When we look to the beauty of nature, we can identify five elements that provide the foundation for the entire physical world. Ayurveda recognizes these elements–Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth—as the basic principles of the universe and as such the primary components of all living things.
Ayurveda observes these same five elements within the human body as well. We nourish ourselves with foods from the Earth, and eventually, our body returns to the earthly matter from which it came. Water is our life-sustaining nectar, making up more than 70 percent of our total body mass. Fire provides the body with heat and radiant energy and exists within all metabolic and chemical actions. Air flows freely throughout the body, giving movement to biological functions and feeding every cell with oxygen. Space is ever-present residing in the background, providing the other elements to manifest.
We look to these elements and their qualities as philosophical concepts rather than elements in the scientific sense of the word. In doing so we begin to see that each of the five elements represents a state of matter. Earth is not just soil, but it is everything in nature that is solid. Water is everything that is liquid. Air is everything that is a gas. Fire is that part of Nature that transforms one state of matter into another. And Space is the mother of the other elements.
The Five Great Elements
Ether is the space in which everything happens. It is the field that is simultaneously the source of all matter and the space in which it exists. Ether is only the distances which separate matter. The chief characteristic of ether is sound. Here sound represents the entire spectrum of vibration.
Air is the gaseous form of matter which is mobile and dynamic. Within the body, air (oxygen) is the basis for all energy transfer reactions. It is a key element required for fire to burn. Air is existence without form.
Fire is the power to transform solids into liquids, to gas, and back again. In other words, it possess power to transform the state of any substance. Within our bodies, the fire or energy binds the atoms together. It also converts food to fat (stored energy) and muscle. Fire transforms food into energy. It creates the impulses of nervous reactions, our feelings, and even our thought processes. Fire is considered a form without substance.
Water characterizes change and represents the liquid state. Water is necessary for the survival of all living things. A large part of the human body is made up of water. Our blood, lymph, and other fluids move between our cells and through our vessels, bringing energy, carrying away wastes, regulating temperature, bringing disease fighters, and carrying hormonal information from one area to another. Water is a substance without stability.
Earth represents the solid state of matter. It manifests stability, permanence, and rigidity. In our body, the parts such as bones, teeth, cells, and tissues are manifestations of the earth. Earth is considered a stable substance.
These five elements are constantly in a state of flux. Using Ayurveda, we can establish which elements are dominant, and thus exerting more influence over the body and mind -- and then use the individualized lifestyle prescriptions (wisdom) of Ayurveda to help us strike that balance in all aspects of life.