By Kate Howard-Keyes for her Yoga Life with Kate Blog.
Summer and the Element of Fire
Sunday June 21st marks summer solstice and the day when the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight in the year. This makes it the day with the longest daylight and shortest night. It also marks the beginning of summer, a season that many of us look forward to with the longer, warmer days giving us an opportunity to do more things that we enjoy. During this season, I feel a lightness in the air and a desire to be outside meeting with friends, family and enjoying nature. I also very much enjoy being outside with a good book, soaking in the sun’s rays. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”) the summer season is governed by the Fire element, making it an easy one to remember as we associate the heat from the sun during this time of the year.
I try to bring concepts from each of the elements in TCM into my classes throughout the seasons. For my students and for my readers, I thought it would be useful to expand on what the five elements are and what you can expect from the Fire element on and off the mat as we begin the summer season.
The Five Elements in TCM
In TCM we have five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) that are used to help us understand how the environment around and in us influences the health of our body and mind. We each have the five elements in us which are constantly fluctuating in balance (either being in balance or out of balance). These five elements are commonly used to diagnose and treat ailments in TCM by understanding which area of each element is out of balance. Our bodies are continuously evolving, meaning the balance of each of the five elements is also in a continuous process of natural change and flux. In my opinion the five elements help us understand where an imbalance may be present and how through yoga, diet and lifestyle changes we can bring our mind and body into more harmony.
Each element has various qualities about it and is paired with certain organs in the body. Each of the organs is classified as being yin or yang in nature and has energy lines (also known as meridians) that run throughout the body (usually starting and ending at our feet and hands). The energy that runs through the meridians is known as Qi (pronounced “Chi”) and can be also viewed as our vital life force. When there is a disharmony in the body it usually means that our Qi is either lacking or deficient, or is stagnant or stuck (it can also be collapsed or rebellious (i.e. not moving in the right direction)).
From a yoga practice perspective, we use postures to apply pressure or to stretch our muscles or tissues around these energy lines in an attempt to move stagnant energy or to increase circulation through the meridians but with no needles involved!
In addition to the meridians, each of the five elements includes sub-categories such as body tissue, season, emotion, taste and psychology that tell us more about when an element is in or out of balance.
Qualities of the Fire Element
Summer is a time when plants and creatures flourish. A time when we feel the expansive and radiant energy from the sun beaming down on earth for longer. In TCM, the fire element is most strongest during the summer season and it is also the height of yang. Yang representing light and warmth.
Fire is important for our joy and our ability to be passionate and optimistic in life. It gives meaning to our relationships with others and allows us to express ourselves fully.
The fire element, unlike the other elements, has four main organs associated with it: the heart (yin), small intestines (yang), pericardium (yin) and triple heater (yang). The heart is the most important of the four organs, however, all four have their meridian lines running up and down our arms. In yoga, we place more emphasis on the yin organs as they are seen as having greater influence on our mind and body, which is also why we call them the “precious” ones. When we think about these organs, it’s important to remember that in TCM they play slightly different roles to the ones in Western medicine (just something to bear in mind).
As the principal organ for the Fire element, the Heart stores our spirit (or our Shen) and is responsible for housing our thoughts in our mind. Effectively, the Heart is the centre of our emotional and mental activity.
When the Heart meridian is in balance we are optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, and we have a strong ability to connect our actions to our heart. We have compassion for those around us and are comfortable with being vulnerable, allowing our authentic self to show up in the world. We are creative and able to be expressive, creating depth in our relationships.
When the Heart meridian is out of balance we may lack depth in our relationships and interactions with others. We may be impatient or uninspired and have a strong reluctance to letting down our guard. The physical issues we tend to see with a Heart meridian imbalance include short-term memory problems, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, insomnia and anxiety.
To bring the Heart meridian in balance from a yoga perspective, we focus on the upper body and in particular our arms, armpits and shoulders, as this is where the energy lines run. Some great poses to help bring this into balance include:
Puppy dog pose
Wrist work (which you can do even while sitting at your desk).
On my next blog post in early July, I will be sharing some of the poses that you can do at home to balance your fire element. Look forward to seeing you on the mat over the summer as we practice moving the energy of the fire element in our bodies.