Pancha Mahabhutas: The Five Great Elements of Life

I’m writing this blog post from the ferry today as I travel to Tofino for my 6th Annual Journey Through the 5 Elements Retreat with my retreat partner Milagro Retreats. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I am working from my car, which is parked at the back of the ferry in the sun so that I can see the sky and the sea. Best office view ever! Long before I became a student of yoga and Ayurveda I was fascinated by the elements of nature and inspired by the 5 elements systems used in many traditional systems of natural healing and spirituality.  When I was younger I chose to spend a few years living off the grid (meaning no running water, no electricity!), and that time spent living in rhythm with nature has deeply informed my studies and my experience of the elements. Those of you who have taken my classes know that I often weave the elements into my teachings and though I have been working with them for years I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of them as I am continually understanding them at greater and greater levels of depth as time goes on.  I thought that with today’s post I could share with you some fun info on the elements as well as some tools on how to bring them into your everyday life.  I’ve focused a lot on how to balance the elements through food and lifestyle according to Ayurveda in other posts and in my Seasonal Wisdom webinars so I won’t make that a focus here. Instead I will emphasize the energetic, mental and emotional aspects of the elements. Please note that the Chinese 5 Element system is slightly different than the one we work with in the yoga traditions, and though it is also a rich system that is full of value I will not focus on it here.

Akasha: The Element of Ether

Ether is the subtlest of the elements and is related to space. It supports and upholds all the other elements, which arise out of it. It is quality without form and so as a result we are often unaware of it as the forms within it often captivate our attention.  You can connect to the element of ether around you by noticing the space between objects in the room you are in now, or to connect to it’s essence on a physical level become aware of the spaces within your body such as your thoracic cavity and notice how the element of air fills that space with each breath you take. On an even more subtle level if you allow your breath and mind to slow down you may become attuned to the space between your thoughts, the space out of which your thoughts arise. This is key to the practice of meditation and our ability to connect to the element of ether in our yoga practice (and in our lives) allows us to remain sensitive and open-minded to what is arising. This is not always easy of course and so requires practice.  Another great practice for connecting to Ether is the practice of japa, or verbal repetition of a mantra. Ether is related to the sense of hearing and so attuning to sound vibration as it moves through space can clear your mind and open you up to a greater quality of receptivity.
Energetic Qualities of Ether:  spaciousness, subtlety, emptiness, potentiality
Mental/Emotional Qualities: humility, wonder, beginners mind, receptivity
Related Sense: hearing
Related Chakra: Vishuddha or Throat Chakra
Related Deity Forms: the divine as Universal Consciousness or the Unified Field, The Holy Spirit, Aether, Dhumavati
Daily Life Practices: spending time in silence, listening, seeing the big picture, conscious speech, attuning to the sounds of nature around you (no matter where you live), making space for wonder in your life
On Your Mat:  meditation, mantra practice, doing yoga postures that open you up and allow you to feel spacious in body and mind, chanting the Vishuddha chakra bija mantra Ham

Vayu: The Element or Air or Wind

Moving from subtle to gross the next element is the element of air and the principle of movement. We can experience the element of air as the wind, which blows through the trees outside, and when strong enough can flatten buildings or whip up great storms at sea. We can also experience it directly through our breath, which is constantly pulsing, through our bodies in a rhythm of expansion and release. Air is also related to the mind and the movement of information through our nervous system. In Hindu mythology the god Vayu is considered to be very powerful and his sons Hanuman (the monkey god) and Bhima (one of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata) were incredibly strong and were known for their big hearts, which were full of devotion and loyalty. And yet when the element of air is erratic then we will experience a state of aggravated Vata dosha, which can provoke anxiety, confusion, and restlessness.  And so learning how to regulate the element of Air within our own body/minds is key to harnessing it’s power and strength.
Energetic Qualities of Air: expansive, dynamic, cerebral, giving & receiving
Mental/Emotional Qualities: creativity, expression, intelligence
Related Sense: touch
Related Chakra: Anahata or Heart Chakra
Related Deity Forms: Hanuman, Vayu, Mercury
Daily Life Practices: spending time outdoors in the fresh air every day, walking on open beaches or standing on mountain tops, shifting perspective by being open to new ideas,  feeding the mind with good quality information and stimulation,  nourishing the nervous system with daily relaxation practices
On Your Mat:  all pranayama practices but especially Ujjayi and Full Yogic Breathing, breathe supported asana practice, heart opening postures and backbends, chanting the Anahata Bija mantra Yam

Tejas: The Element of Fire

Fire element governs the power of transformation on all levels. It’s bright intensity is related to the power of intention, the force of passion, and the ability to be discerning.  In nature we experience fire element as the heat of the sun, which offers life and vibrancy to all that it shines upon, but when the heat of the sun is too strong it can turn into the forest fires that char huge tracts of land. In the same way the element of fire is the subtle light of tejas, or illumination, that you can see in a persons eyes when they are clear and inspired, living a life of purpose. And yet that same fire out of balance can become aggression, obsession, or egotism. In Hindu culture fire is seen as a divine force, which represents the power of transmutation and spiritual awakening, and so yogic practices are done as a form of tapasya, or austerity, in order to literally burn away the obstacles to self realization. My own yoga practice has definitely done this for me and I relish the fiery quality of intention that it brings to my life, allowing me to cut through doubt and insecurity. Agni is another word for fire and is related to the power of digestion as well as being the name of the elemental Indian god of fire.  In Ayurveda it is said that there are thirteen different types of agni that govern all metabolic processes in the body. And in the same way that the digestive capability of the body allows us to receive maximum nourishment from anything we ingest, the mind also has agni that must be kept stoked in order to avoid confusion and dullness. For this reason meditation is the primary practice that keeps the fire of the mind sharp and illuminates our lives so that we can see clearly.  And to meditate daily takes discipline, which will also stimulate fire element in your life!
Energetic Qualities of Fire: passion, intention, transformation
Mental/Emotional Qualities: discernment, focus, desire
Related Sense: vision
Related Chakra: Manipura or Solar Plexus Chakra
Related Deity Forms: Agni, Surya, Durga, Mars
Daily Life Practices: creating goals and moving towards them, living with discipline & intention, daily meditation, dedication to sadhana (sacred practices), trataka or candle gazing, rising with the sun
On Your Mat: Kapphalbhati, Bastrika and Nauli pranayamas, twisting and balancing poses, any style of practice done with great focus, Hot or Power Yoga, chanting the Manipura chakra bija mantra Ram

Ap: The Element of Water

Water is nourishing to all of life and as one of the five elements it represents the principle of fluidity. I have spent most of my life living near water, either by the sea or by a river, and the water element has always been a powerful teacher, reminding me of the fact that the basis of life is change. In nature water can be experienced as the gentle rain that brings lushness to gardens, forests, and fields. And that same element can be experienced as an angry sea or raging river carving a canyon through rock. So water has both gentle, and incredibly powerful qualities. It is often related to our emotional bodies as well and certainly grief can make you feel as if you are underwater, while a good cry at the right time can provide a much needed release of stuck energy. I think one of the best ways to bring more of this powerful element into our daily lives is to cultivate an attitude that is flexible and adaptable.  The reality is that life will give us peaceful moments where we feel supported and held by the current, as well as terrifying moments where we feel tossed by the storm, and so a flexible attitude that is open to change will allow us to respond with greater ease, strength, and grace which are qualities of the water element embodied.
Energetic Qualities of Water: reflection, flux, nourishment, fluidity
Mental/Emotional Qualities: flexibility, adaptability, empathy, emotionality
Related Sense: taste
Related Chakra: Swadhistana or Pelvic Chakra
Related Deity Forms: Saraswati, Ganga, Indra, Varuna, Neptune
Daily Life Practices: spending time in or near natural bodies of water, walking in the rain, being open and responsive to change, dancing!, expressing emotions in healthy and balanced ways, being in relationship (any type) and learning how to be flexible & adaptable
On Your Mat: flow based or vinyasa practices, expressive poses, chanting the Swadhistana chakra bija mantra Vam, making a practice of staying with sensation and emotion as it arises in the body-mind, not disconnecting, moving slowly and sensually

Prithivi: The Element of Earth

Earth element is the grossest of the five elements and the most tangible to us as it is the principle of form and cohesion. It is the ground beneath our feet and the physical mass of our bodies. It is also the qualities of devotion, steadiness, and support. In our modern world where everything moves so fast and so much happens in a virtual realm we can become disconnected from the slower rhythm of the earth element and the experience of this disconnect is generally one of increased anxiety, exhaustion, and a feeling of being ungrounded or having shallow roots. Obviously gardening is a fantastic practice for cultivating more earth energy in your life and if you are not fortunate enough to have a garden space (like myself) than even tending a few plants in containers will help. Personally I find cooking food to be an extremely grounding practice and nothing calms me more than a day spent in my kitchen working with seasonal ingredients and savoring the smells of my creations taking form.  If cooking and gardening isn’t your thing then try spending more time out in nature or use your yoga mat as a place to re-connect to the earthy presence of your physical nature and notice how these practices affect your mind, body, and nervous system.
Energetic Qualities of Earth Element: stability, support, strength
Mental/Emotional Qualities: devotion, steadiness, commitment, accountability
Related Sense: smell
Related Chakra: Muladhara or Root Chakra
Related Deity Forms: Ganesha, Bhumi Devi, Lakshmi, Sita, Gaia
Daily Life Practices: gardening, conscious food preparation, walking barefoot on the earth, spending time in deep forests or mountain ranges, camping, walking rather than driving, being devoted to someone or something, being accountable, moving your body each day (getting out of your head!)
On Your Mat: hatha, restorative or yin type practices, standing and seated poses, any practice done with devotion and commitment, chanting the Muladhara bija mantra Lam
This is by no means an exhaustive list of associations for each of the five elements and there is definitely more that could be said but for today hopefully it provides some inspiration and will encourage you to be more present to the elements and how they show up in your own life. If you have certain practices that help you to invoke the elements please share them here in the comments below and if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask. My ferry is docking now so I’ll catch you later!