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Stop and imagine quietly standing barefoot out under the open sky. Feel the dirt under your feet, a breeze tickling the back of your neck. As the sun warms your face, listen for the trickle of a stream nearby. Breathe.
It’s a serene moment, one that evokes the elements of nature. Earth, air, fire, water and ether are elements of a universal theory of creation that has been part of many ancient practices and eastern philosophies for millennia.
“The five great elements, or panchamahabhutas, are thought to have originated as the universe [did], so they are as old as can be,” says Anjali Deva, certified Ayurvedic practitioner and founder of Rooted Rasa. “[They are] the building blocks of the universe, as well as our bodies…everything is created with different combinations of these five elements.”
In Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga and one of the oldest medical systems still practiced today, those five elements are prithvi (earth), jal (water), agni (fire), vayu (air), and akasha (ether or space).
The elements correlate with the senses and with particular body parts and functions. Each has an energy correspondent among the chakras. According to the ayurvedic system, each of us is born with a unique combination of the five elements—some more dominant than others, says mindfulness coach Brenda Umana, MPH, RYT-500.
The combination of elements that are most dominant within you makes up your dosha.
Air and ether create the vata dosha. The pitta dosha is a combination of fire and water. The kapha dosha is earth and water.
Knowing your dosha—along with what shifts you out of balance—is the first step in understanding how to best incorporate the five elements into your life. “Generally, what takes us out of balance, more often than not, is going overboard with our dominant nature or way of being,” Umana explains.
Our day-to-day environment, life stressors, even seasonal changes can also unbalance us. “As the outside world’s environment changes, so do the elements within our bodies,” Deva says. So when it’s raining, we experience more of the water element. When it’s hot, more fire.
“Knowing all of this helps us make dietary and lifestyle changes to support these subtle changes, balancing them with opposite qualities,” Deva continues. Meaning that a hot, sunny day may call for cooling foods, like cucumbers, while chilly weather calls for hot tea and warm stews.
Here’s more on each element, including the emotional and physical properties of each, their associated chakras or energy centers, and descriptions.
Earth Element (Prithvi)
Correlating mood: calm, grounded, safe, reliable
Chakra: First (root)—sense of being, survival, stability, support
The most dense of all the elements, earth makes up the solid matter of the universe. The earth element is cool, heavy, rough, and stable. It also represents the structures of our bodies—bones, flesh, skin—and helps give us shape. When the earth element is out of balance, issues with our skin, hair, muscles, and bones may crop up. We may also experience exhaustion, weakness, lack of flexibility or loss of appetite.
Water Element (Jal)
Correlating mood: flexibility, fun, creativity
Chakra: Second (sacral)—sense of pleasure, flow, sensuality
Water is soothing, cleansing, sustaining, and nourishing. The water element helps us connect to our feelings and emotions. Water imbalances can manifest in shifts in the quality and amount of fluids in the body, including saliva, digestive juices, joint fluid, reproductive fluids, and blood. Mentally, an out-of-balance water element is associated with addiction, repressed emotions, or a lack of creativity.
Fire Element (Agni)
Correlating mood: confidence, discipline, motivation
Chakra: Third (manipura)—sense of self, purpose, personal identity
This element represents heat, light, digestion, metabolism, and transformation. When our inner flames are stoked, fire provides energy for the body. This element fuels our sense of independence and motivation. We know our fire is in balance when we easily tap into all the emotions associated with power: inner strength, confidence, discipline, motivation, and change. When it’s off-kilter, we may feel irritable or angry, or experience inflammation, digestive problems, or fever.
Air Element (Vayu)
Correlating mood: loving and compassionate awareness, intellect, lightheartedness
Chakra: Fourth (heart)—sense of relationship, boundaries, balance, love
Air represents all forms of motion, including blood circulation, breath, thoughts, and locomotion. When in balance, air gives off light and a sense of buoyancy; when it’s askew, it can show up as anxiety and indecision. It may cause an inability to be present, or create conflict in relationships. An air imbalance can cause disruptions in your immune system or hormone production.
Ether or Space Element (Akasha)
Correlating mood: spacious, open-minded, universal consciousness
Chakra: Fifth (throat)—sense of acceptance, truth, communication, integrity
The most subtle of the elements, ether is all about space and openness. This element governs the spaces of the body, including the space inside our cells. When ether is unbalanced, it can create blockages: Energetically, we may feel closed off, or as if we can’t get enough time or space. When ether is in balance it allows for clear, truthful expression and communication.
The Five Elements in Yoga
Any style of yoga practice can help balance the five elements of nature. Developing a deeper understanding of each element within your body will help you adjust to exactly what’s needed that day, Umana says.
If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, for example, that’s a sign of air being out of balance, says Emily Chen, RYT-500, founder of Alchemy School of Yoga. Rather than taking a fast-paced class with a lot of transitions, a slower, simpler practice may be a better choice for that day.
Here are some helpful guidelines for those just getting started, more on how the elements may impact your yoga practice, and the asana style variations that may help bring each element back into balance.
Best Yoga Practices for Earth Element
To truly feel balance in the earth element, it’s important to feel a sense of grounding and stability, Umana says. Each movement should feel sure-footed, certain, and deliberate. Poses that help channel that energy include Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), and Balasana (Child’s pose).
As you move through these poses, Chen says, notice your connection with the Earth and how the ground always provides support. As you press your feet into the surface beneath you, there is an equal and opposite force coming from the ground that holds you up.
In Savasana (Corpse Pose), for instance, the heaviness of your limbs is met with the force of the Earth rising up to support you, Umana explains. And in Virabhadrasana (Warrior I) and other standing poses, Chen says you can feel your feet connecting with the Earth, from the balls of your feet to the heel, creating a stable foundation. “With each breath, you ground down through your legs and, with that support, you lift a little taller through the spine,” she adds. This creates an opportunity to feel centered, stable, and safe.
Best Yoga Practices for Water Element
The poses that encourage fluidity and ease (like Utkata Konasana, Paschimottanasana, and Malasana) are ideal for tapping into this element. Just like water, you want to let each movement flow, Chen says. “Feel for the pleasure of expansion, the pleasure of growth, the pleasure of challenge,” she explains. “Each asana is an opportunity to feel everything that is arising in this moment, noticing how easily everything that doesn’t serve you falls away.”
A prime example: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon). Chen says this asana gives you an opportunity to notice an opening or sense of expansion in your hips. As you settle into the pose, new space becomes available. Gently allowing and appreciating that that gives you the pleasure of growth and challenge.
To feel this element to its fullest, though, Chen says you shouldn’t stop paying attention at the end of the pose: “Keep feeling into this pleasure, even as you lift yourself out of the pose and into your next, [making] the transition graceful and full of ease.”
Best Yoga Practices for Fire Element
Core-centric, heat-generating poses—think Kumbhakasana (Plank), Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III), Dhanurasana (bow), or Paripurna Navasana (boat)—are all ideal for stoking your fire. Tune into the strength and confidence stimulated through your movements and balance the fine line between ease and effort to really maximize its benefits.
“You’ll notice that, as you physically challenge yourself, you feel an inner sense of confidence building,” Chen says.
In Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand), for example, the activation of your fingers pressing into the floor, the push through your shoulders, and the engagement of your legs all connect to a center of gravity—your core. As you become more confident in that centeredness, you’re able to sense the ease in your pose, finding balance between working hard but not too hard. In fire-stoking poses, you may notice moments when your thoughts are sharper, more confident, and self-directed. You realize that, in every situation, you control your body and you focus your attention, Chen says.
Best Yoga Practices for Air Element
As for poses, Ustrasana (Camel), Bhujangasana (Cobra), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel) all tap into the air element. Tadasana (Mountain) is also an air pose. Chen says it’s ideal for noticing postural sway, the natural rocking back and forth that your body engages in while continuously striving for balance.
Whichever poses you select, focus on agility, mobility, and a balanced breath in your practice, Chen suggests. Avoid rushing or moving sluggishly, keeping a light and easy pace that allows you to stay focused on the quality of your transitions and the subtle movements (like that postural sway) that are ever-present in a flow.
Best Yoga Practices for Ether Element
The first thing Chen recommends for supporting the ether element: meditation. “It connects us to our sense of inner vastness and emptiness,” she says. “Meditation helps us remember that the space inside ourselves is the same space that exists in all other beings—and it is that space that makes physical reality possible.”
To harness the ether element in asana, Chen suggests throat chakra openers such as Bitilasana (Cow), Matsyendrasana (Fish), and side neck stretches. “Focus on the feeling of structural integrity and alignment,” she explains. “Avoid collapsing or constricting, and feel for maximum spaciousness, openness, and ease.”
This can apply to all poses. In Uttitha Trikonasana (Extended Triangle), for example, Chen suggests feeling for spaciousness through both sides of the body and openness in the chest and torso.