The Five Elements

A lot of the Katonah Yoga framework focuses on a Taoist understanding of the world. Man is a microcosm of Nature and the vast universe. We look within for answers. Participating in our health is the same idea: the seasons live within us and express theirselves in our organs. Below is the elemental dance, the creation and controlling cycles, as well as the associated organs and seasons used in Chinese medicine:

5 elements

This simple dance aims to harmonize oneself with one’s internal seasons. The outer circle is the creation cycle, how each element gives birth and mothers the next, whilst being born from its predecessor. Each element reaches its peak before transforming to the next. This is related to the cyclical nature of everything around us, such as the seasons, birth to death, traveling throughout the day. Each mother (predecessor organ) nurtures its birthed element (organ in question), and a deficiency in one element should be strengthened by helping the organ’s mother. If that fails to produce results, the preceding element should be strengthened, working backwards. 

The inner cycle that creates the pentagon is known as the ‘controlling cycle’. This cycle works in a slightly different manner in that it shows how each element exerts a restrictive influence over another while also being constricted by its predecessor (reciprocal tension). This knowledge helps us to reduce an excessive amount of output in the organ. For example, the spleen controls the kidneys, but the spleen is controlled by the liver. If someone is overrun with worry, with their mind constantly bouncing to and fro, one might discover that the spleen is in excess function. They would then try to strengthen the element wood so that the liver will effectively keep the spleen in check. A good way to remember this controlling cycle comes from Staying Healthy with the Seasons: “Wood will injure Earth (root penetration), Fire destroys Metal (by melting it to liquid), Earth controls Water (with dams), Metal attacks Wood (with an ax), and Water injures Fire (puts it out)” [page 26].

One thing to keep in mind is that when an organ is in excess and it is the organ’s season, it will be difficult to get rid of the excess. For example, a lot of anger in spring, which on a very basic level would mean the liver is already in a natural state of excess, would be hard to alter. It is also difficult to strengthen a deficient organ after its season has passed. For example, strengthening the kidneys in spring may prove fruitless. It is best to await the appropriate timing and make right effort.

The seasonal effects of the organs show which element is dominant and which organ is most strongly activated during a given time of year. The poses (elucidated in “Yoga as Origami“) work to emulate this understanding and allow one to move with the ten thousand laws of nature. This harmony creates health and wellbeing. 

Physically, when moving within the territory of the body it is important to note the effects of the seasons as if you were your own sphere. Putting yourself in the centre with the future out front and the memory in the back puts winter at the level of the perineum. Winter is the coldest, deepest, and most insightful time of the year. Moving forward, spring sprouts in front of the body, from the pubic bone to the chest. Summer cycles in front of the head and ripens at the crown, before its descent behind. Autumn is when the leaves fall down the back and descend towards the sacrum, where winter begins. Then the cycle happens again. This orientation is important for using the postures to balance seasonal effects.