Pañcamahābhūta Chikitsā (Elemental Therapy)

Pañcamahābhūta Chikitsā (Elemental Therapy)

“…there is nothing in the world which does not have therapeutic utility in appropriate conditions and situations.”

-Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthana, 26/12

Through the grace and wisdom of sāṃkhya philosophy, Āyurveda teaches us that it is by the cosmic dance of puruṣa (consciousness) and prakṛti (matter), and further beyond the projected lens of individualized intelligence and ego, that creation is both manifested and experienced. The seer (individual), seeing (action) and seen (objectivity) are experienced through the pañcamahābhūtas, or five great elements.

According to their clinical levels of expertise, Ayurvedic practitioners are taught to recognize these elements and their manifestation within both the patient and the medicine, and other factors such as season, climate, etc. Through therapeutic methods, they are additionally taught to manage doshic imbalances through the body and mind. This can be accomplished through the means of āhāra (diet), vihāra (lifestyle), auṣhadha (medicines) and kriyā (treatments).

In classical Āyurveda, we are taught that all dravya (matter) possess both guṇa (characteristics), and karma (actions). As a common example, water is wet and cold in characteristics, and holds the general action of moistening and cooling. While the prevailing emphasis in modern-day Āyurveda schools is on clinical application of these therapeutics, in incorporating the guṇa and karma of each element in a simpler and more creative way we can also apply these to easily come up with more subtle approaches of dealing with imbalances on an elemental level.

Diseases and health imbalances can either be simple or complex, depending on their samprāpti, or pathogenesis. Elemental therapeutics can be applied in any condition or situation to assist the overall healing process. While it is difficult to reduce these to a specific therapeutic rule, we can generally say that an elemental imbalance tends to present itself in a person where the opposing doṣhic characteristics prevail. As an example, where Vātadoṣha is decreased, air and space require an increase, and where Kapha doṣha is decreased, the earth and water elements tend to be lower and should therefore be increased. The main advantage of working on an elemental level is the simplicity and specificity of the therapies. However, it should also be noted that as always in Āyurveda there are no hard and fast rules, and definitely no “one-size-fits-all” approaches. A trained Āyurvedic physician is able to properly assess elemental balance within the patient.

What follows below is an observation of the characteristics of each element from the classical text of the Charaka Samhitā, followed by a list of suggestions of activities that can promote or increase a specific element in the individual. It is important to note that all cases these activities will predominate with a single element but include the participation of other elements as well. As example, bathing on a beach would predominantly include water and earth, while on a hot sunny day can also include fire due to sun exposure, as well as air (movement, exercise, feeling the breeze) and space element (cloud gazing, etc.).

These are generally recommended activities that can assist a person to restore elemental imbalances, or remain in harmony with seasonal, or even daily changes. This list is by no means exhaustive, but rather a starting point. I encourage you, dear reader, to add to, or modify this list as it benefits you, your loved ones, or clients (if you are a properly trained Ayurvedic counselor or practitioner).

Pṛthvῑ (Earth Element):

“Substances that are heavy, tough, hard, dull, stable, non-slimy, dense, gross, and abounding in the quality of smell are dominated by pṛthvῑ; they promote plumpness, compactness, heaviness and stability.”

-CharakaSamhitā, Sūtrasthāna, 26/11

Activities that increase or promote Pṛthvῑ in lifestyle include:

  • Gardening, using the hands to dig and move soil
  • Spending time outside in an earthy, natural woodland or rocky setting, particularly in the late           winter and spring season
  • Holding rocks in your hands, or stone massage (or use of gemstone or crystal therapy)
  • Walking slowly or standing barefoot outside in grass
  • Strength training
  • Rooted meditation practices (such as ṣavāsana, slow rhythmical mantras, slow breathing, etc.)
  • Slow and steady rock climbing (preferably not in higher altitudes)
  • Smelling flowers, essential oils

Jala (Water Element)

“Substances that are liquid, unctuous, cold, dull, soft, slimy, and abounding in the qualities of taste are dominated by jala; they promote stickiness, unctuousness, compactness, moistness, softness and happiness.”

-CharakaSamhitā, Sūtrasthāna, 26/11

Activities that increase or promote Jala in lifestyle include:

  • Swimming, bathing (includes showers)
  • Drinking tea or water
  • Meditating near running water, remaining close to water, enjoying the movement, sound and           shape of waves
  • Moon bathing
  • Playing with snow (preferably cold, wet, sticky snow – like building snow people)
  • Oil-based Āyurvedic therapies, snehaṅa/abhyaṅga, śhirodhāra, nasya karma (with oil)
  • Tasting new cuisine, tasting and enjoying the flavor of foods
  • Taking relaxing walks in the rain
  • Spending time outside in the early to mid spring season, or summer if/when humid
  • Feeling genuine love for your romantic partner, or friends and family

Tejas (Fire Element)

“Substances that are hot, sharp, subtle, light, non-unctuous, non-slimy, and abounding in the qualities of vision are dominated by tejas; they provide combustion, metabolism, lustre, radiance, and colour.”

-CharakaSamhitā, Sūtrasthāna, 26/11

Activities that increase or promote Tejas in lifestyle include:

  • Sunbathing, spending time outside, particularly in the summer
  • Fire gazing (campfires, fireplace, etc.)
  • Keeping candles in the home
  • Trāṭaka meditation (meditating on a ghee candle light)
  • Competitive group sports
  • Martial arts
  • Study of scripture, or academic subjects (with proper assimilation, in the spirit of gaining                   intellectual knowledge)
  • Planning, participating in business activities, debating
  • Going to art galleries, going to the theater, watching movies, fireworks displays
  • Āyurvedic therapies include saunas or svedana (steam therapy)
  • Feeling genuine passion for your romantic partner (lovemaking, etc.)

Vāyu (Air Element):

“Substances that are light, cold, non-unctuous, rough, non-slimy, subtle, and abounding in the qualities of touch are dominated by Vāyu. They promote roughness, aversion, movement, non-sliminess, and lightness.”

-CharakaSamhitā, Sūtrasthāna, 26/11

Activities that increase or promote Vāyu in lifestyle include:

  • Movement exercise, yoga, prāṇāyāma
  • Rapid walking, running, or jogging (non-competitive)
  • Playing an instrument (for general purposes of enjoyment – ie. non-competitive)
  • Flying on an airplane, travelling, sightseeing, tourism
  • Conversation, communication and exchange of ideas
  • Dancing
  • Holding hands, light caresses, touching and feeling with the hands
  • Skiing, climbing, activities at higher altitudes
  • Spending time outside, in the dry season (fall and early winter)
  • Āyurvedic therapies which predominate in dryness (udvārtana, dry nasya, etc.)

Ᾱkāśa (Space, or Ether element):

“Substances that are soft, light, subtle, smooth, and dominated by the qualities of sound are dominated by ākāśa; they promote softness, porosity and lightness.”

-CharakaSamhitā, Sūtrasthāna, 26/11

Activities that increase or promote Ᾱkāśa in lifestyle include:

  • Stargazing, cloud gazing, open sky gazing during a predominantly clear day
  • Spending time outside in wide open spaces (particularly mountaintops, high altitudes ie. places with majestic views, etc.)
  • Meditation on formless awareness
  • Listening, with detachment from ego, and with no expectations of outcome
  • Making space in your busy schedule and taking pauses in the day
  • Maintaining an altar or sacred space in your home
  • De-cluttering your home
  • Being adaptable
  • Daydreaming

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