Everything in nature is made up of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Knowledge of the five elements allows the yogi to understand the laws of nature and to use yoga to attain greater health, power, knowledge, wisdom and happiness. This arises out of deep intuition of how the universe operates.
Knowledge of the five elements is an essential pre-requisite for more advanced yoga practice because the elements form the world we live in and the structure of our body-mind. All yoga practices work on the five elements, whether we know it or not. Knowledge of the elements (tattwas) is also the basis of yoga therapy and of Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine. Through consciously working with the elements, we learn how to attain and maintain health and also how to consciously enjoy a long and fulfilling life based on higher awareness.
The States of Matter
Each of the five elements represents a state of matter. Earth is not just soil, but it is everything in nature that is solid. Water is everything that is liquid. Air is everything that is a gas.
Fire is that part of Nature that transforms one state of matter into another. For example, fire transforms the solid state of water (ice) into liquid water and then into its gaseous state (steam). Withdrawing fire recreates the solid state. Fire is worshipped in many yogic and Tantric rituals because it is the means by which we can purify, empower, and control the other states of matter.
Space is the mother of the other elements. The experience of space as luminous emptiness is the basis of higher spiritual experiences.
Relationships between the Elements
Each of the five elements has a certain relationship with the other elements, based on their nature. These relationships form the laws of nature. Some elements are enemies, in that each blocks the expression of the other. Fire and water, for example, will “destroy” each other if they get the chance. In order to co-exist fire and water need to be separated.. Too much fire in the body will create inflammation, while too much water can dampen fire and cause indigestion.
Some elements are said to “love” each other in that they are supportive and nurturing of each other. Earth and water love to “hug” each other, and air and fire increase each other.
Other elements are simply friendly and cooperative. For example, water and air can live together without problems, as in soda water; but when the chance occurs, they separate. The same occurs with fire and earth.
The Elements in the Body
Each element is responsible for different structures in the body. Earth forms solid structures, such as bones, flesh, skin, tissues, and hair. Water forms saliva, urine, semen, blood, and sweat. Fire forms hunger, thirst, and sleep. Air is responsible for all movement, including expansion, contraction, and suppression. Space forms physical attraction and repulsion, as well as fear.
If any element is impure or out of balance with another, disease and suffering may occur. Yoga helps us purify these elements and restore balance and health, and to unfold the inner powers and abilities contained in each element. In fact, yoga is one of the most powerful ways to restore health because it gives us the means to bring even those elements that are natural enemies into harmonious relationships with each other.
Using the Elements to Purify and Rebalance the body
We can use the water, fire, and air elements to purify all the elements of the body.
Fire and air are the most commonly used elements to purify the body-mind. Water is also used in some of the cleansing practices of hatha yoga, the shatkarmas, to remove excessive mucous (water) and digestive acid (fire).
Using fire to purify and balance
Fire is a powerful cleanser, burning up impurities. asanas can be used to regulate the fire element. Dynamic asanas invoking movement, grace, and flow tend to increase fire in the body. This will burn out toxins from the other elements: earth, water and air. For example, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) states that Matsyendrasana and Paschimottanasana can increase the digestive fire to such an incredible capacity that they can remove diseases. Static poses tend to be more cooling and stabilizing, slowing the metabolic fire.
A balanced sequence of asana that includes some movement and some stillness allows us to regulate fire as well as to harmonize the earth and air elements, two natural enemies. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states in Chapter 1, Sutra 17, that “Asana gives one steadiness (firmness) of body and mind, lightness (flexibility) of the limbs, and absence of disease.” That is, the steadiness of earth and the lightness of air can be alchemically blended through proper use of asana, even though they are natural enemies.
Using air to purify and balance
Of all the elements, air is perhaps the most powerful to cleanse the body of toxins. This is partially because it fans the fire in our body-mind. It is also because air is prana, the life force. When it is made to circulate through the body and the other elements, it automatically purifies us. Teaching the proper use of breath during asana and incorporating Pranayama practice into our daily routine increases both our lightness and our inner power.
Certain pranayama techniques can be used to identify where imbalances lie in the elements of the body, and to consciously rebalance these.
One of the best ways of doing this is to learn the natural order of the elements in the body. Earth and water are at the base, below the navel, fire is in the middle of the torso; air and space reside in the upper body. Maintaining awareness of this when we practice asana, pranayama and meditation aids the proper distribution of the energy into the elements. As the prana moves up and down in the body, we awaken certain parts of the body with consciousness and energy, coaxing the elements into balance.
Learn the process
Knowledge of the five elements is the essential to higher yogic and tantric practices. Tattwa Shuddhi, by Swami Satyananda from the Bihar School of Yoga, is a good resource.
Dr. Swami Shankardev is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. Contact him at www.bigshakti.com.