One thing I have noticed about yoga practitioners is that we love to ask “why?” We don’t tend to be satisfied with answers like, “it’s always been that way”, “that’s just the way we’ve always done things”, and especially “because I said so”. I suspect yogis of old were not so different. After all, when they looked at the world around them, they realized that the physical world had to be made up of something. That something is what we now know as the Five Great Elements: ether/space, air/wind, fire, water, and earth. Yoga and Ayurveda teach us that these five elements are the stuff of which all matter is made.
Last month we learned about ether, the most subtle element from which all other elements emerge. (If you missed that post, no worries! Check it out here.) Air, or Vayu, is the first element created from ether. Ether, or Akasha, animates Vayu.
Vayu: the winds of change.
Vayu governs all movement. This not only refers to physical movement, but also mental movement. Let me give you a practical example of how this works: writers often complain of having “writer’s block” when beginning a new piece of writing. No matter how hard she tries, the writer cannot think herself into inspiration.
Every writer has her own way of coping with writer’s block. One of my professors liked to walk on a treadmill until she was struck by something she felt was worthy of putting on the page. Another writer friend swore her muse lived in the home décor section at Target. She wandered up and down the aisles until she was ready to return to her writing desk. Even the much-loved author Neil Gaimen struggles with writer’s block. In an interview, he said he copes by sitting at his computer every day from morning until six o’clock. He gives himself a choice: he can write or do nothing. He is welcome to do nothing for as long as he likes, but the only thing besides nothing he is allowed to do until evening is write.
What all of these writers have in common is that they cannot force creativity and inspiration to occur. Space was a prerequisite to ideas. When the stepped away from their notebooks and computers and did something that required very little thinking, they cultivated the space with which creative thought occurs. Thus, space gives way to (mental) movement.
The five winds.
The word Vayu means “wind”. There are five different Vayus. They are Prana-Vayu, Apana-Vayu, Vyana-Vayu, Udana-Vayu, and Samana-Vayu. These different Vayus, or winds, govern different types of movement and locations in our bodies.
Prana-Vayu is located in the head and chest. It is an inward and upward movement. Prana-Vayu governs our reception of all things. This includes our intake of food, inhale of breath, and taking in new thoughts and ideas.
Apana-Vayu is located in the pelvis and lower abdomen. Its movement is outward and downward. Apana-Vayu governs elimination and reproduction. This includes the exhale of the breath and bodily waste materials.
Vyana-Vayu is the third Vayu. It circulates through the whole body, but is primarily located in the heart and lungs. It circulates our blood and breath. Vyana-Vayu moves from the inside to the outside.
Like Prana-Vayu, Udana-Vayu is and upward movement, but it also moves in a circular direction. It is located in the throat. Udana-Vayu governs growth, speech, and self-expression.
Finally, Samana-Vayu moves from the outside inward. It governs digestion and assimilation of all things: food, thought, ideas. Its primary location is in the abdomen.
Balancing Vayu: too much, too little, or just right?
It is important that we balance the air element within our bodies. Too much or too little will lead to dis-ease and dis-order. The most obvious form of Vayu deficiency is not breathing. We can only go about three minutes without oxygen. Most of us do not breathe optimally. We often take very shallow breaths and only breathe with the very top part of our lungs. Quality breathing takes practice. It involved inhaling all the way down to the bottom of our lungs. We may even feel our bellies expand. Likewise, when we exhale, we completely expel the breath and our bellies to return to their normal shape.
Another sign of Vayu deficiency is that we feel heavy, fatigued, and/or lethargic. Diet and sleep are critical component of balancing Vayu. We can increase Vayu in our bodies by eating cool, light, airy foods such as raw fruit and vegetables. Sleeping too much can also be a sign of Vayu deficiency. Regular sleeping patterns are key. It is important to mimic the rising and setting sun as much as possible when it comes to sleeping. Ideally, we won’t have to use an alarm clock, but it may be helpful to do so as our bodies adjust.
Too much Vayu can be harmful as well. When there is too much air in our bodies, we experience symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness, sleeplessness, and difficulty digesting. Excessive Vayu can cause us to feel disembodied. We can find our way back into our bodies through diet, movement, and spiritual practices.
When we are experiencing excessive Vayu, eating warm foods that are higher in protein and fat can be helpful. Again, maintaining a stable sleeping schedule of waking and retiring with the sun is greatly beneficial. Finally, spiritual practices such as hatha yoga and pranayama (breathing techniques) can help us find our way back into our bodies when it seems our minds and spirits have taken a leave of absence!
Space, or Akasha, is the prerequisite for balancing Vayu. When we allow enough time in our lives to simply be, we rest in the space where movement can occur. Practices such as yoga and meditation are tried ‘n true ways to create such space, but other things like play and leisure time are important as well. Time spent “doing nothing” can be time well spent, because it is from nothingness that anything and everything is possible.