The Five Elements in Yoga
‘You are not separate from the whole, you are one with the sun, the earth, the air.
You are life’(Ekhart Tolle)
In Eastern philosophies everything in nature is made up of five basic elements:
Ayurveda and Yoga
In yoga (the science of self) and Ayurveda (the science of well being) the five elements are a fundamental principle. They are known as the Pancha Mahabhutas. They refer not to
the element itself, but to different characteristics that they possess. The mahabhutas represent the physical qualities, energetic properties and biological functions related to the given element.
Yoga and Ayurveda are closely related spiritual sciences rooted in the Vedic tradition of India
Ayurveda is a Vedic system for healing body and mind; yoga is a Vedic system for self realisation, understanding oneself and the world. Both disciplines have developed hand in hand. Yoga is far more than a system of physical exercises and Ayurveda is far more than a system of healing
Both look at the entire human being: body mind and spirit. Together Ayurveda and yoga from an ideal system for healthy mind and body
The five elements
Our body is made up of the five elements and so is everything we consume. Because natural substances such as foods, sunlight, air, and water are of the same composition as our structure, our body’s can use them in a harmonious way.
The concept of five elements can be applied to maintain health and promote healing. In a healthy body, the five elements are maintained in proportion. When the state of the body is not in its natural harmony, the body will try to maintain it’s equilibrium by eliminating excess elements and taking in others. Bringing the elements into balance is of great value to our health and well being.
When elements are balanced, we are in harmony within ourselves, feel both stable and energised, and can maintain high levels of health and wellness. When our elements are out of balance, we may suffer disrupted equilibrium within ourselves and the natural world.
Earth (Prithvi) represents the solid state of matter. Earth is heavy, hard, stable, compact, rigid, unctuous, and dense in quality. Bones, teeth, muscles, fat, and the structure of the different organs are derived from the earth element. Earth is related to the sense of smell and to Muladhara chakra, also called the root chakra located in the area of the perineum.
In an earth based practice there is a focus on the exhale as a grounding, gravitational breath, and the use of slow, steady base poses to establish a solid foundation for all other element practices.
When the earth element is in balance it can help us feel grounded, rooted, stable, steady, and calm.
Water (Apas) constitutes the fluids of the body and represents the force of cohesion, as well as the abilities to attract and to change that are associated with water. This element provides the bodily fluids such as urine, plasma, lymph, and makes up most of our bodily weight. The bodily fluids move between the cells and through the vessels of the body carrying nutrients, wastes, antibodies, and hormones. Water is related to the perception of taste it is also associated with Svadhistana chakra which is located in the sacral area and concerned with fluidity and liquid. A practice focused on the water element is aimed at finding fluidity between grace and strength with postures related to the sacral area.
Agni (fire) is hot, sharp, subtle, fine, light, and radiant in quality. Agni is found in the heat and energy of the body. Fire exists in all metabolic processes and chemical reactions. Fire is the transformational force which promotes appetite, digestion, and metabolism. It is related to vision and to the manipura chakra located around the solar plexus.A fire based practice will include more dynamic asanas focused on the area of the solar plexus to leave you feeling warm and radiant.
Air (Vayu) is the gaseous form of matter. It is mobile, dynamic, light, cold,rough, fine, subtle, dry and exists without form. All empty spaces are filled with air. Air flows freely throughout the body, controls breathing, feeds the cells with oxygen and helps to give movement to biological functions.
Air relates to the sense of touch and corresponds to anahata chakra, also called the heart chakra.
The air element is poignant as it is said to fan the fire in our body-mind and is related to prana, the life force. In a practice focused on the air element there is a great deal of attention on the breath integrating the breath into our practice and noticing the effects.
Akash (ether) is the space in which everything exists and acts. Akash is fine, subtle, soft, light, porous, and smooth in quality. In the body aakash is found where there is empty space such as in the tubes and channels (srotas) of the body. Such empty spaces are found in blood and lymph vessels, openings, pores, and the intestinal tract. Akash also contributes the sounds of the heart, lungs, intestines, and swallowing.It is related to the sense of hearing and to Vishuddha chakra which is located in the area of the throat and is directly related to the sense of hearing and sound.
Ether is the most subtle of the five elements, it is always present and part of every practice. The focus is on accessing the innate quality of space and freedom within our practice and the power of sound perhaps through the use of mantra. It is the overarching element.
The five elements condense to form three doshas or types. Each dosha has it’s own qualities. All three doshas are present in all of us, but we often have a predominance of one or two. Sometimes this imbalance of our doshas can be problematic and for optimum well being we seek some harmony. The three doshas are vata, pitta and kapha.
Vata is ruled by the elements of air and space and it concerns movement and change. Quick to learn , they are excitable, lively, high energy types. When in balance it can bring out potential and creativity, it can make us active and inspired. Vata types can easily become out of balance, they can often being scattered and too much on the go. When out of balance in can lead to anxiety and lack of focus as well as digestive complaints. If your type is vata you will benefit from grounding, calm and contemplative yoga practices which work on the sacrum and pelvis.
Pitta is ruled by the elements fire and water, the energetic force is associated with the digestive system and body temperature. Pitta types are characterised by assertiveness, self confidence, sharp minded.In balance it leads to contentment and intelligence.Out of balance: Can cause digestive complaints anger and irritability.Pitta types benefit from a yoga class which includes cooling postures which open the chest and release the abdominal area.
Kapha is ruled by the elements of earth and water, the literal translation is that which sticks. It is like the glue that holds the body together. Kapha is allocation with density, stability, stockier frames.
They are easy going, slow paced and relaxed, forgiving and compassionate
Imbalances can lead to lethargy, depression and tendency to gain weight. Better balanced kapha types can be gentle, self sufficient and understating. They strive to maintain peace.
Hasta Mudras and the five elements
In the Indian tradition, each finger relates to the energy of the five elements. Hasta mudras, or gestures of the hand, are said to have spiritual, emotional and physical benefits in how they harness energy in the body. The thumb is related to the fire element, index finger the air element, middle finger related to ether, the ring finger the earth element and the little finger water element. Mudras may be widely used in a yoga practice focusing upon the elements.
Big Sky Yoga
David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda.
Swami Sardananda, Mudras for Modern Life