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The Five Elements in Yoga and Ayurveda by Colleen Breeckner

01/02/2021 7:27 AM | Anonymous

Nature possesses a qualitative energy through which we can either expand into wisdom or contract into ignorance.
—David Frawley, Ayurveda and the Mind

Seasonal rituals are created to aid our bodies in adjusting to seasonal shifts in temperature, moisture, sunshine, and diet to make these periodic transitions smooth. We achieve this by shoring up the immune system through a combination of nourishing practices that are individually applied based on deficiencies or excesses in any of the five elements in the body. The five elements are earth, water, fire, air, and space.
  • Earth (prithivi) rules the lower body. The primary areas are the feet, thighs, and knees with relationship to the hips and sciatic nerve. Connecting to the Earth through the four corners of the feet honors the four directions, thereby setting a strong foundation.
  • Water (apas) rules the hips. The area of focus is the hips, sacrum, and psoas, and water is seen in the secretions and digestive juices, mucous, and plasma. When aligned in this area, it brings fluidity and flow to the body. Without fluidity, this area promotes “stuckness” and uncoordinated movements.
  • Fire (agni) rules the navel. The primary areas in practice are the core, lower back, and diaphragm. Itlies in the grey matter of the brain, retina (perceives light), digestive fire, metabolism, and enzyme systems. The organs of transformation can be transformed by heat, metabolism, digestion, and assimilation. Fire can give you the power to direct, power to change, ability to absorb, take in, and let go. Alignment of the torso is essential for enhancing the effectiveness of this element.
  • Air (vayu) rules the chest. The affected areas are the shoulders, lungs, and heart. Air can be seen in the pulsation of the heart and breath in the lungs, sensory movements, and nervous system. The area of contraction and expansion allows for the ability to freely express oneself.  Tightness in the neck affects this ability, therefore the application of good shoulder alignment promotes the freedom of air through the throat.
  • Ether (akasha; space) rules the neck. The affected areas are the throat, forehead, and mental field and the spaces in our bodies, for example, the mouth and inner ear. Space governs the idea of creating space in the body and mind, personal space, and boundaries. It controls the regulation of our emotions and passions. It is the primary area of governing spiritual progress. In physical practice, we enhance the efficiency of the element ether through the application of skull alignment.

Balancing the five elements in yoga is called Tattva Shruddhi, which is the process of integrating our felt experience. Creating balance between these five elements brings the body back to harmony.

Ayurveda is the overarching structure by which specific yoga asana is prescribed. Ayurveda is the tradition from which the art and science of sequencing and breath practices are informed. Both meditation and yoga asana are key aspects in Ayurvedic lifestyle practices.

While meditation has the ultimate goal of enlightenment, for the everyday householder meditation has additional goals of increasing sexual vitality, mental acuity, and overall radiance. Life force (prana), radiance (tejas), and vitality (ojas) are the measuring sticks by which Ayurveda assesses physical and mental well-being.

Prana is the vital force that maintains the respiration of the cell and is the flow of intelligence in the cell. Prana governs all higher cerebral activity and the biological functions of the other two essences. Prana is carried by the fluids in the body and is the vital energy we take in not only through foods but through liquids and breathing. It is responsible for enthusiasm and expression in the psyche without which we suffer from stagnation and depression.

Tejas is the intelligence of the cell. It is the essence of the heat we absorb, not only through our food but also through the skin, where we absorb sunlight. Tejas is fed through visual impressions. It governs mental digestion and absorption, without which we lack clarity and determination. Tejas has subtle energy and heat; we rise because of tejas. It helps us get to a transcendental state; without it there is no awakening. Tejas unfolds the intelligence to burn past life karma. It is the light of your true nature that burns brightly.

Ojas is the essence related to vitality and immunity. The pure essence of the bodily tissues (dhatus), ojas is a protoplasmic, biological substance—not a romantic concept.  It is our natural resistance to fight infection. Ojas must be strong to avoid invaders or chronic illness. It is influenced by the power of agni, which determines digestion and the quality of assimilation. Ojas is fed through the sensory impressions of taste and smell. It provides psychological stability and endurance, without which we experience mental fatigue and anxiety.

An experienced practitioner will examine an individual through the Ashtavidha Pariksha, which includes the examination of pulse, eyes, urine, stool, skin, tongue, voice, and build to determine the state of prana, ojas, tejas, and the distribution of the five elements.

Yoga asana has the goal of creating physical health and mental equilibrium. Ayurveda seeks to nurture physical vitality and mental clarity to allow for living life to the fullest.

Ayurveda, like all good medicine, is both an art and a science. Science is based on laws and requires scientific uniformity of symptoms and treatments. Ayurveda looks to uncover the deeper causes of disease, including but not limited to thoughts and behavior. Thoughts and behaviors can solidify into bad habits and lead toward preventable illness. Ayurveda assists in uprooting them at their cause. 

Because the habits and behaviors that lead to illness vary from person to person, treatment in Ayurveda differs from person to person. Though there may be uniformity in certain treatments, dosage and carrier substances will vary by constitution. The prescriptions consider the following variables: time of life, time of year, state of imbalance, individual constitution, and ability. 

For example, fall is a challenging time for people of a vata (air + ether) nature, but harmonizing for people of a kapha (water + earth) constitution. Individuals will benefit from practices that consider nature (dosha) and other variables. Generally, we can apply seasonal recommendations to suit the needs of the larger majority of practitioners then work individually in more complicated situations.    

Fall and winter govern the elements air and ether, in winter most people benefit from a slower more grounded yoga practice that emphasizes rhythm and support. The diet should be oily, nutritionally dense, fresh, and warm. Extra sleep and a longer savasana are essential to supporting vata. Scents should be grounding such as sandalwood and rose, as well as daily abhyanga self-massage with appropriate oils and herbs. 

Seasonal practices incorporated into a routine provide immeasurable support that becomes undeniable overtime.

For more information about the five elements and Colleen’s teaching offerings, visit colleenlilayoga.com.

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