Applying Ayurveda: A 5 Element Approach to Yoga Practice

earth_element Applying Ayurveda:  A 5 Element Approach to Yoga Practice

I don’t recall when or how I was introduced to Ayurveda.  But whenever or wherever it occurred, it made such a big splash in my consciousness, the ripples of that first moment of appreciation are still with me.

Ayurveda feels like one of those things that when you learn about it, even though it might be the first time you’ve heard the information, it feels like you’ve known it all your life… and you’re just remembering it right then.  Do you know what I mean?

Here’s what I LOVE about Ayurveda:

I love Ayurveda’s emphasis on disease prevention! I love looking into the root cause of imbalance!  I love using a kitchen pharmacy!  I love the importance placed on digestive fire!  I love the understanding of oneself, the world, and the universe that comes from applying Ayurvedic principles!

For instance…

In the ancient Ayurveda text, Charaka Samhita, Maharishi Charaka explains that we are all composed of a combination of Five Vedic Elements, the Pancha Maha Bhutas.  Each one of the elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether) is characterized by a set of particular qualities (gunas).

If we understand the nature of the qualities that make up each element, then we can recognize which elements are abundant or deficient in ourselves.  In turn, we can allow the qualities of the elements to inform the choices we make in our yoga practice in order to customize our routine to the needs of our body/minds on any particular day.

Shala.01-e1464285416299-200x300 Applying Ayurveda:  A 5 Element Approach to Yoga Practice

To use a specific example, the Earth element provides us with the qualities of heaviness and dullness (or slow speed).  When we are feeling ungrounded and rushing from task to task, consumed by busy-ness, we’re lacking the qualities of heavy and slow…  We can remedy this and avoid further imbalance, which could lead to symptoms like anxiety, irritability, or lower immune function, by allowing Earth element qualities to inform our approach to that day’s yoga practice.   To increase the qualities of heaviness and slowness in our yoga practice we can move more slowly, choose repetitive movements, enjoy the ritual of our practice, become more aware of the physical sensations of our body, etc.

Below is an outline of a 5 element-approach to a personal practice.   I’ve included the gunas, or qualities, associated with each element; signs that tell us when the element is in balance, and signs that indicate we need more of that particular element.  Below that are suggestions for applying the qualities of that element in our yoga practice in order to increase that particular element.  The asana suggestions link to form a progressive practice, taking the body/mind on an exploration of the elements from Earth to Water to Fire to Air and finally to Space, but they could also be enjoyed as separate sections.  More important than the actual pose is the approach taken while in the pose.

EARTH (Prithvi)

Earth element qualities: Gross (physically obvious, as opposed to subtle); heavy; static (or constant); hard; dense; dull (or slow)

Signs of balance: Feeling grounded, strong immune function, strong muscles and bones

Signs of low earth: Feeling ungrounded, low immune function, weak muscles and bones

Incorporating Earth element qualities into a yoga practice:

  • Static (meaning “still”)- Be still; come to a cross-legged, seated position and make a firm commitment to be still
  • Gross (physically present)-  Breathe into the whole body to fully arrive
  • Heavy and slow- gentle forward fold over crossed legs, move like molasses;  feeling the heaviness of the torso; soften under the weight of gravity
  • Static (meaning “constant”)- move to all fours and alternately arch the spine and round the spine, repeat…in addition to meaning “still”, static can also mean “unchanging”, so any pose or movement that we do repetitively without changing can be referred to as static; think about the repetitive rituals in your life and how they can provide a sense of safety, security, and groundedness.  Repetitive, familiar movements help us feel safe, grounded, and steady.
  • Hard and dense-  Muscular stability can go hand in hand with mental/emotional stability.  Try table-top balance; hug the muscles into the bones.
  • All Earth element qualities- Child’s pose. Allow yourself to become still; fill the whole pose with breath; relax under the weight of gravity; appreciate the heaviness and density of your bones resting on the floor.
WATER (Jala/Aapa)

Water element qualities:  Liquid (Flowing), cool, dull (slow), soft, oily, slimy

Signs of balance:  Flexibility (of body and mind); loving and compassionate disposition; all parts of the body nourished and hydrated

Signs of low water:  Inflexible (physically, mentally, emotionally constipated); harsh disposition; dehydrated; undernourished

Incorporating Water element qualities into a yoga practice:

  • Liquid (flowing) + dull (slow)-  Move like a slow motion wave to increase flexibility and communication (love and connection) between body parts; flow with compassion; treat your body sweetly; cultivate a sense of intimacy (love) with the body and that will have a ripple effect into other relationships throughout the day.  Examples of this:  slow motion hip circles from child’s pose (to increase hydration in major joints- hips knees, shoulders, wrists);  cat/cobra flow
  • Oily, slimy-  A network of “fuzz” builds up in our connective tissues overnight as we sleep and at other times when movement is lacking.  Rolling the joints is a great way to break apart the “fuzz” and help our joints and muscle layers slide and glide smoothly again.  Ex:  hold cobra, add half neck rolls to unstick congestion in neck and upper back.
  • Cool + soft- ease back to child’s pose and appreciate the miracle of your body.  Like your heart that beats everyday without you asking to! Without stopping! If there’s a body part that is feeling out of sorts, take a moment to understand what led to that feeling.  Appreciation and kindness increase the “soft” guna, while compassion increases the cool quality.
  • All water element qualities- Lift up to tabletop position, move spine in a fluid way to increase communication between parts of the spine; Lift and tuck one leg, moving with the breath; step through to low lunge; low lunge flow; stop and hold hamstring stretch (earth and water combined); low-flying dragon or hip-opening version of low lunge (again earth and water combined- stability and flexibility balanced; focus and compassion balanced); repeat second side; return to child’s pose.
FIRE (Agni)

Fire element qualities:  hot, sharp, light, dry, subtle

Signs of balance:  joy and warmth (physically, mentally, emotionally); energy and motivation; good digestion; clarity in perception

Signs of low fire:  lack of joy; cold (physically, mentally, emotionally); lack of energy and motivation; sluggish digestion; confusion or dull mind

Incorporating fire element qualities into a yoga practice:

  • Hot, Sharp (meaning penetrating), Dry-  Chose any pose or series of poses that gets you HOT!  Like Downward facing dog or forearm plank pose or sun salutations.  Kapalabhati (breath of fire) done in a pose or between holds can increase heat and penetrating qualities of fire to burn away excess samskaras (sluggish or unhelpful mental tendencies).   Heavy emotions have a sticky quality, so kapalabhati dries out stickiness in emotions and lungs.
  • Light and Subtle- rest in child’s pose to feel heat waves carrying tension and stress away (notice feeling of heaviness drain away; replaced by feeling of lightness and subtle/expansive quality)
  • All fire element qualities:  return to down dog; down dog splits with breath of fire; step forward into high lunge (lightning lunge- arms overhead, interlace all fingers except index fingers touching, hinge forward a few inches until torso and back leg form one solid straight line… straight lines in the body increase the sharp (penetrating) quality of fire.); transition into exalted high lunge twist to stimulate jathara agni (the seat of fire in the body).  Vinyasa, repeat on the other side, then return to child’s pose.
AIR (Wind, Vayu)

Air element qualities:  mobile, dry, light, cool, rough, subtle

Signs of balance:  Feeling alert, awake, aware; breathing deeply, evenly; all movements functioning properly in the body

Signs of low Air/Wind:  feeling dull, heavy, lethargic; shallow breathing; sluggish movements in the body and mind

Incorporating air element qualities into a yoga practice:

  • Mobile-  roll up to sitting on heels (vajrasana); Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) Use your breath and imagination to increase the mobile quality:  As you inhale and exhale through opposite nostrils, imagine the breath is also moving through that side of your body.
  • Light- Ustrasana (camel pose) with a focus on creating a light (lifted, floating) sensation in the thoracic spine.
  • Mobile + dry-  child’s pose with 3-part breathing into the back; side stretch variation in child’s pose with 3-part breathing in the side body to energize all three lobes of the lungs and dry up congestion in the sinus cavities
  • Rough- Sphinx pose with mental alternate nostril breathing, taking the attention up and down alternate sides of the body (where attention goes, energy flows; creates a rough, cleansing action to move energy obstructions that cause heaviness and lethargy)
  • Cool- child’s pose, direct breath into the back of the throat, enlivens the senses while calming and cooling the mind
  • All air element qualities- pigeon pose, upright (gentle backbend version) with breath attention flowing into the straight leg side of the body (toward top of head with inhale, toward toes with exhale) to increase qualities of mobile, dry, rough; folded version to take attention to feelings of light, subtle, and cool; down dog in between sides.  Hold down dog in an “earthy” way (still), “watery” way (flowing around), OR “fiery” way (shifting into plank pose); repeat  pigeon on the other side; return to child’s pose
SPACE (Ether, Akasha)

Space element qualities:  cool, light, static, subtle, soft, omni-present

Signs of balance:  open-minded, creative thinking, un-bound by conditioned thoughts; connected to formless aspect of Being; contentment; unconditional love and acceptance; open and spacious feeling in body

Signs of low space:  closed minded, suffering from conditioned mind; overly focused on to-do lists (workaholism); lack of contentment; judgmental; stiff and confined feeling in body

Incorporating space element qualities into a yoga practice:

  • Soft-  transition to apanasana (on back, hugging knees to chest); bring in soft quality by appreciating body and all the space created in the body through this pose or any others done this day (soft quality is increased through kindness)
  • Light- lying supine, float all 4 limbs in the air and feel as if they are held by space, floating in space
  • Omnipresent + subtle- supta bada konasana (reclining bound angle pose), take attention to the boundary where skin touches into air; notice space inside body; notice space outside of body; notice that it is one continuous spacious presence.  Space holds everything!  Space kicks nothing out! So space is unconditionally loving.  Ayurveda teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad, says:  “Space equals freedom.  And, freedom equals love.”
  • Cool + static-  Reclining spinal twist; a way to cool down, ritually bring the practice to a close, return to stillness, and create space in the spine by stretching connective tissues between vertebrae.
  • All space element qualities- savasana.  Symbolically strip away all title, roles, responsibilities to connect with the part of yourself that can be experienced when we are free from those labels; end with a seated meditation, feeling held by infinite space, unconditionally loved and accepted.