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  • Writer's pictureInger Myhe-Rodorigo

Spacing Out

Human bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years through their relationships to the physical environment -- the elements. We interact with the elements, we are comprised of the elements, we are governed by the elements -- Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. Our communion with the elements is evident in our connection to natural wonders. The night sky fascinates us. The sparse, dry beauty of the desert instills a sense of awe. We bask in the warmth of the sun or in front of a fire. We are lulled by the calming sounds of the ocean, a river or lake. We long to sink our hands into the rich soil of the garden. When deprived of one of the elements, we yearn for it. In the desert we are joyful when we find water. After being at sea for a long time, we kiss the land. When cold, we can’t wait to warm in front of the fire. We can observe the elements as they are reflected in our own bodies. The warmth of the sun and the warmth of our hearts are the same. The water flowing in the rivers is like the water in our blood. The air in our lungs is the same air that birds ride. Our flesh is formed from the elements of the earth and will dissolve back into the earth. The space of the universe, the space in our house and the space in our mind is the same. As we heighten our awareness of the elements and their properties, we begin to see that all things and all beings are made of the same stuff, bringing a sense of unity and connection. (Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Ripoche)

Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world's oldest holistic (“whole-body”) healing systems. It was developed more than 3,000 years ago in India. Ayurveda teaches us that each individual has a unique combination of these five elements. The elements are also integral to health and healing in Tibetan culture, shamanism, tantra, paganism and nature-based religions. These systems are based on the belief that health and wellness depend upon a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. We achieve well-being by bringing the elements into balance -- in our physical bodies, relationships, spiritual practice, mental and emotional health, as well as our physical environment.

Each one of us begins life as a unique manifestation of the elements. The environment, culture and our life-experiences further affect our elemental composition. Our levels inform our temperament, mental faculties and physical differences. Additionally, our behaviors cultivate certain elements and repress others. For example, if we react with anger, we cultivate a negative aspect of fire. If we respond creatively, we are developing the positive aspect of fire in ourselves. Almost anything can imbalance the elements: diet, thoughts, emotions, movies, friends, culture, illness etc. However we can use those same things to help us balance the elements. Elemental imbalance can be either temporary or life-long. After lunch we might become drowsy and dominated by earth. When we initiate a difficult conversation, we may lose our connection to earth and become dominated by air and worry. Other imbalances can be more fixed, manifesting in long-standing character traits or habitual tendencies. In the west we tend to interpret this through the lens of psychology, but it is more basic to look at it as the interplay of elements. (Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Ripoche)

In Ayurveda, each element is associated with different tissues and functions, as well as personality characteristics and tendencies. In healing, these same elements influence the properties of a medicine or treatment. There are three constitutional types, called “Doshas”-- Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each one of these is heavily influenced by a primary and secondary element. The ratio of these types within us, lays out the blueprint for physical, mental and emotional traits, as well as our strengths and vulnerabilities. Once we know our Dosha(s), we can formulate a health plan involving diet, movement, lifestyle and spiritual practices.

Vata is the Dosha of Air (and Ether). As you might expect, it’s qualities are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile and clear. Like wind and air, it governs all movement—the flow of the breath, the pulsation of the heart, all muscle contractions, tissue movements, cellular mobility—and communication throughout the mind and the nervous system. We see these same qualities in people whose primary Dosha is Vata. Vata people are creative, quick to learn and grasp new knowledge, but also quick to forget. They are slender, tall and fast-walkers. They have a tendency toward cold hands and feet and experience discomfort in cold climates. They generally have dry skin and dry hair and don't perspire much. Vata people are excitable, lively, and fun, yet tend to act on impulse. They have changeable moods and high energy in short bursts. They have a tendency to tire easily and to overexert. When in balance, they are full of joy and enthusiasm, but when out of balance, they respond to stress with fear, worry, and anxiety. Vata people often have racing, disjointed thoughts.

Pitta is the Dosha of Fire (and Water). It’s qualities are hot, sharp, light, liquid, spreading, and oily. Pitta’s primary function is digestion and transformation, just like the qualities of fire. Consider how the warmth of a fire permeates its surroundings, or how water flows in the direction dictated by the terrain. Pitta is closely related to intelligence, understanding, and the digestion of foods, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Pitta energy governs nutrition and metabolism, body temperature, and the light of understanding. These fiery characteristics are reflected in Pitta characteristics. Pitta people have a medium physique --strong and well-built. They have sharp minds and good concentration. They are orderly, focused, assertive, self-confident, and entrepreneurial at their best. When out of balance, they are aggressive, demanding and pushy. They are competitive and enjoy a challenge. They are passionate and romantic. They have a strong appetite, and good digestion. Pittas get irritated if they have to miss or wait for a meal. When under stress, Pittas become irritated and angry. They are uncomfortable in sun or hot weather -- heat makes them tired, and they perspire a lot. They are good public speakers, managers and leaders, but can become authoritarian. They are subject to temper tantrums, impatience, and anger. Typical physical problems include rashes or inflammations of the skin, acne, boils, skin cancer, ulcers, heartburn, acid stomach, insomnia, and dry or burning eyes.

Kapha is the Dosha of Water (and Earth). Kapha qualities are heavy, slow, cool, smooth, dense, soft, stable, cloudy or sticky. Kapha’s primary function is cohesiveness, structure and lubrication. This energy lends structure, solidity, and cohesiveness to all things, and is therefore associated primarily with the earth and water elements. Kapha also embodies the watery energies of love and compassion. This dosha hydrates all cells and systems, lubricates the joints, moisturizes the skin, maintains immunity, and protects the tissues. Kapha characteristics include being easygoing, relaxed, slow-paced, affectionate, loving, forgiving, compassionate, nonjudgmental, stable, reliable and faithful. Kapha people are physically strong and with a sturdy, heavier build. They have the most energy of all constitutions, but it is steady and enduring. Their speech is slow, reflecting a deliberate thought process and they are slower to learn, but have an outstanding long-term memory. They tend to have soft hair and skin, large "soft" eyes and a low, soft voice. They tend toward being overweight and may suffer from sluggish digestion. They are prone to depression, but they are very self-sufficient, gentle and have an undemanding approach to life. Their health is usually excellent, and they have a strong immune system. They value calmness and strive to maintain harmony and peace in their surroundings. They are not easily upset and can be a point of stability for others. Kaphas tend to be possessive and hold on to things. They don't like cold, damp weather, and their potential physical problems include colds and congestion, sinus headaches, respiratory problems including asthma, allergies, and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

When the Doshas are out of balance, we experience illness or dysfunction. We can balance the Doshas by balancing the elements within and around us. When one of the Doshas is aggravated, we can restore balance by introducing it’s opposite qualities -- through foods, herbs and experiences that amplify the opposing energy. For more information on balancing the Doshas, see my Buzz article entitled “Balance in All Things”.

Now that you have a general overview of the elements and their influence on our bodies and lives, we will look at each element individually. In this article, we will investigate the element of “Ether” or “Space.” (Much of the information contained in this section was taken from The Laya Center’s article on Ether.) In Sanskrit, Ether is “Akasha.” This is the empty space that other elements fill. It has no form or boundaries, and therefore no limits. Space is about openness and receptivity. It comes first because it is the subtlest of elements, and yet it is everywhere. Ether is a part of all the other elements. It also causes differentiation -- because of it, form is able to take shape and differences emerge. It’s origin is “Shabda,” the primordial space from which vibration emerges, long before it takes the form of sound in the ear. Sound and Ether are inseparable.

Ether relates to all the empty spaces in our body, so it’s body parts are the ear, the mouth, the intestines, blood vessels, bladder and lungs. Imbalances of Ether in the body can lead to hearing loss, losing one’s voice, and Parkinson’s disease, which is an example of a condition where space is created in the body where there was once cellular structure.

The qualities of Ether are based more upon the absence of its opposing quality than on the actual quality itself.

  • Cold: Ether is cold. It is cold because it lacks warmth created by fire.

  • Light: Ether is light because it lacks the heaviness created by earth and water.

  • Immobile: Ether is immobile because it lacks the propulsive nature of air.

  • Subtle: Ether is subtle because it lacks the profound presence of the more obvious elements.

The Chakra of Ether is the Throat Chakra. This element and chakra are associated with openness, freedom, communication, expansiveness, consciousness, and truth. Bitter taste contains the most ether, although ether by itself is tasteless. The bitter taste is composed of both ether and air, and it is air that provides the uniqueness of the taste. Consuming bitter foods is an excellent way to increase the influence of the ether element. This is wonderful if a person is overly constricted and driven by their routines. However, an excess of ether in the diet, especially the diet of the individual with a vata constitution, can result in the dosha becoming too expansive. While this increases creativity it also leads to becoming ungrounded.

Winter is the season of Ether. The season of ether begins after the leaves have fallen and earth is barren. Nature intends for everything and everyone to become lighter at this time. There is a danger of becoming too light at this time if the proper precautions are not taken. Thus, human beings have historically prepared for this season by storing up food and other supplies to see them through this period of emptiness. If in the seasons of the year Ether is winter, in the cycle of a human life, death is Ether. The body disintegrates and the elements flee their boundaries. All that remains is the subtlety of our spirit…. our individual soul.

When the Ether element is in balance, there is room in life - whatever arises can be accomodated. There is enough time, enough room for everyone, enough space for our emotions. We are very present in each moment and grounded in acceptance. Every experience is just as it should be. From this centered space, you are able to freely communicate and express yourself. You feel connected with the world around you, and physically and emotionally nourished. You balance work, and family, a spiritual life and self care. There is enough space for everything. Rather than identifying with our external situations (jobs, relationships) we realize our true nature. (Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Ripoche)

When Ether is out of balance, you may feel empty, isolated, overwhelmed, withdrawn or misunderstood. Ether can be out of balance because of too much space, or not enough space. With too much space, we are spacey and can’t connect with the other elements. We experience a loss of meaning, not from the depression that can happen when the earth dominates, but from a kind of superficial connection to life that leaves us rootless and drifting. We lack focus and drift through life, lost and out of touch. When there is not enough space, we are dominated by whatever arises. Everything seems solid and impenetrable. Small problems can be overwhelming, big problems devastating. It becomes easier for another element to dominate and determine our reactions. Everything feels like too much -- the kids are a bother, there’s no time for friends, no time to cook, no way to relax. We have difficulty meditating because we are easily distracted by whatever arises. (Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Ripoche)

Since Vata is the dosha associated with air and ether, one method of balancing the Vata dosha is to prevent Ether from increasing. Ether is prevented from increasing by filling the emptiness in our lives. Our lives become full not by being busy, but by being nourished physically and emotionally. Proper nourishment acts as a container for ether and the vata dosha. Moist, heavy, satisfying foods pacify ether as the empty space of the digestive system becomes full. Emotionally, love is the highest form of nourishment. By taking in the other elements the natural tendencies of ether are pacified. We can invite in the element of Ether in our yoga practice by bringing our awareness to the spaces in between -- in between the inhales and exhales, the space around our body and between postures, the space between our thoughts. Pranayama practices include Kumbhaka Breath, Lion’s Breath and Ujjayi Breath. To balance Ether, we can practice poses that open or close the throat chakra, like Camel, Fish, Shoulder Stand, Plow, Bridge and Corpse Pose. In our daily life, sky gazing -- looking at the night sky -- can connect you with the vastness of the infinite space without and within you. In some mystical traditions, spinning connects us with this element -- like being the space in the eye of a hurricane.

Make it a special project to connect with the element of Ether in your life -- for a day, or a week and as-needed going forward. Explore all the ways Ether, or space, impacts your life, your body and your internal world. Explore growing an awareness of how you feel when Ether is in balance or out of balance, and find creative ways to work with this element. Notice the difference between “spacing out” and “creating space.”

**For more information, check out Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Ripoche, The Laya Center’s article on Ether ( Much of the content of this article was taken from this excellent summary of the element.

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