Five Elements Series Part 1: Intro

In this blog, I am offering up the five elements as a lens to explore our yoga practices.  I practice and teach Ashtanga Yoga, and while I realize that the five elements is not necessarily associated with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ expression of the method, I’ve found it quite a useful tool for staying open and curious, especially in those places where I tend to check out and where I get uncomfortable. A lot of the work of growth and transformation associated with our yoga practices is about developing the capacity to turn and look at what it is that is coming up.

Abhyasa and Vairagya

This turning and looking is described-- in the twelfth verse of the first chapter of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the source text of yoga-- as abhyasa, which means 'to sit facing' something.  In yoga, we face whatever comes up on a moment-to-moment basis, thoughts, sensations, emotions, etc.  Along with abhyasa, the Sutras suggest that the yogi apply vairagya, which is often translated as non-attachment, but is better understood as not getting stirred up, freaked out or shut down.  So abhyasa and vairagya are two polarities that the yogi cultivates: looking at something without freaking out.  In yoga, that's particularly important because we're trying to unravel the avidya (misunderstanding or misapprehension) that permeates our lives.  Without staying present, we can't see what we do, what we feel, or who we are.  And there are a lot of experiences where we go unconscious, especially those that evoke feelings of discomfort, whether we feel pain, fatigue, fear, or sadness.

I find the five elements a particularly useful lens to use because they help me worry less when I don't feel good, when I am scared, or when I am tired.  They help me just experience the sensations that come up in my body without reacting to them.  I simply identify them as heat, cold (fire element); numb, heavy (earth element); deep and sad (water element); or moving, tingling, light, clear (air element).   Instead of getting locked into trying to understand what they mean, why they're there or how to fix them, I just notice the qualities and elements that are coming up.  As a result sensations and experiences that are uncomfortable tend to shift a lot quicker.  So, for me, the most useful part of the tool is that it helps me not to get glued in some sort of analysis paralysis.

Recreating Balance

The other part I find useful is that the five elements can be an intuitive tool to use in order to recreate balance or harmony.  So, if there's too much earth element and I am sleepy, I can apply the air element through deep breathing, to wake myself up.  Or, if there's too much fire in the system, I might want to add both water and something to cool me down, kind of like putting cream in coffee.  Coffee is really hot and bitter.  Cream is cool and heavy.  When we want to treat, heal, or rebalance ourselves on and off of the mat, the five elements can be a useful and intuitive tool that can help us understand and work with what comes up.

Using Language to Describe and Create

The five elements give us access to the language of the body and are a form of dharana and dhyana (concentration and meditation, the sixth and seventh limbs), themselves. In the inner work associated with yoga, it's important to develop a language that gives us access to our inner lives.  Our work-a-day-world language does a decent job of describing the objective reality, but it doesn't do as well at describing the subjective worlds we simultaneously cohabit.  So while it's easy to describe where I am sitting, who's sitting next to me, and what color the sky is, it isn't as easy to describe the feelings I have inside as I sit here writing this blog.  That's why music and poetry touch each of us.  While great poets and musicians can describe experiences, they are also capable of capturing qualities of the inner experiences, which touch us.  As yogis, the nature-based metaphors associated with the five elements can be useful in distinguishing inner states of consciousness.

The elements are like a metaphorical language map that gives form to internal states.  First of all, they can help us define qualities of consciousness, feeling states, emotions, and sensations.  Additionally they are an intuitive categorization that can point out when we're close to the experience of yoga and when we're far away.  And when we're off, we can use the five elements as a tool to harmonize or to create transformational breakthroughs.

So, for example, this morning, I got on the mat feeling fatigued and uninspired.  My diagnosis:  lack of fire and air and too much earth element.  Fire--along with earth-- is a necessary ingredient to evoke the combustion for transformation.  If there's too much earth in the form of fatigue and heaviness relative to fire, the fire of passion will feel like a spark instead of a standing or moving fire.  The word inspiration comes from the same root, to inspire, or to breathe in.  And what do we breathe in?  Air.  So when the air element is lacking, so is the spirit of inspiration, insight, and levity.  The air helps us float along from one vinyasa to the next.  Like fire, it is constantly in balance and interplay with the earth element.  When there's not enough air, there's almost always too much earth. And so we experience a heaviness, lethargy, or fixity in our bodies.

Diagnosis and Treatment

This diagnosis is extremely helpful because it informs the way I move, what I highlight in my practice, and what I shift to the periphery.  In my case this morning, I chose to focus on the deficiencies.  I asked myself, "How do I increase fire?"  One way that I know is to move more rapidly through the vinyasas.  Additionally, I can either take five breaths per posture very rapidly, or I can take two, three or four breaths per asana, hopping and bopping from one asana to the next.  In order to increase the air element I decided to emphasize the inhale over the exhale.  And to even emphasize the point more, I chose to take an ever-so-short inhale retention.

I realize that some of the shifts I've made are a bit "non-traditional."  This isn't what is being taught in Mysore, now.  But its what I learned from Guruji.  When I first went to Mysore in 1994, I was extremely stiff.  I was one of those guys who couldn't touch his toes in a forward bend.  And so when I asked him about working with my stiffness, he had me moving faster and making louder sounds on my exhale than my inhale.  This rapid movement increased the fire that was needed to dissolve the earth element that was keeping my body stiff and stuck.  Essentially, what I am saying is that historically, this was a practice of self-healing.  Guruji had an incredible eye for noticing what was out of balance, whether it was your spine being off or your spirit.  And he had a knack for giving us just the medicine we needed.

Likewise, each of us needs to learn to use the practice to treat ourselves medicinally.  If we practice the same way, day-in-and-day-out, we'll bore ourselves out of the practice.  Chit, consciousness, is the first thing that goes when we've lost interest.  When that happens, we end up practicing on "auto-pilot."  And when we've gone there, we're lost. It's also important to be able to tailor the practice to our individual body, mind, and spirit.  Each of these aspects of our being needs to be honored by our practice, and each changes from day-to-day, moment-to-moment.  We need to find and maintain a flexibility of approach such that our practices not only meet us where we are, but they heal us and lead us back to our truth, consciousness, and joy.

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!