The thing about a series is that you always know what’s coming next. Comforting in some ways, but also potentially unnerving—especially when what’s at the end is at the end for a reason.
That’s how I’ve felt the last few months as I’ve explored the five elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth. I’ve gone through this series before, so I was glad to have some yoga sequences, quotes, and other resources under my belt to inspire my teachings, even as I put new and current spins on them. But talking—and writing—about the last element in the series, earth, where we have arrived in the month of August, has not been something I’ve been looking forward to.
Earth has been my frenemy for a long time. The element I’ve needed to develop a better relationship with, to invite into my life more, to enjoy more, precisely because I am afraid of it. To me, the earth, and all its heaviness, messiness, slowness, is anathema to what I feel is my soul’s desire to move. Not necessarily to escape reality (though sometimes that’s the case), but more to avoid the tedium of what might be called being “down to earth.” Why be reasonable and sensible when it’s so much more exciting in the realm of imagination and dreams and prayer and art? There, there are no attachments. Nothing holding me down.
When I first moved to New York, I practiced yoga at a second-floor studio with a lovely view of Broadway. One day, my teacher was leading class in the morning, and spied me on my way to the 1 train; “It was like you were floating,” he told me afterward, describing my totally ungrounded way of moving through the world. I took it as a complement then, but since learning about Ayurveda, I’ve realized that being a floater makes it really hard to have a healthy body—and mind, and spirit. In fact, constant movement, no matter what the motivation, is a fast track to completely missing the life I wanted to be “prepared for.” Rather, sitting in the inevitable, natural discomforts of the human body—its heaviness, its density, its smells, its decay—is the path to a deeper, truer understanding of life.
Not enlightenment as much as enheavy-ment. Or, to use a more elegant word, embodiment.
Celebrating the body-ness of earth isn’t all discomfort, though. When we consider samkhya philosophy, the “creation story” of Ayurveda, we see that the elements arise in a progressive, cumulative sequence. Space begets air begets fire begets water begets earth. As the last element in the sequence, earth is both its own energy and the energy of all the other elements before it; it is the container of everything, and everything that is contained within it. Space, the first element, is also a container, but an empty one full of potential. Earth is the manifestation of those potentials in their total, sometimes messy, glory—the brown muck you get when you combine all the colors in your paint set, or when (like I did as a kid) making a “recipe” from the random bits of nature in the yard.
This mudpie of existence might feel like a let-down. Shouldn’t the culmination of life be beautiful, inspiring, splendid? It is—but only when we look beyond the obvious qualities of earth. Its stability, grossness, messiness don’t reflect an ending—but another kind of potential, another opportunity for change, another beginning. Consider the planet Earth—this big rock (well, maybe it’s a big water droplet??), laden with gravity, that spins through space much, much faster than any of us could imagine moving (1,000 mph around its axis; 67,000 mph around the sun). The seemingly fixed set of ingredients we know as nature—trees and flowers and fungi and water and microbes—are in a constant state of evolution, moving from day to night, season to season. Space and air and fire and water beget earth; and earth begets change. The change that is life itself.
Earth is not an element that confines us or weighs us down. Nor does it describe our existence within mortal limits alone. I confess that part of my fear of writing about earth came from that fact, as it relates to my biggest discomfort with the element—an experience I try to avoid as best as I can, but fail at avoiding more or less daily: the memory of not seeing my father buried, of this strange gap in the natural progression of elements, of life. I saw him alive—a being full of earth, dense and strong and gross (ask my sister and mom about that…)—and then, all at once, not-alive. I missed the consecration of this sacred transition, which makes his absence both more and less real. How could it be—the earth taking back part of itself and leaving no trace behind? If earth is the end, the matter we become when we die, how can what’s left after death be so invisible—so empty?
I’ve developed a little ritual that’s helped close this gap: When I visit him in the cemetery, I sit down and place as much of my body on the earth (weather permitting), attempting to reconnect via this shared element. It’s a meaningful gesture, and certainly helpful for absorbing the swell of emotions that usually crests in those moments. But in the end it’s not earth—the literal soil—where I feel him most. He’s everywhere—in the sunrise piercing through the clouds, in the breeze that makes my curly ponytail bounce, in the taste of foods I wish I could cook for him, and the ocean waves that, like his trademark hugs, pull me into an incredible vortex that is more invigorating to surrender to—to dive under the waves—than to resist. All of these layers life—my life—broken apart like a prism are the earth he has always been, still is, invisibly yet unmistakably present. It is because we are earth that we can live in all these forms, shape-shifting an infinite number of times between birth and death, with no limits to our potential. As E. E. Cummings wrote, “The goal [of art]”—and, I’d add, of life—”is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism into the secret glories it contains.”
In my yoga practice, I often invoke the earth element as an energy of stillness and calm. Being “grounded” looks like a poised meditation seat, a restorative pose with lots of blankets and pillows holding up my limbs, muscles and bones engaged in their dance with gravity while I hold tree pose or a handstand with as few wobbles as possible. But earth is also the opposite of all this. In all its maddening, ironic, nonduality, earth must contain the frenzy of life by virtue of being the totality of being-ness. Earth is so much movement and change, but so rhythmic and expected, so well contained, that it looks as if there’s no movement at all.
This is yoga: Directing the fluctuations of the mind such that the seer can abide its true nature. At home in the constant flux. At home everywhere and nowhere.
It is not a miracle to reach enlightenment. It is a miracle to live, and die, with the rhythm and revolutions of the earth, shuttling through space at 67,000 miles an hour, without a moment of turbulence. By entering into that stillness, we remember the incredible power of change, movement, and transformation that make our bodies at once messy, gross, dense—and splendid.
Why would you want to float above such a place? Come back down to earth. It’s not so bad here.