THE FIVE ELEMENTS
According to an Ayurvedic model the five elements are the more specific forms that life energy takes within our bodies, governing the physical systems and manifesting as qualities of consciousness. There are numerous ways to more fully awaken and balance these elemental forces. Meditation, attention to diet, attunement to the natural world, exercise and bodywork are common methods. Bodywork can act as a direct feedback mechanism for discovering the energetic patterns (beliefs, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and breath) which underlie physical posturing and behavior. With greater awareness of how these patterns condition and recondition through repetition the context (what is felt) and content (what is thought) in our lives, there arises the real possibility of an understanding which functions as a growing freedom amidst these patterns. Simultaneously this understanding can help dissolve the patterns that have a limiting tendency.
Although for purposes of explanation it is necessary to describe each of these elements individually, it’s important to keep in mind that they are not separate from one another, yet they each possess unique distinctive characteristics.
The ether element is the space within which life happens. Therefore it is all-encompassing and supports the movement of life on every level. Life forms require a space to be born into; the earth depends upon the atmosphere; the fetus requires the womb; the emotional and physical heart depend upon the body for their existence. The hollow spaces within the body are the more specific domain of the ether element. The ventricles of the brain, the space within the lungs and the intestinal tract, the joints which form the space between the individual bones of the body are common examples. In fact there is literally more space between the molecules of the body than there are molecules. An attunement to the ether creates a wonderful possibility for an awareness of the flowing, ever-changing, interdependent nature of the life process.
The air element is the wind, which moves within the space element. It is the oxygen we breathe. It governs the respiratory system and the intellectual or thoughtful realm of life. Therefore as this element is attuned to and comes to greater balance, both of these areas of the life experience are benefited. Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary process, meaning that we can regulate or control our breath and contribute to numerous physiological and psychological effects, and even if we don’t pay any attention to it, the breath will continue to come in and out of the body, nourishing the cells and sustaining our organism throughout life. The breath is a link between the conscious and the unconscious mind, meaning that by attending to the natural, normal, unmanipulated breath, aspects of the unconscious mind will reveal themselves to consciousness (unconscious here refers to that which is not yet known.) Numerous meditative disciplines around the world utilize the breath as an object for training the attention to be in the present moment, and for harmonizing the mind and the body. Air element sessions can help induce calmness and clarity of mind. The polarities of this element are felt physically as sensations of movement (fast-slow) and psychologically through the feeling continuum of calm-fear.
The fire element governs the direction that the movement of life takes. It lies energetically, or in terms of frequency of vibration in the middle of the elemental spectrum (the ether and air being more subtle or faster in terms of frequency of vibration, while the water and earth are denser and slower in vibration.) This element is related to the digestive system, and in terms of behavior, the ability to take action. Working with this element can boost the vital force of the body by augmenting the metabolic processes. There is an intimate relationship between the function and balance of the fire element and the air element. The availability of oxygen is crucial for all the physical systems to function. The digestive system is positioned immediately inferior, anatomically, to the lungs in the body. Therefore digestive function is greatly enhanced by an open and free respiratory cycle. A relatively relaxed and responsive diaphragm contributes significantly to metabolism, as it massages the digestive organs with every breath taken. When metabolic process is refined through careful attention to food intake and activity levels there is the possibility of a more consistent availability and flow of life energy throughout the day. The small intestine is the principal site for digestion. This organ quite literally receives the food and divides what is needed from what can be eliminated. What is needed is assimilated for the maintenance of the body’s tissues, while what is not needed can be moved on into the large intestine for elimination. Assimilation of life experience is happening on many different levels all the time. Certain experiences will register consciously and impress themselves upon us in such a way that they deeply effect how we see ourselves and the world. Many experiences will be hardly noticed and have little impact. Within this polarity much of what we could call, relatively speaking, the self, is contained. Physical environment, food selection, relationships, education are all somehow selected and related to. The small intestine can be viewed as the physical analog for the assimilation of the relative self. In this sense bodywork which more fully connects us with the fire element and its associated organs can help support the growth of wisdom in relation to choices and their effect on behavior. The fire element is experienced physically through the field of temperature (hot-cold) and psychologically through the feeling continuum of anger-joy.
The water element is often viewed as the element of receptivity and sensitivity. It is associated with the urinary- genital system, the lymphatic system and at the deepest level in the physical body, the central nervous system. Water is the element that allows our nervous system to have electrical conductivity. It is the element of cleansing and regeneration both physically and psychologically. Creativity (the ability to manifest outwardly what is felt or sensed within in fresh and unique ways) is a natural outgrowth of all of the elements being awakened and balanced. The procreative energy and its numerous expressions are particularly significant in terms of the water element. A more complete and expanded understanding of sexual energy can be fostered through working with this element. An example of this would be deepening the felt relationship between the pelvic center or cavity and the heart. An opening to appreciation of the uniqueness and beauty of the procreative impulses can be cultivated while also integrating this awareness into the growth of creativity in general.
As one part of a holistic approach to transforming the effects of physical and sexual abuse, water sessions can be very helpful. The wide-ranging effects of miscarriage, abortion, menstrual cycle symptoms, and menopause can also be benefited. Prostate gland complications in men and urinary tract infections for both women and men have shown positive response. As research continues to validate the relationship between the immune system, the nervous system, and the emotions, bodywork, which contributes to a clearer understanding of the somatic aspect of emotional process will undoubtedly grow in popularity. The water element is experienced physically through the sensations of cohesion-dispersion and psychologically through the feeling continuum of sadness-contentment. When more in balance, there is a greater sense of fluidity (specifically at the emotional level) and less of a tendency for attachment and clinging.
The earth element governs the large intestine and the hard tissue of the body. Sessions which address this element help bring more awareness to the function of the large intestine while vitalizing and clearing the organ also. A deeper sense of the skeleton as it interfaces with the myofascial matrix within the field of gravity can be enhanced. Grounding in the psycho-physical process and to the earth itself, while providing for increased practicality and organization in response to life’s changing circumstances, is a further potential effect. Becoming more at home on the earth, happy and appreciative for the physical body are feelings which often arise. The earth element guides or channels the power and fluidity of water. For this reason, as the water element is awakened (and in particular the wider range of emotions begin to flow), it can be useful to utilize earth sessions as a compliment and support for the water, and in turn the other elements as well. The earth element is experienced physically as sensations of weight (light-heavy) and as softness-hardness. Psychologically the element is expressed through the feeling continuum of responsibility- rigidity. Rigidity here refers to the tendency to react to internal and external stimuli, while responsibility refers to the ability to respond to the same.
THE FIVE ELEMENTS