Many societies and cultures previously embraced the five elements as a mode or model of categorizing what they saw, both out in the world and within their own psyches. They named their experiences of life in terms related to nature. This helped to understand them, to make sense of them, and to heal imbalances and effect change: medically, psychically, relationally, and architecturally. In fact, all aspects of life were subject to the categorization of and the harmonization with the elements. The elemental worldview, which saw humanity as an expression of nature, primarily came from the East, although, we do see elemental aspects in Ancient Greek medicine, with its four humors: blood, the air element; phlegm, water element; yellow bile, fire element; and black bile, earth element. But there is some speculation that even the Greeks were influenced by India, possibly as a result of the intellectual trade that took place after Alexander the Great conquered portions of it in the third century, B.C.E.
The Worldview of Domination
The Judeo-Christian perspective that has been passed on to us from the Middle East, on the other hand, saw man at the center of the cosmos. His role was to conquer and subdue nature. This perspective lives on today as modern science continues to ‘fight disease’ and ambitious investors attempt ‘make a killing’ in the stock market. We don’t always realize it, but our perspectives have been heavily influenced by the Genesis story in which God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Genesis 1:26, New International Version, 1984) Placing man at the center of the cosmos created an ethos of dominance rather than harmonization.
The Worldview of Harmonization
Asian classical cultures did not see themselves as rulers of the earth but, instead, considered themselves members. Disease and strife were representative of the disharmony they’d unknowingly created with nature. It was their role, as humans, to continuously put themselves in accord with nature, to attune to it, to learn how to flow with and manipulate the elements in order to maintain a sense of harmony.
India and the Five Elements
The five element theory that comes from India is rooted in, Samkhya Philosophy, which is considered to be the antecedent of the Classical Yoga expounded by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras. In Samkhya, the five elements are represented by the first five chakras: earth, the first chakra; water the second; fire, the third; air, the fourth; and ether, the fifth. The elements represent the constituent parts and qualities that make up the prakriti (nature). They are considered the most basic building blocks, much like atoms, that make up the world of matter.
The basic theme of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is on how to work with the mind as a way to experience the ultimate nature. Patanjali saw the elements as the basic building blocks that constituted various qualities (gunas) of the mind. So when the mind was satvic, or clear and lucid, ether and air elements predominated. When the mind was agitated, or rajasic, the fire element predominated. A tamasic, or inert, mind corresponded to to the earth and water elements. The work of Patanjali's yoga was (and still is) to see through the transitory qualities of form, both gross and subtle. As a result of this discrimination (viveka), the yogi saw that which was ultimate and beyond matter, namely the purusa or pure spirit.
The purusa is different from the Western concept of the spirit, since there is no form or substance to the purusa. In the West, we tend to think of the spirit or soul as having some subtle or etheric form. From the standpoint of Samkhya Philosophy, nothing can actually be said about this ultimate reality, except in terms of what it is not. It has no qualities, no matter, and no motion. It is timeless, so it was never born, nor does it ever die. It isn't affected by moods, thoughts, or sensations. It is often described as a mirror that reflects nothing or a seer who sees nothing. The perfect knowledge of the yogi is the identification with the ultimate nature (purusa) rather than the relative nature (prakriti) comprised of the five elements.
So the yogi meditated on the various sensations in the form of the elements as a tool to experience the eternal and absolute as opposed to the temporal and relative. If the yogi could recognize that temperature was sourced by the fire element, mass by the earth element, cohesion by the water element, and movement by the air element, he or she would cease to cling or avoid whatever arose and, ultimately, see through the veil of illusion of matter (maya) and into the ultimate reality.
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