The 5 Elements: a Map for Good Health
How do you make any sense of the constantly changing states that move through you? The fact that some days you wake full of energy and some days you feel drained; that some days you perhaps feel inexplicably tense, sad, distracted or hopeless, but on other days you are calm, happy, enthusiastic and focused; that physical niggles and symptoms come and go at certain times?
Even on ‘bad’ days and in stressful moments of my life, I live my changeability as a source of deep curiosity. I am full of wonder for how my own rhythms tie me into the ebb and flow of the rest of the natural world. For, as natural beings, we are cyclical beings. The same forces that bring cyclical change to the living world around us also flow within us. Our own cycles are the gateway to re-connecting with the rest of nature, to reclaiming responsibility for our own well-being and to returning to truly good health and authentic empowerment.
Check in Daily
The first step is becoming interested in and consciously aware of our cyclical rhythms. For my tips on how to make a start with this, see ‘HomeWork’ below.
A Map to Navigate your Internal World
Making this regular time to tune in is the foundation of wellness. But, having made this great start, many people get stuck on the crucial next step – knowing how to interpret and what to do with what they discover inside.
I have an invaluable tool that allows me not only to make sense of my inner world, but also to influence it to maintain harmony. I look daily to the Chinese Five Elements – whose cycle is based on observing nature’s constant rhythmic flow – as a trusted a map that allows me to decipher the manifold signals that my body sends me. With this map in hand, I can hone in on the vital parts of me that are struggling, so I can tweak my Yoga, Qigong, diet and lifestyle to support those parts.
This is how I navigate and maintain balance in my busy life.
Over the coming months, I’d like to share with you the fundamentals of this dynamic framework and show you how you too can use it as a simple and effective tool to:
Make sense of how you are feeling day by day;
Understand how your own cycles (eg energetic, menstrual) interplay with other natural cycles around you (eg the seasons, the moon);
Influence – with the help of Element-specific Yoga, Qigong, self-care practices and diet – and bring balance to your inner world, and so to your emotional and physical self.
This month, I’ll start by offering my basic guide to the Five-Element system. This theory provides the foundation for using the Five Elements for health and well-being.
The Five Elements basics
Nature is in a state of continuous becoming, of endless growth and decline.
The cyclical flow of the Five Elements – namely Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water – simply describes this constant process of change. The Elements represent all the possible expressions of energy within the universe and, with each one giving birth to the next in the cycle, also all possible energetic movements and interactions. There is nothing in the natural world that is not governed by their cyclical flow.
Each Element has particular correspondences. Here are some of the basics*:
|Spring||Summer||End of Summer||Autumn||Winter|
|Upward thrusting||Expanding||Holding the Centre||Contracting||Sinking down|
(*I’ll focus on our human Five-Element correspondences in another post).
Five Elements and the Seasons
One of the easiest ways to feel in more deeply to the characteristics of, and the relationships between, the Elements is to consider the varying energies of the seasons.
|Spring (Wood)||Nature re-emerges from Winter’s stillness, at first tentatively and then with an explosive, upward-thrusting energy that breaks through the warming and softening earth and out into vigorous, green creative growth. Seeds germinate and start the process of growing into the particular plants they are destined to be. The weather is changeable as nature tries to get its motor going again after the damp Winter and unpredictable Spring winds are common.|
|Summer (Fire)||As we move into the hottest months of the year, nature reaches the peak of the expansive process begun in Spring. Plants come into their time of maximum energy and maximum growth and radiance, boldly and fully expressing themselves in the world through brightly coloured flowering and fruition.|
|End of Summer (Earth)||As the Summer draws to a close and the heat eases, the Five Elements recognises a stabilising, transitional ‘Indian Summer’ time when nature seems to calm and time seems to slow as the first rains sooth the scorched yellow Earth. This Earth energy actually brings stability to each seasonal transition and also holds the centre as the other four seasons cycle around.|
|Autumn (Metal)||The weather continues to cool and nature dims its lights, turning inwards after its Summer display and abundance. This is the season of threshing, of cutting through and shedding the waste, of sorting the pure from the impure. Plants get rid of what they no longer need in their dried-out foliage and contract their remaining precious, juicy essence down into their roots for the coldest months.|
|Winter (Water)||Nature moves into coldest, darkest, stillest and most contracted and internal state. External signs of life disappear as plants become dormant, expending minimum energy. In this time of rest, seeds and roots are nurtured and replenished. So it is this period of doing nothing that prepares them for emerging - once the weather again starts to warm - into their next cycle of vigorous growth.|
Each season emerges from the fullness of the one that comes before it, which is in turn dependent on the one that precedes it. So if one season does not, for some reason, move into its maximum expression, this has a knock-on effect on the subsequent seasonal cycle.
This interdependence means that the source of Summer’s expansiveness and abundant fruition can be traced right back through the seasons, not just to Spring’s growth or Winter’s rest, but to the threshing work of Autumn. If this process of clearing the old is not done effectively, then the plant’s essential seed energy that is nurtured by Winter’s stillness remains tainted, so Spring’s growth is stilted or chaotic and the plant cannot, therefore, move into the glory of its authentic expression in the Summer.
The Five Elements cycles of Production and Control
Chinese Five Element theory recognises this interdependence in its Production and Control Cycles (see image above).
Following the Production Cycle, each Element is the Mother of the one that follows it, giving birth to and nurturing that Element. Following the Control Cycle, each Element is the Grandparent of the next but one, holding that Element in check, so the Production Cycle does not run out of control.
In this way, each Element is in direct relationship with every other Element. This network is designed to hold things – as much as is possible in the particular circumstances – in harmony.
These two cycles play a key role in helping us use the Elements for self-awareness and healing.
The Five Elements within us
The same rhythms that govern the seasons turn within us, influencing us on every level of our being, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, year by year throughout our lives.
But many people have either forgotten or resist the fact that us humans are cyclical beings who are moved by forces bigger than ourselves (see my International Women’s Day blog). Instead, they try to live their lives in a linear way, expecting to be equally energetic and productive at all times and struggling against themselves when they find that they are not. This disconnection is, I believe, the source of so much of our human distress and ill-health.
I’ll delve much deeper next month into why this is. And, with the foundations of Five-Element theory now in place, I’ll show you how the Elements provide us with a map to navigate, influence and bring harmony to our inner world. I’ll explore each Element’s correspondence with particular organs, functions, emotions and symptoms in our bodies. You’ll discover, for instance, how stuck energy in the Liver can result in us feeling frustrated and angry, and how restoring energetic balance to the Liver will help you to feel calmer.
Homework for this month …
I hope this theoretical introduction to the Five Elements has sparked your interest. The best way to nurture that interest is through curiosity, observation and practice, so you can bring this dry knowledge to life. Then you’ll quickly learn to trust in this cycle and be able to use its framework to bring real change to your life.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1) Check in daily – I strongly recommend that you make a start this month on establishing the flexible but unbreakable habit (ie don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two here and there, but do commit to keeping going) of taking a moment each day to check in and to make a note (in a diary or journal perhaps) of how you are.
How are your energy levels? How is your general mood? What emotions are coming up today? How do you feel about yourself today? What particular physical sensations or symptoms are raising or lowering their head today? If relevant, what day are you on in your menstrual cycle? etc.
Keep it short and to the point and, over the course of several months, you may well start to notice a cyclical pattern.
You may choose to start numbering days, either according to your menstrual cycle (look out for another post in a couple of months with more on this) or, if you don’t bleed, from the day in your energetic cycle when your energy seems to be around its lowest ebb.
2) Watch nature’s seasonal flow – the second great habit that I encourage you to develop is observing nature daily, so you become intimate with the particular flavour of each season (and, thus, each Element).
Ideally, this means taking a walk in nature every day and using all your senses to register the little changes that mark the seasons’ ebb and flow. If your circumstances make that impossible, then get creative. Find a little patch of nature to observe – be it curbside or on your window-sill.
Would you like some direct support in building your Five Elements awareness?
– Join one of my Five-Elements Yoga classes or Qigong classes, where each session focuses on the energy of a different Element. Sign Up here for my 4-week trial offer.
– Come to see me one-to-one.