The Earth Element & Summer/Fall Transition Season in Yin Yoga

One of the things I love most about Yin Yoga is its connection to the elements of nature. This comes from the special influence of Chinese Medicine upon Yin Yoga, and it helps practitioners bring nature, the environment, natural forces, and seasonal cycles into our practice.

In Chinese Medicine, energy is deliberately stimulated along the meridian lines that run throughout the body. In Yin Yoga, the theory is that we stretch the body along these same meridian lines, which produces something like a self-acupressure effect. Each of the main organ meridian pairs is connected with one of the 5 Elements: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. In turn, each of the 5 Elements relates to one of the 5 Seasons…yes, 5 seasons!

In this system, the Earth Element has its own season outside of the four we traditionally recognize in Western culture. The giantbuddhaLate Summer/Early Fall transition is the time of Earth Element, which coincides with the peak of the harvest. You can recognize attributes of Earth Element in your environment at any time, but we bring them into greater focus during this short season of the year. These qualities include hardness and solidity; Earth Element gives structure and support. In traditional Buddhist meditations on the Elements, one would contemplate the hardness of the bones, the structure of the skeleton, the mineral quality of the teeth, etc. to experience the Earth aspects of the human body – the same Earth qualities we observe in mountains, rocks, and geological structures that shape the planet itself.

In nature, the Earth Season is a time of abundance. For us, it is a signal to slow down and take in the fruits of our labors – the results of our efforts in Spring and Summer. If you’ve read earlier posts about Spring/Wood Element and Summer/Fire Element, you know that these times of year are actively involved with initiating change and bringing plans to fruition (analogous to planting seeds and growing crops). Grounded in the strong foundation of that work, we now enjoy greater equanimity and begin to sense more self-acceptance, integration, gratitude, and contentment as we arrive at the harvest.

cattail3, croppedThe organ meridians involved with Earth Season are the Spleen (Yin) and Stomach (Yang) Meridian pair, which are related to digestion and both the physical and emotional sense of satisfaction and “enoughness.” The Spleen is also part of the immune system, and along with the Stomach, it affects how we accept or reject food and germs, as well as how we process information and emotional energy from others.

HalfKneeToChest_onBlockIn your Yin Yoga and meditation practice, you can highlight Earth Element in a variety of ways. The solidity and stability of props like blocks, bolsters, and blankets can be seen as an expression of Earth Element – the weight of sandbags can be especially grounding. In your Yin (and Yang) sessions, you can choose poses that affect the Spleen/Stomach Meridians (quadriceps, inner leg, abdomen), such as Cat Tail Pose shown above or Half Knee to Chest on a Block shown on the right, with a sandbag on the extended thigh (if appropriate for you). Grounding through the feet and legs in your standing poses, or massaging the feet can also be great ways to heighten the connection to the Earth they stand on.

I particularly like Standing Meditation and Walking Meditation for emphasizing Earth Element. As you stand (as in Mountain Pose), or move in slow walk, you can sense into your bony structure to feel Earth Element manifested in your own form. You can also soak in the calming, grounding effects of your feet touching the Earth. Check this earlier post on Earth Element for further instructions on Walking Meditation. Enjoy!

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The Fire Element & Summer Season in Yin Yoga

I love to celebrate the changing of each season. Marking the shifts in the weather, the daylight, and the foods that are in season are all wonderful ways to reconnect with this amazing planet we inhabit.

But, I have to admit…I dread summer every year.

I am not a fan of hot temperatures (or sweating), so this time of year, I have to make a little extra effort to appreciate the cycles of nature (rather than just curse the Weather Channel forecast). When it’s hot outside, my patience is thinner, my energy is lower, and it’s hard to stay grounded in the present moment when I’m longing for the days of sweatshirts and chai tea lattes. After the 4th of July, I’m seriously ready to skip ahead to Halloween. Please.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things over the years about working with the Elements and Seasons from a Yin Yoga perspective, so I’ll offer some of my favorite practices for handling the sizzling energy of summer.

fire

The Season of Fire Element

First, a little background: Yin Yoga draws upon the energetic principles outlined in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The poses we practice are thought to stimulate the meridian lines that run through the body, making the practice a form of self-acupressure. The meridian lines we take into consideration in Yin Yoga are each connected with an organ in the body, and the organ meridians are divided into Yin and Yang categories. Each Yin organ meridian is paired with a Yang organ meridian that has similar qualities and effects. In addition, each meridian pair is associated with one of the Five Elements and a season of the year. In TCM, summertime is connected with the Heart/Small Intestine meridian pair and the Fire Element.

Each season has its own unique personality, bringing with it certain moods or characteristics. In the winter, rest and hibernation is instinctive, and in the spring, change is in the air, as new habits and ideas start to blossom. The summer season represents the part of the cycle where everything ripens. The heat of fire can purify or burn away old habits, “cooking” our new intentions until the transformation reaches maturity.

Fire energizes, but it also consumes, so it’s crucial to keep this energy in balance – it brings out one’s fiery intellect and passionate emotions. But, on the plus side, Fire Element also highlights our capacity for compassion, joy, and connection. The expansive energy of Fire encourages us to embrace living life to its fullest.

How do we work with these themes in a yoga practice?

According to Chinese Medicine, the Heart and Small Intestine Meridians are related to both circulation and digestion, as well as any inflammation in the body or excess heat (such as hot flashes). Anxiety, nervousness, and overstimulation can also reflect imbalance in these meridians, and in turn their symptoms include disruptions to digestion and heart rate.

Described in broad strokes, the Heart Meridian starts around the chest/armpit and runs down the inner arm, through the wrist and to the pinky finger. IMG_5600The Small Intestine Meridian – perhaps surprisingly – is also located in the upper body, running through the neck, upper back/shoulders, and down the back of the arm.

IMG_5513So, in a Yin Yoga practice, these energy lines would be primarily affected by backbends, forward bends, twists, and wrist/forearm stretches. You can choose poses that open the chest, upper back, neck, and shoulders, and the inner and outer arm from the pinky to the shoulder. Try a restful backbend on a bolster, or add wrist and shoulder stretches to Shoelace Pose (see pictures).

In general, summer can be a good time to turn down the heat and intensity of your asana practice and spend extra time with Yin Yoga and meditation, or simply opening to the emotional aspects of yoga.

Practicing Metta Meditation can be a beautiful way to cultivate the positive attributes of Fire Element – love and compassion – and to soothe your own heart. Metta (or Maitri in Sanskrit), means “loving-kindness” or goodwill, and is a traditional Buddhist meditation practice. This form of meditation is usually taught with a set of four phrases that are repeated silently – “May I/you be safe,” “May I/you be happy,” “May I/you be healthy,” “May I/you live with ease.” You are free to create your own variations of these well-wishes that resonate with you.

If you’re new to Metta Meditation, try this guided practice with Sharon Salzberg. She will guide you through the nuances of sending Metta to yourself and to others.

My good wish for you this season: indulge in some lazy summer days to rest and stay balanced. Enjoy being with friends, live life to the fullest…and stay cool!

P.S. Check out the other articles in this Elements/Seasons series! Spring & Wood Element and Late Summer & Earth Element.

The Wood Element & Spring Season in Yin Yoga

blossoms_sierramadreLong before humans peered through microscopes to discover that the world is constructed out of particles like atoms, molecules, and DNA, ancient peoples recognized the same principle – that every object is made up of many smaller parts coming together to form a whole. Taoism, Buddhism, and Ayurveda each describe how the Elements (materials and forces found in nature, including Air, Water, Fire, Earth, etc.) compose the human body and every object on our planet…as well as the planet itself!

The Elements are an interesting framework for viewing our yoga practice on many levels, as they relate to the physical health of the body and energetic system, emotional and psychological balance, philosophical principals about the nature of Self, and our connection to our environment.

In Chinese Medicine, the Elements are also associated with specific seasons of the year, and can help us practice yoga in a way that’s in tune with the rhythms of nature. The patterns of the seasons are also reflected in our own body’s energetic rhythms. When we practice with the elements, we remember that we humans are not separate from this Earth.

The Winter is a time of internal focus, when we are like seeds buried underground preparing to sprout. Once Spring arrives, the Wood Element represents that sprout emerging. The Wood Element energizes us to initiate transformation. This is a time of starting over, a rebirth of sorts. This fresh start can come with growing pains and frustrations, as it takes time for our new projects and ideas to take root.

labyrinth_arlingtonparkIn the Spring, we can benefit from cultivating “beginners mind,” and being flexible as we plan and organize the new visions that arise.

If you practice Yin Yoga, include poses that target the Liver/Gallbladder Meridians, which are associated with the Wood Element, and thought to help balance the tendency toward impatience as we initiate changes in Spring. These poses would be your side bends, hip openers, and stretches for the inner leg, including Shoelace, Square Pose, Swan Pose, Banana Pose, and Dragonfly (among others).

In your practice in general, look for ways to channel your active thinking mind – it may be in overdrive with all this new Spring energy! Concentration techniques in meditation (like counting the breaths) can help, as can breathing exercises that lengthen the exhales. The soothing qualities of the exhale can help calm the nervous system. Here’s an audio I recorded about a year ago entitled “Extending the Exhales” – give it a try!

Enjoy the fresh starts that Spring brings. Take steps forward and initiate transformation, but keep things in perspective and practice patience. Spend time outside in nature, and be sure to give your creativity some outlets.

Celebrating Earth Element

5element2According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are not four, but five, seasons in the year. Connected with the Five Elements, these five seasons are Fall (Metal Element), Winter (Water Element), Spring (Wood Element), Summer (Fire Element), and Late Summer/Early Fall (Earth Element).

I like to refer to this Late Summer/Early Fall season as Harvest Season, since it is all about the abundance of the Earth. Some people call it “Indian Summer.” This is the peak of the growing season for most places (in our hemisphere), and a great time to reconnect with the energies of Earth Element – contentment, abundance, steadiness.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the inspirations that the Yin Yoga practice draws upon, so it’s nice to celebrate the seasons and elements through a yoga practice. In this case, that might be a Yin sequence focused on the Stomach/Spleen Meridians, since they are most connected to the Harvest Season and Earth Element.

Another great way to partake of Earth Element energy is to practice Walking Meditation. Give this a try sometime soon, ideally letting your bare feet touch the Earth directly, as you walk in a shady, grassy spot.

feetingrassWalking meditation is a little different than just taking a walk, mainly because we are not trying to get anywhere! We are just calming the mind by tuning into the body’s slow, rhythmic movements in simple walking. Pace up and down a short pathway (maybe 20-30 feet long), turning around and coming back each time you get to the end of your path. Move slowly. Feel each part of the motion, sensitively present to the feet lifting off the ground and touching it once again. Enjoy the sun, the breeze, the sounds of nature. But, just let those sensory experiences come to you naturally, while allowing your attention to rest in the feeling of slowly stepping along your path.

Over time, as you continue to practice, you might start to notice you are “harvesting” some positive qualities like contentment. The practice of walking without trying to get anywhere is a wonderful incubator for contentment. Eventually, it dawns on us that contentment arises out of the small, ordinary things – what you might call the neutral experiences – not from the high points, thrilling as they may be. We work so hard for those high points, and we tend to assume that contentment is the reward for some form of success: I’ll be content once I get this, accomplish that, or arrive there.

But, fortunately, contentment is not the medal given to finishers at the end of the race. It’s the wind blowing through our hair as we walk, jog, or run along that road. It’s the support of the Earth beneath our feet.