This article completes my reflections on the four classical cosmological elements of earth, fire, water, and air. The previous Frank Answers about the elements are “About Connecting with Earth’s Body,” “About Spring Fire,” and “About Relating to the Element of Water.” I wanted to bring together in these articles my interweaving interests in cosmology, theology, liturgy, spirituality, and yoga. Yoga knows of a fifth element — ether or space — that I will deal with in an additional Frank Answer.
As a liturgist (someone who studies and performs worship rituals) I have always had an interest in the seasons of the year, particularly the relationship between the natural seasons and the liturgical seasons. I see the four elements of classical cosmology spread over the seasons of the year in terms of earth (autumn), water (winter), fire (spring), and air (summer). I have also related these elements to the liturgical times of the end of the church year (earth), after Epiphany (water), after Easter (fire), and after Pentecost (air/wind). But, of course, we’re never without the elements at any time of the year, either in the cosmos or in our bodies.
Pentecost and Spirit
I have seen Pentecost as the liturgical corollary to the element of air. Coming fifty days after Easter, it also ushers in summer in the northern hemisphere. The festival commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles of Jesus with “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (Acts 2:4). Indeed, Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind—mysterious yet effectual. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).
In the story of the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit became the energy that filled the apostles and sent them into the streets to proclaim to the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Weeks that the Christ (Messiah) who was crucified God raised from the dead. Resurrection was not just new life; it was a new creation. Those who wanted to know how to respond to it were told be “repent and be baptized.” They would be “born again by water and the Spirit,” as Jesus had told Nicodemus (John 3:5).
“Spirit” in Greek is pneuma (“breath”, “wind”, “energy”). Pneuma is the equivalent of the Hebrew ruach, the wind of God that swept over the waters of the pre-created world in Genesis 1:1, bringing order out of the pre-existent chaos. It is similar to the Sanskrit prana, which is usually translated “breath,” “energy,” or “life force.” The Latin spiritus also means “breath”, “energy,” or “life force”. The psalmist says, “when you send forth your spirit (breath), all are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30). The life-giving Spirit, like the air we breathe, like the wind we feel, is everywhere, including in us. Twice in 1 Corinthians St. Paul called the body the temple of the Holy Spirit, the place where the Spirit dwells (3:16, 6:19). Is there a subtle body energized by the Holy Spirit like yoga teaches a subtle body energized by prana?
Modern cosmology claims that we live in an oasis of air. Other planets and moons have atmospheres, but none of them are conducive to the life forms we know because none of them have much oxygen, the precious gas that we Earth animals need every minute. We couldn’t have breathed in Earth’s original atmosphere either, since it was primarily hydrogen and helium that Earth brought from the sun. The moving molecules of hydrogen and helium moved around very fast in Earth’s heat and eventually escaped Earth’s gravity and drifted off into space. Fissures in Earth’s cooling outer crust released gases from Earth’s molten interior in the forms of steam (H2O, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), carbon dioxide (CO2, one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms), and ammonia (NH3, one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms). Much of the CO2 dissolved into the oceans.
Down in the ocean depths there emerged a simple form of bacteria that could live on energy from the Sun and carbon dioxide in the water, producing oxygen as a waste product. Especially as plants took root in the soil as well as in the water, oxygen began to build up in the atmosphere, while the carbon dioxide levels continued to drop. Meanwhile, the ammonia molecules emitted into the atmosphere were broken apart by sunlight, leaving nitrogen and hydrogen. The hydrogen, being the lightest element, rose to the top of the atmosphere and much of it eventually drifted off into space.
Of course, the air we breathe is made up of lots of other things besides oxygen. Oxygen makes up only about 21% of air. About 78% of the air we breathe is made up of nitrogen. There are also tiny amounts of other gases like argon, carbon dioxide, and methane. The plants and some bacteria use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, and animals use oxygen and give off carbon-dioxide—how convenient! The atmosphere upon which life on Earth depends was created by life itself.
Wind and Energy
We animals breathe, and most of the time we’re unaware of doing it, just as we’re unaware of the air we breathe, unless it is stirred into movement that we call wind that we feel on our bodies. Wind is caused by a difference in pressure from one area to another area on the surface of Earth caused by uneven heating of Earth’s surface by the sun. Air naturally moves from high to low pressure.
Because of the uneven temperatures of Earth’s air masses, instability is created in the atmosphere when warm and cool air masses meet. This can create strong winds and heavy rains at the front of the air masses. In the middle of North America (the American Midwest) tornadoes are formed by the collision of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cool, dry air from Canada. Spring produces the most optimal conditions to form tornadoes.
The rotation of Earth causes air to move. Because Earth’s shape is approximately spherical, the force of moving air currents is greatest at the poles and least at the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, air currents are deflected toward the right; in the Southern Hemisphere they are deflected to the left. Winds become stronger when the air currents have to move around stationary objects like tall mountains or buildings or trees. Air is invisible to us unless we see its effects in moving objects such as tree branches or windmills.
When our bodies move quickly through the air, for example, by running, we push against the air and generate wind. Water evaporates in the air; it evaporates more quickly in windy conditions. Runners and other athletes experience the cooling effect of the air as sweat evaporates from their bodies. Other mammals don’t sweat, so their body temperatures run much higher than ours. When they get overheated they pant. Humans are unique in that we can direct heat off the body by sweating, and when our sweat evaporates in the air the body cools down. The cooling of the body is energizing, and this additional energy gives us more endurance.
Lafayette Indiana High School Cross Country
Since the moving air can also move other objects, humans figured out that they could harness wind power to create energy for other purposes. From old Holland to farms in the United States and other parts of the world, windmills have been used for pumping water or grinding grain. Today, the windmill’s modern equivalent — a wind turbine — can use the wind’s energy to generate electricity. Increasingly they dot the landscape of open spaces with blades perched high on poles to capture the moving air we call wind.
Wind turbines in Xinjiang Province, China
Prana and Vayus
Yoga also provides a way of harnessing wind power by moving air (prana) into, throughout, and out of the body. The ancient yogis observed specific ways prana could be regulated and controlled in the body. This form of pranayama (breath control) is called the vayus or “winds.” Five main vayus have been identified as: Prana vayu, Vyana vayu, Udana vayu, Samana vayu, and Apana vayu.
Pran vayu means “moving air forward.” This is the energy that receives air, food, and water into the body. It’s “seat” is the heart, and it is associated with the element of air. This energy moves into the center of the body from the nostrils to the lungs and the core of of the body (between the navel and the throat).
Vyana vayu means “outward moving wind.” This is the energy that connects the functions of the body. It has no particular seat, perhaps because it is associated with the element of water that is found throughout the body. This energy governs our internal sense of coordination, balance, and physical integrity or cohesiveness.
Udana vayu means “wind which carries upward.” This energy addresses the region of the throat and head, and is seated specifically in the throat. It also governs muscle function and strength in the extremities as well as the sensory function of the eyes, ears, and nose. It is associated with ether or the element of space (the fifth yoga element).
Samana vayu means “the balancing wind.” This energy moves primarily in the region between the navel and the heart (solar plexus), and its seat is said to be in the navel. It is the controlling power of metabolism or “digestive fire” and governs the digestive organs and glands. It also governs the assimilation of oxygen from the air we breathe. It relates to the element of fire.
Apana vayu means “the wind that moves away.” The dominant energy of apana vayu is downward and outward movement. It governs the ejection of whatever is not needed in the body. It is the force behind elimination of waste and also the process of reproduction from insemination to childbirth. It relates to the element of earth.
The directions in which these vayus move, in the order in which I have presented them, is from outside the body into the core (prana), from the core to the peripheries (vyana), from the core upward to the throat and the head (udana), from core to the navel (samana), and from the navel to the pelvic floor (apana).
The vayu practice underscores the fact that yoga is not just an exercise regimen. The poses (asanas) are in the service of a philosophy, a worldview, that sees the body as the microcosm of the universe. David Gordon White, in The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions of Medieval India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), addresses yoga as ultimately grounded in a body of metaphysical assumptions that date back to the classical Upanishads.
The Satapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52 declares: “This [ritual act] done now is that which the gods did then [in the beginning]”.
Robert Fludd’s illustration of the human as the microcosm within the universal macrocosm uses a variant of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man. (See Frank Answers About the Meaning(s) of the Body.) Fludd states that “Man is a whole world of its own, called microcosm for it displays a miniature pattern of all the parts of the universe.”
Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man actually forms a yoga five-pointed star. This yoga pose is not unlike a Dutch windmill. The wide-based stance provides stability. With arms spread out the chest cavity with heart and lungs is opened to receive air or prana which can circulate throughout the body. Like the arms of a classic Dutch windmill the upper body (torso) can also twist in various directions. In this variant of the five-pointed star the yogi places his hands on the back of his head, pushes his hands and arms back with his head, expanding his chest.
Before we proceed we should note that most of the time our breathing is shallow. It becomes more intense as we need more oxygen in the lungs for more vigorous exertions. Yoga has developed a practice of inhaling to fill the lungs in three stages, which are seen in the extension of the belly outward and to the sides, then the ribs to the sides, and finally the upper chest. (The lungs are big organs.)
Yoga is also interested in containing the energy (prana) that is inhaled by closing openings in the central channel at the throat and the pelvis by means of locks or bandhas. The throat lock (jalandhara handha) is effected by lowering the chin onto the chest, thus closing off the throat. The root lock (mula bandha) is effected by contracting the lower abdomen and buttocks. The uddiyana bandha is effected by pulling up the diaphram while exhaling and not allowing any inhale by retaining the throat and root locks so that the abdominal area is hollowed out. This can be done in any position, but usually standing with hands pressing on the thighs. It is a powerful cleansing (kriya) practice.
These directions of the movement of prana can govern asana practice. While every asana can be analyzed in terms of how it takes in, extends, circulates, digests, and eliminates energy in the body, some poses demonstrate particular vayus. Suggestions would be:
Prana vayu – standing backbends to open the heart such as warrior 1 (see the image above the article) or this high lunge with backbend performed by Yogi Patrik Bitter of Essen, Germany
Vyana vayu – standing laterals to extend the prana throughout the body to the extremities of the arms and hands and legs and feet
Udana vayu – inversions to bring the prana into the head
Bridge pose is an accessible inversion. Other inversions include shoulder stands and head stands.
Samana vayu – abdominal work and belly breathing (kapalabhati or bastrika) to generate digestive fire
Legs raised slowly up and down, either one at a time or together. Legs together could also move in a circular windmill pattern.
Apana vayu – forward folds, twists, and mula bandha (abdominal lock) to send prana down into the earth and out into the world
My teacher, Nick Beem, a student of Rod Stryker, introduced the yoga of sun, moon, and fire in a six-week series in the spring of 2015, and later devised an annual curriculum for his teaching at Grateful Yoga in Evanston that would focus on one of these aspects of yoga each season: summer body focus (anatomy), autumn moon focus (mind), winter sun focus (prana), spring fire focus (transformation).
At the end of the six-week “sun, moon, and fire” series Nick challenged the students to take one of the practices from the series and do it at home for 30 days. I chose the vayu practice from the solar/prana segment and worked out the following sequence at home for 30 days from May 24 to June 28, 2015. The asanas I chose for each vayu were designed to enable me to flow from one to the next (a vinyasa) as an aid in motor memory. (Of course, I was simultaneously attending yoga classes, so these weren’t the only poses I did for 30 days!). Here was my practice.
Throughout this sequence continue even in/out breathing with a 4:4 ratio of four counts in, four counts out. Generally move forward and up on inhales, back and down on exhales.
For prana vayu: table to child to downward dog several times for warm-up; then cobra to downward dog to extended mountain pose (arms overhead) with slight back bend. Move into warrior 1 with a back bend;
for vyana vayu: warrior 2 (a lateral pose) to extended mountain to chair;
for udana vayu: back to mountain pose to squat to dynamic bridge (my inversion);
for samana vayu: laying on your back extend legs up and lower them almost to the floor several times (either separately or together); then add side twists;
for apana vayu: bring knees to the floor in butterfly; very slowly bring knees together (inner thighs may quiver) while engaging root lock (mula bandha); repeat several times.
Final relaxation (savasana) enables the body to absorb what it has done.
We had also engaged in meditations on the five vayus in Nick’s series, which I adapted as follows:
Prana vayu – invoke a sense that prana is all around. With arms outstretched draw prana into the heart center, bringing the hands to prayer position over the heart. Do this several times inhaling deeply as your arms are extended and exhaling as you bring your hands to heart center and lower your chin to your chest to lock in the air.
Vyana vayu – place hands in an upward-pointing triangle over the heart, then extend them out and bring them together over the heart in the upward-pointing triangle mudra five times.
Udana vayu – bring hands over the head in the upward-pointing triangle mudra chanting OM loudly five times.
Samana vayu – draw awareness to the navel center by placing hands in the downward-pointing triangle on inhale. Hold the breath. On exhale feed prana to all cells of the body.
Apana vayu – draw attention down to the pelvic floor. Place the inverted triangle mudra over the pubic area. Take a long inhale with root lock and on exhale release root lock and send all the energy down to the floor. For women this is also known as the yoni mudra.)
The upward-pointing triangle represents shiva (consciousness); the downward-pointing triangle represents shakti (energy). The triangle can also represent three-in-one and has been used as symbol of the Trinity. The triangle is really a yantra being used as a mudra.
In July 2015 I did a workshop at Hartwick College on “Yoga and Theology” in which I led participants through this vayu series as I had practiced it and asked them to consider St. Paul’s teaching that the body is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19). As yoga imagines a subtle yet real body energized by the prana, I asked whether Christians can conceive of a spiritual yet real body that is energized by the Holy Spirit? “Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). I adapted the above meditation into a meditation invoking the Holy Spirit, chanting the Latin invocation, “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit”). [See Frank Answers About “Christian Yoga”.]
Extend arms forward – chant “Veni”; extend arms upward – chant “Sancte”; extend arms outward – chant “Spiritus” (repeated); bring hands to heart center – chant “Amen.” (repeat)
[This whole vayu asana sequence and the “Veni Sancte Spiritus” meditation are included in my book, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), pp. 291-93 in Chapter 10, “Breathing Bodies, Singing Bodies.”]
In reality, the life force is one even though yoga divides it into five types according to its movement within the body, just as the air in Earth’s atmosphere is one no matter the wind currents, and just as the Spirit is One. Doing a sequence that includes all five vayus in one practice helps to reinforce the unity of energy/breath/Spirit.
Drawing the air into the body, sensing it circulating throughout the body, and expelling the used oxygen from the body as carbon dioxide, which is used by plants for photosynthesis, helps us to realize that we are a part of this planetary air oasis that constitutes the biosphere. Keeping our air from being polluted by gases that are toxic to animal life is in human self-interest as well as for the good of the whole biosphere. As summer approaches yogis should take their practice outdoors, enjoy the biosphere, and do what we can to maintain and renew it. If possible, feel the wind on your body as you take in prana, circulate it throughout your body, and expel it.
Yogi Frank Senn