Is the Theory of the 5 Elements of Nature Outdated? - TINT Yoga

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| 29.06.2020

Is the Theory of the 5 Elements of Nature Outdated?

According to the five elements theory, everything in nature is made up of five elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space. This is intended as an explanation of the complexity of nature and all matter by breaking it down into simpler substances. It is said that understanding the theory behind these five elements of nature can help understand the laws of nature and to use this knowledge to achieve greater health and happiness.

Each element is associated with different structures and functions in our body. Among other things, yoga can be an effective means to control the five elements of our body through specific asanas, pranayama, mudras, and meditation.

You’ll also find tips and inspiration on how to integrate the elements into your life from TINT instructor Cristi Christensen as her practice is deeply rooted in the 5 elements theory. In her workshop Soul Fire Elemental Activation, there’s a yoga, meditation, and mudra practice for each of the Five Elements of Nature.

1. What Are the 5 Elements of Nature?

The five elements theory exists in various ancient cultures such as Greek, Japanese and Babylonian philosophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – and Ayurveda. They all specified similar elements with slight linguistic differences.

However, the explanations regarding the attributes of the five elements of nature and how they relate to natural phenomena and the creation of our world vary from one culture to another. Usually, they are closely intertwined with the local mythology and religion, sometimes even personified in deities.

It must be noted here that modern science does not support the theory of the five elements of nature as being the basis of our world. It rather supports the atomic theory according to which all substances forming our perceivable world are made up of smaller subunits: the atoms. 

Atoms in turn are classified into more than a hundred chemical elements such as oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, forming chemical compounds and mixtures. These substances can transform into different states of matter such as solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, depending on environmental factors such as pressure and temperature. 

These different states of matter are similar to the five elements of earth, water, air, fire, and space. However, these states can be explained due to the behavior of certain types of atoms at certain environmental conditions rather than being caused by containing a certain element or type of substance.

Since Ayurveda and yoga are two complementary systems rooted in ancient India, let’s explore which characteristics are attributed to the five elements of our body in Ayurvedic tradition and how they relate to your yoga practice.

1.1. Earth

The element of Earth is usually referred to as grounding and calming. It keeps the ego in balance and regulates the energy of bones, muscles, and tissues and plays a role in inflammations and infections.

The element Earth ins grounding and nourishing. Photograph by Nicola Jovanovic.

1.2. Water

Water is characterized by its ability to flow, adapt, and bind substances as well as its healing nature that nourishes and binds the body. It regulates the blood and other bodily fluids and is associated with health conditions like joint pain.

Water is characterized by its fluidity. Photograph by Omar Gattis on Unsplash.

1.3. Air

The element of Air acts as a channel for clear communication and self-expression. It’s responsible for breath, nervous impulses, and movement. It influences the ability to act with love and compassion.

Air acts as a channel for communication. Photograph by Grzegorz Gorniak on Unsplash.

1.4. Fire

The Fire element acts as a cleanser that burns up toxins and impurities, thereby keeping diseases at bay. It is the source of heat and power and brings confidence and courage. It’s the energy of your metabolism and creativity. Excess in Fire can express itself as anger or hatred.

Fire burns toxins and impurities. Photograph by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.

1.5. Space

Space acts as the container for all the other elements and is the element from which all other elements originate, and to which they all return. It can be cold when lacking fire, dry when lacking water; it can be immobile due to lack of air, or lightweight because it lacks the heavy earth. It’s omnipresent since it’s the space between all the other elements.

Space is the container for all elements. Photograph by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.

2. How Do the 5 Elements of Nature Relate to Our Body?

2.1. Functions of the 5 Elements Within the Body

According to Ayurvedic traditions, these five elements are also represented in our body and each element is responsible for different structures and functions in the human body. 

  • The element Earth forms all solid structures, i.e. the bones and tissues, flesh and skin, and hair. 
  • Water forms all bodily fluids such as saliva, blood, sweat, urine, and semen.
  • The element Air is responsible for movement and breath.
  • Fire creates heat and drives our needs like hunger, thirst, and sleep. 
  • The Space element is deeply connected to our inner wisdom and intuition and determines our fears.

Every one of us contains all of these 5 elements in the body – just in different proportions.

2.2. Balance of the 5 Elements of Nature

Any element of our body being out of balance results in suffering or even disease. Here, yoga comes into play to help us restore the balance of the 5 elements and to enable us to unfold the powers and abilities of each of the elements. It’s said that yoga may be one of the most powerful ways to restore health because it can bring the five elements into harmony.

But what actually happens when the balance of the 5 elements is disturbed?

  • Imbalance in the Earth element can lead to overall weakness in the body, high cholesterol, weight loss or weight gain, bone or muscular pain and issues. 
  • Imbalance in the element Water can cause cold and sinusitis, asthma, swelling of glands, blood thinning or clotting.
  • Imbalance in the Air element may result in nervous disorders and depression, blood pressure issues, lung disorders, or muscle pains and spasms.
  • Imbalance in the element Fire can manifest itself as extreme variations in perceived temperature, coldness or fever, skin diseases, diabetes, or mental disorders.
  • Imbalance in the Space element can become visible as thyroid disorders, throat and speech problems, epilepsy, or ear diseases, etc.

Please note that the conditions described and mentioned herein are based on Ayurvedic traditions and beliefs. They are by no means intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. However, they can help you be strong in the face of not knowing what your health needs, and may help keep you calm while waiting for results.

3. How to Control the 5 Elements of Nature Through Yoga?

Yoga is said to help purify and balance the five elements of nature and, thus, to restore health. According to Sri Swami Sivananda, the cleansing techniques to control the five elements are called Buddhi Shuddhi. Apart from that, yoga also provides techniques to gain control over the elements, which is referred to as Bhuta Siddhi.

Understanding the five elements theory and how it forms the world and the structure of our body and mind paves the way for a more advanced yoga practice. This is why knowledge of the elements forms the basis not only of Ayurveda but also of yoga therapy. 

Actually, any yoga practice works on the five elements – whether or not you’re aware of it. However, there are certain asanas and techniques that are specifically aimed at certain elements.

3.1. Earth

Earth element forms all solid and muscular structures in the body such as bones, nails, and teeth. Consequently, a balanced Earth element supports confidence, resilience, grounding, and strength. Focusing your yoga practice on this element can help mitigate stress and feelings of uneasiness. 

You can connect with the earth element by regularly practicing grounding and balancing asanas to find stability and build strength. These include balancing poses like Mountain pose (Tadasana) and Tree pose (Vriksasana) since they are a great foundation for all other standing poses, help improve posture and stability, and strengthen the leg muscles.

To further build up your strength and confidence, practice advanced standing poses such as all Warrior poses (Virabhadrasana), Eagle Pose (Garudasana), or Crow pose (Bakasana).

So, whenever you feel ungrounded, focus on practicing earthy yoga poses since they have truly grounding and stabilizing qualities to make you feel safe, secure, and more self-confident.

To get down into the roots of your body, to build stamina and strength, and to connect to the ground to receive its nourishment, flow together with Cristi Christensen to a grounding Earth Vinyasa

Ground yourself in a nourishing Earth Vinyasa practice.

3.2. Water

In contrast to the solid structure of the Earth element, Water is all about fluidity. It’s said to have the ability to heal, calm, and cleanse. A Water-focused yoga practice is rather gentle and playful and is often used in cleansing practices to purify the internal organs and balance the digestive fire.

To incorporate the Water element in your yoga practice, focus on poses that flow from one to another with the breath like Cat & Cow or Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar). 

Connect to your Water element with a few rounds of Sun Salutation with David Lurey and Mirjam Wagner.

Apart from that, hip-opening asanas help to restore flexibility in the pelvis. These include Bound Angle pose (Baddha Konasasana), Crescent lunge (Anjenyasana), any version of Pigeon pose (Kapotasana) – and of course Mermaid pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana).

During your yoga practice, focus on creating space, flexibility, and mobility in the spine. Try to deepen your stretches and to release any tension and unprocessed emotions.

The practice can be a pulsating and rhythmic play to awaken the fluid and emotional body. You can do that, for example, with Cristi Christensen’s Water Vinyasa practice. 

Use a Water-focused Vinyasa to awaken your fluid and emotional body.

3.3. Air

Since the element Air is embodied in the breath, it relates to the flow of prana (vital energy). A well-balanced Air element within the body makes breathing smooth and steady and, thus, calms the mind and the thoughts

Regular yoga practice encourages deep breathing and learning the proper use of the breath. Incorporating breathing exercises (Pranayama) into your yoga routine can help you find lightness and inner power. It’s also possible to use specific breathing techniques to identify whether the balance of the 5 elements of our body is disturbed and to consciously restore that balance.

It’s therefore a good idea to bring awareness to the breath and connect to the Air element before starting any yoga practice. You can simply do this in an easy seated pose: Sukhasana.

Chest-opening backbends are particularly helpful to increase breathing capacity. These include Cobra pose (Bhujangasana), Wheel pose (Dhanurasana), Camel pose (Ustrasana), or Dancer’s pose (Natarajasana). 

The good thing is that – with the right preparation – backbends are also available to you even if you’re not flexible yet.

If you want to experience the opening effects of a backbending yoga practice on your breath, let Cristi Christensen take you through a variety of backbends in her Air Vinyasa practice.

Open the channels for your Air element with various backbends in this Air Vinyasa.

3.4. Fire

The element of Fire in our body is responsible for our metabolism and for regulating body temperature. This is why dynamic asanas increase Fire in the body through movement and flow. 

To connect with the Fire element in your yoga practice, try to move in such a way that you start sweating a little. Perfect asanas for that purpose are rather strenuous poses such as Plank (Phalakasana), Boat pose (Navasana), or Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) since they help engage the core while also challenging you.

In addition to that, poses like Seated Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana) or Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) gently massage the internal organs and are therefore extremely powerful in firing up digestion. 

These static poses should be part of a regular yoga practice to achieve balance by cooling and calming the metabolic fire. This also includes the probably most static pose of all: Savasana.

Ignite your power, purpose, and confidence in a Fire Vinyasa practice with Cristi Christensen. This practice also includes the powerful Breath of Fire to activate your energy, oxygenate your blood, and purify your body from any toxicities making it a physical, mental, and emotional work.

Ignite your power, purpose and confidence with a Fire Vinyasa practice.

3.5. Space

The Space element is a container for all the other elements and imbalance can lead to feelings of emptiness and isolation. A balanced Space element, on the other hand, enables you to freely express yourself and feel connected with the world around you.

This can be achieved through asanas that open the throat like Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) or Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) as well as through restorative yoga poses such as Reclined Bound Angle pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) and Savasana.

Apart from that, Pranayama techniques such as the oceanic breath of Ujjayi help to bring awareness to the breath, body, and mind. The same goes for seated meditation to tap into something outside of ourselves in a truly subtle and restorative way. 

A yoga practice will help you open up into the vastness and expansiveness. Maybe, you want to go beyond the boundaries a yoga mat usually provides with Cristi Christensen’s Space Vinyasa practice. This will enable you to open up to full potentiality and the spontaneous uprising of all creation. Be prepared to move in a new and different way!

Connect to your Space element with a specifically designed Space Vinyasa.

4. Do the 5 Elements of Nature Still Have a Place in Modern Life?

As we’ve seen in this article, the 5 elements theory has its roots in various ancient traditions and has survived until today – and rightly so! Although this approach shouldn’t replace medical advice in case of illness, it can certainly increase your sense of well-being and the connection to your body as well as restore your energy and inner balance.

When experiencing trauma, for example, you may feel like losing grounding, i.e. your connection to the Earth element, while at the same time the Air element shoots up and you feel as if you become detached from the physical world and your body.

Once you know your tendency to become entangled with a particular element in a specific situation, you can intentionally bring in practices to counterbalance. So, for example, when the Air element is predominant, focus on Earth practices such as going for a walk, a slower yoga practice where you hold poses for a longer period of time, or using Pranayama that focus on the exhale to downregulate your body and nervous system.

On the other hand, if you feel heavy and stuck in your life, you probably need more fire to ignite your power and your passion.

Cristi Christensen’s recommendation is to look at what your emotional state is and to then use the different elements like spices to give your life the taste you want it to have. You can take a small dose of every element, depending on what you need most in any given moment.

Cristi’s approach to the 5 Elements of Nature is rooted in the Ayurvedic tradition as it connects yoga, the Chakras, and the 5 Elements, providing a beautiful lense to not only observe ourselves but also the entire world. 

The 5 elements theory also provides a way for modern people to easily approach the teachings from the ancient world. There are so many ceremonies, prayers, and practices in yoga and Ayurveda that hardly anyone has the time to engage with all of them. But the 5 Elements provide smaller bits and pieces that everyone can integrate into regular practice and establish a relationship with nature. It also provides a kind of grounding spirituality that everyone can bring into their practice as “we’re all spiritual beings”.

“We’re all spiritual beings.”

– Cristi Christensen

Cristi’s first two teacher trainings were based on the teachings of the Chakras and the 5 Elements of Nature so that she was introduced to these concepts from the very beginning of her yoga journey. So, she initially wasn’t aware of any other teachings of yoga. For her, yoga is inextricably linked to the 5 Elements of our body

She loved that way of study because it enabled her to get back in touch with nature and with herself and her own energy – probably for the first time in her life. And as this practice lit her up, she really dived into that topic. “I really love the idea of maps as a way to look at our body”, she says, “and the elements provide a beautiful map!”

If you’re interested in experiencing a modern approach to the 5 elements of nature and how to establish balance of the 5 elements of our body, you should definitely have a look at her 5-week workshop Soul Fire Elemental Activation on TINT. 

Experience Cristi Christensen’s Soul Fire Elemental Activation on TINT.

The workshop consists of 15 individual practices – 3 for each element: There’s a vinyasa flow, a meditation, and a mudra practice for each element to help you build a more intimate connection with the energy of each element.

It’s geared towards anyone who wants to come more fully alive and craves to experience the energy inside. It is recommended to spend an entire week with each element to increase your sensitivity and awareness. This will enable you to tune into your body and find out which element you need to support you on any given day.

When we asked Cristi what her favorite element was, the answer doesn’t take long. “Fire”, she smiles, “because it’s the quality of transformation, of power and passion. It reminds us that we can move beyond any obstacles”. It also reminds her of the Phoenix that courageously dives into the fire, only to then be reborn from the ashes – fresh and stronger and better than before.

As Cristi’s journey to yoga was a journey to healing and to connecting with her true nature, she will definitely be a source of inspiration to you and your yoga practice. Listen to her story of how she became an international yogini.

Header picture by Yongsubi.

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