Air and Metal
Air element in the Vedic and Classical traditions relates to movement, direction, mind, intelligence, reason, communication, and order, in the Chinese traditional system, these qualities are attributed to Metal. This gives us an apparently contradictory combination of metaphors that nevertheless yield rich complementary perspectives.
In nature metals are communication channels, silver, copper, gold, magnesium and other metals provide the medium through which heat and electricity can travel, forming the web of communications material through which the modern world is sustained and connected. In the body too metal provides pathways for information to travel through. Metal crafted by human intelligence into the form of a blade cuts, divides things into parts, in the same way our analytically trained minds divide and separate reality in order to understand the world.
A blade, like thought, can be used for good or bad, good or evil, the same knife used to prepare a meal made with tender affection can be used to kill in a moment of anger. Metal in the form of a sword wielded by a master flies with ease and rapidity through the air, as the tip of an arrowhead it arcs its way towards the target with unfailing precision and speed.
Air of course is the material through which life is sustained and connected, it too is a vehicle of information and communication, by which life is not only connected, but also sustained. Air like thought is invisible yet tremendously powerful, we know it by its effects in the world. Air is not the movement of the leaf on the tree it is the silent animation that lies behind the movement. Air is always silent; we only ever hear the noise made by the objects it moves. In the same way thought is not the spoken word, it is the silent activity that lies behind the birth of the word, a seed that travels through air before being reanimated as meaning in the mind of another.
Air exists always in relationship with the other elements, without the animating power of fire, air eventually returns to total cold and stillness; without the boundaries and gravity of earth, air is chaotic and without direction; without the life giving power of water, air is king of a dead and purposeless world. In the same way the heat of the sun animates the air, the heat of our passions, our emotion and essential drives, move our thought towards action. Air of course can become chaotic and random, even violent, thought too when fuelled by passions can become destructive. To see things clearly, to act intelligently, we need to be able to cool our minds, to take the heat out, in this way we can embody the coolness of reason, intelligence free from passion transforms into the blade of reason that is able to cut through delusion to reveal truth. Picture a straight shining silver sword reflecting the movement of clouds in a bright blue sky.
Central Nervous System
Air element in the body then relates to the brain and central nervous system, and to the sensory organs that take in the information of the world. As a result of historical ways of conceptualising the mind, it is common to imagine thought as some kind of disembodied abstract activity, yet modern inquiries are revealing thought to be something very concrete, the internal experience of the architecture of our brain and nervous system, an astoundingly complex web of neuronal circuitry, powered by electrochemical energy flying between neurons at tremendous speed, alternately inhibiting or disinhibiting neural gates. Our emotional and psychological lives are governed by the intensely complex dance of our nervous system, continuously equilibrating itself to external and internal stimuli. Thought then is the symbolic expression in mind of the physical architecture of being, a living temple of electro-chemical light.
The individual experience of the nervous system is governed by a combination of electrical signals and chemicals called neurotransmitters, which control the action of the neural circuitry. Some of the most well known neurotransmitters are dopamine, a reward molecule which makes us feel good when we are achieving our goals; noradrenalin which is released when we are in danger and prepares us for physical action; serotonin which is related to our position in hierarchy, exposure to sunlight and physical exercise; and GABA which inhibits the actions of noradrenalin, returning us to a calm and balanced state of being. In contrast to hormones whose actions can take place over minutes, weeks, months or even years, the neurotransmitters of the central nervous system are immediate in nature, constantly active in response to the never-ending fractal permutations of lived reality.
The nervous system is called autonomic because all of this incredible complex activity is happening for the most part beyond our conscious control, thankfully we do not have be in command of this mind bogglingly complex dance of chemistry and electricity, otherwise we would get very little done. Our nervous system is divided for the purposes of understanding into two parts, the sympathetic, which relates to our ‘fight or flight’ response and relies primarily on noradrenalin to keep us alert and safe from danger. The second part is called the parasympathetic which helps us to ‘rest and digest’, and uses the GABA neurotransmitter among others to inhibit the effects of the adrenalin running round our bodies thanks to the sympathetic nervous system.
Its important to recognise that both of these sides of the nervous system are essential, we need to be alert to the dangers of the world, and we need to be able to rest and relax. As living human beings we have to find the balance between the two. Of course, for most of us who have the luxury to be able to take the time and have the space to practise yoga, we do not face the dangers that many humans do, and historically most humans have. Really our lives, especially in the modern western world, are incredibly safe, yet our sympathetic nervous system does not know this, and is still wired to keep us safe from tigers, snakes and giant birds of prey. One feature of the modern world is the massive flow of information that we are bombarded with almost constantly, our nervous system has to assess each piece of information that it is exposed to, and does not distinguish between the threat of a tiger, and for example, the threat of economic instability on the evening news. If we do not want to be at the mercy of our sympathetic nervous system, constantly moved towards stress, that in the long term becomes damaging to our body, we must learn to be able to activate the parasympathetic system, in order to help our body to return us to a state of calm well-being, this is where yoga can help us.
Our nervous system has evolved in order to serve and protect us, it is not helpful to resent the aspects of it that bring us stress, but to understand the part they play and to bring them into equilibrium, towards a harmonious balance of inner chemistry that can support us to live intelligently. There have now been many studies that prove the effectiveness of yogic techniques, particularly, breathing or pranayama techniques and meditation in restoring balance to the nervous system. These are simple techniques, which if practised regularly bring great benefit to body and mind.
This is a short video from Yoga International showing how to practise Nadi Shodhana, a good place to start learning the essentials of pranayama, and beginning the journey towards greater happiness and peace of mind.