An Ayurvedic View of the Emotions
“What is here is elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere.” The Mahabharata
Of all the wisdom and learning I gained during my years of studying and teaching Ayurveda, the most lasting and influential component was its underlying philosophical statement: each of us is made up of the Five Great Elements (Pancha Mahabhutas): Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether.
The same elements that comprise the Universe. The same elements that build our earth.
Ayurveda is yoga’s sister science — the self-healing side of the self-realization work, the yin to the yang.
Ayurveda is the philosophy I fall back on anytime I think something about me is wrong, or weird, or that no one else could identify with it. How could any part of me—any feeling, symptom, thought, idea—be “wrong” if it came from the same place that created the stars and the planets?
No other philosophy can quite express the nature of emotions—and from that place teach us how to address them and balance them—quite like Ayurveda.
In Ayurvedic philosophy, everything that we can see, and not see, in the Universe is comprised of some combination of the Five Great Elements. This includes the stars, the trees, the oceans. It also includes our bodies, our thoughts, and, of course, our emotions.
Balance for the universe; balance for the emotions
Emotions are not well-understood or accepted for most of us—at least, not in their wholeness. But it was when I studied Ayurveda that I truly began to see that emotions are nothing more than manifestations of the Five Great Elements of the universe.
The goal of Ayurveda for personal health and well-being is to bring about balance. Balance is achieved when the elements work in harmony with each other — i.e., not too much or too little of any one element.
Just like the earth finds balance through an earthquake, a hurricane, a thunderstorm, we, too, find balance through expressing our emotions in healthy ways.
Below, I will introduce the emotions through an understanding that everything in the Universe is comprised of the following:
Earth: Manifests the idea of solidity and stability. Resistance.
Water: Manifests the idea of liquidity and flowing action.
Fire: The idea of light, perception, clarity, vision.
Air: The subtle movement of ideas, velocity and change.
Ether: The idea of connection and interchange between all material mediums, communication, and self-expression.
As your read through these descriptions of the emotions from an elemental perspective, try to see emotions not as good or bad, acceptable or not, weak or strong—but rather as expressions of the elements within us.
Let’s look at the elemental make-up of some of our primary emotions.
- Sadness is an emotion that comes from water and earth. It is primarily a cool emotion that can eventually stagnate if not moved/stirred/cleansed. In its healthy and balanced form, sadness allows for flow and movement from one state to another. It carries us. It holds us. It nurtures us.Whether our “guest” names itself sadness, grief, disappointment, loneliness, depression, or some other synonym or relative of sadness, we are working with an expression of the water/earth elements.Sadness and grieving are essential ways through which nature and human beings cleanse. Water is how we are “baptized” in religious traditions. Sadness is a sacred emotion, and must be treated with reverence.
- Fear is an emotion created primarily by air. As such, it is not “grounded.” It is “caught up” in the winds and movements of the mind. Like a kite set free, it is at the mercy of its environment. Whereas sadness is a cool emotion, fear is actually cold. Whereas sadness has a heaviness to it, fear is light. Hence, the “shivers up the spine” sensations.But air is also the home of ideas and imagination. If we have the possibility to imagine all the horrible outcomes of a situation, we also have the ability to imagine all the possible benefits and positive outcomes. It is the same mind, simply guided in a different direction.Synonyms of fear include anxiety, nervousness, worry, paranoia, panic, etc. They are likely all derived from a mind hungry to envision, create, and/or manifest new ideas.
- Confusion connects mostly to the element of ether — a feeling of being “lost in the clouds.” Unlike fear, which has a hardness associated with it (i.e., thoughts are quite concrete, feel very real, often repeated), confusion has not coalesced into a single thought.However, ether is an element of possibility. Understood correctly, confusion can be a messenger about sensing possibilities and eventually concretizing them into ideas.
- Anger is an emotion almost purely derived from fire.As a fire emotion, anger is hot, mobile, and unpredictable in its movement. Yet, it can also help light the way forward. Fire has the power to clear both the stagnancy that can happen with water and earth, as well as the cloudiness that can happen with air and ether.When anger shows up at your doorstep, it could be for many reasons. Learn to heed its message. But it should never be ignored, sent away, or shoved aside.
I wrote more about Anger here:
- Envy — Moving from my favorite emotion of anger, now for my least favorite.I admit I try to push aside this emotion whenever it arises. And yet, like anger, it has fire as part of its makeup — as in, it is laser-focused on another individual or another circumstance.But it also has a mud (water/earth) component that keeps us believing we are stuck where we are. So, rather than being inspired by what we witness, which is the possibility, we are kept at a distance by no one except ourselves.
When envy comes knocking, it’s important to start asking questions about why we think we are not deserving enough or not capable enough to attain what we want.
Envy says it’s time to re-prioritize our life. Name what we want and move toward it daily in such a way that we can feel happy for others and their successes rather than envious.
- Disgust — Another very uncomfortable emotion, and one I tend not to let in too often! But it carries an important message as well — one that is generally pointing us to our own shadow side.What disgusts us “out there” is something that likely would disgust us within ourselves. If honored as a messenger, it can point us to our blind spots, our prejudices, and all the ways in which we hold ourselves apart from others.Disgust is primarily an earth emotion with a spark of fire. But it is not earth that is connected to the flow of the rivers or supporting the growth of the trees. It is a barren island, set apart.
- Boredom — Boredom arose often during the COVID-19 quarantines. I personally don’t believe boredom is a true emotion. When we say we are “bored,” we are probably saying that we are uncomfortable with what’s coming up and wish to have a distraction. Therefore, the next time you find yourself saying you are bored, I invite you to sit a bit longer in that space. Perhaps some sadness, or anger, or curiosity, is just waiting to burst through that opening. And maybe it’s time to let it happen.I wrote more about Boredom here:
- Compassion — Compassion is mostly water, yet with enough fire for it to be warm and gentle. There is also a component of ether as this emotion allows us to connect to each another even when there is “earth” (distance) that separates us.
- Curiosity — I don’t know if curiosity classifies as an emotion per se, but it is important to add here. Curiosity is an energy that is perfectly balanced between all the elements. As such, it is the most effective antidote for balancing other emotions.Whatever emotion you have, whatever expression of the elements it’s pointing to, balance can be found through engaging our curiosity.Curiosity is grounded, like earth, in reality, and in the now.
It has a natural flow, like water.
There is passion behind it, like fire.
And it’s connected to the world of ideas (air) and possibility (ether).
Emotions are what make us human. They do not come intending to traumatize us. They are not an enemy to be defeated. They are our body’s best tool for exploring meaning, making connections, and ultimately seeking balance and wholeness. The more we can view our emotions through this Ayurvedic lens, the less encumbered we will be in our relationship with them.
Enjoy your exploration of your human, cosmic emotions.
Award-Winning Author & Wholeness Advocate
Interview on Illumination
Author: Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness — A Memoir of New Beginnings, winner of the 2020 IPA for Body, Mind and Spirit
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