The fire element brings heat to the body-mind-spirit. The sensations of fire range from feelings of warmth to heat of desire to lust. This is the element of aggression, anger, tension, hostility, and rage. It also puts us in touch with burning passion and intensity, the testosterone-driven urge to "f-ck it or kill it" and many lesser extremes, too. In its milder forms, it shows up as the warmth and generosity we bring to our relationships.
The Horny Celibate
Some yoga and spiritual teachers, especially those that focus on transcendence from the temporal and mundane, tend to have an awkward relationship with the fire element. They discourage their students from feeding the fire element. Much of the teaching is centered around overcoming passion through suppression rather than transformation. When anger gets suppressed, we tend to see aspirants pretending to be blissed out when, in fact, they’re really angry. We also see people pretending to have transcended sexuality but are, in fact, what Ram Dass calls "the horny celibate."
Part of the issue is that fiery emotions can be extremely destructive. We all have had the experience in which someone close to us has said something to us or someone else in a moment of rage that destroyed that relationship. Oftentimes people who kill will say, "I was in a fit of rage. I wasn't in my right mind." Playing with fire requires great skill, both literally and figuratively. We tell children not to touch the fire, but we train firefighters to develop a a healthy respect for it. Suffice to say, the fire element is scary for us all, but if we don't learn how to wield and use it, we miss out on a whole side of life, one filled with expression, warmth, passion, aliveness, sexual expression and adventure.
Saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No"
Another expression of the fire element that can be extremely useful to harness is our capacity to say, “no.” Many of us just have the hardest time expressing anger in a clean way. Anger is really the emotional experience that a boundary has been crossed, the boundary that marks and protects something we cherish or love deeply, whether a value, someone we love, or ourselves. And if we learn how to handle the fire element with a degree of proficiency, we don't end up feeling ripped off or used by others. We simply have the capacity to say, "No" and mean, "No," rather than saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No."
Present moment, firey responses that come from the ground of our being and through our center tend to be clear, succinct, and powerful. When the energy of the fire element is sourced in the mind and is past oriented and based in resentment or future oriented and based in anticipatory fear, however, the expression tends to create more chaos. This is a sort of top down expression rather than the first, which is bottom up. This is the kind of anger or lust sourced in fantasy, the kind we replay over and over again in our heads. Actions that are sourced from this place often end us in a heap of trouble. I am not suggesting that we suppress the fire element that arises like this. Instead of reacting from a place of rumination, it can be helpful to learn to channel the energy until clarity and insight arise. When we can learn to move the energies, they shift and awaken insight in us.
Fire in the Belly
From the yogic perspective, the fire element that is centered in the navel is called agni. It is situated there in order to metabolize the food we eat and the experiences we have into energy and insight. The metabolism is fueled by fire, and it's not just any fire. It's the fire of transformation. Our systems alchemically transform other life forms, whether in animal or vegetal forms, into the life force we use to survive. Similarly, the fire element is the source of the various faculties we use to transform our inner experience through, staying. In other words, we experience plenty of situations in life when we want to run, when we’re freaked out, but when we continuously observe our experiences without labeling or running, we’re harnessing an inner fire that in Sanskrit is called tapas. Tapas is our capacity to stay with discomfort in order to see clearly into things.
Fire is also an incredibly useful tool for clearing blockages and debris in the system, called apana. The grandfather of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya used to teach that we can use the breath to direct the cleansing nature of agni: "On inhalation the breath moves toward the belly, causing a draft that directs the flame downward, just like a fireplace: during exhalation the draft moves the flame in the opposite direction, brining with it the just burned waste matter." (Desikachar, T.K.V., The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1995. Print). Similarly, inverted postures, like sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) help direct the agni deeper into the lower abdomen and pelvic floor. In the inversion, the inner flame is said to be pointed upward into the lower chakras, burning away our preoccupation with fear (first chakra) and sex (second chakra). Ultimately, all of these cleaning techniques are aimed at transmuting the lower nature of the mind so that we can experience higher states of consciousness, like love, compassion, wisdom, and insight.
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Diagnosing the Fire Element in Ourselves and Our Practice
Fire is the element representative of the fiery nature of the body, mind, and spirit. We feel the fire element in our bodies when we sense heat or lack there of, from fevers, to frenzies, erotic feelings to rage. Heat has the tendency to rise up, and so it does in our bodies manifesting in burning eyes, headaches, and hypertension. Fire element is present when we describe the things of life as: "intense," "hot," and even, "scary."
The Personality of the Fire Element
People with a lot of fire element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:
They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:
- Need to be recognized and admired
Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Madonna, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Courtney Love, Joan of Arc, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson, and Vincent Cassel
What Fire Element Feels Like in the Body
Excess fire element can be subtle and so we feel:
- vague anxiety
- slightly dizzy
- ringing in the ears
- low grade fevers
- night sweats
- difficulty staying asleep
When the fire element is in full force, we can feel:
- throbbing headaches
- rashes, acne and skin sores
- high fevers and other burning sensations in the body
Deficiency of fire is the same thing as fatigue. There's no energy present for transformation of life into life. Prana or life force is a rarefied form of fire. Without prana life expires. So an extreme case of deficiency of fire element is death, but, then that's true of all of the elements. Loss of life is the extreme separation of the elements, while life is the coalescence of the elements. Yoga is a path that teaches us how to harmonize and balancing the elements such that we live in true-bliss-consciousness (Sat-Chit-Ananda). Nevertheless, when fire element is deficient, we feel
Antidote for Excess Fire Element:
- Observe the fire element
- Express the fire element
- Increase water
1. Observe the fire element.
- The Ashtanga practice has all sorts of ways to express the fire element (see below), but just observing it can be very powerful. By applying observation to the sensations of heat, irritability, fluster, and excitement, we simply begin a relationship with the fire element that is not based on reacting to it. Most of us have a difficult relationship with the fire element. Either we like to keep a lid on it, or where all about expressing it. Very few of us have the capacity not to become bothered when we're hot. Somehow the two go together. All societies ask us to curb our fire element. If we didn't we'd probably want to fuck or kill lots of people. So, that's probably a good thing. It helps keep societies just, safe, and sustainable. But when the fire element is repressed, we have a tendency to go into all sorts of vices. Examples of hot vices include internet pornography, alcoholic spirits, cocaine, coffee, cigarettes, and methamphetamine. In a way, our addictions give us space to express our fiery nature. The only problem with most of the vices listed above is that they burn not only us, but those around us who we effect. And they don't transform our transmute into compassion, wisdom, or insight. Rather, they tend to perpetuate ignorance (moha).
2. Expressing the fire element. If we cannot be with the fire element, it can be extremely powerful to express it. On the other side of expression is often both grounding (earth element) and clarity (air element). That's what catharsis is about. In Greek, catharsis means to purify and purge. In yoga, we say that tapas is the fire needed to burn away the impurities of the mind. So we build tapas all sorts of ways in the practice.
- We don't hold poses for long periods of time. Instead, we stay moving fairly rapidly from one pose to the next, creating heat. Maybe we stay in poses for 3-4 breaths instead of 5-10. Active practice (as opposed to static postures), like Surya Namaskar tends to increase agni; so it can be useful to do a full-vinyasa practice rather than a half-vinyasa practice to increase the internal cleansing fires and to increase the amount of Surya Namaskar A and B that you do in the beginning of practice.
- Both primary and intermediate series are designed as an arc of transformation: Suryanamaskar A and B build the fire, the standing poses and most of the sitting poses keep building it up. The intensity of the sequence peaks somewhere around navasana in primary series. In intermediate series we experience a few peaks. Kapotasana is the first one. Next comes titbasana. Finally, comes karandavasana. After these peaks, the rest is a downhill arc. By maintaining the intensity up to the peaks of the arc and coming back down on the other side, we move some of the chaotic energy of the fire element through. In a way, we can create a cathartic experience just by following the sequence. By the time we jump into savasana we can ground ourselves--earth element--and return to a state of clarity--air element.
- Keeping the dristi allows us to be less reactive, less volatile. In a lot of ways, the dristi is a form of pratyahara. Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga. Pratyahara is all about drawing the senses inward. Guruji used to say that pratyahara means, "Sense control, anywhere you look, any thought that you have, any perception, it is all Atma (the Self or Soul)...When you exercise sense control you are no longer deceived by outward appearances, but perceive only Atma." When we direct our attention to the inner fire rather than seeking retribution outside of ourselves, we start to rewire the habit patterns of mind, the samskaras.
- Certain asanas build a lot of heat. About a year ago, I was involved in a research put on by Yoga Journal about the effects of yoga practice on heart rate. We were given heart rate monitors to wear while we practiced. As my heart rate increased, I tended to get hotter. I found that those postures that asked me to engage my lower abdominal and pelvic muscles more intensely, increased my heart rate: forward bends and inversions, especially. As an experiment, try staying in paschimottanasana, sarvangasana, and sirsasana for a good 20-30 breaths.
- Bhastrika pranayama is one of the pranayamas that Guruji historically taught in the Ashtanga Pranayama Sequence. In bhastrika pranayama we take a vigorous exhalation and a reflexive inhalation through our nostrils. When we exhale, we pull the lower abdomen back strongly, using both uddiyana and mula bandhas. We do this quickly about 100 times; take a slow inhale and retain the breath somewhere between 20 and 100 seconds. And then exhale the breath. We repeat this process three times.
- Listen to hard rock, heavy metal, or rock n' roll while you practice. This music can help really get the fires moving, excite, and enliven a dead practice. Let the rhythm carry the movement.
- Another way to increase the fire element is to make the ujjayi sound louder and emphasize the sound of the exhale so it sounds a bit forced. The restriction in the back of the throat causes the lower abdominal muscles to work harder, thus stoking the internal fires. As the exhale comes to completion, pull the lower abdomen int tightly and draw in on the whole pelvic floor, the anus, the perineum, and the genitals. For men, an advanced form of this is to develop the capacity to draw the testicles up and into the pelvic floor and for women to develop the capacity to tone the ovaries, which is an advanced Taoist practice, as well.
3. Increase the Water Element. Water balances fire. If you put too much water on a fire, it stanches it out. But if you put just the right amount, it creates warm vapors. In other words, water and fire are constantly in a balancing act. If our practices are all fire, we end up burning away too much. We see this in people who've had a kundalini rising situation, in which their nervous systems got burned or fried through too much fiery practice. The water element is all about emotions, deep, soulful emotions. When we're in the land of the water element, tears naturally pour forth.
- Staying in touch with our feeling nature, especially feelings of sadness, longing, and mystery can balance our fiery, hot emotions, like rage, anger or addictive sexual tendencies. Something else that can be immensely useful is to find self compassion with mantras like those found in the Buddhist Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditations, words like the following:May I be filled with peace.May I be filled with love and compassion.
May I be safe and protected.
- Some food and fluids can increase fire too much, foods like sugars and sweets, alcohol, coffee, stimulants and dry, pungent, warm, and acrid spices, like chillies, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon. Soups and stews, lots of cooked vegetables and grains, and a bit of animal protein tend to add moisture where there's too much dryness and heat.
- Connect to the fluidity of the vinyasa. (See Water Element)
- Emphasize smooth, fluid transitions between the inhale and exhale and the exhale and inhale. (See Water Element)
- Develop a stillness practice. (See Water Element)