In the poem “On Nature’ the ancient Greek philosopher and healer Empedocles presented his vision of the four elements - air, earth, fire, and water - as the source of all substances on earth and the dynamic forces of the universe. While Empedocles is attributed with the four element theory of matter, ancient cultures all over the world from Egypt and Babylonia to Native America and Tibet speak of the primordial elements. The Chinese philosophy of Wu Xing refers to wood (mu), fire (huo), earth (tu), metal (jin), and water (shui) as the five phases or types of energy of the universe that exist in a state of constant interaction and flux. According to Ayurvedic theory, it is the five great elements of ether (ākāśa), wind (vāyu), fire (tejas), water (jala) and earth (pṛthvī) that make up the entire material universe.
“Earth my Body, Water my Blood, Air my Breath, and Fire my Spirit.”
In essence, Elemental Theory recognizes that we are at one with all matter and that the world outside is inextricably linked to the world within. From astrological cycles and circadian rhythms to eco-psychology, we intuit our connection to nature, and sense that by our very being, we are part of nature. We cannot separate ourselves from the natural world. Our physical and mental health is invariably tied to it. Harmony cannot exist in one without the other.
It is this synergy between body, mind and the elements that make up the natural world that has provided the foundation for many holistic healing philosophies. In Chinese Medicine, a deficiency or excess of any the five forces is believed to disrupt the kinetic balance of the body. Ayurvedic sages also believed the elements to be intrinsic to the human body through the three constitutions or Doshas - Vata, a combination of the elements of space and air; Pitta, a combination of fire and water; and Kapha, a combination of water and earth - and their balance being essential to Prakriti, our personal ideal state. Empedocles, on the other hand, saw the elements as eternal, unalterable, balanced entities that were attracted and repelled to one another by two divine, or perhaps more human powers: love and strife.
“The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing.”
Even today, the symbiosis between what lies within and without, and the pursuit of equilibrium through the elemental forces also lies at the heart of the healing rituals we turn to. Breath work, or Pranayama, harnesses air, the life force, and awakens ether, the primordial essence of the soul. Bathing in minerals, clay and botanicals, or applying them to the skin, combine the forces of water, the great purifier, and earth, the grounding element. Meditation and yoga help to balance fire, the transformer, that can in excess manifest into irritability, anger and impatience, and restore the presence earth and ether. As we incorporate these natural forces into our everyday practices we restore our primal connection, recalibrate and come closer to that ideal state or Prakriti. For even as the universe exists in a state of constant flux, we know we can find stability in the eternity of the elements.