Author: Mary Westley
Understanding Ayurveda: A 4 part series explaining the Elements, the Doshas and the Ayurvedic understanding of the disease process.
The 5 Elements
In Ayurveda the key to understanding our own unique state of balance is based on the five elements and their qualities and the principle that ‘like increases like’.
Everything that physically exists or is manifest in this world is comprised of the five elements – Ether/Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Each element has its own unique qualities, and it is the infinite variety of combinations in which they come together, that make us who we are, and everything else in the universe. The real science of Ayurveda is in understanding these qualities and how they manifest and interact in the physical world.
The elements are present and function in our bodies as follows:
Space is present wherever there is nothing else e.g. the hollow of our bones, channels such as our nostrils. Space is that part of the body that everything else passes thru – even our nerve impulses.
Air is the element responsible for movement in the body; the flow of fluids, the vast communication network of the nervous system supporting the flow of nerve impulses and the removal of things from the body such as wastes, menstrual bleeding and the birthing process. It is also responsible respiration and the flow of breath into and out of the body.
Fire is the element responsible for transformation in the body. Every process that causes one substance to change from one form to another e.g. solid to liquid and liquid to gas is related to fire. This is predominately the process of metabolism, digestion as well as every chemical reaction that creates, repairs and destroys our cells.
Water is the element that makes up the majority of our physical body – 90% in fact. It gives us softness & fluidity. Water provides substance but has no form of its own – just like water in a balloon takes its shape from the balloon.
Earth is the element that represents everything solid in our body and the tissues that give us stability and form e.g. bones and muscle. It is substance with form.
The 3 DoshasThe elements combine and function in the physical world as three fundamental energies or forces known as Doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each Dosha has a predominance of 2 elements as shown below, and the qualities of these predominate elements underpin the role each Dosha plays in the body. The three Doshas act as forces that govern all the biological, psychological and physiological functions of the body, mind and spirit. When they are in balance they support and maintain health and when they are out of balance they contribute to the disease process. In fact, they are named for their tendency to come out of balance because the Sanskrit word Dosha means ‘that which becomes imbalanced’.
Vata is that which moves things and exists as movement in the body – nerve impulses, breathing, contraction and extension of muscles, natural urges and heart-beat. It is also responsible for the movement of Pitta and Kapha which are immobile in themselves.
The elements of Space and Air combine to create Vata. Space is inert and so it provides the space in which Air moves. Vata is the flow of life, and if blocked decay sets in. Equally if the flow becomes frenetic, energy is lost and fatigue sets in. Like the air element it contains, Vata expands into empty space, and so bloating is a typical indication of excess Vata that is blocked.
Pitta is that which digests things and exists as metabolism in the body. It is responsible for body heat and temperature, skin colouration and the transformation activities of digestion, absorption, assimilation, metabolism and chemical reactions – both physical and mental.
Pitta is the force that brings Fire and Water together and makes them co-operate to perform these processes. Within nature Fire and Water are naturally antagonistic to each other, as too much of one always overpowers the other. Too much Water and Fire is extinguished, and if Fire predominates then Water evaporates. All the ‘Fires’ in the body contain Water and Water in the body contains ‘Fire’ e.g. stomach acid.
Kapha is that which holds things together and is the force of cohesiveness in the body, holding all the elements together and giving the body substance. The principal activity of Kapha is to build. It creates and heals tissues and the fluids that lubricate and support the body, enables physical growth, maintains the body’s physical environment and is the source of strength and immunity.
Kapha is comprised of the elements of Water and Earth which in Nature have no real desire to connect- when mixed they immediately try and separate e.g. sand and water. So Kapha is the force which works to make Earth and Water interact and combine in the proper proportion. Too much Water leads to disturbances like oedema. Too much Earth increases solidity and reduces flow leading to obstructions like gallstones and cysts.
The next article in this series, ‘Who am I?’, will look at the Doshas as a way of understanding our individual body type and relationship with Nature.
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