Ether is the space from which our consciousness arises. It, in fact, has no form. Its essence is emptiness. And so it is the space that all the elements arise and pass away in. Because ether has no qualities, it also represents emptiness or the void we all experience at moments and is filled, not through more activity but by quiet and retreat. For many of us, our yoga practice is the place we go to in order to continue to empty out so that we can connect with the space of the ether element.
Ether is also the element that represents the mind. After all, the mind has no form and cannot be contained, seen, or experienced on a sensual level. Thoughts and emotions ride on the substratum of ether element. Our capacity to experience the qualities of the four other elements is entirely dependent on what we do with our minds and, ultimately, with the ether element. If we direct our minds, then we are harnessing the power of the ether element. If we allow the mind to move in a willy-nilly fashion, we have no access to the other elements.
Noticing What Is
The ether element is the same thing as chit. Essentially, chit is noticing what is. It’s a kind of looking, listening, feeling, tasting, touching, and intuiting that allows us to see into things but is not obstructed by stories, dramas, or any interpretation whatsoever. It’s really just noticing what is. The action of chit, as described in The Yoga Sutras is an active form of observation without interpretation. When we really get to know things without immediately jumping to conclusions, when we can just notice, we come to know them as they are.
Before we can ever really direct our mind or give space to anything, we have to be curious. Curiosity is a quality of being that is open, available, and full of wonder. It does not assume anything, nor is it attached to anything. It’s free, open, and innocent. It does not needing to make anything happen.
Do you remember what it was like to be a three year old? Three year olds walk around amazed at what’s in front of them. They never stop and think they've got it all figured out. Once they're done taken a toy apart, they're off to find out something else. A three-year old's curiosity can be an amazing starting ground to approach the practice of yoga. Without it, our practices become stagnant, rote, and monotonous.
Most of us initially start our yoga practice filled with curiosity. We start enthralled by what our practice awakens in us. Then we start to think we know something about it. We have it pegged, labeled, and understood. We start to think we know how this posture is and how to approach it. We begin interacting with the practice based on history. Then we start to get bored with our practice. Something that was once super-exciting becomes boring and predictable. What happened? We stopped being curious. By taking our practices for granted, we numb out to the subtle shifts and changes that are constantly happening in our practices. We assume we know.
When was the last time you were in wonder about your practice? When was the last time you experienced something you’ve done a million times, like a posture or a drishti, and were shattered, literally torn apart by it? That’s where curiosity is born. How do we show up on the mat everyday, curious about something new and wonderful, either in yourself or in the way a movement feels? When we turn up the volume on our curiosity within our practice, not with the story or the circumstances, but the inner truth of our practice, our ability to apply the ether element grows and expands exponentially.
As an exercise for acquainting yourself with the ether element, stop reading for a second, close your eyes, and simply listen to the music on this link, noticing what you feel in your body.
While this music is a bit dark and mysterious, which has a mood, just the act of listening has a quality of expansiveness. That's the quality of ether or space element. The ether element is said to open in the ears. So we learn about the ether element when, in yoga, pranayama, or meditation practice, we direct our attention to the sound of the breath, to listen both to the gross sounds and the subtle ones.
Next time you find yourself in a crowded space, spend a few minutes walking around that space. Spend the first few minutes trying to avoid others. Notice what that's like. Next, spend a few minutes stepping into the empty space. If you try the latter, you'll notice how much the space will open up for you. We tend to spend our lives defensively avoiding whatever it is that comes at us. If, instead, we can learn to step into the empty space, into ether element, possibilities begin to open for us.
Take a field trip to a few venues, like a library, a hotel lobby, the waiting area in an emergency room, or an airport bar. Notice the way the space feels is it: angry, frustrated, joyful, board, at peace, anxious? What else you notice about the environment? What is the buzz in the space? Notice where the energy is in the room and how it shifts as people arrive or depart. Write down your impressions. Then try listening with your eyes closed. Notice how that changes things?
While you're in your yoga practice, notice the spaces in the practice:
- the space between the inhale and exhale, the exhale and the inhale
- the space that is created in the body after you come out of a posture
- the various spaces where you practice and how the spaces effect your practice.
- the space between the feet and hands as they touch the floor
- the space behind you, to your sides, and in front of you
Notice how placing your attention on the space alters your experience of your practice? How does it change things? How does it open things up? What is newly open to you as you place your awareness on these places.
Five Element Series
This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!
- Part 1—Intro
- Part 2—Getting Unstuck
- Part 3—The Five Elements in History
- Part 4—The Ether Element
- Part 5—The Air Element
- Part 6—The Fire Element
- Part 7—The Water Element
- Part 8—The Earth Element
- Part 9-Transformational Breakthroughs