Ayurveda & the 5 Elements

“It is called Ayurveda because it is the knowledge that teaches us which substances, qualities and actions are beneficial or harmful to life.”       Charaka Samhita, the earliest Ayurvedic text, 150BCE – 100CE

What is Ayurveda?

Translated as the ‘Science of Life’, Ayurveda teaches us a way of living with insight and balance that is in harmony with our individual nature and Mother nature.  It is the medical system from India which includes aspects of philosophy, mythology, nutrition, massage, herbal therapy, yoga as well as spiritual teachings and practices.  As well as treating illness, Ayurveda focuses on preventing disease and maximising vitality.  Without health, we cannot pursue or enjoy our life purpose!

When I first discovered the wonders and wisdom of Ayurveda, I found the vastness of its knowledge slightly intimidating.  I realised that I needed to understand the basic principles in order to apply its practical teachings.  The key to this understanding is the five elements, the pancmahabhurta.  By studying nature and learning about the qualities of the elements, we can then develop a deeper understanding of our unique body/mind constitution or dosha.

In this article, we explore the elements, the building blocks of nature and of the three doshas namely Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

According to Ayurveda, everything in the Universe is composed of the 5 elements – ether, air, fire, water and earth.  The human body is also composed of these 5 elements, so the body is a reflection of the greater Universe – it is a microcosm of the macrocosm.

What is a Dosha?

There are three primary life forces or subtle energies that come from the five elements.  They are known as doshasVata, Pitta and Kapha are responsible for all the physical and mental functions in the body.  When our doshas are cared for and in balance they maintain our health and well-being.  When there is a build up of the dosha, imbalance arises and we become unwell.  Each of us is unique, born with our own distinct individual constitution or balance of the three doshas.  This balance determines our physical body, our emotional and mental traits and our tendency to certain health problems.

We generally have a predominance of one or two of the doshas.  This is largely determined when we are conceived and depends on our parents’ constitution, their physical and emotional state at the time of conception and of course Karma.  The characteristics of our dominant dosha will be most noticeable in our make-up and remember we all have all three doshas and all five elements in our being, just in varying degrees.

THE PANCMAHABHUTA:  The Five Great Elements

The natural world is comprised of building blocks that move from the subtle to the gross, from ether to earth.  These ‘bricks’ are known as the ‘five great elements’ (pancmahabhuta) or ‘that-ness’ (tattwa) and are Ether/space; Air/motion, Fire/heat, Water/fluid and Earth/solid.

These elements combine in different proportions to make up the material universe and form the basis of the doshas.  They also form the basis that determines tastes and properties of herbs and foods.  These five elements are closely associated with states of matter.

AKASA:  Ether (Space)

Quality – expansive, light, without temperature, infinite and all-encompassing.
It is the potential – space creates the place for life to take place.
It is subtle – ether can’t be seen or felt, but you can become aware of space!
It is the spaces in our communication – the pauses.
It is the spaces in the body – every cell, spaces between nerve fibres, cranial spaces, nostrils and sinuses, lungs as well as the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities.
Ether relates to the sense of sound and the ear.  Sound is carried on the ether.

VAYU:  Air (Motion)

Quality – like the wind, light, mobile, rough, dry, cold, erratic, stimulating and dispersing.
It is the principle of movement and change stirring all of creation into life.
It is responsible for all the other elements.
In the body it moves everything, creating life and relates to prana, the vital life force.
It is responsible for creative energy in the mind – the imagination.
Too much air is depleting as it moves the prana out.
An imbalance manifests in the body as palpitations, flatulence and constipation.
Too much movement in the nervous system creates anxiety and restlessness.
Air relates to the sense of touch, the nerves and the skin.  Sensation travels through the skin and nerves just as you can feel the wind on your skin.

TEJAS:  Fire (Heat)

Quality – hot, sharp, penetrating, luminous, ascending and dispersing.
Fire governs all transformation in the body.
It is high energy and manifests as passion, anger, aggression and action.
It is responsible for mental, emotional and physical digestion.
It is the light of the mind – intelligence; and the brightness of the body – colour.
Too much heat in the body increases light and colour which results in inflammation.
Fire relates to the sense of sight and the eyes.  Light and perception travel through the eyes due to the metabolic activity of light sensitive photons in the eyes.

JALA:  Water (Fluid)

Quality – liquid, fluid, heavy, wet, lubricating, cool, cohesive and dense.
The water of life that holds everything together.
75% of the body consists of water.
It eases movement in the body, lubricates and protects.
It is the mucus, synovial fluid, saliva, tears, cerebral spinal fluid and sweat.
It provides nourishment and hydration to the body.
Imbalance manifests as emotionally watery, lacking in substance and easily manipulated.
Water relates to the sense of taste and the tongue.  Flavours and tastes are only perceivable when the tongue is wet.

PRITHVI:  Earth (Solid)

Quality – thick, dense, solid, heavy, stable/static and grounded.
It gives the body form and substance.
It is responsible for growth and nourishment.
It relates to the physical structures of the body – bones, tissues and muscles.
Earth element provides emotional stability, calmness and dependability.
Too much earth manifests as dullness, stubbornness and complacency.
Earth relates to the sense of smell and the nose.  Earthy and dense objects give off smells.

The Pancmahabhuta are the building blocks of the Universe and of us!

In the next article we  explore the Vata Dosha which is a combination of the Ether and Air elements.  During the coming days, I invite you to become aware of the elements, their qualities and how you experience them in yourself.  In this way you start to discover your unique body/mind constitution!

“Nowhere on earth is there any creature which is immortal.  Yet, although death is unavoidable, a person may avoid many diseases… health brings happiness.”      13th century Ayurvedic proverb