Philosophy – Yoga and Beyond
The following philosophies inspire and influence my teachings and practices…
I want to inspire you to go within.
To tap into that deep knowing you have inside.
Our bodies are at least 70% water. Water needs to move – slowly or fast, it doesn’t matter – but it needs to move. Water transforms from yin to yang and is ultimately always moving towards a balance, creating a balance on our Earth. Our water within does the same. Our main channel of water within our bodies are our fascia – our connective tissue within, just as water is our Earth’s connective ‘tissue’. These channels of fascia correlate with our energy channels, meridians. These are the energetic pathways of our bodies, the pathways that channel our life force, chi, prana, ‘spark’ of life to each cell. Long-term blockages in these channels, bring blockages, dis-ease and ultimately death to the cells that these channels feed. In the same way that polluting, redirecting and blocking our water channels on Earth is killing her cells.
Through our practice of yoga, we nourish and revitalise our water within. Through our slow yin practices, we nourish the wells at our depths, those wells that trickle through to our springs that flow to the surface bringing nutrients to our streams and rivers. Through our yang practices we connect with this flow, the slow movement of the spring, which gains momentum as it becomes a stream and then a river which connects with the vast ocean and becomes the powerful movement of a wave.
When we truly know our bodies, we know the practices we need at that particular time – ranging from yin to yang, and anywhere in-between – to bring us back into balance.
Just as our water system on our planet does not work in isolation, neither does our body’s. Our water system on earth connects with the energy of the heavens – the moon and the planets and the sun. The moon being the ultimate ‘yin’ and the sun being ultimate ‘yang’. This is evident in the tides (the moon energy connection) and photosynthesis of micro-organisms (the sun energy connection). Our water on earth also connects with the air around it – from the smallest particles of oxygen and carbon dioxide, to the force of the wind. This is evident in it’s absorption of CO2 and the waves created by the wind.
Our bodies are no different. We connect with the energies around us and our breath. So, just as we can affect the body, and its water within, through a variety of movement ranging from yin to yang, so can we affect the body by our interaction with the energies around us and our breath.
This brings us to a deeper understanding of the practice of yoga. The original yoga, Hatha, has nothing to do with ‘style’, as its come to be understood today. It has to do with ‘connecting’ – connecting yin and yang to find balance. ‘Ha’ referring to the sun (ultimate yang) and ‘tha’ referring to the moon (ultimate yin). It refers to a number of practices that will help us connect with elements around and within us to help bring us into balance – within and with our surroundings. 3 of these practices being asana (physical), pranayama (breath), dhyana (meditation). If we bring that back to water on our earth – it has to do with the movement of water (asana), its connection with the air around it (pranayama) and the cosmos (dhyana). Just as the water on Earth connects with those 3 areas, bringing energy and balance to the entire planet, so will doing these practices bring energy and balance within our own bodies.
The characteristics of water, identified by Theodore Schwenk, are rhythm (its movement, flow and tides), metabolic (its ability to absorb and transmit information and substances) and nerve sense (it’s ability to energise and sense energy). If we go back to the 3 ways in which our water on earth connects – through movement, air and the heavens – this relates to these 3 characteristics:
- Rhythm -> Movement
- Metabolic -> Air
- Nerve Sense -> Heavens
This then further relates to our 3 “Hatha” (Yin/Yang Balancing) practices:
- Movement (asana) -> Rhythm -> Movement
- Breathing (pranayama) -> Metabolic -> Air
- Meditation (dhyana) -> Nerve Sense -> Heavens
These 3 main practices can help us balance our internal water, just as the water on our Earth, through it’s intrinsic characteristics, practices this daily to keep our earth in balance.
As an example of yin yang imbalance on our planet with regards to water, we can see how our consumption of the yin water (ground water and ice) is creating an excess of yang water (rain storms, floods, tidal waves) and an overall yang effect on our earth (fires, warming temperatures). The only way that we can bring the yang into balance is by restoring the yin i.e. fighting the fires that are resulting on the surface is only treating the symptoms, we need to restore moisture in our earth by allowing the ground water to regenerate and growing more trees which also creates more water in the underground aquifers.
This is the same in our own bodies. If we are displaying yang symptoms – feeling hot, overworked, overeating – treating the external symptoms and then continuing to do the same things will just further deplete our yin reserves. We need to nourish our yin to bring the yang into balance. We need to slow down, work less drink more fluids, amongst other things. If we look at it from the perspective of choice of yoga practices, these would include a more yin asana practice (slow or little movement), calming pranayama practices (slow breathing, increased exhalations), and calming meditation. Slowly our yin will regenerate and decrease our yang symptoms.
There is only one Earth, and a finite amount of water within it which is our Earth’s channel of life force. In the same way we only have one body, with its internal channels of water that circulate our life force. The more we connect with our bodies as a whole, through our yoga practices, the more we will gain an understanding of our imbalances and the more we can do the practices that will bring about an overall balance within our bodies. Just as we have only one Earth and one Body, there is only one yoga – the yoga that brings balance – balancing our yin and yang – “Ha” and “tha”. Yoga connects – our inner being, and our inner being with our surroundings.
I believe that the best way we can bring about a balance on our earth, with us still on it, is to balance our inner selves. The more we understand our inner worlds, the more we will understand our planet and feel an intrinsic drive to do what is right to help her. Ultimately the earth will clear herself of all the pathogens and restore herself to balance, however long this process takes. I think it’s very egotistical of us to think that we need to help her. She will do it with or without our help. The only difference is that if we help her, we get to stay a bit longer by her grace. We can either become the Earths good cells, or we can be the pathogens.
The 5 Elements of Yoga
We have yin and yang, which are the all-encompassing balancing energies within and around us. These components can further be broken down into 5 elements, within and around us.
The 5 elements of ancient India and Ayurveda are slightly different to the ones in ancient China and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), but they are really just talking about similar things. There might be slight differences in their terminology and groupings, but their individual systems should be looked at as a whole. What I mean is that, when looking at the 5 element systems of Ayurveda we should see it as a functional whole; when looking at the 5 element systems of TCM we should do the same. Both are systems used to understand, and bring about, a balance within and without. In both traditions it’s about comparing our inner elements, and their interactions, with those of our earth. These philosophies have developed over thousands of years of observations of our surroundings, our bodies and the interactions between the two.
I’m now going to explain the how the 5 Elements can be incorporated into our Yoga practices, by looking at the ‘spirit’ of each of these elements. This is the basis of various forms and interpretations of Taoist, Oriental, Meridian and Yin yoga practices. Whilst some of these yoga forms might place more emphasis on specific meridians in the body, which is really helpful, that will not be the main focus of this exploration…
Water constitutes the largest percentage of our bodies, around 70%. In TCM the water element consists of the Kidneys and the Bladder, the controllers of our inner water works, and is the base element of all the elements. What I mean by that is that it is the element that contains our core yin and yang. If our water element goes out of balance it will affect all our elements. Similarly, if any of the elements are out of balance long enough, they eventually start to deplete our water element.
So what does a ‘Water Element’ practice look like? Let’s take a look at the nature of water. Water can be yin or yang – from the cold, dark depths of the ocean (yin) to the energising drops of tropical rain (yang). So a more yin water practice would be focusing on connecting with our inner depths, inner wisdom and our purpose. The movements will be slow, gentle, nourishing and meditative. A yang water practice would be connecting with a flow, think flowing stream or river. Adding more flowing breath to this flowing movement practice, consider how the air interacts with the flowing ocean water to form waves. Feel the waves of energy flowing through our bodies as we move with our breath.
The Wood Element has to do with growing, aligned with our deep wisdom and purpose in our Water Element. Connected to the season of spring, think of all the new sprouts that start to grow and the spiralling movement of growth as saplings emerge from the soil. In our own lives, think of “spring cleaning” and, interestingly, the Liver is connected to the Wood element and is the ‘filtering’ organ of our body. On a more spiritual level, the liver assists with the smooth flow of emotions.
Combining these concepts, we can create a Wood Element practice that is cleansing, detoxing (physically and emotionally), with a focus on twists and long exhales. If we are wanting a more yang and energising practice for the Wood Element, we add more moving twists; whilst a more yin and calming practice would mean holding our twists whilst focusing on our exhales.
The Fire Element is connected to our hearts which, in TCM, also houses our Mind. Our hearts maintain the ‘rhythm’ in our bodies throughout our lives, keeping our body supplied with oxygenated blood. Our breath is closely connected to our hearts and keeping a slow consistent breath, slows our heart rate down, allowing our hearts to work more efficiently. This then also calms our mind, which in TCM doesn’t only reside in our head, but throughout our entire bodies. With a calm mind, we can better sense the rhythm of our heart and better connect with the rhythms within our lives. We can become more aware of the rhythms that resonate with us and those that don’t, hopefully guiding us to let go of the rhythms that don’t so we can align better with our purpose.
Aligning with this central theme of rhythm within the Fire Element, our practice would be rhythmic and flowing, with a steady and rhythmic breath. This might also include an opening of the chest area, being more ‘open hearted’. A more yang practice incorporating more movement and transitions between postures, and a more yin practice holding postures, with a focus on rhythmic breathing and connecting with our heart beat and inner rhythm. Perhaps even finding a rhythm between the movement and the pauses, flowing from yang, into yin, into yang…
Within the Earth Element the focus is on grounding and strengthening. The Stomach and Spleen are the organs of the Earth Element and these organs are how we take in the ‘fruits’ of our Earth to nourish our bodies. A balanced Earth Element is generous, giving from a place of abundance, yet also finding the balance between giving and receiving to maintain this balance. In the 5 Element dynamic, the Earth Element is often depicted as being in the middle and this is because it is central to our nourishment. A balanced Earth element, at our centre, ensures that our bodies receive the right balance of nutrients.
The key themes in an Earth element practice would be strengthening, nourishing, grounding and balancing, with a focus on the ‘core’. In our bodies, being connected with our ‘core’, or ‘Hara’, helps us with our balance and we feel this when doing any kind of balancing postures. A yin Earth practice might focus more on this deep connection with our centre and our core, working with our breath to feel this ‘core engagement’ whilst being aware of the earth beneath us, allowing gravity to hold and ‘ground’ us. Then moving into a more yang practice, starting to connect with our strength as we pull away from the Earth and gravity, increasing our strength as we do this. There is also a focus on more dynamic balancing, keeping our core connection as we flow through postures and also keeping our connection with the ground to ‘hold us up’.
The organs of the Metal Element, the Lungs and the Large Intestine, indicate its essence – the ‘taking in of the new’ and ‘letting go of the old’. Our lungs, our breath, is our continuous connection with our surroundings. Without this connection, we die. Whilst our lungs ‘let go’ of the elements that our bodies no longer need, transported to them via our blood, our large intestines ‘let go’ of the denser waste matter of our bodies. When we don’t exhale completely, we don’t create enough space in our bodies to absorb extra oxygen – we don’t create enough ‘space’ for the new. It’s the same when our bowels don’t empty regularly – we feel stuck and we keep ‘holding on’ to what is no longer serving us.
A Metal element practice is one with a focus on breath – a yin practice being less physical movement and more focus on the movements relating to our breathing; a yang practice being more flowing movement that combines with our breath. The central theme is on ‘letting go’ of the old so that we can take in the new – an emphasis on exhales and on an awareness of where our bodies might be ‘stuck’ or ‘holding on’, then using our breath to release and ‘let go’.
Yoga & The Wave
The energy of water culminates in the energy of a wave. Ask any ocean-lover – that energy it produces is infectious.
In Scaravelli’s minimal writings on her yoga practice, she refers to the main elements of a yoga practice being: Gravity, Breath and The Wave. There have been various explanations of her meanings. I’m going to have my go at it:
Relating it to the practices of yoga – gravity could be referring to the asana element of it and breath the pranayama element (I’m getting to the “Wave” bit later).
Through our movement and our attempts at balancing, we have to work with gravity and be aware of its presence. When we work with it, it holds us and supports us, when we work against it, it makes us stronger. Sometimes this ‘making us stronger’ includes teaching us how to fall! Gravity has a way of reminding us of its presence – “bringing us back down to earth” – if we forget. Ask anybody who’s fallen out of a balancing posture!
Interestingly, one of the best ways NOT to fall out of a balancing posture, is to connect with your breath. Breathing brings us more into our bodies, whilst at the same time, connects us with our surroundings. It’s the ultimate balancing practice when it comes to balancing our inner and outer worlds. In an asana practice, when we connect our movement, and stillness, with the breath, we become more grounded (gravity) and sometimes can even defy gravity through a calm balance. We have to work very hard when we try to balance by fighting gravity with our muscles. By simply adding the lightness of breath, we learn to float!
So now we come to the ‘Wave’. The Wave is what happens when we combine the first two: Gravity & Breath. Think of a physical ocean wave… we have the energy flowing in the water, that gains momentum the further it travels, when it hits some kind of opposing force below, the water lifts up against gravity. The air (or wind), going with or against it, determines what shape it starts to make and how long it can defy gravity for, until ultimately it “breaks”, crashing back down to earth and onto the shore. This same energy process is happening inside of us in our yoga practice. Combining breath with movement, or stillness, we are impacting the water within us in the same way the air is impacting the ocean. The Wave is the energy we experience, in various shapes and forms, throughout these practices.
That is why this ‘wave’ concept has been a bit elusive. It’s only through practice and inner work, that you truly understand it. Words and explanations cannot do this concept justice.