Yoga, as it Relates to Five Elements
In downward dog - the default reset yoga pose – we press “kidney 1,” the wood point on the water channel, and “heart 8,” the fire point on the fire channel - into the earth, concurrently using the former to tuck our heart into our lap and the latter to push our kidneys into the air. What does all this mean?
Well, first of all it means there is an intimate relationship between yoga and the acupuncture meridians. No surprise.
I’ve been training yoga (off and on) for nine years, just a year longer than I’ve been studying Chinese Medicine, and my fascination with each have been mutually engendering.
Chinese Medicine is complex – a paradigm one could spend lifetimes studying and still not fully understand – however can also be broken down into the fundamental principles of yin and yang and the five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, which align with our vital organs, the liver, heart, stomach, lungs and kidneys.
Every one of us is imbalanced, subjectively lacking in either yin or yang, if not bearing a pathological excess of one (which is the same as a void of the other). How our imbalance decides to express itself (i.e. symptoms) is generally determined by our “five element constitution,” which is not at all mutually exclusive to western science labeling a condition as “genetic.”
Where western science does mis-step in my opinion, is in its uniform prescription of certain things as good and healthy and others as bad or unhealthy. We’ve all met people who can eat a whole steak and feel fantastic, while others can barely eat half without needing to take a nap afterwards and then feeling it the next day. The latter are “Earth types” - weaker in the stomach channel, which becomes the one that gets most impacted by their daily stress. They lose their appetite, while other types couldn’t conceive of such a feeling. Conversely, “Earth types” can often drink as much coffee as they please and still get a good night’s sleep, whereas Wood or Fire types (yours truly) can’t even have a small cup in the morning more than a few days in a row without experiencing some insomnia. I hate/love coffee!
Our society generally considers yoga to be a very “yin” practice, a la qi gong or tai chi, whereas more yang forms of exercise are crossfit, boxing or the more aggressive martial arts. But inside every “yin thing” is a dash of yang – that white dot in the black half of the swirly half circle – to ensure integrity. Even sex, the epitome of yang activity, can be awfully unfulfilling when void of the yin element of affection.
Yoga is no different. Yes, at its best it should be an eloquent dance of breath and fluid contortions that logically favor the female physique, but it is also a source of perspiration, a great test of strength, determination and what degree of discomfort we are able to endure without compromising our inspiration. In short, yoga is gangster. If you’ve never done it I challenge you to do so and disagree.
I’ve made several observations connecting my practice on the mat with that of my practice on the table, and would like to share just a few.
Acupuncture meridians run in two pairs each. They are responsibly polygamous, as the body is interconnected, just as we are interconnected, which might be a fine argument for romantic polygamy. I digress.
In its depth the lung channel pairs with that of the stomach, which is logical as these organs are our post-natal sources of life. Elementally, the (yin) lung and (yang) large intestine make up “Metal.” In Warrior 2 pose we stare out over our longest fingers, the end of the large intestine channel, which runs directly opposite the lung channel on the forearm. Our front knee is planted firmly above our feet, creating a perfectly straight view of the stomach channel. We prepare for reverse warrior by inhaling these metal meridians over from yin side to yang, then tipping back into our pose. How perfect.
All of the five elements have their own particular actions, metal’s being that of sharply cutting through, just as the breath does our body’s stagnant energy. For this reason my favorite continuation is into the sharp, triangle pose, my breath allowing me to cut through the air around me, also the stagnation within me, and for me personally the end of my large intestine channel usually grazes the start of my stomach channel on the dorsum of my foot.
Finally, there is a very intimate relationship in Five Elements between the heart and kidneys, fire and water elements respectively. The heart’s fire is invigorated by the kidney’s yang energy and (hopefully) cooled by its yin water (although this dynamic is one of the most common imbalances in modern New York City). I like to keep in mind the intention of nourishing this relationship whenever I go through vinyasa.
In downward dog the only two acupuncture points touching the floor are the most grounding points on each channel (incidentally also the most sensitive to needle).
Heart 8 rests in the middle of the palm. Considered the fire point on the fire channel, and it pushes our kidneys upwards towards the ceiling in a very outward, yang expression. Conversely, Kidney 1 rests in the middle of the feet – the wood point on the water channel, and its job is to push down, encouraging the heart to tuck further under the body with the yin intention of enclosure, self-preservation.
We move forward into plank and chaturanga, then finally upward dog. Again, we use heart 8, but this time to push the chest forward, our heart yang now exploding upward and out in self-expression, our kidneys beneath our lower back withdrawing into the floor, yin. Another breath and we are back in downward dog, and the yin/yang dynamic of fire and water is fully harmonized. Or we’re just exhausted. Either way it’s good. Namaste.