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Nature’s Healing Power: The Five Elements

The forces of nature are constantly supplying us with nourishment.

—Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Our ancestors spent most of their time in nature, but now two-thirds of the world’s population lives in cities. Because of the conveniences of modern society, most of us spend a majority of our day indoors—in our homes, at work, and in our cars. Losing touch with the natural world has spawned a new type of malady called nature deficit disorder. Exposure to nature helps optimize our health in numerous ways. Research studies show that time spent in green space reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves heart rate variability (HRV), and reduces the incidence of strokes, hypertension, asthma, and coronary heart disease. This is proving so important that physicians are writing “green” prescriptions.

Access to nature is especially needed in urban areas. Studies show that increased tree canopy and street tree density in cities correlate with greater relaxation, better health, and altruistic behavior, whereas a low percentage of tree canopy is associated with greater stress and increased crime rates. Policymakers are becoming more motivated to create accessible green spaces in all income areas so that communities everywhere can receive the health-promoting benefits of nature. Fortunately, most of us can find a bit of nature right outside our door, providing the silence and awe that allow us to slow down and engage our senses with the natural world.

When we are disconnected from nature, our vitality declines.

Both yoga science and ayurveda offer a path to healing by recognizing and restoring our connection with the five elements of the natural world—earth, water, fire, air, and space. These wisdom traditions say that nature is made up of these elements and that we are not separate from nature. These five elements manifest in us in combinations unique to each of us that strongly influence our individual constitution. When we are disconnected from nature, our vitality declines. By connecting ourselves with the five elements of nature, we nourish these elements in us, bringing balance, healing, and a sense of well-being—provided that we work to keep our natural environment clean and healthy. By engaging with any or all of these elements, healing and rejuvenation becomes an enjoyable and invigorating journey.

Scientific research has been confirming the ancient wisdom of yoga and ayurveda. Let’s look at each of the elements, their inherent qualities, and what modern science has to say about how connecting with the five elements contributes to our health and wellbeing.

Earth: In ayurveda, the earth element is associated with the qualities of stability, calmness, solidity, strength, and nurturance. Connecting with the earth supports these qualities in us. It helps us feel more stable, grounded, and calm. How often do you walk with your feet in the dirt—or in sand or on grass? Our ancestors walked with bare feet and slept on the ground. Now we spend all our time walking on carpets and asphalt. Modern science confirms the earth’s calming and stabilizing effect on us. Research shows that walking barefoot out-of-doors, known as grounding or earthing, improves our sleep, decreases inflammation, and reduces pain by reconnecting us with the earth’s electrons. This research has found that this connection helps the body to “equilibrate with the electrical potential of the earth, thereby stabilizing the electrical environment of all organs, tissues, and cells.”

Water: The water element is cooling, soothing, and flowing. Its moisture is life sustaining. We are drawn to waterfalls, creeks, rivers, lakes, seashores, and even a decorative water fountain. Why? Being near water in nature, called blue space, is not just pleasing to the eyes and ears. Research, while still in its early stages, suggests that being near water has a positive effect on mental health, stress levels, and sense of wellbeing, while also promoting physical activity.

It’s good to get a regular dose of “vitamin sea.”

A particular gift of waterfalls and seashores is that they generate negative ions through a phenomenon called spray electrification, or the Lenard effect, which occurs when water droplets bump into each other. Negative ions have multiple health benefits. Studies have shown that negative air ionization is associated with lower depression scores. Other research has revealed faster reaction times, less anxiety, and improved antimicrobial activity. This is why it’s good to get a regular dose of “vitamin sea.” For those of us who don’t live near a seashore or waterfall, plants release varying amounts of negative ions under natural growth conditions, depending on the size and shape of the leaves and the intensity of light. This is one reason that aloe vera plants have become a household companion.

Even natural bodies of water as tiny as dewdrops can enhance our wellbeing: according to yoga science, walking through dew-covered grass in the morning is a great source of prana (life force) for the mind and body.

Fire: Fire has the qualities of heat, light, and transformative power. The sun is a ball of fire; its heat, light, and energy are the powerhouse behind the growth and development of all life on earth. The benefits of sunlight are many, beginning with helping us balance our circadian rhythms, which are geared to the natural light and dark cycles of the day. Balancing these cycles helps us improve our mood and sleep, as well as overcome jet lag.

The sun is also an important source of vitamin D3, which is associated with healthy bones. In addition, it has been found that people who suffer from persistent pain have a vitamin D deficiency caused by a lack of sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) energy creates vitamin D3 in the skin, which makes spending time in the sun in warm weather a good way to get this vitamin for individuals without a history of skin cancer. The amount of vitamin D3 we derive from the sun depends in part on the type of skin we have (the lighter our skin, the less sun exposure we need) and in part on the intensity of the sun, which varies with the season and with our geographical location. Our ability to synthesize vitamin D3 from the sun decreases with age.

We can get sufficient amounts of vitamin D3 from the sun year round in the southern states, and in summer in the northern states. Studies suggest that for those of us with light skin, it takes 10–20 minutes of exposing our face and arms, with no sunscreen, to non-burning midday sun in summer to derive 3,000 IU of vitamin D3, whereas for those of us with dark skin, it may take 30–45 minutes. In the colder months in northern areas (above the 37th parallel north), it is difficult to generate significant amounts of vitamin D from sunlight, so taking vitamin D supplements has been recommended. Using a sunblock with an SPF of 15 will block 99 percent of our skin’s ability to produce vitamin D3.

Air: In ayurveda, air has the qualities of movement and lightness. It circulates, carrying a wide variety of airborne particles and substances, including negative ions from water spray, fragrances, pollens, and, of course, oxygen. Forests are the lungs of the planet—exchanging the carbon dioxide we breathe out for the oxygen that we breathe in. A less known fact is that forests also release into the air natural aromatherapy in the form of antimicrobial volatile compounds called phytoncides (found in tree essential oils) such as α-pinene and limonene. Phytoncides in forests have been found to boost our immune function, including antitumor and antioxidant effects. Evergreen conifers like pine, cedar, and spruce are the largest producers of phytoncides.

Space: The essence of stress is feeling constrained with limited options. Space is the very antithesis of limitations; it is by definition open and limitless. It holds and contains all the other elements and is the place where all five elements come together. We can feel the solid foundation of soil beneath our feet, the sensation of the sun’s warmth on our back, and the gentle breezes tousling our hair. Natural green space inspires us and allows us time to unplug from technology and nourish our senses. The very sights and sounds of nature keep our awareness in the present moment and away from worries about the future or memories of the past. We can find ourselves, and each other, in an environment that offers us space to come into balance.

It is our nature to be in nature. When stress and strain tug at us, we need to come home to the elements that created us and our world. Walk barefoot in the garden, take a stroll in the park, sit by a fountain, or gaze at the evening sky—whatever quiets your mind and opens your heart. Nature is our eternal companion.

About the Teacher

Theresa Oswald, MD

Theresa Oswald, MD, the founder and president of Knowledge as Medicine (KnowledgeAsMedicine.com), is a holistic physician with 25 years of experience who specializes in an integrative approach to pain and rehabilitation. After receiving her medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin, she completed her residency training at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at Northwestern University. She is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, as well as in integrative medicine. Her career as a physiatrist has been spent honing ways to optimize her patients’ functioning in all areas of health: body, mind, and spirit. Her experience includes the delivery of medicine in the most modern hospital settings as well as in the most simple, rural settings in developing countries.

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