Elements and Senses

Our Senses: Powerful Tools for Mindfulness

Can you remember an important moment in your life in crystal clear detail? Do you remember the sound of someone’s voice, the outfit you were wearing, the color of your surroundings, or even the smell of a specific detergent or perfume? Our brains hold onto sensory data — this is how we remember things. Our sensory connection to the world — be it aural, visual, textural, and so on — can be a powerful tool to bring us into the present moment, building upon our conscious awareness and keeping us mindful.

Join us for a Mindfulness and Movement Practice for Elements and Senses: 43 min

When we are aware of our connection to our senses and the elements around us, we can start to practice actions that help us regulate and recalibrate our systems so that we can feel more grounded and connected in the present moment. For example, when we feel fiery anger inside our minds and bodies, the best thing to do is breathe. We can slow our heart rate down with a slower breath and dissipate the flames we are experiencing. Water is another element that, when we feel heat or rage, can help calm us down. Behaviors like drinking a glass of ice water or pressing a cold cloth to your face can help change your mood or shift your perspective.

As skillful yogis, we are able to notice when and where we are out of balance with our senses and elements, and what we can do to regain that state of balance. Using senses and elements as we practice yoga and life keeps us in balance with nature and, ultimately, the universe.

In Hindu belief, there are five elements that make up the universe we live in. These are known as the pancha mahabhutas: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. These first four, which you’ve probably heard of before, comprise the entire material world. Ether is a little different, but we’ll get to that later. Each of these elements was thought to correspond to one of the five senses, or indriyas: smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. We experience the world through our senses. When we’re open to our senses, we are able to have richer, fuller experiences. Our brains can create more vivid memories because of the abundance of information our senses can input.

Elements and Sense Pairs

Earth: Prithvi
Smell: Ghan
Keywords: grounding, reliant, nurturing, resilient, heavy, weighty, hard, stable, dense.

Earth represents matter. All that exists on earth is considered matter. Our bones, muscles, fat, and teeth all came from the earth. This element is connected to our sense of smell because smells awaken the spirit and boost our memory. They can also indicate if danger is nearby. Our sense of smell can stimulate other body systems into motion. In fact, smells, traveling through our limbic system, can directly impact moods and emotions!

May the earth help you stay grounded. May you have the ability to return here, a place of nurturing and steady existence with a strong sense of where you come from.

Water: Jala
Taste: Jivh
Keywords: life-giving, lubricating, purifying, cleansing, cold, heavy, downward-flowing.

Our bodies are a vessel of fluids, including water, blood, lymph, urine, and plasma. It’s common knowledge that our bodies are made up of a lot of water—at least 60%! When we are fluid in mind and body, we move through the world with grace and efficiency, just like water. Learning to go with the flow, like the common saying, brings a deeper sense of knowing, trust, and joy in living. Water is connected to our sense of taste; the tongue is the sensory organ. When we slow down our eating and drinking, we can have a greater appreciation for what is nourishing us and a greater awareness of the tastes we are experiencing.

Like a drop of water in the ocean, may you ebb and flow with life. May you notice the ripple effect you have on your surroundings.

Fire: Tejas
Sight: Cakkh
Keywords: desire, inspire, rebirth, sharp, hot, radiant, upward-rising.

Our bodies produce heat and need heat to function. Fire, or heat, fuels our digestive system, metabolism, and in a more metaphorical sense, our intellect and inspiration. Sight, through our eyes and through our minds, is associated with this element. Another property of fire is light, which illuminates the world around us. This is also related to perspective, or the way we see the world. We can broaden our field of view by slowing down and noticing what we see and how we are looking at it. We also have the capacity to change our point of view based on what we see. Our practice allows for the evolution of our bodies. We evolve in our practice when we have moments of clarity and connection and we become more confident in a pose. Fire brings on transition and change, spurring thought and action. Fire is what gives life to the body, seen in our rosy cheeks and our lively glow. Fire is a guiding light.

May you illuminate and self-reflect from the inside out, so you see what others see in you.

Air: Vayu
Touch: Kay
Keywords: life-giving, mobile, dynamic, cold, rough, dry, moves in waves.

Air allows us to breathe and feed our cells fresh oxygen. Our sense of touch is activated through the integumentary system. The skin and fascia (a sheath that holds the muscles) are connected to the nervous system, sending signals from our body to our brain and back again. Air and our sense of touch impact our lungs’ abilities, muscles, intestines, and movement. As we build upon our sense of touch, we enhance our qualities of sensitivity and finesse. It’s important to understand the sensitivity of touch so that we can be more aware of our and others’ physical space. Another way to think about this sense is the concept of “learning by doing,” often known as “getting your hands dirty.” Touch can represent tactile and experiential learning. Support this element and this sense through the act of giving and receiving. It can be as simple as breathing: receiving oxygen from the air and giving back carbon dioxide with your exhale.

May air symbolize life in every breath you take.

Ether: Akasha
Smell: Sot
Keywords: unity, union, peace, vast, infinite, stillness, fine, subtle, smooth.

Ether can be tricky to conceptualize because it’s said to fill up the entirety of the universe, and yet it is the essence of emptiness, of space. It is in all things and all of the elements. Ether and awareness, or our consciousness, are similar in that they are both ever-expanding through space. All that is transmitted through space is done through our sense of sound, or hearing. Sound vibrations are how we communicate. Voice and music are ancient and universal as a means of human connection. The vastness of the ether is equated to the vastness of love — both are limitless and inherent in ourselves and the world.

May you find spaciousness that allows your mind to wander. To imagine beyond the boundaries of what we know. To be so free and without limits. To wonder what is beyond this life!

Take a Minute

Experience the earth element with smell. Take a walk and notice the scent of everything around you. Like a dog, following its nose through the world, notice if certain memories pop up. Do seasons have different smells to you? Think of your favorite place to visit. What does it smell like?

2. Bask in the element of water with taste. Drink a glass of water. Do you prefer filtered water, carbonated water, or water with a squeeze of lemon in it? Can you taste the different flavors of bottled water? Have you ever noticed that even when you shower or swim, you’re tasting limited amounts of water on your lips?

3. Delight in the element of fire with sight. Notice how watching the flames is completely mesmerizing. Humans have been sitting around fires since the beginning of time. It’s THE reason we survived and evolved. Indulge in the simple joy of watching the embers with a single-minded focal point.

4. Feel the air element with your sense of touch. How sensitive are you to touch? Are you picky about fabric and how clothing feels against your skin? Do you like physical affection? Are you a hugger? Do you ask permission to touch before you reach out? How do you like to be touched? Consider how you want your touch to be received by another person.

5. Listen to the ether with sound. Meditation requires that we sit with everything that’s happening all around us. There are so many sounds from voices to beeps from our phones and cars driving past. Sit for five minutes and listen without judgment. Observe all the sounds around you.

Like water which can clearly mirror the sky and the trees only so long as its surface is undisturbed, the mind can only reflect the true image of the self when it is tranquil and wholly relaxed.

Indra Devi

Discover how in Hindu belief, the five elements correspond to each of the five human senses. Explore what memories are conjured by your sense of smell. Consider why sitting around a fire is so compelling. Being open to all of your senses and surroundings lets you have a fuller, richer life experience!