The Five Vital Airs
Vayus—Gatekeepers to the Infinite
In Sanskrit, vayu means “Air,” “breath,” or “wind.” According to the yogic tradition, in pranamaya kosha (the etheric body) prana divides into five vayus (principal breaths or vital airs) according to its movement and direction. In the Chandogya Upanishad (2:13:6), the vayus are referred to as the “gatekeepers to the heavenly world.” This suggests an esoteric understanding of the close relationship between breath and consciousness.
The vayus govern different areas of the body and different physical and subtle activities. When they function harmoniously, they assure health and vitality. They also have effects on the psychological level, allowing us to live life with meaning and opening us to the spiritual reality beyond the different koshas.
The vayus represent five important forms of energy that manifest both in the being and in the entire Universe. They are collectively called the prana vayus or “winds”:
- Prana vayu
- Apana vayu
- Samana vayu
- Udana vayu
- Vyana vayu
Of the five vayus, prana vayu is the fundamental energizing force. It is the inward moving vital energy that governs respiration and absorption, allowing us to take in everything from air and food to impressions and ideas. It provides propulsive energy, speed, motivation, vitality, and the basic energy that drives us in life. Prana vayu is most active in the region of the lungs and heart. The “seat” of prana vayu is the heart, and this vital air ensures that the heart goes on beating.
On a more subtle level, this vayu gives heightened sensitivity to both the external senses and the inner awareness. It allows us to see the world in all its potential and to anchor our inner focus in a place of contentment. Prana vayu gives us aspiration for our spiritual development. It is associated with the Air element.
Apana vayu, the “air that moves away,” is the downward and outward flow of energy in the body. It is mainly responsible for exhalation and the elimination of waste materials. Apana vayu governs the eliminative functions (excretion, urination, menstruation, ejaculation, and perspiration) and childbirth. It is situated mostly in the lower part of the body—from the genitals to the knees or, alternatively, from the abdomen to the calves or even the feet.
Apana vayu is a descending energy, used in Hatha Yoga to awaken kundalini shakti. Many pranayama techniques reverse the direction of the flow of apana vayu and unite it with prana vayu. According to the Shiva Samhita, apana vayu and prana vayu are the two most important vital airs. Their union is considered particularly important, bringing profound spiritual effects. It is related to prithivi (the Earth element).
The “unifying breath,” samana vayu is active mainly in the area of the navel. It is responsible for the assimilation of food and brings balance between prana vayu and apana vayu. Samana vayu moves from the periphery to the center. It is a concentrating, absorbing, and consolidating force. Samana vayu’s main function is the assimilation of prana in all its forms. Samana vayu activates and controls the digestive system (the liver, intestines, pancreas, and stomach, as well as their secretions). At the mental level, it facilitates the digestion of ideas, providing nourishment and contentment. Samana vayu gives us discrimination, mental concentration, and balance. Samana creates the one-pointedness of mind that leads to meditation and, further, to samadhi.
Samana is a balancing energy between prana and apana. It gives us the clarity, courage, motivation, and power to seek our True Nature. Therefore, samana vayu is a profoundly transformative agent for spiritual transformation.
Samana vayu is, broadly, the subtle digestive fire related to tejas tattva. In the Yoga Sutras (3:41), Patanjali states that mastery over samana vayu results in jvalana (effulgence)—a radiant, shining aura. Control of this subtle energy gives advanced yogis the ability to regulate their own body temperature, a formidable power that Tibetan yogis call tummo. It is related to the Fire element.
“That which carries upward” is the literal meaning of udana vayu. It is mainly responsible for the ascension of energy. Udana vayu leads the soul to the astral and causal planes after death. It gives us joy and enthusiasm and helps awaken our higher spiritual and creative potential. It is active primarily in the region between the heart and the head, bringing prana to the energy centers deep in the brain. Thought and the awareness of the outside world would be impossible without it.
As the vayu moving through sushumna nadi, udana is associated with the ascension of kundalini shakti. Udana vayu controls the area above the neck. It brings the consciousness and kundalini up to sahasrara during states of samadhi. Its functions are growth, speech, expression, and upward movement. Udana vayu is related to the Ether element.
Vyana vayu is the “outward moving wind.” It moves from the core to the periphery, pervading the entire body and causing the circulation of blood. It is also called “omnipresent prana.”
Vyana Vayu pervades the whole body, regulating and controlling all movement. It connects and coordinates the other four vayus, keeping them balanced and nourished. Its function is cohesive. A pervasive and expansive force, vyana governs the movement of energy through the circulatory and nervous systems, and the free flow of thoughts and feelings in the mind. It gives the mind comprehensiveness, agility, and independence.
Vyana expands the mind into the infinite, allowing the openness to the Cosmic Mind. It also governs the general movement of energy through the 72,000 nadis (energy channels), purifying them and ensuring their harmonious functioning. Its subtle energy causes the movement of food, water, and oxygen throughout the body. Vyana vayu is fundamental in making us feel and function as an integrated whole. It is associated with the Water element.
Contemplation on the Vayus
As we practice yoga, the subtle aspects of the vayus begin to awaken and we become aware of a wider spectrum of their functions and effects. We may feel new expanses of energy (subtle vyana), great peace (subtle samana), a sense of lightness or levitation (subtle udana), deep groundedness and stability (subtle apana), or heightened vitality and sensitivity (subtle prana). Although becoming aware of the five vayus can aid our understanding of the physical and subtle realms, it is wise not to forget that what we are seeking is beyond these levels. As the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (4:1) says, “That which breathes through the prana is your self that is within all. That which moves downward through the apana is your self that is within all. That which pervades through the vyana is your self that is within all. That which goes out with the udana is your self that is within all. This is your self that is within all.”