The 5 Elements and Yin Yoga
The five phases, also known as the five elements, or Wu Xing, are the representation of how Qi moves throughout the body in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Although hard to define according to Western cultures, Qi is often translated as energy; however it is so much more than simply electrical vibrations. Qi is the air that we breath, the food that we eat, the environment we consume and the emotions and thoughts that we experience, all of which combined manifest in the blood and tissues through which it travels of the body.
When Qi is travelling freely the 5 elements are said to be in balance, as Qi needs to be moving constantly for optimum health. But imbalances between the phases of Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal and their corresponding energetic channels (meridians) can cause the Qi to stagnate, become deficient, weak or at the other extreme excessive and destructive.
Each of these phases and its pathways are represented by the energy that our main internal organs govern. Each feeds into and supports the other in a continuous cyclic manner, each piece of this complex puzzle as paramount to the completion of the whole as the next. Viewing your health and wellbeing in terms of Wu Xing is to live in harmony between your internal and external landscapes and to flow in accordance with the constant changing cycles of the seasons of life.
The storehouse of our Jing energy, the energy gifted to us by our parents at birth which is responsible for everything in the body. Connected to our birth, development, reproduction and ultimately death, Water is both the beginning and the end. The cold darkness from which we start and to which we return, completing the cycle of oneness. The source of life and it’s unfolding.
The energetic meridian pathways represented in this most Yin like of the 5 phases of Wu Xing are the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder. The Kidneys have a special relationship with the other organs of the body as they hold within them the essence of life (Jing) and it is the Kidneys job to grasp the Qi that is sent down from the Upper burner to the Lower burner controlled by the Bladder. The Kidneys govern everything from the naval down and are responsible for the production of marrow for the bones.
Whilst our prenatal Jing energy is said to be irreplaceable, like a definite amount deposited into our savings account when still in the womb, our postnatal Jing is more like a current account that can be replenished by: a good diet in keeping with the seasons and your bodies personal needs according to your body type; good sleeping patterns and the optimal amount of rest for your lifestyle; proper breathing that uses the full capacity of your muscles and organs of respiration with minimal effort.
Any pose that stresses your superficial back line, along with your inner calf and thigh leading into your groin will help stimulate the energetic pathways of Water in Yin yoga. Think poses such as Caterpillar, Half Butterfly and Frog pose.
The energy of the pioneer within the 5 phases, Wood propels us forward into adventure and the unknown with vision and drive.
Manifesting its energy along the meridian pathways of: The Liver, which can be stimulated in Yin yoga by poses that target your inner thighs (adductors) and groin; and the Gallbladder, in which the target area to stimulate moves to the outer hips (abductors), glutes and side body.
Responsible for the storage and distribution of the blood around the body, through which Qi can travel to nourish our tissues, the Liver is like a pressure pot that in order to stay in balance should have its valve opened to release pressure when needed so as not to explode or implode!
Muscle tension, particularly around the shoulders and neck are often a sign of imbalances connected to this element, as is the inability to extract the proper nutrients from the food we eat and the experiences we digest.
Wood is about growth and movement and is represented in the season of Spring and the sprouting of new life that is so abundant in this season.
The energetic pathways of the Heart, Small Intestines, Pericardium and Triple Burner make up the most Yang like of the 5 phases that is Fire.
Represented by the rising heat of summer and acting as the governor of our emotions, Fire is the storehouse of our heart mind or Shen spirit; the seat of our intuition, which is reflected in our eyes as a spark for life. When emotion is scattered and can’t reside back in the heart, neither can the Shen…when the Shen cannot go home, Qi scatters.
Poses that work with the arms and centre of the chest help to stimulate these meridians lines in Yin yoga. Seeing as this element is also about the ability to set clear boundaries, communicate your truth clearly and kindly and to allow the right level of vulnerability and trust into your heart, then a gentle partner yoga sequence is also a very effective yoga tool.
Sustaining, nourishing, grounding and supportive this phase represents Mother Earth and the central point into which you can ground in to in order to view the world.
The corresponding meridians of this element are the Stomach and Spleen, responsible for the transformation and transportation of nutrients around the body. It is the Spleens job, with the help of the Liver, to extract the nutrients from the food we eat, converting it into Qi to them be exported around the body via the blood. The Stomach digests the food and in turn sends any thing that doesn’t serve us down to the Intestines to then leave us and return to Earth to be dissolved. The Earth element is not only related to our ability to digest and absorb food and nutrients, but also concepts, experience and thoughts in life.
The Stomach and Spleen make up the middle burner where the Yi energy resides, in charge of logic and thought. Yin yoga poses which stretch the superficial front line of the body, especially the quads, may stimulate these pathways.
Obsessive thinking and worry can be an outcome of an imbalance in Earth energy, but when balanced compassion and sympathy come easily. Taking your yoga practice out into nature or doing a barefoot walking meditation is a fantastic way to connect with the energy of this element and ground down into the present moment, potentially extracting some of the Earth’s healing electrons into your body in the process.
The season of autumn bares the harvest of the summers labours and begins to shed its skin as it approaches the end of a cycle that will finish and rest in the depths of winter, before a new cycle takes seed once again in spring. Like the season it represents Metal is a time for detoxification and letting go, along with the condensing of energy once again towards Yin. Like the autumn, It can be viewed like the later maturation in your lifecycle in which you have a well developed sense of right and wrong and fair justice in life.
Manifesting in the Lung and Large Intestines meridians that run along the inner and outer arms respectively; respiration plays an important part in the purifying role of this element. The Lungs are the root of all Qi, which is taken in via our inhalations and then expels the impure via our exhalations. It is in the Lungs that we often experience the loss, longing, grief or sadness that can be felt as an imbalance with Metal.
Our lungs connect us to the present moment and in turn to our corporeal soul (Po). In Yin yoga these meridian lines can be stimulated with poses that stretch across the chest, shoulders and arms such as Shoelace with Eagle arms or reclining Butterfly with arms spread to the side or overhead. Including conscious breathing or Pranayama work is also a natural choice to access and harmonise the energy of this phase.