Written by Rachel Stermer
Ayurveda speaks through the language of the five elements by utilizing the three dosha, Vata, Pitta and Kapha, to describe both normal bodily processes and the way imbalance manifests. Perhaps you are familiar with Vata dosha, the principle of movement, Pitta dosha, the principle of transformation, and Kapha dosha, the principle of stability and lubrication. These three dosha each have their own unique functions and stereotypical reputations that have garnered them attention as hallmarks of Ayurveda. However, did you know that each of these three dosha is primarily made up of 2 elements? Vata is comprised of Space and Air, Pitta of Fire and Water and Kapha of Water and Earth. Nature expresses itself in our bodies and all of the material world as a combination of these 3 doshas, in varying proportions, and thus, the five great elements make up all things!
Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of developing sensory perception and, in fact, many of its practices are based upon supporting the senses to do their jobs well. Perceiving the elements in all things is a subtle way of practicing Ayurveda and also utilizing the sensory capacities to detect fluctuation in our unique doshic balance and the environment surrounding us.
Let’s take a look at each of the elements and try to perceive them in the world around us.
Water is a slightly more subtle element than earth, yet one that humans also have a deeply primal relationship with. We depend on water to survive and also have an innate appreciation for its beauty and ability to purify. Water can be described as cool, liquid, and soft. We see fluidity, changeability, and the capacity to be incredibly healing and also destructive in this element. Water is present in the body as lymph, plasma and lubricates the joints and connections between two tissues so that things move with ease. A watery person might be characterized by having a deep connection to their emotions, which are often processed through tears. Look for water falling from the sky, in the river, as essential to the body’s filtration and hydration, and as substratum for all life.
Fire is brilliant, illuminating and magnetizes us through its qualities of warmth and light. Like water, uncontrolled fire can also be quite destructive, yet without proper fire in our lives, we cannot function optimally. The element of fire in Ayurveda is essential to having proper digestion and the ability to transform, not only our food, but also all sensory experiences. Fire is connected to the sun, a constant feature in our lives that, here in New Mexico, is mostly unclouded by water. Thus, the fire element is strong in a high desert climate, which can increase Pitta. Fire is in spicy foods, lava flows, and passionate or angry emotions. Look for fire in your body in the form of digestive enzymes and hormones.
Air is increasingly more difficult to define as an element because it is on the subtler end of the spectrum. Unlike earth, we cannot really see air, unless it is moving through something that is predominantly another element, like earth, water, or fire. We intuitively sense the air, especially as wind. Like all the other elements, we have a deep dependency upon air to survive. In the body, air governs movement of the denser structures and is essential to respiration and heart beat, for example. We might describe a person as “airy” if they emphasize creativity and ethereal ideas, rather than practical matters.
Space is the most subtle of the five great elements, yet it is still essential to our bodies and the make up of our physical reality. In relationship to air, we can see that space doesn’t necessarily move, but it provides the freedom in which all other things can move. It is a still state of vibration from which all the other elements are formed. Space “holds the space” for everything else to exist, at the risk of sounding vague! Space is the medium through which sound travels and, perhaps, this is the most precise way to comprehend it. In our bodies, we can think of space as defining borders of structures and in the environment, for example, the distance between the earth and the sky.
Perceiving the world through the lens of the elements is a subtle practice that cultivates one’s ability to understand Ayurveda with deeper awareness. Meditate on these five elements and begin to see them in all things!