by working with the prana vayus).
On and off the mat, every shape we take has a unique psychology and physiology. The process of shaping the body repetitively (consciously or otherwise) leads us to think and feel repetitively too. The reverse is also true. The thoughts we think and emotions we feel shape our body too.
For example, research shows it’s easier for us to retrieve autobiographical memories when the situation (or shape) we’re in while retrieving that memory is similar to the situation (or shape) we were in during the formation of the memory itself.
Similarly, research shows we find it easier to recall happy memories when we’re smiling or upright, whereas we find it easier to recall unhappy memories when our posture is closed or slumped.
We find it difficult to remember happy memories when we’re in a downcast posture. We find it difficult to recall unhappy memories when our posture is upright, which suggests that our memories are encoded in the perceptual and motor pathways of our body (the same pathways that were involved in processing the original event).
Research also shows that, if we spend a short time in a slumped posture, we feel less confident in our ability to meet life’s challenges and less persistent in trying to do so. Conversely, if we place our self in an expansive posture the reverse also holds true.
When we see someone’s posture, it speaks to us. It also speaks to them. This suggests that if we change the shape we change the feeling. Another way of saying this is that, by improving our kinesthetic (movement) literacy we can improve our emotional literacy too.
As yoga teachers, our role is to do more than give ‘right foot forward, warrior one’ type instructions. Over time our effort should be directed towards developing our capacity to see people and understand the ways in which their lives express in their bodies so we can reweave those relationships.
One way we can do that is by working with the prana vayus.
What are the prana vayus?
Vayu, in Sanskrit, means ‘wind’. It refers to something that moves. In this instance the thing it moves is energy within the body. The body has five primary movements of energy, collectively referred to as the prana vayus. Each one has responsibility for a particular direction of movement, is concentrated in a specific location and governs particular physical and psychological experiences.
Apana vayu is a downward movement of energy, concentrated in the lower pelvis and, as might be expected from its position, is responsible for the body’s eliminative processes. This manifests on the physical plane as elimination of physical waste. It also manifests on the mental and emotional plane, as our ability to forgive and let go.
Because the prana vayus are superficial bodily structures (close to the surface, as compared to other energetic structures – like chakras – that are very deep) we can influence their functioning through the targeted use of asana, pranayama and meditation. Forward folds, which compress the lower belly, are perfect for apana vayu.
Next, we have samana vayu, an inwards movement of energy (which travels from the periphery of the body to the core) at the abdomen where our digestive organs live. Samana vayu (as can be gauged by its location) is responsible for the process of digestion. This is true for the digestion of food. It also rings true for the digestion of our life experiences. Do we learn from our mistakes and extract wisdom from our experiences? Or are we presented with the same lessons over and again?
In the same way that apana vayu is influenced using forward folds, samana vayu is influenced using twists. Practicing consistently in this way improves our ability to assimilate our life experiences, however they may manifest.
Next, we have pran vayu, an inwards, expansive movement of energy in the chest. Pran vayu governs our ability to receive. This manifests at the level of the breath (through our ability to inhale fully) but also in our ability to ’take in’; to receive nourishment from life in all its forms including through the absorption of information, our ability to receive love from others and our ability to draw nourishment from our experiences.
As pran vayu is concentrated in the chest it can be influenced using backbends (which target this area. Back bending practices are energising and motivating and help us experience the world as bright and full.
Next is udana vayu, an ascending movement of energy that moves from the chest to the head, but is most concentrated in the throat. Udana vayu governs growth and aspiration in all its forms. This manifests as our desire to excel as part of our human experience but it also manifests as our desire to access higher states of awareness as part of our spiritual experience.
Udana vayu’s ascending energy can be accessed through inversions, which move energy up the spine. And, because it’s energy becomes concentrated in the throat (and is therefore associated with speech and creative expression) it can also be accessed through poses that target the throat or subtle body practices like mantra and bandha.
Finally, we have vyana vayu, an expansive, circulating energy that radiates outward from the heart (from the core to the periphery of the body) and which, unlike the other vayus, doesn’t have a clear physical location but is circulating in nature, responsible for the coordination and integration of movement on all it’\s different levels.
That sense of expansion, which is the hallmark of vyana vayu, can be accessed through flowing movement, but also through lateral poses, which stretch and expand the side body, making us more expansive in every way.
The relationship between body and mind is something we experience all the time, even when we’re not present enough to notice it. We can make this relationship conscious, however, by understanding how to employ yogic practices to bring about changes to our thoughts, feelings and body.
The fact that we can change the quality of our tissue (and the quality of our thoughts and emotions) by changing the way we move is an astonishing reality, and one made all the richer through the practice of yoga.