Pawanmuktasana is a series of yogic practices divided into two groups: part I anti-rheumatic exercises and part II anti-gastric exercises. Pawanmuktasana part I is taught mainly to beginners, convalescents, invalids or to those who are very stiff to loosen up the joints and make the muscles more supple. This series is very simple and easy to learn, which is why it is so useful in the cases described above. However, because of this fact these practices often tend to be neglected and underestimated by yoga aspirants who are looking for more advanced techniques.
The purpose of this paper is to explain the deep significance of pawanmuktasana (PMA) in relation to the Ayurvedic concept of tridosha and how, from this point of view, we can understand the effects of this group of asanas in the physical body and their healing powers. First, it is necessary to deal with the Ayurvedic concept of tridosha or bodily humours (vata, pitta and kapha) and its relation with the practices of PMA. Second, we will see how PMA affects the physical body, mainly the muscles, brain, joints, veins and lymphatic system. Third, we will see how PMA stimulates the healing process by redistributing the prana and removing pranic blockages.
Pawanmuktasana is composed of three Sanskrit words: pawan meaning 'wind' or 'air' and in Ayurvedic terms 'vata' or 'vayu', mukta, 'liberation' or 'freedom', and asana, 'posture'.*1 Thus we can say that PMA means the posture which releases or liberates wind or air. However, if we see the relation which the word pawan has with the Ayurvedic term vata, we can understand its meaning better and get a complete idea of how this series of asanas works.
Vata is one of the three humours or tridosha in Ayurvedic medicine. These humours originated from the different elements and they constitute the basis of human existence and our bio-psycho-social environment. Vata can be translated as 'that which moves things'. It is comprised of the ether and air elements and it is related to the energy or life-force. Vata is the root of the three humours and is considered to be the principle of movement or air principle. Its main site is in the large intestine.*2,*3
Pitta is translated as 'that which digests things'. It is comprised of the fire and water elements and relates to the the aspect of heat and light in the body and mind. Pitta governs digestion and is also the metabolic fire that burns the waste material. Its main site is in the small intestine.*4,*5 Kapha means 'that which holds things together', the principle of cohesion, love and harmony. It is comprised of the water and earth elements, and is the material substance and support of the other two humours. Its main site is the stomach and it is also related to the decay, stagnation and disease.*6,*7
These humours do not really exist as manifest forms. They represent certain qualities or attributes of the manifest world. So when we speak of 'the release of vata', we don't really mean something material called vata, but that certain qualities represented by the concept of vata are released or liberated. In this way, we can understand that the real meaning of PMA is the liberation of the attributes or qualities represented by vata, which is the principle of movement that can be observed in the movement of the air and wind.
When this principle of movement is liberated, as it is the root of the other humours, it also affects them. The wind fans the fire (pitta) and the fire purifies the water of life (kapha).*8 We can also see that where there is no movement, there is stagnation, accumulation of waste products, and this causes degeneration and disease. The movement allows change, and change is renewal, rejuvenation. PMA can, therefore, be defined as the series of asanas that liberates movement, opposing stagnation, degeneration and disease, allowing change, renewal and rejuvenation.
The principle of movement, vata, can be seen in all the activities of the body. In the work of the nervous system, muscles, joints, circulation, digestion, etc.*9 There are different degrees of activity and this shows how alive the body is. Where there is plenty of activity or movement there is life. Where there is no movement or activity there is decay and death. We are somewhere in between these two states. PMA helps to generate, perfect and harmonize the movement or activity in the physical body. We will see this through the effects of PMA on the muscle and joint activity and the venous and lymphatic circulation.
The muscle activity is very complex. Therefore, in this paper, we will emphasize the effects of PMA on two important reflexes: the stretch reflex and the lengthening reflex, the tone of the muscle and its relation with physical tension.
The main component of the stretch reflex are the muscle spindle receptors that detect the change and rate of change in the length of muscle fibre.*10 This helps in the control of the muscle length through a feedback device.*11 So if the muscle is stretched, the spindle receptor will be stimulated, activating the reflex to produce a reaction of contraction to counteract the stretching forces. In the lengthening reflex, the receptors are the Golgi tendon, organs that detect the tension applied to the muscle tendon where there is a contraction or a stretch of the muscle.*12
The lengthening reflex is opposite to the stretch reflex and its stimulation produces a relaxation response instead of a contraction response. This means that while the stretch reflex is excitatory, the lengthening reflex is inhibitory.*13 The lengthening reflex prevents tearing of the muscle or avulsion of the tendon from its attachment to the bone, thus protecting the muscle and other soft tissue from excessive tension.
The stretch reflex is very important for the muscle tone which is defined as the resistance of the muscle to stretch. This is a state of long-term, steady contraction of the muscle or a residual degree of contraction when the muscles are at rest. The muscle tone is in-between the state of flaccidity, where there is no contraction at all, like in denervation, and the state of spasticity where there is overstimulation of the muscle that keeps it in maximum contraction.*14
The reflexes just mentioned and the tone of the muscles are very important in the control of posture and movement, which are very complex and require a great deal of integrity, coordination and cooperation between the central nervous system, the nerve pathways and the different groups of muscles. This is a completely unconscious process and when we are at rest and think that there is nothing going on, it actually happens that there is a great deal of activity taking place to keep us in a certain position, even during sleep.
There are many things involved with movement and there are different groups of muscles that have to act in cooperation to be able to produce an adequate response. The muscles that are involved with the movement itself are called agonists or protagonists; muscles that oppose their activity are called antagonists. The group of muscles that are not directly involved with the movement but cooperate with it are called synergistic muscles, and finally there is a group of muscles that keep the body still and steady to give a base for movement to take place which are called fixation muscles.
Now if we take a look at the first part of the PMA series or anti-rheumatic exercises,*15 we can see how a great many muscles are used and stimulated in a very systematic and relaxed way. There is minimum contraction (without tension) to tone up the lengthening reflex, and when a group of muscles is contracting, the antagonists are stretching to stimulate the stretching reflexes. There is also maximum stretching to develop flexibility which affects the tone of the muscles, bringing them to the lowest possible state of contraction and, in this way, releasing physical tension that is reflected in a very high muscular tone.
Through different movements of flexion, extension and rotation, the various groups of muscles are stimulated and their function is regulated. One may think that these exercises are not different from gymnastic or aerobic exercises, but there is a great difference. When PMA is practised with full awareness and concentration of mind, one is able to break down each movement and be aware of which group of muscles are contracting, which are being stretched, which are being used to keep the body steady and still.
When one feels that the body is resisting to certain stretching, one is aware of the resistance to these movements or overstimulation. Here the protecting reflexes are being stimulated. Even if one has no knowledge of physiology and what is going on microscopically, there is awareness that something is taking place to stop one from harming oneself. Asanas are meant to be done without strain, pain or tension because the moment strain occurs we know that we must stop. This also helps us realize our limitations and protect ourselves from over-stimulation and over-exertion.
Besides this, the systematic and conscious performance of any activity stimulates different areas of the nervous system involved with posture and movement like the pyramidal system, spine, midbrain, basal ganglia, cortex and cerebellum.
PMA affects many articulations of the body, but here we will deal only with the effects on the synovial joints. The synovial joints are very complex and also very common in the body. They are found in the ankles, knees, hips, wrists, toes and fingers, etc. Three structures are very important in this kind of joint: the articular capsule, the articular cartilage and the synovial fluid. The articular capsule is comprised of a very sensitive lining called the synovial membrane which consists of lax connective tissue externally. Internally it is covered by flattened cells composed of villus-like processes and oval cells that are supposed to be involved in the process of synovial fluid secretion. This membrane also has an immune function with phagocitic cells that remove debris produced by wear and tear. This membrane is very much vascularized and inervated.*16
The articular cartilage is a white fibro cartilage, usually hyaline, that covers the articular surfaces, helping in movement and protecting this surface. This cartilage is not irrigated and depends very much on the fine delicate vessels in the underlying bone and the synovial fluid for its nutrition and re-cycling. The synovial fluid is a dyalisate of blocked plasma or transudate. It has a lubricating, nutritive and protective nature. It is partly produced by the synovial cells and is reabsorbed by the villi and by apertures or stomata between the surface cells. This process of reabsorption is very much accelerated by movement.*17
The process of lubrication is very important for the proper function and maintenance of the joint, and this depends mostly on movement. When the joint is moved, the fluid is impelled between the bearing surfaces and is kept there when the joint is at rest. The cartilage has very small pores that communicate microscopic spaces with the synovial cavity and they are filled with fluid. When there is pressure, the fluid is expelled, and when the joint is at rest, the small spaces are refilled. In this way, working as a sponge, the cartilage is lubricated.*18
When practising PMA, especially the anti-rheumatic series, the joints receive a very gentle movement that helps the process of nutrition, protection and elimination. With time and practice the range of movement is improved. This brings lubrication to areas of the joint that due to misuse had never been properly exposed to the synovial liquid, revitalizing the tissue and protecting it from degeneration due to excessive pressure, friction and not enough lubrication.
The exercises done in the PMA series do not exert any pressure or excess weight on the joint because the movement is not performed to develop muscles by overstimulating them, but to produce actual movement of the joint, using only the weight of the part of the body concerned. So in the PMA series the joints are mobilized safely to stimulate the circulation of synovial fluid, its secretion and absorption. This improves the process of lubrication and, at the same time, revitalizes the tissues, improving nutrition and elimination of waste products and protecting them from degenerative changes due to normal or abnormal activity.
The venous circulation and the lymphatic system are very important in the process of elimination of waste products from the body. They transport waste material to the heart to be pumped to eliminative sites of the body, like the kidneys and skin. The lymphatic system is also very important for the process of nutrition, bringing the fatty acids from the intestines where they are absorbed, to the systemic circulation. Furthermore it is also important for the immune function, because lymphocytes enter the circulation mainly through the lymphatics.
The venous vessels do not have smooth muscle walls and, therefore, they have the capacity to dilate and act as a reserve of blood. However, this also means that there is no way the vessels can pump the blood they contain and, worst of all, the venous circulation takes place against the force of gravity. Nevertheless we have a system of 'venous valves and a muscle pump'*19 to solve the problem. The venous valves stop the blood from circulating downwards, following the force of gravity, and the muscle pump which is made by the muscles of the legs squeezes the veins to stimulate circulation or movement towards the heart.
So, contraction of the muscles of the legs propels the blood to flow, and the venous valves make the flow go towards the heart. When the muscles are not used, as in the case of convalescent patients or people who work in sitting or standing positions for many hours a day over a period of years, the flow of blood stops. This dilates the veins excessively and damages the venous valves, giving rise to diseases like varicose veins. The flow of blood is inadequate, even if there are no varicose veins, which means that the process of elimination is impaired, allowing the waste material to accumulate.
By regular practice of PMA, the muscle pump is kept in shape, the veins are massaged, the circulation and flow of blood is stimulated, allowing adequate nutrition and elim-ination functions to take place in the whole body. Besides this, with the practice of PMA part II, the legs are brought higher than the heart level, making the hydrostatic pressure work in favour of the blood flow towards the heart.
A similar process takes place in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic channels also have valves that prevent the lymph from flowing downwards, following the hydrostatic pressure. There is also an intrinsic lymphatic pump due to the presence of smooth muscle cells, but this intrinsic pump is helped very much by the extrinsic pump which is made by contraction of the muscles, movement of the parts of the body and compression of the tissues and arterial pulsation.*20 All these factors that form the extrinsic lymphatic pump are stimulated through regular practice of PMA.
Pawanmuktasana can be understood as the asanas or postures that liberate the principle of movement. This movement can be observed in the activity of the muscles of the body which, at the same time, are responsible for the movement itself. Movement is seen in the circulatory process responsible for the nutrition, oxygenation and elimination of waste products of the body.
The joints exist only for movement to take place, and it is only movement that keeps them in shape. Movement is the principle that opposes stagnation, decay and disease. It is a changing principle of renewal and regeneration. It is activity that opposes passivity; it is sattwa that counteracts tamas. All this is responsible for the healing power behind pawanmuktasana or the postures that liberate the principle of movement.
In the yogic system, pawan is also related to prana, as prana is defined as air. In Ayurveda sometimes the concept of vata and prana are used synonymously, although this is not absolutely correct. If we understand prana as the life-force or vitality,*21 we can say that pawan represents this energy principle. Then pawanmuktasana can be defined as the postures that liberate the life-force or vitality. We can also understand from this point of view how through the practice of this series of asanas a very powerful healing force is set forth.
Prana is divided into five major pranas: prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana. These pranas relate to different movements. So prana is the forward or primary air and has an upward movement; apana is the downward moving air, samana is the horizontal or equalizing air; udana is the spiralling air; and vyana is the diffusive, pervasive air.
When pawanmuktasana is practised with full concentration and awareness, one can feel how all these pranic movements are stimulated, causing the energies to be circulated and redistributed. One of the pranas that is clearly influenced is vyana*22 which governs circulation and nervous impulses to the periphery and also the movement of the joints. So we can see how the effects of PMA on the physical body reflect on the pranas and how the effects on pranas reflect on the physical body.
Part II of the PMA series*23 has a direct influence on apana vayu. Its effect is very strong on the lower abdominal muscles, pelvic organs and large intestine, which is also the site of vata. Blood irrigation is increased through the stimulation of the venous return from the legs, increasing also the process of elimination. Apana is said to be the power of disease inherent in the body, the force of devolution and limitation of consciousness. So by purifying apana vayu, the body is protected from the forces of degeneration.*24,*25
Apana is also said to be the support and control of all the other forms of vata, and vata is said to be the root of the other two humours.*25 So through purification of apana, an overall effect is produced in the rest of the pranas and this reflects in the humours or tridosha which constitute the basis of human existence in the manifest world. This is also responsible for the powerful healing effect of PMA.
The pranas are transmitted throughout the body by the nadis which are defined as channels or pathways of pranic current. These energy channels make a complex network of 'energy threads' that hold together the energy field of the human body.*26 These channels or pathways are very important for the circulation of prana, and they become obstructed by inactivity or wrong activity, by wrong thoughts, wrong diet and wrong lifestyle in general.*27 Through the practice of PMA, a stimulating massage is given to these channels which releases this obstruction.*28
Finally, we can say that a 'crank effect' is given through the different movements of flexion, extention and rotation of the different parts of the body. This crank effect propels the prana to circulate and at the same time releases obstruction. Furthermore, this crank effect is done very systematically from the bottom to the top of the body, from the periphery to the centre and from the external to the internal organs.