We are all made of elements. So, why wouldn’t we use them to support our wellbeing? Learn simple ways to use the elements to calm stress, cleanse, find balance, self-support and self-care.
What are the elements?
Like the number of fingers on a human hand, there are five elements from both a Sahaja Yoga and an Ayurvedic perspective:
“In a healthy body all the elements are working in harmony. However, in an imbalanced state, any one element will disturb all others.”Maya Tiwari: The Five Elements & Influence on the Senses
While you may be able to easily pick out the five elements in nature, the variations of them in our every day lives may be less obvious. Let’s explore common things that represent the five elements and the qualities that characterize each.
The ether, or space element
Sometimes referred to as ether, the element of space isn’t always considered an element from western indigenous perspectives where the other four elements are favored.
What common, every day things are representative of the space element?
- The sky.
- Silence and quiet time
- The moments in-between one activity and another.
What characterizes the space element?
- The sound of stillness, nothingness
The air element can often be confused for the element of ether/space. It’s different in that air has the quality of movement and temperature.
What common, every day things are representative of the air element?
- The wind.
What characterizes the air element?
- The feel of skin, temperature or an object
The ether/space element manifests in the human body through the ears as sound. “We can experience the sounds of nature: running water, rustling trees, bird song and the calming, balancing effects of nature. The sound of silence can be found in meditation and stillness.”Maya Tiwari: The Five Elements & Influence on the Senses
The fire element is probably one of the easiest to recognize, and the element we are most drawn to while also having a healthy fear of.
What common, every day things are representative of the fire element?
- The sun.
- A candle flame.
What characterizes the fire element?
- Having clarity or inner wisdom
- A manner of directness
- Angry words
- Redness and inflammation
Another simple element to recognize in everyday life, water is probably the most widely-used, culturally-acceptable element used for cleansing and support. When one is tired or stressed they take a bath. When one feels overwhelmed or dirty they might take a shower. Water has an obvious way of holding and supporting big things, allowing them to float.
What common, every day things are representative of the water element?
- A river, lake or ocean
What characterizes the water element?
- Taking a shower or soaking in a bath
The earth element is one we can’t very well avoid in our day. As soon as we awake in the morning and our feet touch the floor, the earth element makes its appearance. As well, whenever we sit down, go outside into our yard, look at a tree or smell any of nature’s bountiful scents we’ve connected with the earth element.
What common, every day things are representative of the earth element?
- Your lawn.
- The soil in a potted plant.
- A tree.
What characterizes the earth element?
- A sense of calm and “groundedness”
- Slowing things down
- The smell of flowers or fresh-cut grass
How am I made of elements?
“According to Ayurveda the five elements are present in all matter, in various proportions, and these five elements compose everything in the universe including humans,” explains Maya Tiwari, founder of Wise Earth School of Ayurveda (one of the oldest Ayurvedic schools in the U.S.), in unit four of her coursebook called The Five Elements & Influence on the Senses.
She goes on to advise that “in a healthy body, all the elements are working in harmony. However, in an imbalanced state, any [single] element will disturb all others.”
The relationship between our sense and the elements
From an Ayurvedic perspective, each of the elements manifests as one of our five senses.
- Ether/space manifests as sound.
- Air manifests as touch.
- Fire manifests as sight.
- Water manifests as taste.
- Earth manifests as smell.
Ether/space element manifests as sound.
Whether it is vibratory, the sound we can pick up with our ears or the sound of absolute silence.
When you’re listening to the sound of classical music, instrumental music, harmony or a chant or om, you’re using the ether/space element for self-care.
CONSIDER: What is the message of the music I’m listening to? Do its words align with what I value? Does the music create a sense of what I want to create more of in my life?
Air element manifests as touch.
Think about how you sense warmth when its cold outside: through your largest sense organ, the skin. And, your skin responds with either a relaxation or maybe even goosebumps when the breeze passes by.
When you’re using the smoke produced from burning a cleansing wood, needle or herb, you’re using the air element for self-care. When you open the windows of your space to feel the breeze, you’re using the air element for self-care.
CONSIDER: What am I burning in my home or office daily and what’s the intention behind it? Is that in service of the energy I want in my home, office or the space around my body? Do I open the windows and allow airflow through my space?
Fire element manifests as sight.
What sense is immediately most drawn to a fire? Our eyes! We often can’t stop staring at the ethereal brightness of a fire or the way its flame dances, changes color and changes shape.
When you face the sunrise in the morning, you’re using the fire element for self-care. Even when you light a candle indoors, you have the opportunity to use the fire element for self-care.
CONSIDER: Where could I benefit from more focus in my life? Am I being too cold and could I increase my expression in some part of my life? What dark places within me could use more warmth or the light of awareness?
Water element manifests as taste.
When you’re hungry for something, do you ever feel your mouth get moist in anticipation? You just cannot wait for another juicy bite of your meal. Can you feel your digestive juices in your gut preparing for that next bite?
When you dip your feet into a river, a pond or dive into the ocean you’re using the water element for self-care. When you take a long shower or hop in the bath you’re using the water element for self-care.
CONSIDER: Where can I slow down and savor the “taste” of things more? What needs holding right now? What can I wash away that’s no longer serving me?
Earth element manifests as smell.
How do you feel when you smell a delicious dinner cooking when you walk into someone’s home? What about when you open the door in the morning and smell cut grass and flowers blooming?
Scent immediately brings us into the present moment, grounds us and calms our nervous systems. When you cook dinner with “scentual” spices, you’re using the earth element for self-care. When you sit upon the earth and take in the scent of the soil, the heat on the stone, the drying leaves or the plant life there you’re using the earth element for self-care.
CONSIDER: Where can I slow down more in my day? Can I close my eyes and use my scent perception alone for a few minutes today? What scents am I drawn to and which repel me? What can I learn about both?
How we use the elements inside our bodies
The qualities of the elements are also reflected in countless physiological processes in our bodies–from digestion to excretion. Let’s take a look at some of the more recognizable elemental functions of our body.
Ether, or space element in the body
From our mouths to our nostrils down into our respiratory tract, abdomen, diaphragm, and deep into our cells the space element is at work. These organs allow us to both create and receive the benefits of healing sound.
The air element in the body
Air element can be found in our organs that move things: from the tensing and relaxing of our muscles, the inflation and deflation of our lungs, to the squeezing contraction and relaxation of peristalsis, or the movement and break-down of food through the intestines.
The fire element in the body
The fire element helps us burn, or break down, our food allowing us to assimilate its nutrient benefits. From enzymatic functions that aid in breaking down the food to its metabolism. The spark and flame qualities of the fire element also represent our intellect and ability to see clearly (sight).
The water element in the body
It may be easy to guess which physiological processes are governed by water in the body. Anything that flows or moves like water, including saliva, blood and plasma, mucous membranes and digestive juices. All the bodily functions that help us taste our food and prepare the body for receiving, digesting and metabolizing it.
The earth element in the body
When you consider the parts of the body that might remind you of the earth m you may think of bone (like a mineral), nails, teeth or even hair. Parts of the body that are strong and reflect our mineral content. Other organs where the earth element governs include our skin, our tendons, cartilage and muscles.
How can I use the elements for cleansing, stress relief and self-care?
Inspired by 5,000+ years of Vedic knowledge, Ayurveda uses what we can easily observe every day in nature as its principles for self-care. For example, if like increases like, then opposites must balance.
This is called the Principle of Opposites. And, you may already have noticed it working in your life. Consider the following qualities, or gunas, in relation to its paired opposite.
“The Charaka Samhita, one of the main texts of Ayurveda, offers 10 pairs of opposites as a key to reinstating balance. Thousands of years ago, the yogi sages who developed Ayurveda created these principles. With clear minds and undisturbed senses as their instruments of research, the sages determined that qualities of matter exist in pairs of opposites. They also found that “like increases like”—for instance, adding heat to something warm increases the warmth. And they discovered that opposing qualities balance each other, so adding heat to something cold results in something warmer, or less cold.”Balancing Act from Yoga Journal
This list describes how the five elements interact in all matter here on earth (and even in our universe).
|A quality (or guna):||Its paired opposite quality (or guna):|
|Rough||Smooth or slimy|
|Sharp||Slow or dull|
|Dense||Porous or liquid|
Now, let’s play with the Principle of Opposites in some examples you’ve likely experienced directly in your life:
|In early Spring, a bit overzealous about the first signs of sunlight, you take your jog outside and notice a bit too late that you’ve gotten a sunburn.||Noticing you’ve gotten too much sun, friends and colleagues urge you to take a cool shower and apply aloe vera gel to your skin to cool the heat.|
|Starting in the Autumn each year, as the wind and temperatures cool down, you notice your skin starts to get a bit drier and even flakes off.||Playing opposites, you would apply oil to not only your skin, but also you notice adding healthy oils (like ghee, coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil) to your diet seems to help.|
|When allergy season starts up, you notice your throat feels rough and scratchy causing you to cough.||When you drink warm herbal tea or take herbal syrups containing slimy, lubricating herbs like slippery elm bark in them, it eases your throat and cough.|
|You’ve been on-the-go all day long and you’re starting to feel the effects on your mobility: out of breath, fatigue and soreness in your legs or feet.||The first urge you have coming home that night is to sit down, motionless and “space out” in front of a show.|
Using the Principle of Opposites and applying these paired opposite qualities in your life can be an incredibly empowering way to create balance, ease stress and take good care of yourself, simply.
“By inquiring about the qualities present in ourselves and our surroundings, we can sharpen our skills of direct perception just like the sages did …”Balancing Act from Yoga Journal
Practice recognizing pairs of opposites throughout your week. Notice how one is a loving response to the other. Notice what happens in your body when you recognize something that feels off, identify its qualities and apply its paired opposite. And, notice what happens when you don’t respond at all.
This simple practice will deepen your understanding of the world around you and your body’s reaction to it. Simply using paired opposites to respond to yourself with mindfulness and care alone will have a nourishing, loving impact on how you experience your day.
1. Use the ether, or space, element to cool anger, ease tension and relax over-control
You’re feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities and like there’s just no time for anything–especially you! Instead, you’re exhausting yourself meeting obligations in service to everyone else’s needs.
This kind of overscheduling and overcommitment eventually creates heat in the body that may take the shape of inflammation and joint pain, bloating, body tension and unnecessary effortful posture holding, impatience, over-directness with others and the need to control others.
Find 10 minutes of quiet time each day to stare into the sky.
Start simply. Find 10 minutes of quiet time for yourself each day to cool down. Use the time to stare into the sky with its spaciousness and cooling colors. Making time for literal space in your schedule can begin to ease the fiery heat that builds when you’re not getting your own needs met.
“Each of the five elements of earth, fire, water, air and ether (i.e., space) relate closely to an aspect of our subtle system. This means that the element can assist in nurturing and cleansing that aspect.Sahaja Yoga South Africa
2. Use the air element to cleanse and move your body into action
You’re feeling heavy and low energy, like you’re walking through sludge to get through your day. Maybe like you’re a bit stuck or even stagnant.
This burdensome weightiness is caused by inactivity and overindulgence. Like a pool of water disconnected from any water flow becomes thick and murky. This heaviness in the body may take the shape of lethargy, weight gain, phlegm in the nose, throat or lungs, oily skin and hair, feelings of depression and unworthiness, and comparison to others.
During your morning routine, commit daily to either getting some fresh air on a walk or smudging yourself.
Playing opposite to the qualities of heavy, oily, sticky and static, you’ll want to lighten, dry, smooth and mobilize your body.
If you can get outside for an enjoyable walk at a somewhat challenging pace, you’ll be inviting the fresh air to lighten and dry you as it rolls over your skin. Focus on making your movements smooth and full: take wider steps than you usually do and reach your arms fully forward and fully backward in opposite to your feet as you walk. Take in each breathe feeling its coolness as it enters your nostrils and fills up your lungs.
Mobilizing your body engages your heart which in turn engages your blood and lymph flow. Sweating is your body’s natural cleansing process to move heaviness through your skin and out of you. Feel your own strength as you mobilize. Notice how the air constantly cools then dries the sweat from your brow.
When you can’t walk, make sure you have a cleansing herb handy for burning and smudging yourself and your home or office space. Sage, palo santo, copal, rosemary and lemongrass are all excellent for cleansing, drying and lightening stagnant energy on your body or in a space.
3. Use the fire element to focus, purify and clear away the clutter
You feel scattered and unfocused in your workday, and it’s bleeding into your all-day. Follow the instinct of your eyes to the flame of a candle.
Focus on a candle flame for 5 minutes before bed or first thing in the morning.
Lighting one candle in a dark room without distraction, practice focusing on the candle’s flame. Notice its movement, the shapes it takes and how many colors you can see inside the flame.
Stay with observing the candle flame each night before bed or each morning upon waking. Practice being present with the flame for 5 minutes, then 10 or more as feels good to you.
Practice looking through the flame with your left eye, then your right eye, then both eyes. As you observe the flame, notice what thoughts come up for you. Acknowledge they are there and let them gently pass. No judgment if you get caught up in one. Just return to observing the flame when you realize you’re lost in the thought. Return again and again to the flame.
4. Use the water + earth elements to cleanse, support and nourish while grounding and stabilizing anxiety
You’re having trouble falling asleep at night. Worry and anxiety is keeping you awake. You just can’t seem to let go of the to-do list and settle into sleep.
During the daytime, your mind feels scattered while your body feels tense and shaky with so much energy you don’t quite know what to do with it. Almost like you’ve had too many cups of coffee (except you haven’t).
Playing opposite to the qualities of cold, light, dry, hard and mobile, you’ll want to add warmth, weight, wetness, and soften and still your body.
Soak your feet in warm Epsom salt water for 10 mins before bed each evening.
Combining the healing qualities of water with the earth element represented by the Epsom salt helps warm, moisten, ground, soften and calm your overactive body and mind.
Foot soaking is a gentle way to care for yourself and bring yourself back to your center, while the salt pulls toxins from your feet both physically and energetically. It’s like a reset from your day that you’ll come to rely on.
When you’re done with soaking your feet, rub them with your favorite lotion or oil, giving them a little massage and thank them for their help in keeping you moving, yet connected, all day. For supporting you tirelessly.