Five Elements Series Part 2: Getting Unstuck

We all face discomfort on the mat, whether in the body, emotionally, or in the mind.  As soon as we have the sense that something is askew, we can’t help but say, "I don't like this feeling.” Or, “I don't want to have this feeling.”  And it is so subtle when it happens.  It is usually just a split second.  There's a very subtle part of our awareness that is constantly asking, "Is this pleasure?  Or is this discomfort?"  And if it's discomfort, then we immediately need to do something about it.  The time between noticing pleasure and discomfort is so subtle and elusive that we are rarely responsive.  Mainly we are reactive to these sensations, especially those that do not feel good. There's a saying in yoga that suffering can be the doorway to wisdom.  And so our discomfort, pain, hurt, and, even anger can be used as an access point into truth.  If we will stay with the experience--not necessarily the thoughts about the experience, but the direct experience of what's occurring--then what tends to unfold is deeper insight and learning.  But the lessons won't emerge until we apply a quality of curiosity and presence to whatever is arising, from moment to moment.

Getting Unstuck

And I say, moment-to-moment, because what happens is that all experience is constantly in a flux.  It's constantly changing. There isn't one fixed experience we have.  While some feeling states last for extended periods of time, if we apply consciousness, we'll notice that they're constantly shifting.  That is, they're not fixed.  Even in this moment, what you felt 30 seconds ago doesn't correspond to what's occurring, now. And so by being in the now, we end up noticing a constant flux, a constant change. Applying this quality of present moment consciousness unsticks us.  What keeps us stuck is that we identify ourselves in fixed modes, like "I am an intense person;" or "I'm a Capricorn;" or "I'm a materialist;" or "I am a vegetarian."

When we begin to notice the qualities of the five elements that arise in the body and throughout our experience of life, we start to develop the visceral experience that nothing we experience out in the world is, in fact, is fixed, static, or eternal.  So, for example, we may experience a lot of fire in one moment.  In that moment we might feel anger, frustration, and warm, hot, or burning sensations in the body.  Many of us have a hard time being with these feelings.  They're uncomfortable.  But if we apply a quality of curiosity to them, if we stay with our experience long enough without looking to express or repress the feelings that come up, we'll notice them morph into another element.  Maybe we'll experience some water element; we may be become sad, weepy, heavy, and maybe even tearful.  It isn't that the elements follow an orderliness, but they do shift from moment-to-moment.


The elemental approach is useful in that when we get a feeling we are either uncomfortable with or simply cannot be with, we can disentangle ourselves from the "I don't want" response, which leads to more "I don't want."  Patanjali's notion of asmita, which is commonly translated as ego, is really an excessive sense of I or me.  Two things comprise this false and excessive sense of I or me: the parts that cling to pleasure (raga) and the parts that avoid pain or discomfort (dvesa).  Instead of being led around by the asmita, the five elements give a different lens to simply see what it is that we experience. While all personal experience can never be truly objective, the elements do give a quality of neutrality.  As a result, they take us out of the propensity to think that whatever we are experiencing is either right or wrong.  They take us out of the land of raga, dvesa, and asmmita and, instead, put us in touch with curiosity, openness, and discrimation (viveka).

So when we're awake to our discomfort, instead of seeking solutions, we can immediately start to ask, "What am I feeling here?" "Where is it?" "Is there a metaphor in nature I might use to describe it? Is it hot or cold? Heavy or light? Moving or fixed?  Wet or dry?" "What is the primary element here?" "Are there any other elements present?"  And then we can stay with the feelings as they shift by asking, "What am I noticing, now?"  And then after a few moments, we can ask the same question, "What's happening, now?"  Throughout the process if we remain open and curious to whatever shows up, we can begin to unravel and awaken to a deeper experience of wisdom.

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

The Drishti: Looking Out & Looking In

A friend of mine is struggling in her relationship with her boyfriend.  They've been together for quite some time, but he's feeling stuck and wants to move on.  He tells her that he's in love with her, but then tells her that he needs to move out, to find his own place.  She's getting all sorts of mixed messages, and she can't help but vacillate between wanting him to stay or demanding that he just moves on. Either way, she feels hostage to his moods and to his indecisiveness.  She says, "I can't really move forward in my life until he makes a decision."

While not all of us have been in a position like this, we can all empathize with her. We've all experienced the sense that our happiness, security, or well-being was in the hands of someone or something outside of ourselves.  The problem my friend is stuck with is that she's in a perspective that leaves her powerless.  All the power is in his hands.  Each time she feels elated or crushed by his next intended move on the chess board of their life together, she has no say.

A Profound Meditation on the Self

The recognition that we always have a say, however, is what is the essence of the practice of drishti in Ashtanga Yoga.  Mostly, when teachers discuss drishti, they talk about it as a way to keep the mind focused in the present moment. They describe the various gazing points as tools to keep the mind anchored in the present moment, much like the bandhas or the sound  of the ujjayi breath.  But it's my sense that the drishti is so much more profound than this.  It's really a meditation on waking up to where we direct our attention and how it effects our relationship to the Self.

The Windows of the Soul

You know the saying, "The eyes are the windows to the soul"?  When we say this, we think about looking into another's eyes, but when we practice drishti during or Ashtanga practice, we're looking through our own eyes and deep into our own souls.  Drishti, in the context of Ashtanga Yoga, is a form of sense withdrawal (pratyahara).  While we gaze at the tip of nose (nasagrai drishti) or the hand (hastagrai drishti), we're not simply looking at objects, but we're noticing the gazer that is gazing at them.

While the Sanskrit word, drishti, means to gaze, the drashtaa is the seer, and the drishya is the object that is seen or known.  So, for example, if we're gazing at the tip of the nose (nasagrai drishti), the nose is the drishya, the capacity to gaze is the drishti, and the one that gazes is the drashtaa. The significance of this triad known in Sanskrit as triputi is that when we're practicing the drishti, it isn't exclusively the nose we're really looking at.  Rather, it's the whole phenomenon of the self (drashtaa)  looking (drishti) at the nose (drishya).  And so the nose is really a profound meditation into the questions: Who it is that is looking at the nose?  In short, the drishti is not just a point of concentration that keeps us focused outward, but an inquiry into the relationship of the seer within (drashtaa) and to the objects that define it.

Choose Your Gaze Wisely

As I shared the practice of drishti with my friend, she began to see that his indecisiveness was simply a stimulus that evoked feelings of pain and uncertainty that have always been with her and that were independent of him.  In addition, she could see that she wasn't simply at the whim of his uncertainty but that by continuing to gaze (drishti) at his uncertainty (drishya), she (drashtaa) was choosing to suffer.  The most significant revelation she discovered through this practice was that by continuing to direct her attention toward his doubt, she didn't have to be with her own regret and insecurity, as well as her wisdom and depth.  By waiting for his decision, she didn't have to make one, herself.

Once she woke up to her role in his vacillation, she could be at choice.  She could ask the questions: Did she want to continue to put energy into and empower his vacillation?  What wounds did she need to handle that predated their relationship?  And did she want to continue to wait for him to decide to stay or go, or could she find a different path?

The practice of drishti allowed her to see she could be conscious of and at choice in where she focused her attention.  By focusing entirely on being held captive to his capriciousness, it left her uncertain, scared, and even sleepless.  But if she redirected the awareness on the greater learning this experience evoked in her, then she could actually use it to grow.  In addition, she recognized that by focusing on the negative in him, she only experienced pain and negativity within herself.  So she chose to redirect the focus of their conversation from what his next move will be to how they could consciously collaborate in designing a new relationship with one another.  All of this recognition simply occurred because she was able to recognize that her gaze, her drishti, didn't just have an object that it was attached to.  On the other end was her, a subject, a soul, and a spirit very much at choice in terms of where she wanted to direct her gaze.

To me, that's the power of drishti. It's not just something you do when you're practicing asana.  If we consider all of life "the practice," then we can start to wake up to where we're focusing our attention.  Do we point it in directions that feed us and remind us of the rapture, wonder, and mystery that we are? Or do we point it at situations, people, and things that suck us dry and leave us with a sense of our impotence?  Mastering drishti is a life-long endeavor because it's really the development of the capacity to wake up to both what we see, what it tells us about ourselves, and what choices we want to make, as a result.  And so next time you're in downward dog, gazing in the direction of your navel, begin this profound inquiry by asking yourself, "Who is it that's gazing?"