My recent visit with Vedic Philosophy continues to resonate with me – leading to ideas meeting and interconnecting. Today I am trying to assimilate some thoughts around the subtle elements of ether, air, fire, water & earth as an overview map for the tools of Yoga.
The subtle elements are presented in Vedic Philosophy as a hierarchy in which each element has one quality that is unique to it (which separates it from the other elements) and additional qualities it inherits from the more subtle elements that come before it.
For example – ether is a subtle element that has a unique quality of sound. Air is a subtle quality that inherits the quality of sound from ether & has a unique quality of touch. Earth is a subtle element that inherits the qualities of sound, touch, form and flavor, and has a unique quality of odor.
Though all five elements are referred to as “subtle elements” – there is actually a refined order of gross to subtle within them. Ether being the more subtle “subtle element” and earth being the most gross “subtle element”.
Asana, Pranayama & Meditation
The structure of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a primary text about Hatha Yoga) delineates an overview structure of practice:
- The 1st chapter is about generating and stimulating Prana using Asana (physical practices)
- The 2nd chapter is about containing the Prana that has been stimulated using Pranayama
- The 4th chapter is about Samadhi – a Meditative state.
When applied to the map of elements we see that the tools are arranged from gross to subtle – fire, air and then ether. Asana is a gross form of practice compared to Pranayama, and Pranayama is a gross form of practice compared to Meditation.
Kriyas are cleansing practices and they are described in the 2nd chapter of the HYP (slokas 21 – 38). There are 6 practices introduced in the following order:
- Dhauti – swallowing a wet cloth and pulling it out
- Vasti – which is basically an enema
- Neti – passing a thread through the nasal passages
- Trataka – intense gazing
- Nauli – revolving the stomach muscles.
- Kapalabhati – a forceful breathing practice.
The order in which the Kriyas are introduced is aligned with the overall strategy of practice – from gross to subtle. The first 3 (Dhauti, Vasti & Neti) are water practices, the next 2 are fire (Trataka & Nauli) practices and the last one (Kapalabhati – which some consider a Pranayama) is an air practice. Therefore Kriya’s are practices that cross over from water to fire.
Mudra & Bandhas
The 3rd chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is dedicated to Mudras & Bandhas. These are various techniques that can be thought of as locks – their purpose is to internally direct Prana that has been aroused through Asana and contained through Pranayama.
Chanting is a special tool that is often overlooked in Yoga practices and also can be difficult to introduce in the West (people are generally very self-conscious about using their voice). It is said, and I have experienced, chanting to be a “magical shortcut” that leads directly into meditation.
Chanting is an art of it’s own and deserves specialized teaching and practices. It is fairly intuitive to associate Chanting with air, though anyone who has practiced it will recognize that it is also a practice of fire – it requires a steady stamina.
Chanting can be useful in teaching people to breathe – particularly to lengthen the exhale. People can feel lost when they are asked to extend their exhale, but ask them to make a continuous sound – and voila – the exhale lengthens.
Chanting can also be used together with Asana to bring the breath into consciousness. By creating sounds during exhales both the practitioner and teachers can better observe the quality of the breath. If the breath is even slightly unsteady – it will immediately effect the quality of sound. Sound paints the breath, bringing it closer to consciousness and to a refined physical practice.
A Practice Session
A Yoga practice session can be a conscious practice of these qualities. The HYP can be applied to the construct of a single practice session:
A path from gross to subtle can be experienced as a change over years of practice, in a single practice session, in a single asana and in a single breath. We are always on this path and it is useful to recognize and embrace both qualities. Gross is a starting point, pretending otherwise denies the present and weakens the foundations upon which we stand. Subtle is an elusive end, we work towards it and never reach it, it is a reference point for the gross. Hopefully subtle qualities of today’s practice will become tomorrow gross starting point – as we travel onward constantly improving and refining.