Fire Element in the Body

Fire element in general relates to transformation, will, choice, creativity, action and movement. Physically it relates to the transformative actions of the body as a whole, to the metabolism, to the organs in general, and specifically to the heart and small intestines.

Our body is a continuous, constant process of transformation. Our body systems are working continuously for our survival, and they are transforming in response to the context we give them. If we spend much of our life still and static our body will transform in this direction, eventually shutting down signals to certain muscles, in time taking on the shape of the sofa we love so much, or the car seat we spend so much time in. The parts of our body that we consider to be the most static, such as the bones, muscles or the skin, too are in a state of continuous change, and over time are completely replaced and renewed.

When we practise yoga we channel the transformative action of the body towards flexibility and mobility, restoring function and flow throughout the body. We harness the natural transformative properties of the body towards health, balance and strength. By tuning into our innate tendency to move into alignment and dynamic balance, we direct our body to transform in this direction, to support the development of muscle and bone that in turn supports us to be in alignment and balance. In the same way that if we sit all day in a car, we create a body that is developed for that context, if we practise actions of upright dynamic balance we create a body oriented towards these qualities. By practising yoga we place ourselves in the flow of transformative action and orient it in the direction we wish to grow.

Metabolism refers to the chemical processes happening in the body, energy being taken in, in the form of food, drink and oxygen, which is then broken down and turned into forms usable by the body (that which is not usable being ejected in the form of waste), the energy from this process is used by the body to synthesise new substances necessary for life. These two processes are called Catabolism – breaking down or destructive metabolism, and Anabolism – the synthesising of new substances or creative metabolism. These processes are going on all the time in our body way beneath our conscious experience, except of course when our body lets us know we need to expel some waste materials, or when something has gone wrong.

metabolism

Each individual’s metabolism is unique, varying dependent on age, sex, gender and physical condition. On the whole yoga practises serve to slow our metabolism, the synthesis of deep breathing, meditative focus, and movement, all work towards bringing us into a state of calm relaxation. In the most extreme cases, it appears that advanced yogis may be able to slow the metabolism down to a complete stop, one of the Grandfathers of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya in a public demonstration, slowed his heart to a stop for two minutes.

There are many benefits to a slow metabolism, primarily it is more efficient at turning food into usable energy; it may slow the ageing process due to its beneficial effect on the thyroid gland; the mind is calmer, and more thoughtful; William Broad the author of ‘The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards’ says that yoga helps develop an “inner physiological flexibility” meaning “your overall metabolic rate tends to go down. You get this kind of inner flexibility that mirrors the outer flexibility.”

In this way our practice serves to control the fire of the body in a way that serves to bring us more life, more energy, and to bring the individual into a deeper connection with the reality of their own being, and with this deeper listening, the ability to tune in to what the body needs at any given moment. We learn to trust in the tremendous intelligence inherent in the body, and seek to be able to listen so that this inherent intelligence can guide us towards healthy choices that support us to grow upright, balanced and strong, and in so doing we can support our friends, families and community to do the same.

In future blogs we will delve deeper into the subject of fire in the body, hopefully this has been a good introduction to the subject, which may provoke further investigation. Please do leave any questions or observations below, they are very welcome.

Our next cycle of blogs will look into the study of yoga, the five elements and the mind.

Earth Element in the Body

Earth element relates to stability, security, structures, boundaries, materiality and form.

In the body Earth element relates to the most stable, supportive and slow changing parts, the skeleton, connective tissues, muscles and skin. These provide the structure within and through which the physiological actions of the body take place, and the forces of gravity and locomotion are transmitted.

musculoskeletal

In our classes we have been focussing our practise on the core muscular and skeletal structures, which give the basis for balance and safe, grounded movement. By bringing our attention to, and learning to trust in the support of these central musculoskeletal structures, we can rely less on the outer muscle body to support us, discovering the powerful support structures arising from our centre.

The core is formed first by the spine itself, which has what yoga educator Leslie Kaminoff terms ‘structural prana’, that is, the architecture of the spine itself has an inherent tendency towards equilibrium and alignment.

spine

The spine can be helpfully viewed as two columns, inner and outer.  The spinous processes of the outer spine, are, spiny! They jut outwards in three directions, and through the action of the ligaments that bind to them seek to maintain the spine in upright equilibrium at all times.

The discs of the inner spine are round, strong, and evolved for load bearing. Between the discs are gel-filled pockets surrounded by concentric sheets of fibre, called intervertebral discs. These too act to maintain the spine in equilibrium. As the spine moves from side to side, or forward to back, the nature of the intervertebral discs is such that they will automatically seek to return themselves to a neutral centred position.

vertebrae

In this way the inner and outer parts of the spine work together to transmit the forces of gravity and of locomotion, and continuously maintain a state of dynamic equilibrium. Our work as yogis is to support this inherent equilibrium seeking nature of the spine by simultaneously releasing tension and building balanced strength throughout the musculature. An aspect of how we do this is by connecting with the deeper layers of muscular support in the body, in particular the muscles of the core.

The core muscles of the body form an egg shape, at the top of which is the diaphragm, an upside down bowl shaped web of muscles that is situated in the base of the rib cage, and is the engine of breath in the body, in continuous movement as the breath moves in and out 24 hours a day. At the base of the core is the pelvic floor, another web of muscle, or diaphragm, a diamond of muscle across the base of the pelvis. The sides of the egg are formed by a group of muscles among them, the Transverse Abdominus which wrap like a band around the abdominal area, the Multifidus which travel from the sacrum upwards along the spine, the Rectus Abdominus and Obliques which wrap around the front and sides of the lower body and the Quadratus Lumborum which rises from the upper back of the pelvis to attach to the upper lumbar spine.

core-muscles

In the centre of this egg of criss-crossing muscle is the Psoas, which connects from the lumbar spine downwards to connect with the Iliac muscle and then join at the top of the Femur. The Psoas and Iliac muscle together are known as the Iliopsoas muscle, and weakness or tightness in this muscle can lead to all sorts of problems, including back pain, breathing issues, leg pain and more. The Psoas is sometimes called a ‘hidden treasure’, as all of its functions can be taken on by outer muscles, and so it can be hard to connect with at first, but connecting with this important core muscle leads to a sense of grounded-ness, safety and stability in the body, as well as contributing to healthy alignment and movement.

iliopsoas

In our asana practise we first connect with our ground of support, we feel into our base, whichever part of the body is supporting, be it hands, feet, sit-bones or head. Having connected with our base of support we connect with our core, feeling into the meridian lines of support running from our base in towards our centre. Then from this grounded, centred place, we can move with our breath into the full expression of the pose. In this way we always know that we are moving safely, and engaging the deep structures of support within.

There is much more to this subject, and in future blogs we’ll look in more depth at the core structures of the body and how our yoga practise can bring us into a more meaningful functional relationship with them.

Space Element in the Body

I am going to return to the subject of water element and the emotions in our next elemental cycle, this week we are working in class with the space element, so I am going to explore some aspects of space in the context of the body and its systems.

Yoga teachers often talk about creating space in the body, but what does this actually mean?

Our organs continuously transform and process incoming nutrient in the form of air and food and in the outgoing form of waste. The heart and other organs keep the many fluids of the body in constant motion, making sure that all parts of the body are continuously restored, refreshed and maintained in equilibrium, or homeostasis.

circulatory

The organs in turn are supported, and contained by the musculoskeletal structure, formed by the voluntary muscles and the skeleton, and by the connective tissues, the joints, tendons and ligaments, and fascia, which surrounds and contains the distinct parts of the body, something like the white pith inside an orange.

fascia

The shape of our muscles and skeleton is formed through our daily activities throughout our lives. Our muscles adapt continuously to what we ask them to do, and can become fixed in positions that in turn can distort our skeletal structure. If for example, we spend a lot of time hunched over a desk at a computer screen, our muscles learn to develop and maintain this hunched position, in turn distorting the shape of the shoulder girdle, upper spine and ribcage.

These distortions in the muscles and skeleton, in turn restrict the ability of the diaphragm to move freely in the body, which inhibit our ability to breathe freely. Also the actions of our organs, and the flow of fluid can become similarly restricted and inhibited.

skellington

Our practise of pranayama (breathing) and asana (posture), slowly but surely lead us towards a more open and relaxed, balanced, upright posture. We learn to listen to our body to feel into areas of rigidity, restriction or tension, and with focussed movement, begin to release them. As we release muscular stress and inhibition from the outer body and learn to listen to the deeper communication arising from our core body, we can begin to return naturally to the alignment inherent in our living being.

The practise of yoga is a way of re-awakening, or re-establishing this natural alignment by bringing us into experiential contact with the structural prana of our living body. We were born tremendously curious, flexible, spontaneous and open to experience, and through our practise we can, to some degree, restore and recover these innate properties.

Happy-baby-playing-with-his-feet-1080x675

The conscious re-alignment of the body is both an expression of prana in itself, and a process that will allow prana to flow. Prana is not some kind of magical or mystical energy arriving in our bodies from some unknown outside source. It can be viewed as simply the natural propensity of the living body to seek alignment and equilibrium, though when experienced, it can feel magical. When we let the breath and body move us, and begin to realise for the first time the tremendous intelligence inherent in our living being, it can be a profound and transformational experience, as we learn experientially that there is far more to our intelligence than simply our conscious, rational, everyday mind.

When we return to the space element in our next cycle we will explore this subject in relation to the mind. I hope this has given some insight as to how the practise helps to create and maintain space in the body, and how this in turn supports our life as a whole.

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