The Universe Within: Yoga & the five elements
We are often guided into savasana and meditation with the instruction to ‘scan the inner landscapes of the body and mind.’ This can be a very visual, palpable and sensory-rich way of identifying your state body, emotions and mind. Ancient texts on yoga map the elements onto different parts of the body, which is really useful for biomechanically knowing what we are physically asking of the body to do for a healthy strong yoga asana.
Ayurveda is the sister ‘science’ of yoga that supports health and vitality of the individual. As a holistic branch of medicine, it looks at every level of your multi dimensional self. As I go into on Yoga Therapy based workshops, yoga practice and Ayurveda addresses the five ‘sheaths of being’: the physical body - anamayakosha; the breath/vital air/prana body - pranamayakosha; mind body - manomayakosha; wisdom body vijnamayakosha; bliss body anandamayakosha.
Approaching the individual as a microcosm of the world we live within and from, health is seen as a balance of the five elements. The five elements in Ayurveda are different from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) elements that those in my Yang and Yin classes will be familiar with. In Ayurveda they are: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether. These elements correspond to the chakras, described as wheels or vortex’s of energy spinning at varying frequencies (lower body; slower vibrations, speeding up to the highest frequency at the crown of the head).
When we need to feel grounded, stable, nourished and strong – we reflect the earth element. In your warrior poses, balances and squats you are looking for strength and stability from the lower body (legs to pelvis). Opening the soles of the feet and directing your weight down through the legs correctly enables you to find a depth, stability and strength to all standing postures: 'sthira sukha asanam’ (asana must be steady and comfortable - Yoga Sutras).
The hips and pelvis are connected to the Water element. Whilst we do need a gooddownward stabilizing connection of the pelvis into the legs to weight bear in the hips safely, most yoga postures require a fluidity and flexibility in the pelvis and hip flexors. Particularly in a vinyasa and mandala (around the mat) flow practice, we are looking to release and lengthen muscles in a watery soft manner to open the ball and socket hip joint in all directions… and the rim of the pelvis onto the side body, abdominal and spinal muscles so we can move freely into backbends, forward bends and side bends (see side body hip opening blog).
The belly is seen as the cauldron of the body, the Fire centre. If you think about the poses that trigger the abdomen you’re likely to remember the sweat, stamina and heat that comes with them: navasana, chataranga, shalabasana, handstand to arm balance transitions, chakrasana… The belly houses manipura chakra, with the qualities of determination, will power, focus, drive and action. So what are we asking of our core? To literally fire up – for the abdominal and spinal muscles to be acutely receptive to activate and release.
Now, taking in a deep breath, tune in the airy spacious quality of the lungs and chest. The Air element is embodied in the chest cavity and upper torso. All the arm extending postures, backbends that open the chest and shoulders, have an energizing uplifting quality that is identifiable by a deeper stronger healthier breath.
This element corresponds directly to anahata chakra, which characterizes balance and equanimity. It can be extended in this model to the throat chakra, vishuddha chakra also which reflects our ability to communicate clearly and truthfully. There is an abundant and steady quality to this element, embodied in the evenness of the inhale to the exhale. Anatomically we are asking for openness and flexibility. We need the chest and shoulders to be open and alive and responsive to breath.
Finally, as you come to savasana or seated meditation we look to cultivate the more subtle nature of Ether – a hazy inpalpable state of openness; balancing moments of deep stillness and centredness with gentle fluctuations of mind, body and emotions. Implicit in ether is the idea of what can be seen and not seen; of innate wisdom and deep inter-connectivity. This element is reflected philosophically as ajna and sahasrara chakra at the third eye (wisdom/vision point) and crown of head (spiritual connection point) and whilst the vibration or frequency associated with the top of the body is the highest and fastest, we embody this sensation as deep tranquility and stillness that ripples from the mind down into every cell of the body and translates into every element.