The air element is the source of all mobility. It feels light and clear. It is the place of spirit and of spirituality, the place where the yogis and saints reach for. It is also the place of unconditional love, unconditional compassion, unconditional friendliness, equanimity, and well-being. It is the place we get to when we can finally take a breath of fresh air. It can feel like coming out of hibernation to something fresh, clean, bright, and alive. It is also the place of humor because humor acts like a breath of fresh air within the space or ether. People who know how to move space, know how to breathe light and life into it.
In a moment, I am going to ask you to stand up and away from your computer. You're going to click on this link: Air Element Music. Allow your body to move to the sounds that you hear while simultaneously noticing what you feel.
What did you notice in your body? What was the movement like? This is the air element, mobile, cool, subtle, flowing, of a higher plane of consciousness.
Diagnosing the Air Element in Ourselves and Our Practice
Air is the element representative of the movement, change, and shifting we experience in our body, mind, and spirit. We feel the air element in our bodies when we sense things moving. The air element has multiple directions. In hatha yoga, we're primarily concerned with the ascending quality of the air element in the upper body that allows us to breathe and expand, called prana vayu and the descending quality, apana vayu, that allows us to root and stabilize. The air element is present when we describe the things of life as: "buoyant," "uplifting," "inspiring," and "exhilarating."
The Personality of the Fire Element
People with a lot of air element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:
- Mentally Agile
They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:
Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Shirley MacLean, Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn, Chris Rock, Bob Marley, Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Spok (Star Trek), Richard Freeman.
What Air Element Feels Like in the Body: Deficiency and Excess
A deficiency of air element produces sluggishness and dullness in the body. When the air element is deficient, we tend to feel like everything is stagnant, stuck, and not moving. This lack of movement can be extremely frustrating, so we also feel gloomy and experience frequent mood swings and irritability, sometimes even chronic depression. Because things aren't moving properly and are staying stuck, we also experience pain in the body. Either the pain moves from place to place or, if the air element is really deficient, the pain can be boring, fixed, and stabbing.
When the air element is deficient, we feel:
- pain that moves from place to place
- mental depression
- gloomy feelings
- frequent mood swings
- frequent sighing
When the air element is extremely deficient we can feel:
- pain that is fixed in location
- pain that is boring and stabbing
- abdominal masses that do no move
- chronic depression
When the air element is excessive, we experience a quality of nervousness, hyper-excitability, and agitation in our bodies. It's like our nervous system is always turned on. In those moments, when the air element is excessive, we can feel ungrounded, nervous, agitated, and sometimes even frightened.
When the air element is in excess, we feel:
- vague anxiety
Antidote for Deficient Air Element in Yoga Practice
- Increase the ratio of inhale to exhale in ujayi pranayama as well and/or take an inhale retention. Inhalations are expansive, while exhalations create contraction. Air element is all about expansion, movement, and mobility. Creating space through breath increases the air element and gets things moving, again.
- Emphasize sukha over sthira, the pleasant nature of the asana over its firmness. Patanjali describes two qualities of asanas in 2.46 of The Yoga Sutras: sthira sukham asanam. Sthira means firm, fixed, or steady. Sukham is happiness and delight. In Ashtanga, we tend to emphasize the firmness of the posture through contracting various muscles within it. So, for example, in forward bends, we tend to contract the biceps, the quadriceps, and the pelvic floor (mula bandha). By deemphasizing the engagement of these muscles, we back off of postures, creating more space and spaciousness within them.
- Find a fluidity of movement, both in and out of the poses that feels light, buoyant, and airy. Try a full-vinyasa practice.
- Emphasize uddiyana bandha, which means upward flying. It tends to send the life force (prana) upward, creating a sense of buoyancy within the movement.
- Increase the amount of time spent in backbends. Backbends expand and open the fronts of the chest and increase our lung capacity. Backbends that increase the air element include: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), Dhanurasana (bow pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose).
- While in forward bends, emphasize lengthening of the spine out of the pelvic girdle...
- ...rather than contracting and laying down on the outstretched leg(s). Lengthening the spine out of the pelvic girdle creates a quality of openness, extroversion and expansion, while contracting tends to do just the opposite.
- Put yourself in contact with people, places, and things that revive and inspire you. It can help to have books by your mat that you can return to that remind you of what's encouraging, positive and uplifting. It can also help to keep a journal there, too, so you can write down any insights that inspire you as your practicing.
- It can be helpful to reduce certain foods that obstruct movement, foods high in saturated fats (lard, mammal meats, cream, cheese, and eggs), hydrogenated and poor quality fats (such as shortening, margarine, refined and rancid oils), excess nuts and seeds, chemicals in food and water, prescription drugs, all intoxicants, and highly processed, refined foods. And, instead, increase foods and spices which stimulate movement:
- vegetables of the Brassica genus: cabbage, turnip root, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussel sprouts
- mustard greens
Antidote for Excess Air Element in Yoga Practice
- Emphasize grounding by keeping the awareness at the mula dhara chakra and performing mula bandha, since the muladhara chakra is the residence of the earth element. Placing our attention here has the tendency to root us. It also allows us to connect to our physical seat, which grounds and centers us.
- In standing poses, place the awareness at the soles of the feet by grounding the base of the big toe, the base of the small toe and the inner and outer edges of the heel. This grounding is called pada bandha and creates stability in the body and mind.
- In arm balances, chaturanga dandasana, jump backs, jump throughs, and any time you have your hands on the floor, place the awareness at the contact the four corners of the hand—the bases of the index and small fingers, the base of the thumb, as well as the heel of the palm—make with the ground.
- Increase the ratio of exhaling compared to inhaling. Try a 1:2 ratio; so, for example, you might inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10. Or maybe that's too time consuming, so you inhale for 4 and exhale for 8. When we increase the ratio of exhale to inhale, we have the capacity to calm our nervous system. If, for example, you notice you're agitated, take time aside from your asana practice to just try the 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale, and you'll notice that your mind will naturally find more stability. Additionally, you'll notice that at the end of an exhalation, you naturally engage mula bandha. In other words the pelvic floor naturally contracts; thus, exhaling is a natural way to engage mula bandha.
- Put an exhale retention into the breath sequence. By doing so, you will be emphasizing the exhalation and its capacity to calm and stabilize the nervous system.
- Increase the time you spend in forward bends over back bends. Forward bends have a more sedating effect on the nervous system than backbends. That's one reason why primary series is so powerful when us Westerners first learn it. We're so used to being amped up that when we take all of those forward bends, we start to find an access point toward introversion.
- Aasnas that decrease the air element include: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose), Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, & D (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Marichyasana A & B (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
- While in forward bends emphasize the bend at the waist rather than the extension out of the pelvic girdle. By emphasizing flexion rather than extension, we create more introversion, grounding and sedation.
- In forward bends, bring some awareness and a slight increase in effort on the exhalation and relax on the inhalation.
- Do less asanas. Excessive movement can agitate the air element more. Don’t feel obligated to do the complete series of postures you've been taught each. Know when enough is enough. It might be beneficial not to jump back or jump through between asanas or sides of asanas.
- When we're hyper-exitable with excess air element, it can be helpful to get out of our heads, to get into our bodies, and to create some action rather than analysis.
- It can help to decrease the time we spend in front of the computer and television; and to eat nourishing foods, especially root vegetables and whole grains.
- Foods which treat excess air element include:
- most beans: black, mung, and kidney
- watermelon and other melons
- algae: spiraluna, chlorella
- warm milk