‘We look at the elements as guides to understand our nature, the sacred and the unknown residing in the body, connecting us with the universal and expanding our consciousness.’
-Sierra y Mar
Sadhika: One Who Practices Transformation
The collective wisdom of the ages, the global, historical toolbox of skills for inner well-being, is available to us through the study of our own inner landscape. Our ancestors all over the globe understood both themselves and the world around them as composed of five qualities in a multiplicity of combinations that make up reality. In the yoga and many other shamanic traditions, these five elements are earth, water, fire, air and space. Not just mystics but everyday people throughout history have the developed approaches to shape the reality around them by working directly through their own bodies with their experience of these elements.
When we use the lens of panchabhuta, the five elements, to experience, honor and consciously craft our bodies, our moods and our environment, we begin to constellate more often around ease and peace as opposed to stress. This is the process of inner alchemy.
Below are the raw materials of this process- the practical mystic’s tools of the trade. To the skilled yogi, the applications are endless. We can use them to cool the flames of anger or focus our burning passion with precision, to stimulate the watery flow of creativity or channel a storming torrent of challenging thoughts or emotions towards the highest possible outcome, to inspire ourselves and others like the cool freshness of a deep, slow inhale or to navigate the winds of change with the ease of a bird floating through the endless immensity of the sky, we can use them to ground ourselves in the face of anxiety or to plant, fertilize and harvest the stability of financial security.
While the elements may seem theoretical in their raw form, they aren’t meant to be simply mused upon. Yoga offers an infinite number of practices to create balance inside of ourselves that immediately or eventually translates to our outer environment through our interconnection with all things via what the yogis called the anandamaya kosha or interconnected matrix of all things.
The yogi, or sadhika, is asked to purify, strengthen and refine her unique alchemical vessel, composed of the five elements- Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Space- to stir them together in varying degrees depending on the situation and imbibe this alchemical brew to invoke her own transformation. The concoction usually taste something like wellness, balance, ease, love, truth and power. Yum, de-li-cious!
Our Earth (prithivi) body was known to the yogis as the annamaya kosha, the physical body. We fertilize the soil of our bodies (and minds) by cultivating a balance of strength and flexibility through yoga asana (postures) and other forms of primal movement. We treat our bodies as temples, going inside to find solutions to external challenges. We use the earth element to ground and stabilize ourselves, others, our work, our living situation- pretty much anything, anytime we want to create an experience of calm or safety amidst flux. To be grounded like a giant redwood tree is to be rooted into Self with a capital “S” (versus the egoic little self). When someone is grounded like this, you cannot knock them over. By practicing the healthy alignment of our muscles and bones in the poses we begin to loosen the reins of control and develop trust in the intuition of our body- that it knows the way home. How we treat the earth herself, both individually and as a culture, is a very real metaphor for how we treat ourselves on the inside. How are you nourishing the soil of our bodies so that weed don’t grow? Are you planting and fertilizing peace, community support and connection?
Fire (Agni) corresponds to our soul body, pranamaya kosha, the inner radiance we emanate at our highest. An essential aspect of the alchemical process, the fire of tapas is our commitment to inner freedom, the burning away of the stress and friviality down to the simplicity of gold, that which is essential to our own and collective well-being. Through a burning dedication to our values (always tempered by the open-minded flexibility of water) we become empowered and unstoppable, ignited not as a not a fragile, flickering flame or an out-of-control California wildfire but with the sweet consistency of a nourishing hearth fire in winter. Yogic fire practices teach us how us to motivate ourselves and others, to be agents of cool response in a hot, reactive emotional climate, to accomplish anything we put our mind’s to through laser-like focus and intention. What do you burn for? What are you willing to die for?
Air (Vayu) comprises our mental body. The dynamic nature of air stimulates thought, movement and inspiration. The mind may move with the gentle nature of warm summer breeze, which can be inspiring, enlivening and enlightening when it manifests as intelligence or maddening when it’s a gusty and incessant torrent of negative or meaningless thoughts. The words spirit, inspire, inhale and aspire are all derived from the same Latin root, spirare ("to breathe"). As yogis we consciously cultivate an intimacy with air and still our minds by following the stream of our breath through pranayama. We can use the many yogic practices revolving around the air element to create change, to communicate more effectively or see or manifest a big picture vision or bird’s eye view.
Through our longings, dreams and visions, our Water (Apas) body or emotional body reflects our unique purpose like the sun over a still pond. If we cultivate balance by both honoring the curving and ever-fluid path of our emotions yet temper them by creating a stable alchemical vessel through our self care practices, like the banks that contain a river, we can, like water wheel, harness the enormous power they generate to move towards the vision we want to manifest for ourselves and the world. We live in a society that undervalues, misunderstands and pathologizes the emotional body, thereby stifling our unique potential to create an improved future for ourselves and the collective. To release the dam, to flow freely like water, whether through our yoga practice or through our workday, is to be flexible, creative, adaptable and in tune with the mystery as it arises through our emotions, desires and dreams. We cultivate water- related yoga practices, including safe and luscious vinyasa flow, to flow with life, to reduce mental and emotional rigidity in ourselves and others, to understand challenge as an invitation into rebirth, to create environments conducive to our desired outcome and to increase our capacity to appreciate the delicious sensual gifts of our embodiment.
The element of Space (Aakash) is associated with the anandamaya kosha, the bliss or unity body. Space is the invisible glue that holds the alchemical process together. In union with the space element, we have 360 degree vision free from mental static, ego judgements and expectations that prevent us from trusting the mycellial web of life that holds and supports us. The space element is experienced in meditation through union with our breath and the present moment. By becoming familiar with the ways we unconsciously fill space with old stories and patterns of reaction or future projections and becoming more comfortable with the pure space of potentiality this moment offers, we begin to make choices that lead us towards connection and wholeness, we become beacons of light silently calling others to the highest version of themselves through our mere presence. While this sounds otherworldly, we are familiar with the space element already as those moments of clarity and inner peace we feel when surrounded by the still aliveness of the natural world, after healing from a great loss, transition or while we are doing something we love. Through our practice, we invite these states to stick around and we trust in that which is too subtle for the eye to see, the interconnected mycelial web of consciousness from which we arose and from which we are never separate. How might your life shift if you added more inner space to your days, if you relaxed more, if you let go?
“Practice, practice, all is coming!” -K. Pattabi Jois
This magical toolbox offers itself to you not as theoretical philosophy, there ain’t no book you can read or program you can watch. They must be worked with directly and creativity through the eight limbs of yoga, including meditation, pranayama (conscious breathing) and asana (movement), or through other spiritual or shamanic paths. They aren’t meant to offer specific answers and rigidly specified results but to invoke a sense of awe and mystery that opens our hearts to the fullness of who we are and our eyes to the next steps on our unique path of service to the whole of which we are part.
Explore the practices and become an alchemist of the Heart in the 2018 Elemental Body Immersion at Flying Studios (early bird ends 12/23!).