The 5 Elements and how to apply them to a Yin yoga practice
The five elements, also known as the five phases 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 breathe, 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 of the body through which it travels.
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, or become deficient or weak. At the other extreme Qi imbalances become excessive and destructive.
Each of these five elements and its pathways is 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 constantly changing cycles of the seasons of life.
The storehouse of our Jing energy, the energy gifted to us by our parents at birth and 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 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 five elements 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). 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.
Our prenatal Jing energy is said to be irreplaceable, like a definite amount deposited into our savings account when still in the womb. However, our postnatal Jing is more like a current account that can be replenished by a good diet in keeping with the seasons and your body types personal. Good sleeping patterns and the optimal amount of rest for your lifestyle assist in retaining your Jing. As does proper breathing that uses the full capacity of your muscles and organs of respiration, with minimal effort.
Any pose that stresses your superficial backline, 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.
Further reading on the Water element.
The energy of the pioneer within the five elements; Wood propels us forward into adventure and the unknown with vision and drive.
Manifesting its energy along the meridian pathways of The Liver – stimulated in Yin yoga by poses that target your inner thighs (adductors) and groin – and the Gallbladder, in which the target area is 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 needs its valve opened and occasional pressure released to stay in balance.
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.
Further reading on the Wood element.
The energetic pathways of the Heart, Small Intestines, Pericardium and Triple Burner make up the most Yang like of the five elements, 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. our Shen is 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 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 yin yoga sequence is a great way to explore Fire’s energy.
Further reading on the Fire element.
Sustaining, nourishing, grounding and supportive this phase represents Mother Earth and the central point into which you can ground 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 sends anything that which doesn’t serve us down to the Intestines to 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, will help 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.
Further reading on the Earth element.
The season of autumn bares the harvest of the summer’s labours and begins to shed its skin, approaching 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. The lungs and respiration play 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 breath awareness or Pranayama into a Metal yin yoga practice is also harmonising for the energy of this phase.
Further reading on the Metal element.
In My Element: Yin yoga sequences guiding you through the Chinese 5 elements
Intelligent and inspirational yoga sequencing ideas for yoga teachers and practitioners
This book aspires to alight your imagination and inform your practice through the beautiful language of The Five Elements and Yin yoga. Whether you’re using this book as a yoga practitioner or a yoga teacher, In My Element serves as an inspirational portal to developing practices exclusive to your unique bodies and minds. Fusing the ancient Eastern wisdom of Taoist philosophy and Chinese Medicine with Western physiology, this book guides you through creative and intelligent Yin yoga sequencing suitable for all. You will also discover practice and propping guidance, meditations, breathwork, poetry and ways to harmonise each element.
In this book:
An explanation of each of The Five Elements according to Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Yin Yoga poses which target the energetic meridian lines connected to that element
How these meridian lines correspond with Western physiology and the poses target areas to stimulate and stretch
A Yin Yoga sequence explained in-depth for each element
Suggested propping and ways to enter and leave the poses and meditations
A self-inquiry suggested practice for each element
Guided meditations inspired by each element
Pranayama breathwork drawing on the energy of each element
Beautiful Toaist and Zen Buddhist quotes to inspire your practice
Ways to harmonise each element