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Five Elements in TCM

Updated: Mar 22

by Jenny Trinh

Five-Element-Theory of TCM

With spring and summer slowly rising outside and inside of us, we want to shed light on the elements through the perspective of ancient Chinese philosophy. The practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has become more and more established even though its perception on the human body is so different from the Western medicine. As we work so closely with the body and mind in Yoga it's a natural effect that we infuse the practice with parts of this ancient wisdom. So in this blogpost we are going to dive into the fundamental philosophy behind TCM and the Five-Element-Theory.

If you’re new to what lies behind it, open your mind and buckle up because it’s going to be a ride into new spheres and ways of seeing the world.

The ancient Chinese worldview

Through observation and discovery humankind has always been trying to demystify existence in the universe, to understand how reality is organized. In Chinese philosophy it happens through the notions of Dao, Qi, Yin-Yang and the Five Phases/Five Elements. In the ancient Chinese worldview, human beings were seen as a microcosm of the universe and all primeval forces that reign the universal macrocosm apply for human and all living beings too. We are an ecosystem and live in the same ecosystem simultaneously.

Dao 道

“There was something unmoving, unchanging, all-pervading, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. I do not know its name. I call it Dao.”

Lao Tzu

Dao translates into “way” and is not so easy to describe. How do you put something into words that is so limitless? The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu tries explaining it as the origin and way of the universe - infinite, yet complete and it creates and directs the endless universe. Or in other famous words:

“It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Qi 气

One of the forces of the Dao is the concept of Qi - the energetic force and potential that streams through lakes, seas, trees and inner human landscapes. Dao is the ocean and Qi is an individual current. Dao is shorthand for the whole cosmic system. Qi is an energetic characteristic of the system.

Yin-Yang 陰陽 / 阴阳

Something you might have heard about also is the theory of Yin and Yang. Out of the oneness of the Tao emerges Yin-Yang, polarities that are in constant correlation. It can describe static conditions but also rhythmic and time-related processes. Yang is in the sun, day, warm, male, dynamic, summer. Yin will be in the moon, night, cold, female, calm, winter.

There is no categorical separation. There is Yin in the Yang and out of Yang can emerge Yin - And vice versa. There are cyclic and sequential processes showing that both exist in an ever changing reality. From a more narrow perspective there is Yang in Summer, but from a bigger point of view there will also be Yin during every night of it.

Okay, we have the Dao, Qi and we now understand the principles of Yin-Yang. If you are familiar with notions of the Yogic philosophy then you might have noticed some parallels e.g. Dao - Ishwara, Qi - Prana, Yin & Yang - Ida & Pingala. Both philosophies also look at elements but Pancha Bhuta and the elements of Chinese philosophy have very different aspects, so let’s jump into the juice of the elements Wu Xing.

Five-Element-Theory 五行學 / 五行学

The Five-Element-Theory is a more detailed way to describe specific sequential processes involving five elements in addition to Yin-Yang. These elements are not simply physical elements, but rather they represent five different aspects of energy that can be found in the macrocosm of nature and in the microcosm of the human body. The elements are wood, fire, metall, earth and water

“Within each thing is contained all things. In the seed is the tree; in the tree is the forest.”

Vasant Lad & David Frawley

We can gain a better understanding of the abstraction of the elements and Yin-Yang by looking at the course of the day. The early morning, when the Yang unfolds with the rising sun, we experience a time of uplifting energy, awakening and growth. This phase is being described as “yang minor” or more figurative: transformational phase of wood. Midday, when the Yang forces have unfolded completely, is said to be the “yang major”, also the transformational phase of fire, containing an energy of full activity. In the course of the rest of the day, the sun slowly sets and the time of Yin arrives again. It’s called “yin minor” and the phase of metall where we feel a quality of calmness. By night we have reached the “yin major”, also the phase of water. During this time there is complete stillness with almost no activity present.

“If Yin-Yang is like shadow and sun [...], Five-Phase is like the rainbow spectrum.”

Harriett Beinfield & Efreme Korngold

The Qi runs through 12 defined energetic pathways (meridians), from the middle line to the ends of all limbs and back. . Each meridian is connected to an organ pair that is associated with the qualities of its element and can operate on these organs (but also locally, depending on where it runs). Since everything in life requires Yin and Yang for balance, the organ meridians form pairs. Yin organs are solid and their main function is to store our energies and fluids, while Yang organs are hollow and their main function is to transform and transmit energies and fluids. The lung meridian (Yin), for example, begins on the chest, in the area of the collarbone, and runs downward through the chest and upper arm, along the inside of the arm, to the thumb. The large intestine meridian (Yang), the partner of the lungs, begins on the index finger and runs along the outside of the arm to the shoulder and then to the facial region. Each meridian passes through several acupuncture points, which are specific locations where the energy flow can be accessed and influenced by an acupuncturist to move stagnant or blocked energy (Qi).

Each element is associated with a specific organ pair, a season, archetype color, sound and emotion.

Wood: During the phase of spring, it’s all about rebirth and new beginnings. Movement surges to the surface, like a seed bursting open after a long winter. This element represents growth, expansion, and upward movement.

  • organs: liver and gallbladder

  • season: spring

  • archetype: the pioneer, a fearless and adventurous spirit

  • color: green

  • sound: shouting

  • emotion: anger

  • disbalance: irritability, anger, and headaches

Fire: During this time all plants and living beings come to their fullest and highest potential. There is a radiant and outgoing energy in the air. This element represents warmth, passion, and energy.

  • organs: heart, small intestine, pericardium and triple burner***

  • season: summer

  • archetype: the wizard, a charismatic and empathetic spirit

  • color: red

  • sound: laughing

  • emotion: joy

  • disbalance: anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations, digestive issues (e.g. acid reflux)

*** triple burner is a concept unique to TCM and has no explicit physical form as other organs but rather refers to specific functions concerning the distribution of fluids and digestion of foods.

Earth: In TCM there is a fifth season, late summer, when we harvest the ripe produce that has been grown throughout spring and summer. As the earth is the center and mother of all elements, earth represents stability, nourishment, and grounding.

  • organs: spleen and stomach

  • season: late summer

  • archetype: the peacemaker, a harmonious and caring spirit

  • color: yellow

  • sound: singing

  • emotion: worry

  • disbalance: worry, overthinking, fatigue, digestive issues (e.g. bloating), weak immune system

Metal: After late summer with the arrival of autumn we find ourselves in a time of withering and decay as fallen blossoms and leaves are now nurturing the soil for next year’s growth. This element represents strength, purity, and clarity.

  • organs: lung and large intestine

  • season: autumn

  • archetype: the alchemist, a disciplined and reasoned spirit

  • color: white

  • sound: weeping

  • emotion: grief

  • disbalance: grief, sadness, low immunity, respiratory issues (e.g. asthma, bronchitis and allergies)

Water: During winter and that period of hibernation the essence of all living beings is its most primitive state. Filling and saving up the reservoirs of water, the reservoirs of energy is of utmost importance. This element represents flow, adaptability, and the ability to overcome obstacles.

  • organs: kidney and bladder

  • season: winter

  • archetype: the philosopher, an introspective and self-sufficient spirit

  • color: black

  • sound: groaning

  • emotion: fear

  • disbalance: fear, anxiety, fatigue, urinary problems

Interplay of the Elements

According to the Five Element Theory, the elements are not independent of one another, but they are interconnected and influence each other. There are two types of interactions between the elements: the supporting cycle (Sheng cycle) and the controlling cycle (Ke cycle). Another cycle concept exists and is called the cosmological sequence (Yi Lun).

The supporting cycle (also: mother-child-cycle) describes the way in which each element creates and nurtures the next one in a continuous cycle. The cycle is as follows:

  • Wood supports Fire

  • Fire supports Earth

  • Earth supports Metal

  • Metal supports Water

  • Water supports Wood

The controlling cycle (also: grandmother-grandchild-cycle) describes the way in which each element controls or suppresses the next one in order to maintain balance. The cycle is as follows:

  • Wood controls Earth

  • Earth controls Water

  • Water controls Fire

  • Fire controls Metal

  • Metal controls Wood

While the supporting and controlling cycle belong together and are of the same perspective, the third cosmological sequence Yi Lun is simply a different way of looking at how the elements are related. It puts the element of earth in the middle of all elements as earth is the origin of all elements and nurtures all others. That means, to strengthen the other elements one has to nurture the mother earth first.

It’s all about balance

In TCM, diagnosis and treatment are based on the principle of balance and harmony between Yin-Yang and the Five Elements and the constant and free flow of Qi. When there is an imbalance or disharmony between the elements or Qi becomes stagnant or blocked, it can lead to physical and emotional symptoms. As we live in a time of so many stimulants and influences, pressures and emotions, it’s almost inherent that elements fall out of natural balance and we experience a stasis or drainage of Qi.

TCM practitioners use various techniques to diagnose imbalances in the Five Elements, such as examining the tongue and pulse, and asking questions about the patient's lifestyle, diet, and emotional state. Treatment may involve acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, and lifestyle modifications to restore balance and harmony between the elements.

We can use this ancient wisdom and infuse it into our practice on the mat as well as into our daily lifes to find balance of the elements.

Balance on the mat:

  • Stimulate meridians in Vinyasa or Yin Yoga practice to release Qi blockages or stagnations

    • Wood: side bends, twists, Virabhadrasana 1 and 2, Trikonasana, Anjaneyasana, Skandasana, Prasarita Padottanasana (wide legged forward fold)

    • Fire: heart openers like Matyasana (fish pose) or Ustrasana (camel)

    • Earth: standing Asanas for grounding like Tadasana and core strengthening Asanas like Navasana

    • Metal: Asanas focussing on chest and shoulders like Gomukhasana (cow face pose), Pranayama

    • Water: Asanas focussing on inner and backside of the thigh and hip e.g. Pigeon as well as neck stretches, relaxing techniques e.g. Yoga Nidra

  • A steady and calm breath throughout the Asana practice to keep the Qi fluent and flowing

  • Chandra Bhedana to connect to the moon (Yin) and Surya Bhedana to connect to the sun (Yang)

  • Meditation to connect to Qi and qualities of the elements that reside within you

  • Balance your physical and emotional layers by bringing your elements into balance (supporting/controlling cycle)

  • Outdoor Yoga to connect to the elements

Balance off the mat:

  • Wood element: Spend time in nature, trying out Tai Chi or Qi Gong, and eat fresh vegetables

  • Fire element: Spend time under the sun (using SPF of course) and do things that bring you joy like making music or ecstatic dancing

  • Earth element: Cultivate a feeling of groundedness

  • Metal element: Find some time to contemplate and introspect e.g. journalling

  • Water element: Drink enough water and engage in nourishing activities that help you relax (selfcare baby!)

  • Try out Self-Acupressure

  • Practice awareness into the states of your being and observe the presence of Yin-Yang and the elements

In TCM's Five-Element-Theory, we see not only a reflection of the dynamic balance of nature, but also a profound and beautiful understanding of the interconnectedness between the human body, mind, and spirit - Same as it is done in the Yogic way of living. We can heal our hearts and minds by healing the body through the organ meridians and the elements - and vice versa.

By understanding the harmony and interaction of the five elements, we gain a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves, and can work towards achieving peace and balance in all aspects of our lives.

Further readings:

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