Ayurveda categorizes the human body and everything else living and nonliving in the universe into five building blocks. These so-called elements are metaphors, or symbols. In the physical body these elements create vital energies that combine to enable digestion, metabolism, breathing, and other powerful processes

The Five Elements

The first element is space, which describes the distance between matter and its location; it chief characteristic is sound or vibration. It is the emptiness in which all the other elements exist, according to Ayurveda. If that strikes you difficult to comprehend, consider this example: A doorway is empty, but even so, is useful. So are the spaces in your body, such as lungs, nostrils, the mouth, and the stomach.

A second element is air, regarded as a gaseous form of matter basic to all human reactions. Invisible to the eye, air can be thought of as existence or movement without form. In the body, it appears as pulse and the ins and outs of breathing. And remember, without air, fire cannot function.

Another element is fire, which connotes power—for example, the power to convert food to fat and muscle and to create feelings and thoughts. Fire enables chemical reactions, converting matter from one stage to another such as transforming solids into liquids or gases. It fuels metabolism, enzymatic actions, digestion, and intellect.

The fourth element is water. Able to act as both a dissolving and lubricating agent, water signifies change. It also points to the liquid-based qualities inherent in our body–blood, saliva, lymph, hormones, sweat, urine, and other fluids. These fluids keep the body free of toxic wastes, carry disease-fighting white cells and perform other basic health tasks.

The fifth element is earth, which is synonymous with stability and solid matter. Earth represents the shape and structure of such solid body parts as bones, skin, teeth, hair, nails, cells and tissues. Earth in the form of food continually enters the body through eating and exits via our digestive process. Thus through nutritious meals and regular bowel movements, earth is balanced within the body. Too much earth eliminated is known as diarrhea; too little translates to constipation. 

Psychic Energy

While physiological processes play a pivotal role in total health, psychological well being is determined by the balance between three psychic energies or gunas: Tamas, Rajas, and Satva. Understanding them helps you understand your mental and spiritual nature.

The gunas point to all of human thinking and behavior. They are subtle invisible forces hidden in the surrounding world and in your psyche and are the main powers of Cosmic Intelligence. To understand these forces and learn how to work with them endows you with the ability to get in touch with your soul and its desires. Your psychic individuality is determined by which of the three gunas dominates you.

On one end of the spectrum is Rajas, which represents action and turbulence—the kind of mind set that encourages materialism, greed and ambition as well as the desire to dominate and control. As many of our wisest leaders have noted, society is unfortunately inundated by this attitude; On the plus side Rajas supplies pleasure and stimulation in the short run, but long term, delivers pain and suffering.

At the other end of the emotional continuum is Tamas, which tends toward dullness and inertia. People in whom Tamas dominates gravitate toward vindictiveness, addiction and other self-destructive behaviors. Such persons can be apathetic and deluded as well. Tamas tends toward negative motion, decay and disintegration.

Satva, however, equates with desirable qualities, such as wisdom, balance, clarity, and knowledge. Satva is the balance point of intelligence and stability, cultivating happiness, contentment and spiritual growth and possessing a positive motion that promotes peace and love. 

Mind-Body Teamwork

Together, the mind and body perform specific jobs that fall into three broad categories– movement, transformation, and accumulation. Optimally, these functions or governing principles produce a feeling of wellness if they are in equilibrium.

Movement processes include breathing, the beating of the heart, the firing of nerve cells, and the blinking of eyelids. Transformation includes such vital roles as digestion and absorption of food, the metabolism of substances, and maintenance of a correct body temperature. Without the execution of these functions, the body would not be in balance and you would face the prospect of dis-ease.

The third principle is accumulation or cohesion, which translates to functions that include tissue resistance, bodily strength, wound healing, and memory retention.

Functional and Qualitative

Ayurveda views health as a positive force rather than merely the absence of disease. Its techniques aim toward eliminating the roots of diseases, not just symptoms. Of course since Ayurveda is also qualitative, it incorporates consciousness, or awareness—perception as interpreted by the senses. The mind learns to pay attention to the qualities of all your experiences—for example, to the qualities of herbs and food you consume and the activities you engage in. This integration of the functional with the qualitative is the essence of Ayurvedic medicine.

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