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In Kat Tudor’s yoga classes, things start as you might expect: with warm-up asana. But 30 minutes in, you might find yourself unapologetically stomping your feet and playing a rattle as you call upon the healing power of natural elements like earth, wind, and fire. Which could leave the uninitiated to wonder: What do the elements have to do with yoga?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Tudor’s teachings are inspired by what she calls Mayan Yoga—a tradition she learned from Miguel Angel Vergara Calleros, her teacher in Yucatan, Mexico. With mytho-historic roots, their practice combines classical yoga with Mayan rituals from approximately 700 years ago, many of them considered shamanistic, to channel the energy of the natural world and elevate consciousness. “In every way, Mayan Yoga is linked to what we Westerners consider yoga,” says Tudor. “The words are different, but Mayan Yoga addresses all the levels of a person through mantra, mudra, breath, poses, and stories.”
For starters, the elements can relate to the chakras, internal energy centers associated with various moods and ailments and that yoga practices aim to unblock or keep in balance. For example, if you’re feeling ungrounded, your root chakra or the earth energy within you may be blocked. (See some of the benefits associated with each element below.) But the yoga-element connection goes deeper than that. The idea that you can heal mind, body, and spirit by mastering the balance of subtle energies within you—energies that carry the qualities of natural elements—originally comes from ancient Hindu philosophy and the underpinnings of yoga and Ayurveda, explains Yoga Journal contributing medical editor Timothy McCall, MD. “Then, around the fifth century BCE, Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine) started talking about elements that exist within us…I think the Greeks likely got many of their ideas from Ayurveda,” says McCall. Later, colonists brought those Hippocratic ideas of mind-body balance—their conventional medicine—to Latin American cultures, possibly including the Maya, he explains.
Halfway around the world, another ancient element-oriented yogalike practice was already in play: Tibetan Yoga. This highly spiritual, 2,500-plus-year-old practice emerged from a combination of Indian Tantric Buddhism, indigenous Tibetan shamanism, and Tibetan medicine, which is based on elements that make up our constitution and correlate to emotions and illnesses. Tibetan Yoga combines movements, breath, meditation, and visualization to help open subtle-energy channels (again, think chakras in hatha yoga); it also balances the body’s three humors, or vital constituents—wind, bile, and phlegm—and integrates body and mind. Ultimately, the practice clears obstacles so the practitioner can experience well-being and reach higher states of consciousness, says Ian Baker, PhD, an anthropologist and author of multiple books on Tibetan culture and healing arts, including his most recent, Tibetan Yoga: Secrets from the Source. Traditionally, Tibetan Yoga has been shrouded in secrecy, explains Baker, and marked by fantastical stories of yogis in the mountains who keep their naked bodies warm through esoteric breathing practices or who can jump, contort midair into shapes like Lotus Pose, and land in seated meditation. Today, introductory forms of the practice, brought to the West by Tibetan monks and lamas over the past several decades, are gaining popularity here.
To sample these magical, medicinal, shamanistic forms of yoga, practice the Mayan and Tibetan sequences here. Both aim to balance body and mind by encouraging a harmonious flow of elemental energy. Try these timeless sequences on their own, or start to incorporate the movements into your regular yoga practice if something feels off kilter, physically or mentally.
The Five Elements
While the elements themselves and what each represents vary from culture to culture, there are general moods and physical processes associated with each element across traditions:
Grounding,calming; keeps ego in check; the energy of bones, muscles, tissues, and “hot” illnesses, such as infection
Provides the ability to adapt, flow, act selflessly, and avoid unhealthy attachments; rules your blood, other bodily fluids, and “cold” illnesses, such as joint pain
Brings confidence and courage; the energy of metabolism, drive, and creativity; an excess can present as anger or hatred
A channel for clear communication and self-expression; influences your ability to act from a place of compassion and love; jealousy occurs when out of balance
A container for all the other elements; the source of intuition and wisdom from the universe; associated with magnanimity and expansion