When I was a kid, my brother and I would pretend we were the superhero Wonder Twins. With the chant of “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” as they pressed their magic rings together, the girl could become the animal of her choice. Pretty cool.
But the boy – the boy could take any form of the element Water: An ice slide to escape from a bad guy, a head of steam to power a train engine, a bucket of water to put out a fire – you name it.
I loved this concept – that you could take one material, Water, and morph it into countless forms that had different powers to get you out of a pinch. Water itself was revealed to be a ubiquitous ally and ever-ready super power.
This is how I like to think of the 5 elements of Ayurveda: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space. They represent the essential powers of nature as they show up in real life, including in our bodies and minds.
The 5 Elements Defined
In Ayurveda, each of the 5 elements was codified to represent a very specific constellation of qualities, known as gunas in Sanskrit. The elements thus became a kind of shorthand to describe the qualities or attributes of something, its inherent nature, including how it behaves and how it affects other things nearby.
For example, the element Earth is said to have the following qualities, or gunas: it is heavy, slow, static, dense, hard, and gross (as in the opposite of “subtle”). Thus, if you encounter something with those qualities, you could say it was made of Earth element and communicate a great deal succinctly.
Water in Ayurveda is understood to be cool, oily, dull, soft, slippery, and, not surprisingly, fluid. If you slip into a spring-fed pool on a hot day, you can readily feel all of Water’s gunas.
What is the most notable quality of Fire? Heat – it’s the only element with the hot guna. Heat is what gives Fire its amazing power to transform and digest. Fire is also sharp, light, dry, subtle (as in the opposite of “gross”), and spreading. Ask any firefighter and they will agree.
The Air that fills our lungs and moves the tree branches with the breeze is mobile, dry, rough, light, cold, and subtle. Spend a day on a sailboat in the wind and you’ll know each of those qualities intimately.
Finally, Space (also called Ether) is a tricky element to appreciate, as it is the literal space in which other elements reside. By its nature, it is clear, light, soft, subtle and, as astronomers have come to know, infinitely expansive.
In combination, each of the 5 elements contributes some of its qualities to the make-up of the final product. For example, a live animal bone has a lot of Earth in its mineral content, but also a bit of life-giving Water lending some fluid flexibility.
By contrast, a jellyfish has a great deal of Water providing the slippery, fluid qualities, and a little Fire in its stinging venom. A wi-fi signal emanating from your router is transmitting the qualities of mobile Air and a good bit of subtle Ether, holding all sorts of potential.
“Like Increases Like; Opposites Balance”
A critical teaching of Ayurveda is that when you introduce one element to a situation, it will increase the similar or “like” qualities in the surroundings. For example, if you eat spicy chili peppers, it will increase those hot and spicy qualities in your stomach acid. This can be helpful if you want to digest some heavy cheese, or it can be torturous if you are suffering from acid reflux. If you drink a tall glass of fresh coconut water, its cool quality will increase the cool guna within you. This teaching is summed up in the adage, “Like increases like.”
By contrast, we also learn that “Opposites balance.” When a child is feeling feverish, a cool compress on the head does wonders. Or imagine someone with a powerfully calming presence entering a room where a heated debate is happening. Their cool, pacifying qualities, if strong enough, can balance out the overheated combative qualities in the room, offering a healing balance.
As it turns out, just like my childhood Wonder Twin heros, when you know the secret, you can call upon these elemental super-powers to solve problems and take down the nastiest bad guys. But it helps to know a magic chant or two! Keep reading to learn more….
Lesson 3 ~ The Doshas: Finding Patterns in Nature