Earth, wind, and fire—besides being a great musical group, these three elements are part of a beautifully designed system of matter and energy at the core of Ayurvedic teaching and healing practices. Add in water and space (which are effectively the containers of the other three), and you get the pancha mahabhutas, or Five Great Elements, that are present in all living things, whether it’s you or your grandma or someone in a country across the world, a tree or squirrel or ladybug, rocks or seashells or feathers, even the device you’re using to read this.
The properties, or gunas, of these elements are fairly intuitive, but for the sake of clarity let’s take a look at how each one breaks down.
Ether (or space) is the first element from which all the others arise. Think of it like an empty container, in which the universe’s potential energy is stored. Its qualities are light, clear, dry, cold, soft, and subtle, and it’s associated with the sense of sound—think about how sound vibrations can move through space, and the difference between sound in a room full of stuff or people versus an empty room, or even the space of your ears, throat, and mouth through which sound leaves and enters our sensory awareness. Without space in our bodies, we wouldn’t be able to live; the respiratory and GI tracts are basically tubes of empty space running down our middle, in which all of the live-giving transformation of food and oxygen happens to keep us alive. You can also think about how space is required for processing other things you take in, like information and emotions. “I need some space” is something I say all the time, when I need a moment to digest an intense situation or period of work and focus.
Air is the element of movement, the first and most subtle thing that can fill up space. Its qualities are light, rough, dry, cold, mobile, hard, and subtle, like a gust of October wind hitting your face or back. Since we can’t see air with our eyes, we use our sense of touch to perceive it, namely through the skin. We can get a lot of information through the skin and air element, which is also why it’s responsible for all our sense perception. Air makes sure everything that comes into the spaces of our bodies gets to where it needs to go, and thus is crucial to every major system of the body, including the nervous system. When we move our bodies through space, we also rely on air element’s kinetic energy to have that locomotion, and know when we’re about to bump into something or someone. If you’re familiar with the chakras, you may know that air is associated with the heart chakra, or center of emotion or connection. This makes sense when we consider that how we give and receive touch, in quality and quantity, will affect and reflect our emotions; in fact, our hands, the main organ of touch, are made of the same cells as our hearts in embryo.
Fire is the element of transformation. Light, hot, dry, sharp, subtle, and spreading, fire combusts from air, taking everything air moved to its correct location and making sense of it. When you tell someone “you’re on fire,” you’re recognizing their ability to focus on and process whatever they’re doing, hence its connection to our intellect and mental capacities. Fire is also how we turn our food into something useful for our cells; no offense to the raw foodies out there, but we’ve actually got a huge and important fire inside our gut, called agni, that digests our food with stomach acids and other enzymes, separating out nutrients from bile and other waste. There’s more inner fire in our hearts, the seat of true wisdom per Ayurveda, which is why we can become passionate about people and causes that align with that wisdom. Because fire provides light with which we can see shapes and colors, it’s associated with the sense of sight and the motor organ of the feet, with which we can move in the direction of something we see and desire (or run away from what will hurt us). Thanks to its spreading quality, fire can get out of control easily when not balanced by the other elements, which is why it’s so easy to get caught up in a firestorm of emotions or hanger—especially for those with an abundance of fire element in their constitution.
Water element governs emotions and is the container for our aggressive friend fire. It’s main job is to hold things together, which it does with its heavy, cool, liquid, dull, soft, oily, and slimy qualities. Think about how water coheres and balances things in the body—the liquid contents of the gut that hold the digestive fire (for anyone who’s had acid reflux, you know when there’s too little water and too much fire), the liquid membranes between the joints that prevent rough, mobile air from wearing down our bones, and the mucus membranes that line our respiratory tract so those delicate spaces aren’t harmed by germs, dust, and other particles in the air when we breathe. Associated with the sense of taste, water is what allows us to chew and swallow food, as well as to perceive taste at all and derive pleasure (or disgust) from what you’re eating. The word for taste, rasa, can also mean juice, flavor, and lymph or plasma, which expands our understanding of what we “taste” to not just food but what we find juicy and pleasurable in life, the nourishment we get through our activities and relationships. Water resides in the pelvis energetically, which also carries the quality of creation and flow. When water abounds, things move smoothly and easefully; it’s what allows us to have “grace under fire.”
Earth is not only an element itself, but also contains all of the other elements as they have been condensing and building on each other step by step. Our planet is the perfect example of this, as Earth holds all of the elements in its beautiful but changing balance. Heavy, dull, solid, stable, and hard, earth element is what gets the work done. The material things in our world are mostly earth element, as well as the things that “matter” to us—what we concentrate on and build up. Because it has all of the other elements, earth provides us with a sense of smell, which arises from the fact that all matter will eventually decay and return back to the earth, starting the cycle anew with space as it decomposes into gas. Appropriately, our waste material and the organs that hold them are where we find earth element in the body, as well as all those mechanical structures like muscle, bone, fat tissue, and skin. Earth element gives us a feeling of homecoming, in the way that we can have powerful associations with smells and memories. It’s the structure in which all the other elements can do their work, holding down the bass as they harmonize with the melodies of life.
The Elements in People
Looking at the world through a five-elemental lens allows us to see what connects and distinguishes us from other beings at any given moment. When it comes to integration, understanding that I am made of the same stuff as my frustrating relative or public figure with different opinions than me can help to soften the edges of conflict and judgment. Perhaps the fire is showing up differently in them, but I’ve got my own fire, and that common ground can pave the way to greater peace and understanding. When we identify the ways the elements in external nature have parallels in us, and our need to share those elements through our food, breath, water, sun, and the ground we live on, we may also make choices that are more respectful to nature’s bounty. If I want to preserve the integrity of the air in me, I need to be more mindful of the ways I may be polluting the air I’m breathing—the air we’re all breathing, including the animals and plants.
Elements might be shared among all, but they’re not in equal proportion or quantity—if they were, we’d have none of the beautiful and essential differentiations among living things. This is how we can understand the purpose, benefits, and limitations of certain things in the world. For instance, you wouldn’t expect to be able to cook your food just by putting it on a rock, but you could expect it to make a stable wall or foundation. The same is true for people. If someone you know has a bit more earth in them and they’re resistant to trying a new restaurant or moving the furniture you’ve had in the same spot for thirty years, you can understand how the earth element is creating that condition in them. It doesn’t mean we should use elements as excuses for inappropriate behavior, but seeing people for their elements is a useful way to evoke more compassion in others, and set expectations for their behavior.
The Elements in Daily Life
In Ayurveda, we talk about the elements as they appear in people primarily through the lens of the doshas, which are combinations of two elements. Our permanent, mixed-at-birth dosha (called prakriti) is more like how the earth element shows up in our stubborn friend from above—part of their personality that won’t change no matter what. That doesn’t mean all manifestations of earth elements are the same—in one person it might be stubbornness, in another it might be a stocky build, and yet another could be a love of cooking food for lots of people; all the doshas have both light and shadow sides of them and are as unique as the individuals that contain them.
That’s partly because the elements can also fluctuate in us because of external factors, such as the season, our stage of life, and our diet and lifestyle. That dosha, called vikriti, is a temporary state of elemental imbalance, and can manifest in disease states of the mind, body, or spirit. Normally, if someone’s dosha is in balance, their good qualities shine and they feel healthy and like themselves; some don’t even consider that a dosha at all, since the word typically requires vitiation, or aggravation, of the elements that make them up. It’s only once an imbalance occurs, in the elements of their prakriti or others, that we have trouble. For instance, if you’ve ever felt your lips and hands go dry, and your mind a little distracted, on a cold, windy day, you may be able to pin in on excess air and space elements sharing their scattered energy with you. This could happen to anyone, regardless of how much air and space are in their prakriti.
Here’s where knowing the qualities of the elements can be of use on a daily basis. If we know we’re dominant in certain elements, then we can use the principles of “like increases like” and “opposites balance” to maintain and restore health. Say we know we’ve got a lot of fire in our prakriti; we’d do best to avoid things that are also fiery, such as excessively spicy food and spending summer afternoons in the sun without shade or something to drink. We’d want to tailor our lifestyle every day to include more space and earth, the elements that balance fire with their slow, cooling, stable, heavy properties. Instead of taking a cycling class, we might choose a walk in the evening; instead of starting the day with acidic black coffee, we might choose a cup of herbal tea with rose and licorice root. If we do go out of balance in the fire element, during the summer or after a dinner at a Mexican restaurant with a little too much tabasco sauce, we can also come back to balance by turning to those same opposite elements.
The Elements and Yoga
This balancing act is part of our innate, natural knowledge of how to feel well, but our disconnect with the natural world has made us less likely to access it on a daily basis. Studying Ayurveda and its sister science, yoga, is a great way to remember this wisdom of our hearts. Because yoga is a science of the mind (not of the body, despite our contemporary obsession with the postures), yoga can draw out our deep psychological elements as much as it can our physical traits. It’s sometimes easier to grasp the concepts on the gross level, though, which is why starting with the body through movement (and food) can be useful.
Consider the different ways the elements appear in a well-rounded yoga sequence, which I’ve broken up in my video series, Coming Home to Self. But anytime you’re moving, whether it’s in yoga or another fitness class or walking down the street, you can think of how the different elements are showing up in you.
Most yoga classes will begin with earth element, since it helps us ground and center as we set our intentions and carve out physical and mental space for practice. Supine postures and work in the legs and pelvis harness the earth element’s stability, such as sukhasana (or other seated postures), bridge pose, supta padangusthasana, jathara parivartanasana (or any abdominal posture).
Moving up the body energetically, we get into the flow of the practice with water element. Gentle movements to open the hips can soften stored tension in the psoas and hip flexors, which get tight and weak from chronic stress and/or sitting. Cat/cow, anjaneyasana, malasana, and chandra namaskar (moon salutations) are all nourishing to the water element.
Building heat and focus are where the fire element can make a yoga practice more active and stimulating. The sun salutations (surya namaskar) do this literally, as we devote a steady and consistent rhythm set to the pace of our ujjayi breath to the energy of the sun. Other fiery poses include most standing postures, such as the warrior poses, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, and crescent pose (high lunge); arm balances; and twists, which churn the agni at the center of the body. You can still access fire in a less active practice using its other manifestations in the body. A warming breath—ujjayi, bhastrika, or kapalabhati—all stoke agni and increase focus; playing the gaze, or dristi, in a posture will hone the fire element as well; and holding poses for longer durations, whether it’s malasana or goddess pose or tadasana, will also build fire throughout the body.
Without air we would have no yoga, since we cannot have union without breath. So while air is prevalent in all the yoga postures (just like all elements are in all things), it may be especially prevalent in the movement of vinyasa sequences, balancing postures and inversions, and pranayama techniques. In general, the breath should be the aspect of your practice controlling all else, setting a tempo and intensity level so that even, easeful breathing is possible.
By the end of our yoga practice, the subtleties of space element might be easier to access as we’ve opened the physical channels inside in which prana naturally flows. Closing postures such as backbends (dhanurasana or bridge pose) and seated forward folds (tarasana or upavistha konasana) literally invite space around and between the limbs, even as we start to focus our attention the inner space of our spirit when we hold them. There’s less movement and activity going on—the qualities of air, fire, and water—but there’s also a lightness that’s different from earth element. So even as you move into savasana, we relax on the ground not by collapsing or making ourselves dense and immobile, but creating a soft, spacious, container in which we can commune with our spirit in meditation. From this place of openness, we emerge—just like the other elements emerge from ether—at the end of practice with a fresh perspective and a transformed sense of self, ready to step off the mat and continue the practices of yoga and Ayurveda in the rest of our lives with greater facility in navigating the elements.
Experience the qualities of the elements for yourself in my new series, Introduction to Ayurveda—A Yogic Journey Through the Five Elements, starting July 25, 2020.