The Elements and Ayurveda - An introduction

By Insiya Rasiwala
Nothing in the world
Is as soft and yielding as water
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
Nothing can surpass it.

-Tao Te Ching

Air, earth, fire and water. The elements according to ancient and medieval philosophy- the very source of what we are made up of- are so much a part of our everyday lives and being, yet most of us do not even consider how inextricable they are to our mental, physical and emotional functioning. Imagine a way of thinking that allows you to realize this. This would be a way to understand that the complex organisms we call human beings are made up of a mixture of matter and anti-matter and that it is the interaction between those two that determines our state of physical and mental health.

Ayurveda, (a Sanskrit word meaning the 'science' or 'wisdom' of life) is an ancient philosophy and system of medicine that originated in India 5000 years ago, but whose precepts and tenets are applicable more then ever today. Unlike western medicine which treats each disease as an isolated occurrence, Ayurveda believes that nothing functions in isolation: your body and mind are intricately connected to your environment and to the universe, and where there is imbalance, illness and disorder ensue.

According to Ayurveda the universe also has a fifth element- the lightest of the five- known as Ether or 'Space.'Together, these elements are not interpreted literally, but rather as principles that allow us to perceive the nature of existence and of the universe. They all hold meanings in the context of life.

Air is movement- setting other aspects of creation into being, Fire is the force that produces heat and light essential to life, Water holds everything together like a fluid glue, Earth is matter itself, and Ether is the emptiness between matter.

Ayurvedic doctrine holds that all organic matter - plants, grains and animals- are formed from the Earth element, which it believes gave birth to all other matter. The doctrine also proposes that the five elements may be present in all matter: Water when it is frozen becomes solid like Earth, Fire melts it back to Water, more Fire turns the water into steam, and steam disappears into Air and Ether.

The five human senses also correspond directly to the elements. Sound is transmitted through Ether, Air, which Ayurveda teaches is related to the nervous system, is believed to correspond to touch, Fire which we see as light and colour relates to sight, Water is necessary to taste, (a dry tongue cannot taste food), and Earth is connected to our sense of smell.

These five elements are seen in the body in the form of three principal mind/body types known as doshas. 'Dosha,' is a Sanskrit word for "force" or "fault." The doshas exist in all matter and are composed of different combinations of the five elements. They are: vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water). Their influence affects all mechanisms of the body, both physiological and chemical.

Most individuals are a combination of the doshas but tend to have a predominant dosha which determines their body type and temperament. It is also possible to have an imbalance of a dosha, which will lead to disorder in the body or mind. In fact, the more balanced the doshas are, the healthier a person is.

Vata is the lightest dosha portrayed by the colour blue, pitta is the medium one portrayed by red, and kapha is the heaviest portrayed by yellow. Someone with dominant vata energy tends to be thin, restless and creative. The pitta type mostly conforms to a happy medium, and kapha people tend to be slow and lethargic. The doshas are combinations of the elements: vata is Ether and Air, pitta is Fire and Water and kapha is Water and Earth. (See additional characteristics in tables below.)

Vatta, pitta and kapha energies move throughout the body and produce both good and bad effects. The role of an Ayurvedic physician, then, is to assess the effects of the doshas on a patient and to counter the effects of those which are harmful. Rather than treating the symptoms of disease directly, Ayurvedic treatment aims to rebalance your doshas according to your constitution (also known as your Prakriti), resulting in a body and mind that is healthy and sound. By becoming familiar with your own unique dosha pattern you can lead a life that is more in harmony with your individual nature.

The aim of Ayurveda is to balance out the interplay of the elements in our bodies and achieve harmony and oneness. It recognizes the importance of physical balance, emotional release, mental health, environmental mindfulness and spiritual progression in achieving health. If we live calm, well-ordered lives with a sense of purpose - working at never being too laid back or anxious, sticking to unprocessed foods that are preferably vegetarian, sleeping regular hours and not taking artificial stimulants - we will be likely to achieve dosha balance and longer, healthier lives.


Additional Info on the Doshas

Characteristics of the primarily Vata individual
- A thin body and little weight gain
- Rough, dry skin which can crack easily
- Teeth prone to decay
- Small, dull looking eyes (not always)
- Eating quickly and irregularly
- Erratic memory
- Insomnia and restlessness
- Decisiveness
- Ability to acquire money quickly (and spend it just as quickly)
- Difficulty in sustaining relationships
- High sex drive

Characteristics of the primarily Pitta individual
- Medium body - not too heavy or too light
- Smooth skin - possibly with moles or freckles
- Small eyes - often green, brown or grey
- Good appetite but not prone to weight gain
- Medium veins, muscles and bones
- Thin hair - prone to baldness
- Free perspiration
- Moderate sex drive
- High intelligence but a tendency to anger and be judgmental
- Openness to new ideas
- Decisiveness and leadership qualities

Characteristics of the primarily Kapha individual
- Body prone to fat
- Thick oily hair and skin
- Clear whites of the eyes
- Heavy eyelids
- Heavy bones
- Slowness and tendency to be inactive
- Unimaginative approach to sex
- Tendency to oversleepInfo on the Elements


Earth represents the solid state of matter. It is stability, permanence and rigidity such as that of rocks. In our bodies, parts such as bones, teeth, cells and tissues are manifestations of the earth. Earth is considered a stable element.

Water characterizes change: time change, flows of the water cycle in nature, evaporation, condensation, clouds and rain. 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 an element without stability.

Fire is the force that produces both heat and light essential to life. It has the power to transform solids into liquids, liquids into gas, and back again. In other words, it possesses the 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.

Air represents movement, catalyzing other aspects of creation into being. 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.

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. The chief characteristic of ether is sound. Here sound represents the entire spectrum of vibration.

For more information on Ayurveda:
The Handbook of Ayurveda by Dr. Shantha Godagama
Ayurveda, A life of Balance by Maya Tiwari
The Morningstar Cookbook