The concept of the five elements is one of the most fundamental in Ayurvedic science. These five elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth) exist in all matter, both organic and inorganic. As man is a microcosm of nature, the five elements also exist within each individual. Our psychological tendencies, as well as our five senses and the various aspects of our body’s functioning, are all directly related to the five elements.
According to Ayurveda, the five elements manifest sequentially, beginning with space, from the pure, unified, unmanifested Cosmic Consciousness that is the source of all.
Sometimes referred to as “ether,” space is empty, light, subtle, all-pervading, omnipresent, and all-enclosing. It is universal, non-moving, and formless. Space is nuclear energy. It appears when the pure unmanifest consciousness begins to vibrate and is associated with sound and the sense of hearing. We need space in order to live, move, grow, and communicate. Spaces in the body include the mouth, nose, gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, abdomen, and thorax. Psychologically, space gives freedom, peace, and expansion of consciousness and is responsible for love and compassion as well as feelings of separation, isolation, emptiness, ungroundedness, insecurity, anxiety, and fear.
Air is dry, light, clear, and mobile. The second manifestation of consciousness, air moves in space. Air is electrical energy—the electron moves because of the air element. It is formless, but it can be perceived by touch, to which it is related. The principle of movement, air expresses itself in the movements of the muscles, the pulsations of the heart, the expansion and contraction of the lungs. Sensory and neural impulses move to and from the brain under the influence of the air principle, which is also responsible for breathing, ingestion, the movement of the intestines, and elimination. The flow of thought, desire, and will are governed by the air principle, which gives us happiness, freshness, joy, and excitation. It is, along with space, also responsible for fear, anxiety, insecurity, and nervousness.
Fire is hot, dry, sharp, penetrating, and luminous. When air begins to move, it produces friction, which generates heat or fire. Fire is radiant energy. On the atomic level, the atom radiates heat and light in the form of a quantum wave. Fire is active and changeable. In our solar system, the sun is the source of fire and light. In the body, our biological “fire” in the solar plexus regulates body temperature and metabolism: digestion, absorption, and assimilation. Fire is associated with light and with vision. Fire is intelligence. It is necessary for transformation, attention, comprehension, appreciation, recognition, and understanding. Fire is also responsible for anger, hatred, envy, criticism, ambition, and competitiveness.
The next manifestation of consciousness, water is fluid, heavy, soft, viscous, cold, dense, and cohesive. It brings molecules together. Water is chemical energy (it is the universal chemical solvent). Water is associated with the sense of taste; without moisture the tongue cannot taste anything. Water exists in the body as plasma, cytoplasm, serum, saliva, nasal secretion, cerebrospinal fluid, urine, and sweat. It is necessary for nutrition and to maintain life; without it, our cells could not survive. Water is contentment, love, and compassion. It creates thirst, edema, and obesity.
Earth is heavy, hard, rough, firm, dense, slow-moving, and bulky—the most solid of the five elements. It is neither hot nor cold. Earth is mechanical or physical energy. According to Ayurveda, it is nothing but crystallized or solidified consciousness. It gives strength, structure, and stamina to the body. All the body’s solid structures (bones, cartilage, nails, teeth, hair, skin) are derived from the earth element. Earth is associated with the sense of smell. It promotes forgiveness, support, groundedness, and growth. It also creates attachment, greed, and depression, and its absence produces feelings of ungroundedness.
In our body, the electrical energy of the neuron becomes the physical energy of the movement of muscles, mediated through the neurotransmitter, which is chemical. Indeed, all the five elements are present on every level of our physiology, starting with a single cell. Within the cell, the cell membrane is earth, cellular vacuoles are space, cytoplasm is water, nucleic acid and other chemical components of the cell are fire, and movement of the cell is due to the air principle. Every single cell also has mind, intelligence, and consciousness, through which it manifests selectivity and choice. From all the possible nutrients in its environment, every cell chooses its own food—that choice is intelligence at work.
Both in our outer environment and within us, the proportion and balance of these elements is forever shifting, changing with the seasons, the weather, the time of day, the stage of one’s life. For health, and often for sheer survival, we have to continuously accommodate ourselves to these changes, through what we eat, what we wear, where we live, and so on. This is a balancing act, playing elements against each other. We use solid earth to build homes, to protect ourselves against changes in air, heat (fire), and water. We use fire to prepare food (made of water and earth).
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic – Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc, Published by Harmony Books, 1998