Space – Wind – Fire – Water – Earth
These are the names of the 5 elements of the manifest world as taught to us by Ayurveda. Their combination and interaction with each other provides all things their unique expression. The elements themselves are unseen, but they are the source of the qualities, or gunas (there’s our word gunas again), that we can perceive.
In fact, the 5 elements are simply the most tangible of the levels of manifestation that are called tattvas in Sanskrit. Depending on whom you ask, there are actually up to 36 tattvas. We concern ourselves with these 5 because these are the ones we can experience through our senses.
The elements are the building blocks of our experience. Yoga and Ayurveda can be said to be practices of “purifying” the 5 elements. When the elements are “impure,” we can say we have a cramp in our perception. Something in our mind or body tenses around the flow of communication that is the element in its pure form. That means that “purifying” is actually a process of relaxing the cramps. When we do things that connect us more deeply with Nature—such as authentic yoga, eating real food and practicing sadhana—we can begin to relax the cramps.
My next series of posts will look in depth into each of the 5 elements. I will describe the element in its cramped and uncramped expressions. Spiritual teacher and author Shambhavi Sarasvati will be writing a series of posts on her blog about how these cramps take form as the 6 realm fixations. When I can, I will draw parallels between each of the elements and the realm appearance it often takes.
Of the 5 elements, space is the most subtle. In yogic philosophy, the other 4 elements are said to telescope out from space. Space gives rise to wind, which gives rise to fire and so on.
Space element, sometimes called ether, is the place where everything happens. In its most subtle form, it is the place before everything happens. The gunas of space are a reflection of that. It is still because it lacks the movement of wind. It is cold because it lacks the heat of fire. It is dry because it lacks the moistness of water, and it is light because it lacks the weight of earth. It is the place that is nowhere and so it is expansive, pervasive and has no center.
Like I said, subtle.
Space element originates in the potential for sound (how’s that for subtle) and is associated with vibration in all of its forms. In the body, space element governs hearing and speaking. All of the “spaces” in the body are predominantly space element in nature, from the intestines to the most delicate nadis (channels).
Un-cramped space element has no preferences and can host everything just as it is. People expressing unfettered space element are accepting of their own and other’s situations. They are flexible and open-minded. They accommodate changes and challenges with a natural ease because they do not hold too tightly to the way they would like things to be.
The “spaces” of the body are healthy and neither too constricted nor too lax. There are no excess spaces where there shouldn’t be. The intestines are free of bloating and bowel movements occur daily without discomfort. For women, the menstrual cycle is regular and doesn’t cause digestive upset.
In the modern yoga world, space element abounds. The practice of intensive, drying asana sequences, an emphasis on raw food and the devotion to practices and substances that make us feel “blissed-out” all contribute to excess space element.
The sense of wide-eyed “spaciness” that can result might look like ease and open-ness but actually results from too much space element causing a sense of detachment from our actual situation. In this situation, excess space element can appear as God Realm fixation—an effortfully manufactured sense of “one-ness” that lacks the ease of true, grounded spirituality.
Alternatively, a lack of space element can cause a tightening of the channels and a tension and strain that pushes out all spaciousness. The mind shuts down and we become stubborn and inflexible.
For excess space:
- Forward bends and standing postures practiced with long holds and slow, deep breathing (no ujjayi breath)
- Warm, grounding, cooked food—meat can be especially helpful
For deficient space:
- Bitter foods such as collard greens or broccoli rabe
- Yoga Nidra—a meditative practice of rest and rejuvenation
- Spending time in nature, watching the sunrise
- Full Yogic Breath