air, four elements, Yoga

Frank Answers About Yoga Harnessing the Wind

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.

As a liturgist 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 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.

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).

“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, but may also be in us.

Earth’s Atmosphere

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. These fast 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 only makes up 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. Early 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 riding in a vehicle or 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 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. These winds are not only physical forces moving within the body; they also affect mental and emotional energies.

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, author of 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 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, using a variant of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.  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.”

The Five Vayus

Prana 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).

Vayu Asana Practice

These directions of the movement of prana can govern asana practice. 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

Warrior 2

Udana vayu – inversions to bring the prana into the head

Bridge pose is an accessible inversion.

Samana vayu – abdominal work and belly breathing (kapalabhati or bastrika) to generate digestive fire

Legs raised slowly up and down.

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 announced that he was devising an annual curriculum for his teaching at Grateful Yoga in Evanston that would focus on one of these aspects of yoga each season: moon with a mind focus (autumn), sun with a prana focus (winter), and fire with an abdominal focus (spring). The summer focus in Nick’s teaching would be on the whole body, its anatomy and physiology, from toes to the head. He has been following this pattern for several years now and I think it works very well because it is in tune with the world in which we live and our how bodies relate to each season.

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!).

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 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) to bring prana to the upper body; 

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: butterfly, slowly bringing knees together while engaging root lock (mula bandha); repeated several times.

 Final relaxation (savasana) enables the body can absorb what it has done.

Vayu Meditation

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 he breath. On exhale fed 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.

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.

Follow Up

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, can Christians 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”.]

[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.

Finally, my thanks to Nick Beem for teaching the Yoga and Science course in the fall of 2017, which inspired me to bring together these articles on the four elements of classical cosmology. Yoga has one more element: space.  In due time, I may write an article about it in the same vein as these four.

Yogi Frank Senn

A variant 5-pointed star which is a variant of the Vitruvian Man. Hands connected behind the head with elbows pulled back thrusts the chest forward to receive prana vayu.  With the head thrust back and the throat exposed, this pose is also an example of an ether or space element practice.

1 Comment

  1. Amy Schifrin

    Thank you, Frank. I just read this after returning home from my early morning Yoga class at Salt Power Yoga in Sewickly, PA. I love these classes because they set my body aright for the new day. These are all Vinyasa, hot yoga classes, and they work well to cleanse, restore, and in their own way, energize. As I read your column, however, I am reminded how much I still yearn for a quieter yogic expression, so that as with your practice, I could pray, Veni Sancti Spiritu.

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