Apana Vayu: The Anchoring Breath
By Sandra Anderson
All yoga practices ultimately engage the movement of prana—the innate life force. In the last issue, we discussed prana vayu, the first of the five vayus, or subdivisions of the life force.
Now we turn our attention to apana vayu—of equal importance in the practice of hatha yoga. While prana vayu governs the intake functions, apana, which is most active in the pelvis and lower abdomen, governs the eliminative functions (excretion, urination, menstruation) and the downward and outward flow of energy in the body.
On the subtle level, apana eliminates not only physical wastes but anything undesirable or threatening to good health. It supports the immune system and helps keep the mind free of destructive forces. When apana is weak, the integrity of the mind-body complex is also weakened, and we become susceptible to illness, fear, doubt, confusion, insecurity, and loss of purpose; when it is strong and balanced, apana roots and grounds us, providing the foundation for a healthy body and a flexible positive outlook on life.
For most of us, however, the constant downward drain of apana necessary for proper eliminative functioning can also deplete us, leading us away from the inward unity that is the goal of yoga. The practices of hatha yoga train apana to work efficiently—they help us conserve and redirect this energy so we can access deeper planes of awareness. By repurposing apana, we build a foundation from which we can awaken and intensify our inner spiritual fire.
Apana Vayu in Asana
With a little practice and awareness, almost all of the classical asanas can be done in a way that provides access to apana vayu; indeed, mobilizing apana in the pelvis and then redistributing it is one of the main goals of asana work. This engagement of apana is the intention behind mula bandha, the root lock—a practice which is often misunderstood as a clenching of the sphincters of the pelvic floor, but which, when properly activated, can awaken and enliven asana. Initially, you can in fact approach mula bandha by contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor between the pubis and the tailbone (including both the urogenital and the anal sphincters). But in order to work with apana effectively in asana, you will need to engage a subtler, more complex aspect of mula bandha. On the muscular level, this means initiating and activating each pose from deep within the lower belly; this way you stabilize at the root without clenching, and ease the flow of apana into the structure of the pose. (It is important to note that, traditionally, mula bandha is discouraged during menstruation—if you succeed in catching hold of apana at that time, you may inhibit or even stop the flow of menses.)
The following selection of poses explores how apana vayu can be activated across several classes of asana and various pelvic alignments. Standing poses use the activation in the legs to energetically integrate the pelvis with the torso and the extremities, rooting us deeper into the pose and directing apana into the architecture of the asana. Sitting postures, which are intrinsically stabilizing, provide an ideal opportunity to strongly engage apana. In twists and forward- and backward-bending poses, the activation of apana anchors the body and allows for a smooth flow of energy from the root up through the spine.
In the poses below, focus on the position of the pelvis, the engagement of the lower belly, and the activation of the legs. With even, full breathing and relaxed but conscious engagement, you can harness the powerful force of apana to effortlessly stabilize and energize your postures.
1. Prasarita padottanasana
(spread-legged standing forward bend)
Notice how the pelvis is inverted here, drawing attention to the lower belly and pelvic floor. To start, step your feet wide apart with the toes pointed inward slightly (the feet should be close enough to feel stable in the pose). Keep your weight evenly spread across the sole of each foot and fold forward from the hip creases. Use your feet to help awaken the pelvic floor and apana vayu: Ground the big toes, lift the arches, and bend the knees slightly. Then press the feet down and away from each other, as if you were pulling the mat apart, or if you ski, executing a snowplow. Lift the sit bones and draw the pubic bones back between the inner thighs; then lift the pelvic floor and contract and hollow out the lower belly. Allow this energetic activation to draw you deeper into the pose.
The legs and sacrum work together to stabilize this pose and awaken and redirect apana. Start with both feet parallel under the hip joints and evenly pressed into the floor. Rotate one thigh open and bring the foot to the top of the groin (or inner thigh if half lotus is hard on your knees). Hold the pose in place by staying engaged through the lower belly, the muscles around the sacrum, and the inner thigh of the standing leg. Draw up through the standing foot, press the bent knee back, and draw the tailbone toward the floor. (If you have the foot to the inner thigh, press the thigh against the foot to lift up off the standing leg.) Then draw up through the front of the spine as well as the center of the chest, throat, and head. Keep your focus on the engagement in the lower belly and refine the breath, softening in the lower rib cage and the back of the waist. With this engagement of apana, you’ll feel taller and stiller in the pose.
3. Ardha padma janu shirshasana
(bound half lotus head-to-knee pose)
This seated forward bend combines elements of both the standing poses just described. In the bound version, the heel presses deep into the lower belly as you fold forward. Start sitting up straight with the legs directly in front of you. Use a prop and/or bend the knees if needed to bring the pelvis into a neutral position. Rotate one thigh open, bringing the foot to either the inner thigh or the top of the groin. If your leg is in half lotus position, wrap the arm on the same side behind the waist and catch the toes if they are available; otherwise leave the hand on the floor beside the thigh. Press the bent knee down, then hinge the pelvis forward from the hip joints and draw the pubic bones down and back. To deepen the connection with apana, exhale and engage the lower belly and pelvic floor; inhale by expanding the upper belly only. The contraction just above the pubic bone deep in the abdomen provides a platform and support for the breath. The flywheel of the breath, in turn, generates energy in the body and absorbs and contains this energy at a deeper level.
4. Baddha konasana
(bound angle pose)
The inner thighs, lower back, and pelvic floor are intimately related to, and governed by, apana. Because bound angle pose activates these regions, it is one of the most powerful postures for awakening and directing apana. To begin, sit with the pelvis in a neutral position; if necessary, sit on the edge of a folded blanket to maintain the natural curve in the lower back. Then press the knees down and feel the pelvic floor lift. Tilt forward, reaching the pubic bones down and back and lengthening the lumbar spine. Continue drawing forward from the lower belly; activate the inner thighs to bring the thighs down and out away from the pelvis. Then draw the shoulder blades toward the waist and soften the jaw and the eyes. Breathe easily without releasing the action of the pose, and notice the energetic connection between the pelvic floor, the entire length of the spine, and the crown of the head.
With strong energetic and muscular engagement in the pelvis, shalabhasana powerfully activates apana and strengthens the whole backside of the pelvis, legs, and lumbar spine. You may need to start with one leg at a time to build strength; keep the pelvis on the floor in the single-leg version. For full locust, position your arms straight on the floor under the body so that you have maximum leverage to lift the pelvis up off the floor: interlace the fingers, or rest the upper thighs or groin on the little-finger side of your fists; if the elbows feel strained, try a different hand position. Consciously draw the pelvic floor in and up. Press the arms and the chest down and lift the legs and pelvis away from the floor. Keep reaching the legs back and up, and engage the inner thighs to secure the femurs in the center of the hip sockets. After releasing the pose, rest with your head to one side and notice the energy circulating from the pelvis through the whole body.
Pranayama for Apana Vayu
Kapalabhati is a pranayama practice as well as a shat kriya—one of the six cleansing actions of hatha yoga. With its emphasis on the exhalation, kapalabhati enhances elimination of volatile metabolic wastes and dispels sluggishness and congestion, while engaging the seat of apana in the lower belly.
The defining characteristic of kapalabhati is a sharp, forceful exhalation from the abdomen, followed immediately by a passive, relaxed inhalation. The inhalation and the exhalation are asymmetrical—the exhalation feels like a staccato note, and the inhalation is on the rebound. Therefore, it’s important to quickly and completely relax after the exhalation.
A daily beginning practice consists of one to three rounds of 7 to 11 breaths at one breath every two seconds, resting between rounds. Add 5 to 10 breaths per round each week to increase your capacity, and gradually pick up speed to about one breath per second. Eventually you may practice for one to three minutes at this speed. If you feel dizzy or light-headed, feel a stitch in your side, or lose the rhythm, rest with normal breathing, and next time try fewer breaths, or consult a teacher to refine your technique.
In the beginning, focus your attention at the lower belly. Work to stabilize the body while keeping your exhalations deep and rhythmic. Then refine your practice with a one-pointed inner mental focus at the eyebrow center. The name kapalabhati means “illuminated skull”—promising a halo when the purification of body and mind is complete!
Yoga International senior editor Sandra Anderson is co-author of Yoga: Mastering the Basics and has taught yoga and meditation for over 25 years.