Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The 5 Vayus: Samana Vayu (3 of 5)

As written about previously, the yoga tradition describes five distinct channels in which prana (vital life force energy) is distributed throughout our bodies known as the vayus (literally “winds”)—prana vayu (not to be confused with the master prana), apana vayu, samana vayu, udana vayu, and vyana vayu. These five vayus govern different areas of the body as well as different physical activities and more subtle aspects of the self. When functioning harmoniously, they aid the health and strength of the body and mind.

Samana Vayu

As prana and apana vayu govern what we consume and release respectively, samana vayu controls assimilation. Samana Vayu, also known as "the middle breath", is active at the navel center (manipura chakra), halfway between prana vayu in the chest and apana vayu in the pelvis. 

Samana vayu is a  force of unity and absorption. It functions to assimilate all forms of prana, gathering and processing all of our experiences. This vayu is the middle ground between what we take in and what we put out. As well as aiding in physical digestion, it is also the pitstop in which we deal with the events of our lives, incorporating and relinquishing what we wish.  
If prana vayu governs our experiences and apana our reaction to those experiences, samana vayu is where we processed what happened. 

As the core of pranic energy the navel center is essential to yoga, uniting opposing (upward and downward moving) forces through asana (postures). Bringing these forces together strengthens the body and balances the mind.

When samana is healthy and balanced, we benefit from strong digestion and mental clarity. Once we are able to honestly process our experiences, we are able to more fully enjoy our lives. When samana is compromised, we may have difficulty assimilating and digesting physically as well as emotionally.

Asana for Samana Vayu via Yoga International 
Since the energy at your navel center has the potential to be powerfully transformative, focusing your asana work here will benefit all aspects of your spiritual practice. Forward bends, twists, abdominal strengtheners, and many advanced practices like agni sara, nauli kriya, and yoga mudra are particularly effective in working with samana vayu, but we can access samana in virtually any classical asana. In the selection of postures below, we’ll see how to direct the flow of apana and prana to the navel center in standing poses, stoke samana with twisting poses, strengthen the structural support for this region in a backbend, and activate samana in a seated forward bend. (These postures are meant to be practiced within a balanced overall asana sequence.)

1. Parivritta parshvakonasana (revolved side angle pose)

This standing twist strongly cleanses and nourishes the organs of the abdomen while balancing energy in the pelvis and lower spine. Stand with the feet hip-width apart and step the left foot straight back about three to four feet. Bend the right knee and place both hands on the thigh to assist a twist to the right. As you twist, keep the spine long and adjust your stance as needed to keep the left foot flat on the floor. Press the left upper arm or elbow on the right thigh, stacking the shoulders and pressing the hands together to lift the left ribs up off the leg, drawing the rib cage away from the pelvis and giving the belly room to twist. Focus the twist in the gut; you should feel a deep squeezing and wringing out of the organs in the abdomen. If you are feeling the pose in the muscles of the hip and pelvis, you may need to back off and take a less deep overall twist to localize the work in the navel center. Try lifting the back heel, dropping the back knee to the floor, or stepping your back foot closer to the left edge of your mat to give the belly more room.

Pay attention to the breath; the movement of the diaphragm down into the belly on the inhalation accentuates the effect of the pose, and the exhalation allows you to twist a little more deeply. Coupled with attention to the breath, the strong twist in the abdomen helps to wake up and activate the navel center. When you’re finished, untwist slowly with an inhalation, step the back foot to the front of the mat, and repeat on the other side.

2. Utkatasana (chair pose)

Now we’ll work with energy flow at a more subtle level in utkatasana, redirecting the flow of apana and prana vayus toward the navel center. Start with the feet parallel, either together or a few inches apart. Bend the knees and drop your weight down into the feet, simultaneously stretching upward through the arms, the crown of the head, and the length of the spine. Press the feet evenly into the floor and away from each other. Reach the tailbone toward the floor to keep the lumbar spine in neutral alignment—neither arched nor flattened. Draw the upper arms toward the sides of the head, keeping the shoulders down, the elbows straight, the collarbones wide, and the neck long. Let the outer body drop, and strike a working balance between the forward lean, to balance the deep squat, and the upward lift of the torso, to resist the forward lean.

The dropping of the weight and drawing down of the breath brings prana from its realm in the chest down to the navel center. The inner lift from the pelvic floor draws apana from its pelvic realm up into the navel center. The meeting of the two creates samana, which you may feel as heat at the navel center spreading through the whole body. Release and stand quietly for a moment, following the flow of breath in the body and feeling inner expansiveness and alertness.

3. Jathara parivartanasana (reclining abdominal twist)

As the name implies, jathara parivartanasana is one of the best asanas for stoking jathara agni, the fire in the digestive system. This pose also tones the navel center and activates samana. The combination of a leg lift with a twist strongly energizes and strengthens the entire region, including all four layers of the abdominal muscles; stimulates the nervous system; and cleanses and nourishes the abdominal organs.

Start on your back with the knees bent and the thighs over the abdomen. Press the arms into the floor at shoulder height to stabilize the torso. Exhale, gently lowering the knees to one side. Before reaching the floor, inhale the knees back to center and then exhale and lower to the other side. Inhale back to center. Lower the knees only as far as flexibility and strength allow.

If this is easy, straighten the legs toward the ceiling, and exhale, slowly lowering the feet toward the right hand, as you press the left shoulder into the floor. Inhale, lifting the legs smoothly back to center. Repeat to the left side. Continue from side to side.

You can also hold the twist while maintaining abdominal engagement. First bend your knees and plant the feet flat on the floor to lift and shift the hips to the left. Then straighten the legs and slowly lower to the right until the feet are just off the floor or at the lowest point where you can still effortlessly maintain control of the alignment in the spine. Hold the pose for a few breaths, then repeat on the other side.

4. Navasana (boat pose)

Sometimes referred to as shalabhasana (locust pose), this backbend stretches the abdominal muscles, strengthens the lumbar spine, and supports the energy of the navel center. In this sequence it serves as a counterpose to gently move energy from the navel through the rest of the body and restore balance in the musculature.

Lie face down with the arms alongside the head, or alongside the body if you have shoulder issues. Draw the legs together, reach out through the feet, press the pelvis into the floor, and lift the legs, chest, and arms on an inhalation. Breathe with your focus at the navel center pressing into the floor. Keep the arms and legs moving toward the central axis of the body while stretching away from the navel center in both directions. Hold for several breaths and feel the energy build and fill the body. Relax down on an exhalation.

5. Marichyasana (Sage Marichi pose, twist variation)

This seated twist strongly activates samana and concentrates and absorbs awareness deep into the core of the body. Fold the left heel into the lower right abdomen in half lotus (ardha padmasana). If the knee doesn’t reach the floor, or if there is discomfort in the joint, straighten the left leg on the floor instead. Bend the right knee and bring the foot flat on the floor in front of the right sit bone. Twist to the right, initiating the movement deep in the low belly.

Several arm variations are possible. The bound version of this twist compresses the energy of the navel center and stabilizes the posture by locking it in place. To bind, wrap the left arm around the outside of the right thigh and the right arm behind the waist, then clasp the hands. If this is challenging, place the right hand on the floor behind the pelvis and either wrap the left arm around the right knee, or brace the upper arm against the outer right thigh.

Focus on the navel center and the breath as you relax and hold the deep compression without exertion. Allow the mind to become absorbed in the concentrated field of samana at the navel center. Release slowly on an inhalation, rest for a breath or two, and then do the pose on the other side.

6. Paschimottanasana (posterior stretch)

Paschimottanasana is the quintessential forward bend with a long list of benefits, including perfect digestion and the awakening of kundalini, according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Tight hamstrings or a stiff lower back will hamper access to the navel center, so consider bending your knees and/or sitting on a cushion or a folded blanket if either of these problems take your attention and energetic focus away from the navel center. Draw the lower belly in and up, and hinge forward from the hip joints. Roll the inner thighs downward to keep the legs aligned, and reach gently through the heels, even if the knees are bent. Keep the lower belly engaged without restricting the easy flow of the breath. If you are deeply engaged in the core of the body, you can soften the outer body and surrender into the pose. The lower belly activation moves apana up, while the alignment of the pose, the breath, and the mental focus at the pelvis move prana down to the navel. When perfected, paschimottanasana brings about the union of apana and prana, and the awakening of sushumna, which you may experience as a drawing inward of the mind and a sense of integrated inner space extending from the pelvis to the head.


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