Samana Vayu: The Breath of Balance
Unite upward- and downward-flowing energies at the navel center to awaken and enhance the prana of transformation.
By Sandra Anderson
Our previous discussions of the five vayus, or divisions of the innate life force, focused on prana vayu (a field of inward- and upward-moving energy) and apana vayu (a field of downward- and outward-moving energy), bringing us now to what the scriptures describe as the “middle breath”: samana vayu. Active at the navel center—midway between the realms of prana vayu in the chest and apana vayu in the pelvis—samana vayu is a concentrating, absorbing, and consolidating force. Its main function is assimilation of prana in all its forms—like a power station, samana collects energy absorbed through breath, food, sensory perception, and mental experiences and processes it to empower all aspects of life.
When samana is healthy, we benefit from strong digestion, vitality, and balance at every level. When samana is weak, we struggle with assimilating and digesting not only what we physically consume but also our mental and emotional experiences. In the energetic body, samana is concentrated at the navel center (manipura chakra)—the center for the transformative power of the fire element. As the hub of pranic energy and vitality, the navel center is essential to hatha yoga, which aims to increase prana and transform the patterns of pranic flow in the body. Asana practice in particular is designed to draw downward-moving apana up to the navel center, and upward-moving prana vayu down to the navel center, uniting these two opposing energies to awaken samana. This integrating action strengthens the body, balances the mind, and stabilizes instinctive urges like hunger and sex so we can more easily regulate them. It gives us the clarity and courage to truly see ourselves, and the motivation and power to transform our habits and karmic tendencies.
Moreover, the expansion of samana caused by the union of prana and apana at the navel center awakens sushumna nadi, the central energy channel essential to achieving the ultimate goal of yoga: perfect absorption of the mind in the state of samadhi.
Asana for Samana Vayu
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.
Pranayama for Samana Vayu
Like bhastrika (bellows breath), surya bhedi strongly activates and expands the pranic body from the navel center. Like nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing), this pranayama equally stimulates the flow of energy in the two master nadis, ida and pingala, which terminate in the left and right nostrils, respectively. A balanced flow in these two energy channels establishes the flow of sushumna nadi.
A regular practice of bhastrika is a prerequisite for surya bhedi. To begin surya bhedi, bring the right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding the index and middle finger to the palm; you’ll use the thumb and ring finger to close the right and left nostrils, respectively, switching the breath from side to side as in nadi shodhanam. Take two forceful exhalations and inhalations (bhastrika) on one side, and without pausing, switch and take two forceful breaths on the other side. Continue, rapidly alternating between sides. Keep your speed a little slower than your usual practice of bhastrika until the rhythm is well established (this may take a week or so of daily practice). Eventually, the length of practice and the pace will be similar to your standard bhastrika practice.
Regular practice of surya bhedi maintains the balanced flow of all the vayus in the body, thus supporting physical and mental health, as well as spiritual awakening.
The poses on these pages help cultivate the strength, suppleness, and conscious control necessary for uddiyana bandha. Literally the “upward flying lock,” uddiyana bandha pulls the abdominal organs up and in, bringing apana vayu toward the navel center and lifting it into the realm of prana vayu. As we have seen, the convergence of these opposite forces awakens samana and gives rise to the upward movement of energy through sushumna nadi. Structurally, uddiyana bandha facilitates the free unobstructed flow of prana from the pelvis up through the spine by stabilizing the neutral alignment of the lumbar spine, which can easily overarch or collapse.
“Uddiyana bandha is the lion which conquers the elephant, death,” says the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. “Of all the bandhas, uddiyana bandha is the best. Once mastered, liberation occurs spontaneously.”
To learn the basic practice of uddiyana bandha, stand with the feet slightly apart and knees bent, place the hands on the thighs, and lean forward into your hands. Bring the chin toward the sternum. Exhale and contract the entire abdomen, pressing the belly toward the spine. At the end of the exhalation, hold the breath out and draw the belly up from the pubic bone by flattening the whole abdomen against the spine and sucking the diaphragm up under the rib cage. Keep the jaw, face, heart, and lungs relaxed and make sure the chest doesn’t lift. Release the diaphragm and then inhale, slowly releasing first the upper and then the lower abdomen. Repeat to your comfortable capacity.
Uddiyana bandha is contraindicated for heart disease, high blood pressure, and hernias, as well as pregnancy and menstruation. Practice on an empty stomach.
Once you have a good feel for this basic practice, you can incorporate it (along with mula bandha) into master practices like agni sara, Ganesha mudra, and yoga mudra—all of which powerfully amplify and activate samana vayu. (To learn more about these practices, see Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s article Tantra Therapy: Weaving Health and Spirituality.)
Yoga International senior editor Sandra Anderson is co-author of Yoga: Mastering the Basics and has taught yoga and meditation for over 25 years.
Photos by Kathryn LeSoine; Model: Sandra Anderson; Wardrobe: Grace tank and Brigitte long-sleeved top by Zhoba; Lolita pant by Prana