The Five Elements
The five elements (called “pancha mahabhuta” in Sanskrit) is one of the most fundamental concepts in Ayurvedic study.
These elements make up our entire material world. All matter, organic and inorganic, contains these elements, which in turn arise from the three gunas, or universal qualities. Let’s take a look at each of the elements individually:
Within our body, ether is the space inside our lungs, bladder, stomach, and space within each cell. Ether provides the room for all of life’s functions to occur.
Constitution (dosha): Vata
Air manifests itself in our bodies as all bodily functions because it is moving these processes along. Air is closely connected to the mind, always working, always thinking, never quiet; and closely connected with the gut and nervous system. Air is the messenger, transporting information throughout the universe, throughout our bodies, and throughout the cells. If there is a blockage, or a mis-communication occurring in the body, the air element is likely impaired.
Tastes: Pungent, Bitter, Astringent
Senses: Hearing, Touching
Constitutions (dosha): Vata, Pitta
The fire element gives people the ability to purify food through the cooking process. After a meal is eaten, the fire element is responsible for the digestive fire and converting food to nutrients within the body. Mentally, the fire element is involved in the brain’s information processing work as we strive to make sense of the world around us.
Tastes: Sour, Salty, Pungent
Senses: Hearing, Touching, Seeing
Constitution (dosha): Pitta
Water covers 71% of the earth’s surface and constitutes approximately 60% of the human body. The water element is present in the body as anything liquid: cytoplasm, saliva, blood, urine, sweat, spinal fluid.
Tastes: Sweet, Salty
Senses: Hearing, Touching, Seeing, Tasting
Constitution: Pitta, Kapha
In the body, the earth element provides the structural framework for our bodies via the skeleton.
Taste: Sweet, Sour, Astringent
Senses: Hearing, Touching, Seeing, Tasting, Smelling
Each of the five elements exist in each individual but the proportions of elements vary from person to person and day to day. Generally the five elements support healthy life, longevity and harmony, but only when they are in balance. When the elements are imbalanced, we experience negative reactions within our bodies and in our lives. Keeping life in balance is a full-time job, it is something to be maintained, trimmed, observed, tailored, and adjusted on a continual basis. Keeping track of the five elements provides a framework that underlies Ayurveda as a study of life in balance.
The three Ayurvedic body constitution types, or doshas, Vata, Pitta & Kapha, are closely related to these five elements. Each dosha consists of two elements and inherits the properties of the elements involved. Learn more in my upcoming article Ayurveda and the Three Doshas.