One aspect that often overlaps between East and West is that of the use of elements, whether they be the five elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine (earth, metal, wood, fire and water), the four elements of Ayurvedic theory (earth, water, air and ether), the elements of the ancient alchemist, which add sulphur, mercury and sometimes salt to the elements used by the Greek, and East Indian traditions (ether, air, earth, fire, water). Elements used in tribal or indigenous cultures will usually include the four basic elements of earth, water, fire and air, though some may add metal, wood or spirit to the mix. Some traditions also add space to their elemental mix.
The elements of each culture will usually relate to some part of the body and to health and well-being. Depending on the culture, air may relate to breath, water to blood, fire to inner spirit or life force, earth to flesh. In good health, a person will have a balance of all the elements. Poor health is usually a sign of imbalance, or may indicate a blockage of the flow from one element to the next.
Elements are seen as flowing from one into the other, creating cycles of balance and imbalance, of nourishment and control. The senses – touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste – arise from and can be defined by the qualities of the elements. When the alchemists added mercury, they also added the relationship of volatility to the elements. With sulphur they added flammability or combustion, and with salt it was solidity.
The Elements Defined
While each culture will define an element in its own unique way, there are some common aspects that arise out of the nature of the actual element.
- Air – Air will usually correspond to the breath, whether it is the air we breathe in and sustains life, or the action of breathing as it relates to indicating that life exists. Air is also associated with the intellect, imagination and with taking in new ideas. It connects us to our ancestors as we breathe in the air they breathed out in times past. When you think of air, think inspiration.
- Earth – Earth can be seen in the body as a whole, in the muscles and flesh, in the substantive parts of the body and in how the body relates to the world around it – how it is grounded and how it takes in and becomes of part of the planet. The energy of earth is seen as nourishing, embracing and fertile. It is associated with patience and compassion.
- Wood – The element of wood is associated with plants, with growth, with the evolution of life. There is an organization, efficiency and order to wood energy. You can see it in the way cellular life is arranged. An out of balance wood energy, though, may show up in being stuck and too rigid.
- Water – Water relates to blood and other fluids of the body. It sustains life. It is associated with emotions, most often sadness or fear. Water can move around obstacles and it is also connected to creativity, whether in the arts or as a newly forming child floating in amniotic fluid.
- Fire – Fire is seen as the element that provides the spark of life, the willfulness and spunk of spirit. It provides inspiration and spontaneity. Laughter, passion, impatience and impulsivity are all attribute related to the element of fire.
- Space – Space is sometimes referred to as the emptiness or void around all beings and things, or as the place where nothing (and everything) seems to exist. In some cultures it is referred to as ether. It provides support and orientation, giving us a sense of where we are in the world.
The Elements in Relation to Health
Most of what is written about health and the balance of element is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) texts. The use of elements in TCM and their correlation to the body goes back thousands of years.
The elements, whether they are seen as being associated with physical or psychological representations, should be in balance and harmony in order to promote and sustain good health. When out of balance they create discord, illness and disease. When in balance they keep each other in check and flow throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout a lifetime.
For example, fire energy in balance gets us up in the morning; water puts us to sleep at night. Out of balance fire gives us high blood pressure, angry outbursts and hysterical laughter. Out of balance water may bring fatigue during the day or a general lack of motivation.
Massage and the Balance of Elements
In massage therapy, awareness of the energies of the elements can be useful in many different ways, whether it is through the way your office looks or the way you approach massage itself.
Understanding the balance of elements can be used in the way you decorate your office or treatment room. By incorporating concepts of feng shui you can help bring peacefulness into the space that clients will find calming as well as welcoming.
Understanding the elements is helpful during intake. Is the client speaking rapidly or very slowly? Is his or her complexion very red or pale and washed out? How are they walking, standing, and sitting? All these and more can be related to the balance of elements.
During the massage elements come into play as you get a sense of the client’s muscular structure. Are the muscles strong and firm, or soft and fleshy? Does the skin redden quickly with pressure? Is the skin warm or cool to the touch?
By learning how the elements relate to the body and the personality the massage can be customized to help in rebalancing. A slow, Swedish massage with long, fluid strokes can help to calm fire energy, while a massage using shorter more rapid strokes can help to lessen the fatigue of too much water energy.
Any type of massage can be enhanced by incorporating the theories of how the elements influence moods and physical health. Modifying and adapting the techniques you use to accommodate each client’s needs shows them that you understand and makes each massage unique.