In this particular blog, we don’t always have to go so deep, right? We can take a concept like apana, one that could be contemplated for years, really, and cover the basic idea of letting go and eliminating in +/- 5 paragraphs. That approach can be a good introduction to such a concept, and it can be helpful reminder that eliminating things from our system and our life is a part of a healthy cycle of life from cell to whole organism. But sometimes, going deeper into a concept can be, well, deeper, and prana/apana is one of those that I happen to be really interested in so here’s another round.
But first, guess who I got to listen to for 18 hours last weekend… Leslie Kaminoff!!!! He’s the man who co-wrote Yoga Anatomy and the same guy who inspired last week’s post about apana. After writing that post, I decided to look into the Yoga Yoga’s weekend workshop with him and before I knew it, I was slapping down some plastic to pay for the weekend. FOR WEEKS NOW, I’ve been thinking about this apana concept and my body has not been in agreement with my mind. I almost quit. Then on Saturday afternoon, only a few inches from Mr. Kaminoff himself, I had the privilege of listening to him talk about prana and apana. It was pretty exciting and motivated me to read, ask some more questions and stick with this inquiry a little bit longer. So here it is…Apana, part deux.
What is the force that keeps us alive? In Mr. Kaminoff’s workshop, he talked about Prana and presented the idea of “life force” in this way: We have an amazing body system with an absolutely beautiful and coordinated network of bones, muscles, fascia, nerves, veins, bronchial tubes, and much more that maintains aliveness, but there was something before all that. There was something that had to give life to those systems. Yes, there was our mother. She provided life for us as a tiny cytoblast and beyond. Before her there was her mother and before her mother, there was a whole line of mamas, and if we trace life back, way back through monkey-lizard-single celled-ancestors where did that life force come from? In yoga, the answer to the life force question is Prana, with a capitol “p”.
Prana has 5 subcategories—types of prana (lowercase) that move as currents of energy in the body and govern specific parts of our body system. The currents are called “vayus” or winds, and each of these vayus has a general direction and an area of the body that it blows around. For this conversation, we will stick with prana vayu, which governs the heart/chest area and generally has an upward flow, and apana vayu, which governs the area of the abdomen below the diaphragm and generally has a downward flow. Prana and apana have a special relationship. Like many things in life/yoga, they could be seen as opposing forces, but I’m beginning to come around to seeing polarities not as oppositional but complementary. Hatha yoga’s “Ha” – sun, and “Tha” –moon, are both parts of a day. The cycle of a day has activity and rest, solar and lunar energy and we need them both to have balance in our life. Hatha Yoga is about this yoking of complementary forces in order to find balance on and off the mat. Prana/apana also relate to each other in this way. These two forces have a rhythm (we take in nourishment, eliminate waste) and both types of energy are essential to healthy functioning in our physical body and in our emotional and subtle realms.
The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “Yuj” which means “to yoke.” It can also refer to the ability to attain some thing that was previously unattainable. A classic metaphor is that of two oxen in a field that might wander around stomping on crops and munching away until the farmer busts out the yoke, hooks those two beasts up and then the oxen can begin to work together, under the farmers direction, to pull the plow and do some good for the field, the farmer, and the farm. The yoke, connects the oxen to each other and to the plow, just as yoga connects the mind body and spirit.
Now… this “yoking” as it applies to prana and apana is where it gets all yoga-special, confusing, interesting and really exciting to me. As previously mentioned, apana is an eliminating force and when it comes to elimination of the solid variety, apana has a downward flow – digestion, menstruation and childbirth move downward toward the earth and are governed by apana. When we exhale, apana moves upward, and the breath leaves through the mouth and nose— different direction, different substance, same force. Then there are elements of our energetic system that need cleansing but the downward and upward elimination just won’t cut it. Some things need to be burned by the sacred fire, if you know what I mean. (Think of energetic equivalent of old love letters, job rejection letters…) Yoga offers us methods and reasons to yoke apana and eliminate it not by releasing downward, but by bringing that energy upward in order to have a cleansing-with-the-ritual-flame kind of elimination. That’s right. We have a place in our body that can bring heat, purification and cleansing to our subtle body and that flame has a name: Agni. This flame resides just below our diaphram (near manipura chakra), the seat of much power in the body, both physically and energetically. It also happens to be a place where our emotional self sends lots of signals to our thinking self. When something doesn’t “feel right” or you experience the physical sensation of nervousness or anxiety, where do you feel it? Right at the top of the abdomen? That’s where this purifying flame hangs out, people. That is the home of agni.
According to Mr. Desikachar, son of Krishnamacharya, and to my wonderful teacher Eduardo, we can use the yogic practices of bandha to seal the container of our body from jalandhara bandha at the throat to mula bandha at our seat. Pranayama can fuel the flame, direct the flame downward and increase the flow of prana in the system. (Inversions are highly regarded in this tradition because they, too, reverse the direction of the flame and aid in purification.) When we draw apana up from its place in the abdomen and direct prana downward from the chest region it meets in the middle—at that flame called Agni and where Uddiyana bandha resides. When agni is involved, we experience that kind of cleansing that the rote elimination just doesn’t provide. It’s special and serious and it burns shit up.
Yoga doesn’t ask you or me to just buy into these models of chakras and energy and agni just because someone else experienced it and found it meaningful or helpful. We get to take these ideas and apply them to our own experience, hopefully with the guidance of a good and experienced teacher. If and when these models prove to be meaningful, then make use of them, blog about them, whatever. Here’s the thing about apana and me: I haven’t been able to relate to this “containing of energy and redirecting apana” idea very well and I’ve been troubled by this part of the prana/apana conversation. Believe me, I have some elimination that could really use some ritual-flame, so I think that’s why I am upset about this struggle with this principle. I want to channel apana to agni. I want to burn some shit up and be free of it, but it just doesn’t feel right to move a grounding and downward energy UP – against the flow. This just isn’t working for me.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jenn Wooten about this, another amazing and fav’ teacher of mine and a mama. Her thoughts on this topic make so much sense to me. She said that she sees this model of containing and moving apana upward as a masculine approach to a hierarchical system of prana and apana. (The heirarchy being the idea that “higher energy centers” along the chakra line are the direction that we strive for as we practice). In her experience (and in mine…) this downward force of apana is very much a part of being a menstruating, childrearing mother and woman. The particular season of life for a woman as a householder is about connecting to the earth and to our children, to ourselves and our body-cycles, and to rhythms and seasons. I have seen that for many women at this time of life, definitely for me, we integrate rhythms other than our own and those become our rhythms – from sleeping babies and family mealtimes to the pull of the moon and seasons of the (school) year. This is a time of life when we need apana to do its job and release what we don’t need so we can stay grounded and connected to ourselves our bodies and to the earth. We need the energies of the heart center, for sure, just as we need our intuitive powers and our ability to connect to the universe, but a big job of mamas is to provide the stability and comfort that growing children need by staying stable and grounded themselves. When are we most stable in our yoga asana? When our feet are wide and rooting down and our muscles are hugging in to our own center. Generally speaking, reversing the flow of apana and bringing the energy up to a higher center might not be the direction I need to go. These days, I work to reconnect to the first and second chakras in my post-divorce, yoga-teaching, prime-mothering time. In my practice and in my life, I am cultivating the Shakti-power to manifest the things that I need in my life. It might be that for now, apana is doing its thing and my work is to surrender to the grounding, eliminating, natural flow that it offers. There will be the occasional need to contain pranic flow and stoke the agni-flame, but generally speaking, the rooting, releasing and grounding that is going on is what I need.
Perhaps in another phase of life, it will be appropriate to contain and channel and burn. It may be appropriate in your life now, dear reader. This is the beauty of a steady practice of coming to know ourselves and to listening to this information that the body sends us by way of gut or instinct or center. Our yoga practice changes and shifts as we become more aware of what we need and don’t need. It is particular to each of us and to the circumstances of our lives. We learn what we need as nourishment and what we need to eliminate through Svadhyaya (self-study), Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to the things that we can’t control) and steady effort. Yoga can support us as we continue to learn and grow and change – sometimes by way of cleansing fire and sometimes through the releasing down into the grounding energy of apana. Aaaaaaaaaah yoga.
1. As always– I don’t claim to have all of this figured out. If you have thoughts, agreements, disagreements PLEASE SHARE! I love the conversation.
2.Do you live in Austin? Come to my Sat morning yoga at 10:30!!!! (details on sidebar)
3. For you to consider in the interest of staying in the body and with a physical practice:
According the the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ch2 v2, “The pranic body is the intermediate link between the physical body and the mind. Therefore, it can be approached from either side. It is, however, easier to control and purify the pranic body through the physical body. “