Embodying the 5 Elements in our Yoga Practice
Embodying the 5 Elements in our Yoga Practice
Yoga philosophy is one of immense diversity and magnitude. To study it, one would need many years of dedication to attempt to understand what is the mystical and philosophical foundations of this tradition.
In the contemporary world of yoga today, it is essential that we know where this millenary practice comes from so we learn how to distinguish between an integrated practice rooted in philosophy, ritual, body practices, meditation and the more commercial physical approach.
A practice with its roots in context and philosophy is rich, as it was taught from teachers and masters that came before us and have been passed down by the many teachers that make yoga available to us today. We honor this art of Yoga by keeping its integrity and spiritual seed and use our bodies as a vehicle for self-knowledge and connection with the divine.
The 5 Elements, Panchamahabhutas (pancha=5, maha=great, bhutas =elements) is a philosophy and model embedded in the yogic understanding of Nature and the human body as part of Nature, that allows us to understand the world within (micro cosmos) and the world outside (macro cosmos).
The Nature of the 5 elements was contemplated in great extension by the ancient Indian sages, Taoist monks, Greek philosophers, African wise men and women, and even Einstein. This is a common phrase by Einstein that illustrates beautifully the relation with Nature beyond our senses, the connection between the parts (ourselves) and the whole (the cosmos), the concept of the unified field (we are one) and the ultimately liberation through the cultivation of compassion and realization that we are never alone.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
To understand the Elements through a yogic lenses, we have to know about their concept of reality which dates back to Samkhya philosophy. The concept is: everything in the universe is a manifestation of the interaction between 3 essentials principles:
The principle of static energy, or inertia (tamas)
The principle of active energy, or motion (rajas)
The principle of balanced energy, or harmony (sattva)
The interaction between the static, active and balanced energies creates the 5 elements (earth, water, fire, air and space) that we get to experience through our 5 senses organs (smell, taste, sight, sound and touch). Without the interaction and combination of these principles/ energies we wouldn't have life on Earth and would still be in the emptiness of Space, which quantum scientists call the “unmanifest field”.
Just like different ingredients make up a delicious cake, so does the combination of different elements. One of the main principles in both Yoga and Ayurveda, is that everything that is in the Macrocosms (the Universe) is reflected in the Microcosms (the Human body). Water in Nature is also Water in the body manifested as plasma, the minerals in the Water of the rivers and seas, are also in your body as the minerals in your bones.
Air moved by the wind is also the air circulating in your lungs and oxygenating each and every cell of your body.
We can learn about our own bodies and how they operate, by observing the language of Nature, the interaction with the Elements and the cyclical wisdom of each season.
Is there a relation between the elements and yoga practice?
Absolutely! When you move your body through asana and raise your breathing capacity through pranayama, you are putting your elements in motion. We know that motion creates an effect and that effect is either going to bring harmony, activity or inertia (sattva, rajas, tamas). These distinct effects are reflected also on how your mind and consciousness manifests within you through your thoughts and out in the world through your words and actions.
How can we cultivate the connection with the Elements of Nature and our practice?
Just like the ancient sages, you also have to contemplate the elements yourself. Even in our modern and often urban lives we need those moments of feeling the wind in our face, the warmth of the sun in our bodies, the flow of water in our feet, breathe the fresh air of the forest and expand our sensory field to see how that makes us feel.
It's a combination of Nature´s contemplation and self-awareness.
Depending on how the elements are combined within us, which determines our physical and mental constitution, we get to experience Nature in different ways. The paradox is that we are all one and made up of the same elements but then how those elements are combined is what makes us unique. In the same way that you can have different ingredients but how you combine them can create different recipes.
As an example, if a person has a constitution that is mainly air and little Earth energy, the wind in the face might feel agitating and disturbing but if it is someone that already has a lot of these Earth qualities in their bodies (constitution), that same wind can be a source of ease and comfort.
In the same way that a fast paced vinyasa practice can bring harmony and inspiration (sattva) to someone that feels lethargic or even stuck and be a disconnected experience for someone that feels agitated or overly stimulated (excess Fire energy).
Getting to know the elements allows us to create practices and lifestyle rituals that are suitable for us, our bodies and mindset. Remember that the ultimate goal of yoga stated in the many ancient scriptures, is self-realization. In our modern-day yoga exploration, that simply might mean getting to know our uniqueness, what´s our place in the world and how to harness the most harmonious energy with the “ingredients” that make us.
Have a great Practice!