The ayurvedic Five Elements have been the basis of Ayurveda for thousands of years. In fact, it is very similar to the ancient Greek Five Elements, and it is believed the Greeks and Indians influenced each other. While not used much by modern ayurvedics, the Five Elements are still considered when traditional practitioners (Vaidyas) diagnose and treat disease.
The ayurvedic Five Elements – called pancha bhutas in Sanskrit – are the building blocks of all substances, including humans. Each element has different attributes and qualities, and their ration contribute to good health when they are considered to be “balanced.” Thus diseases are considered imbalances in the ayurvedic Five Elements, and opposite qualities or attributes are introduced to balance them. We will look at examples of this in practice.
In the ancient theory of Creation – called Sankhya – the elements are created from the most subtle to the most gross. Therefore, the creation of the world and of human beings is looked at as a “descent” from pure subtle consciousness to gross physical matter.
Ether – Akasha
This is the most subtle element. Ether – or Space – is so subtle that it cannot be seen, heard, or felt. It has the qualities of absolute lightness. It is cold and still, there is no movement. It is the Element of the spaces within the body.
A person with a high proportion of Ether is considered “ethereal,” that is very subtle and spiritual. They are connected to all knowledge (the Akashic Records), and therefore are very wise and creative. They are ahead of the times because they have higher perspectives than others. There is a tendency to loneliness and being “spaced out.”
In order to operate in the world, people with high Ether, need grounding, with heavy foods and herbs, and connection with the earth, such as walking and doing physical activities.
Air – Vayu
Air is Ether in movement, i.e., wind. Wind is light, cold, dry and rough, and has erratic motion. Too much exposure to wind causes coldness and dry, rough skin. It is the element that governs movement in the body.
People with Vata constitution (Prakruti) are a predominant combination of Ether and Air. They tend to have light build, often feel cold, have dry, rough skin, tend towards constipation, and may often feel anxious and lonely. Their life patterns may be erratic, with a lack of routine. They may be very creative, but not very practical and pragmatic.
People with a lot of Air element need routine to feel balanced and reduce their anxiety. They will benefit from the use of oils – ghee internally and sesame oil externally – to soothe the Air element, alleviate constipation and nourish the skin. Warm and heavy foods with root vegetables, proteins and fats nourish and balance people with high Air element.
Fire – Agni
Fire is the element of digestion and metabolism; it is the element of transformation. It is hot and light, and has slight moistness.
People with a lot of Fire element tend to feel uncomfortably hot easily, have strong, fast digestion and soft stools, and may suffer from oily and spotty skin. They tend to have red or yellow skin and are warm to the touch. Inflammations and rashes are common.
Fiery people are said to be passionate, impatient, irritable, and tend to be high achievers with strong ambition and drive. They also love life and tend to enjoy themselves. However, they need to keep themselves cool with cooling foods and drinks, bathing in streams, and walks in forests.
Water – Jala
Water is heavier than the previous elements, is cool, and is smooth flowing. Water governs the fluids in the body.
People with excessive Water element tend towards putting on weight as a result of fluid retention and oedema. Water people move gracefully and have smooth, musical voices. Water is said to be the element of emotions, and Water people are very aware of their emotions, and the emotions of others.
Excessive Water element needs to be balanced with dryness, such as dry foods and dry saunas. They need astringent foods and herbs to reduce excess Water.
Earth – Prithvi
Earth is the heaviest and grossest element in Creation. It is dense, heavy, stable, and cool. It governs the structural aspects of the body and provides the flesh and mass.
People with a lot of Earth element tend to have a lot of mass – a strong bone and muscle structure. They have thick calves and wrists, large heads and hips, and rich thick hair. They have strength and endurance, and make their presence felt. Such people tend to put on weight easily, especially if they don’t physically work hard. This needs to be balanced by light foods and herbs, fasting, and plenty of exercise.
Using the Ayurvedic Five Elements
As you can see, the concept of the ayurvedic Five Elements can tell us a lot about people, the world and health conditions. Everything is made up of the Five Elements. If we understand their qualities and observe them in others and in ourselves, we can keep them in balance by bringing in the opposite elements and qualities. If there is too much Air, introduce Earth. if there is too much Fire, introduce Water. If there is too much Earth, introduce Ether and Air.
The ancient sages learned about the world and about Ayurveda through deep observation. If we can observe ourselves, and how we respond to foods and our lifestyle habits, we can learn how to keep ourselves in balance – and optimally healthy and happy!