The practice of yoga blends so beautifully with so many other wellness systems that it has become a truly universal modality. One of its many fascinating partnerships is the combination of yoga and ancient Chinese philosophies. If you’re curious about the relationship between yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for example, you’ll love reading about the 5 elements of TCM and their importance in yin yoga.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the journey of the vital life force (or Qi) through the body. All things in our lives contribute to Qi, including the air we breathe, the food we eat, the environment we live in, our thoughts and our emotions. This energy flows within our body along pathways which travel through every muscle, organ, and bone in our body. Practising Yin Yoga helps us move this energy through the body to bring it back into harmony.
In Chinese Medicine, the Five Elements represent the five unique energies that are present in all things throughout nature. These include Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth. Each element expresses itself differently depending on where it’s found and also manifests in our body organs, emotions, and personalities.
When Qi is moving through our body freely, the Five Elements are said to be in balance, as Qi needs to be moving constantly for optimum health. But imbalances between the Five Elements and their corresponding energetic channels (meridians) can cause the Qi to either stagnate, or become excessive, affecting our wellbeing.
If you are a yoga practitioner, who’s curious to discover more about the five elements and how they come into play in Yin Yoga, keep reading.
The wood element governs our relationship to order, planning, and control. Wood energy also involves our physical and mental flexibility. If there is an imbalance the result can be stubbornness like a rigid branch that cannot bend but will break instead. The wood element is a delicate balance of asserting and expressing our truths and preferences while accepting other points of views and processes without judgement.
Represented by the liver, the wood element regulates the flow of Qi. A wood element practice supports the liver in its optimal functioning. As the goal is to shift stagnant energy, we can use twists as a cleansing technique and hip openers to clear the debris. Focus on the breath, being fully present with the sensations in the body, and allow your thoughts to come and go freely.
Supine twist (Jatharaparivartanasana)
Cow Pose (Gomukhasana)
When we are connected to the Earth there is a palpable sense of groundedness, a connection to the center of ourselves and the center of all things. In balance with earth energy we understand which activities and experiences are nourishing, as opposed to which ones temporarily fill a desire. When out of balance we typically do not nurture and nourish ourselves and can experience a sense of emptiness and an insatiable desire to fill a void.
Represented by the Stomach and Spleen, the earth element is a reservoir for food and water. An Earth element practice supports the optimal functioning of the stomach meridian, lengthening and lubricating the connective tissue along the abdomen, groin and thighs. Moving the body further into the poses is also beneficial – move closer to your toes in a forward fold, fold more deeply into a hip opener, or drop deeper into child’s pose.
Frog (Mandukasana or Bhekasana)
Sleeping Swan (Rajakapotasana)
Saddle (Supta Vajrasana or Supta Virasana
The metal element governs our ability to take in life, absorb what is good for us and let go of the rest, making space for the new. If there is an imbalance we have unrealistic, rigid expectations of ourselves and others, sometimes this is demonstrated in difficulty in letting go of emotional pain and dealing with grief.
Represented by the lungs, the metal element controls respiration and feelings of openness and freedom. A metal element practice supports the lungs in their optimal functioning, inhales beckon the kinetics of the system to consolidate, then exhales support a letting go and a clearing out. When inhaling, trace the breath from the crown of your head all the way down to your toes, and gently exhale from the soles of your feet all the way up to your crown. Arm and heart opening poses lengthen and lubricate the metal element meridian and spread the rib cage wide, while side body lengtheners make more space for the lungs.
Supine twist (Jatharaparivartanasana)
Cow Pose with Archer arms (Gomukhasana)
Supported Bridge with Cactus arms (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
The water element allows for adaptation to all of life’s changes, challenges and stresses. Balanced water energy empowers us to govern emotions, rather than letting emotions govern us. An imbalance in water energy may result in reactivity and a perpetual state of emotional responsiveness. This continuous build-up of stress puts strain on the adrenal glands and nervous system.
Represented by the kidneys, the water element governs all of life’s processes from birth onwards. It is essential for growth and maintenance of general vitality, creativity, youthfulness, and sexuality. A Yin Yoga practice to balance the water element emphasises vitality support promoting an uninterrupted flow of blood and Qi, through front and back bends and lengthening of the inner leg line. Breathing more deeply into each pose and allowing the breath to flow freely in and out of the body also helps to restore balance. While holding each pose, make a conscious effort to be present with your thoughts and let go of any judgments.
Half dragonfly (Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana)
Bridge or supported bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
When the fire element is in balance, fire types are loving, spontaneous and joyful. Life is full of laughter, fun and creativity. The yin meridians of the fire element run from the chest down the arms and into the hands. They relate strongly to touch, intimacy and connection. It’s through touch that we affirm friendship, give, receive and share. An excess of fire can manifest as anger, violence, and fear whereas deficiencies may manifest as anxiety, agitation, and a lack of compassion. Fire imbalances can be addressed by being more present with our thoughts and emotions and focusing on loving-kindness and compassion
Represented by the heart and small intestines, the fire element controls circulation and feelings of emotional harmony. A fire element practice opens the heart center and promotes feelings of acceptance. As you move further into each pose, let go and release judgments and negative thoughts. Allow yourself to be present with your emotions and let your breath be expansive and compassionate.
Melting Heart (Anahatasana)
Supported Backbend-Chest/Heart Openers
Yoga as a Holistic Therapy
Adding Yin Yoga classes into your regular practice can have a profound effect on your emotional wellbeing. Yin Yoga allows us to explore the five elements and reap the benefits of yoga as a form of therapy. By using this holistic framework we can begin to recognise blocks in our energy and use supportive practices such as Yin Yoga to bring us back into balance.
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