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Ayurveda: The Five Great Elements
Ayurveda means the Knowledge of Life. This philosophical and medical system is a branch of Vedic understanding dating back at least four thousand years. Ayurveda believes that everything in this universe is made up of five great elements or building blocks. These are earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
Earth represents the solid state of matter. It manifests stability, permanence, and rigidity. In our body, the parts such as bones, teeth, cells, and tissues are manifestations of the earth. Earth is considered a stable substance.
Water characterizes change and represents the liquid state. Water is necessary for the survival of all living things. A large part of the human body is made up of water.
Our blood, lymph, and other fluids move between our cells and through our vessels, bringing energy, carrying away wastes, regulating temperature, bringing disease fighters, and carrying hormonal information from one area to another. Water is a substance without stability.
Fire is the power to transform solids into liquids, to gas, and back again. In other words, it possess power to transform the state of any substance. Within our bodies, the fire or energy binds the atoms together. It also converts food to fat (stored energy) and muscle.
Fire transforms food into energy. It creates the impulses of nervous reactions, our feelings, and even our thought processes. Fire is considered a form without substance.
Air is the gaseous form of matter which is mobile and dynamic. Within the body, air (oxygen) is the basis for all energy transfer reactions. It is a key element required for fire to burn. Air is existence without form.
Ether is the space in which everything happens. It is the field that is simultaneously the source of all matter and the space in which it exists. Ether is only the distances which separate matter. The chief characteristic of ether is sound. Here sound represents the entire spectrum of vibration.
Every substance in our world is made up of these five substances. All substances can be classified according to their predominant element. For example, a mountain is predominantly made up of earth element. A mountain also contain water, fire, air and ether. But these elements are very small compared to the earth. So, its classification is the earth.
Ayurveda defines a human as the assemblage of the five great elements plus the “immaterial self.”
Every being contains a slightly different blend of the five elements. To somewhat simplify things, into three Doshas or qualities, within a living being. These three doshas contain a mixture of the five elements.
Ayurveda: The Three Doshas
|Vata||Air and Ether|
|Pitta||Fire and Water|
|Kapha||Water and Earth|
Vata is a force conceptually made up of the elements ether and air. The proportions of ether and air determine how active Vata is. The amount of ether (space) affects the ability of the air to gain momentum. If unrestricted, as in ocean, air can gain momentum and become forceful such as a hurricane.
Vata means “wind, to move, flow, direct the processes of, or command.” Vata enables the other two doshas to be expressive. The actions of Vata are drying, cooling, light, agitating, and moving.
Vata governs breathing, blinking of the eyelids, movements in the muscles and tissues, pulsations in the heart, all expansion and contraction, the movements of cytoplasm and the cell membranes, and the movement of the single impulses in nerve cells.
Vata also governs such feelings and emotions as freshness, nervousness, fear, anxiety, pain, tremors, and spasms. The primary seat or location of the Vata in the body is the colon. It also resides in the hips, thighs, ears, bones, large intestine, pelvic cavity, and skin. It is related to the touch sensation. If the body develops an excess of vata, it will accumulate in these areas.
Pitta is a force created by the dynamic interplay of water and fire. These forces represent transformation. They cannot change into each other, but they modulate or control each other and are vitally required for the life processes to occur. (For example, too much fire and too little water will result in the boiling away of the water. Too much water will result in the fire being put out.)
Pitta governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism, body temperature, skin coloration, the luster of the eyes, intelligence, and understanding. Psychologically, pitta arouses anger, hate, and jealousy. The small intestine, stomach, sweat glands, blood, fat, eyes, and skin are the seats of Pitta.
Kapha is the conceptual equilibrium of water and earth. Kapha is structure and lubrication. One can visualize the Kapha force as the stirring force to keep the water and earth from separating.
For example, if we take a pot, fill it to the half with water and then add sand to it, the sand will gradually sink to the bottom of the pot. (It separates from the water). The only way to keep the sand in equilibrium with the water is by stirring the mixture continuously. The Kapha force can be visualized as this stirring force in our body.
Kapha cements the elements in the body, providing the material for physical structure. This dosha maintains body resistance. Water is the main constituent of kapha, and this bodily water is responsible physiologically for biological strength and natural tissue resistance in the body.
Kapha lubricates the joints; provides moisture to the skin; helps to heal wounds; fills the spaces in the body; gives biological strength, vigor and stability; supports memory retention; gives energy to the heart and lungs, and maintains immunity.
Kapha is present in the chest, throat, head, sinuses, nose, mouth, stomach, joints, cytoplasm, plasma, and in the liquid secretions of the body such as mucus. Psychologically, kapha is responsible for the emotions of attachment, greed, and long-standing envy. It is also expressed in tendencies toward calmness, forgiveness, and love. The chest is the seat of kapha.