Zafu or Bench? How Yoga’s Vayus Can Make or Break Your Meditation

This entry was posted on Aug 25, 2022 by Charlotte Bell.
Meditation Seating

In the early 1990s, when I was just a few years into vipassana meditation practice, I sat a 10-day silent retreat. It was my fourth such retreat, so I knew that physical discomfort would visit from time to time, especially in the first few days.

On every retreat up until that point, I’d experienced physical pain in my shoulders and back. I knew my knees would tire, and I’d feel both sleepy and restless at times. But on this particular retreat, there was an inexplicable agitation I couldn’t place. I felt jittery and ungrounded, and wanted nothing more than to jump off my meditation bench and run out of the room.

After a few days, in the middle of a 45-minute sitting, without thinking, I suddenly pulled my bench out from under me and sat cross-legged on the floor. Immediately, the agitation subsided. I felt grounded and peaceful. I sat on the floor—on a zafu—for the rest of the retreat.

It took me a while to figure out what had happened. It turns out that my position on the meditation bench was going against the vayu that was dominant in my body at the time.

What Are the Vayus?

Here’s a description of the vayus from Yoga International:

“The yoga tradition describes five movements or functions of prana known as the vayus (literally “winds”)—prana vayu (not to be confused with the undivided master prana), apana vayu, samana vayu, udana vayu, and vyana vayu. These five vayus govern different areas of the body and different physical and subtle activities. When they’re functioning harmoniously, they assure the health and vitality of the body and mind, allowing us to enjoy our unique talents and live life with meaning and purpose.”

Here’s a quick look at where the vayus are located and what areas of our physical/mental/emotional bodies each governs:

  1. Prana: Chest, head. Governs intake, inspiration, propulsion, forward momentum
  2. Apana: Pelvis. Governs elimination, downward and outward movement
  3. Samana: Navel. Governs assimilation, discernment, inner absorption, consolidation
  4. Udana: Throat. Governs growth, speech, expression, ascension, upward movement
  5. Vyana: Whole body. Governs circulation on all levels, expansiveness, pervasiveness

Here’s What Happened on the Meditation Retreat

The day I started feeling the strange agitation on the meditation retreat happened to be the day I started my period. According to the vayus, apana (downward-flowing) energy is dominant at that time because apana governs elimination. For some people—including me—sitting on a meditation bench promotes an upward flow of energy. So when I sat on the bench on retreat during that time of my moon cycle, the upward-flowing energy from sitting on the bench was in conflict with the downward-flowing energy of being on my period. As soon as I sat on the floor, I became more grounded and harmonized as apana energy was able to flow without disruption.

There are many anatomical reasons to choose one form of sitting support over another. But the retreat taught me that I also need to consider energy flow.

For example, if sleepiness is one of your challenges in meditation, a meditation bench might help you raise your energy level. If restlessness is more common for you, a Zafu, V-Shaped Cushion or Zen Pillow might be a better choice. Of course, different vayus dominate at different times, so it could be helpful to have more than one choice.

Overall, I’ve found the V-Shaped Cushion to be the best fit for my body, both anatomically and energetically. But of course, we’re all different, so it’s important to try out different options to see what works best for you at a given time.

For more detailed info on the vayus and how to work with them in your asana practice, visit this post.

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About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.