The system of chakras and their related 5 elements has in some way become iconic of yoga itself.
In fact, the system of five elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether – isn’t unique to yoga. You can find the same five elements or something similar in Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Native American shamanic traditions, European alchemy and many other cultures.
Much more than superstition or pre-scientific speculation, this system is extremely useful and offers a map of reality that for many centuries has helped yogis and tantrikas progress on the path. We all have these five elements within us, expressing at every level from the physical body to the subtle layers of the mind. When you understand them, you can move in the world more easily: balancing what needs to be balanced, cultivating what you need more of, and ultimately tracing your way through the elements back to the pure Consciousness from which they all emerge.
Although there are many deep esoteric teachings around the five elements, you can begin to understand them, relate to them and connect to them in your practice simple through an observation of yourself and the natural world around you.
What are the five elements?
Though you won’t find them on the periodic table, there is a scientific equivalent to the yogic system of elements. Think first of the three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. Sound familiar? Yep, there’s three of our four most basic elements! Earth represents the state of solidity, Water is of course liquid and Air is gas.
Now, what regulates these states? What determines if you have a cup of water, a block of ice or a puff of steam? Temperature: none other than the Fire element. Finally, Ether, the matrix of space and time in which the other elements manifest. In modern science, it’s well known that most of the universe is in fact made up of empty space. The vast expanses between stars, yes, but also within what we would usually consider solid matter.
Within any atom, the distance between the nucleus (protons and neutrons, constituting the mass of the particle) and the electrons is proportionally equivalent to the distance between the sun and the planets of our solar system.
This is true of all matter, including the atoms of our own bodies, which seem so dense and solid, but in reality are made out of energy fields and empty space. The yogis have known this for thousands of years, learning by experience and self-observation. Only in the last century, Western science has finally caught up!
The elements in Hatha yoga and Tantra
Since the 5 elements correspond to the first five chakras in yoga, they play a key role in the practice of tantra and hatha yoga.
To understand the qualities of the Earth element, just look at the Earth itself. Think about a big rock: solid, heavy, immovable no matter how the wind blows or water washes over it. Or think about the ground under your feet, quietly supporting everything that lives and nourishing things that grow from it.
In yoga, the Earth element provides your essential grounding and vital force. Muladhara chakra, the center of Earth energy in a human being, is like your battery. So much of the practice is about moving energy to the upper chakras, but without a solid base to stand on, you’re not going anywhere!
In sexual tantra, this vital energy is possibly even more important. It’s what gives orgasmic power and the capacity to make love for a long time, so that the lovemaking can become meditation.
Water is always flowing and moving. Even in a deep lake where the surface seems perfectly still, look closer and you’ll find slow currents, gentle waves lapping on the shore. In the same way, the Water element expresses itself in your everchanging flow of emotions and the deep currents of the subconscious mind.
This element, related to svadhisthana chakra and the dominant frequency in human consciousness, can be difficult to work with, but it also has an important role.
Water is the element of sexuality itself. There’s good reason why Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was said to be born from sea foam (a mix of Water and Air, the element of the heart). It’s the level most of us start at in tantric practice, and it brings the juice and excitement to get moving on the path.
For most people, the work with the Water element is mostly about balancing and refining the energy in svadhisthana chakra, and learning to move this energy upwards.
Again, to understand the Fire element, think about an actual fire. It’s a process of transformation, turning solid matter into heat and light. It’s radiant, fascinating and volatile. And it goes up! Fire is the alchemical catalyst in yoga and tantric practice. It holds the secret to using the lower energies for spiritual evolution, the essence of the tantric path.
In lovemaking, the Fire element brings passion, intensity and the potential for deep transformation. You need this spark and inner power to come into the heart, where true tantra begins.
The Air element relates to anahata chakra, the seat of unconditional love. In a way, everything that happens with the lower chakras is paving the way for the journey into the heart. Air is expansive, filling all available space, invisible but perceived by touch. Like the Water element, it is always moving, but while water only flows downwards, air moves in all directions.
When you feel the lightness and freedom of the Air element, love and devotion come naturally. At this point, sex really becomes making love.
And finally, the Ether element, that vastness of space. The Ether element is the most refined and ungraspable of the five elements. It’s the element whose role in sexual tantra is the most abstract, the most difficult to describe, and yet it makes all the difference between real tantra and a sort of sexual acrobatics.
The Ether element, expressing in vishuddha chakra, gives us the capacity for transfiguration: the ability to see your partner, yourself and the entire world as divine. In a way, the whole tantric path boils down to transfiguration, to seeing everything in manifestation, absolutely everything, no matter how strange or how humble, how painful or intense or glamorous or ugly—as equally divine, full of sacred light and mystery.
As William Blake said, seeing all things as they are: infinite.
So, which one of the 5 elements do you feel most connected to? Is there one that you feel is lacking in your life?
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