Skip links

What are the Five Elements?

Since we have opened our eyes to gaze upon this world, humans have desired to understand the subtle truths in their environment. The ancient Chinese created one system that many Yin Yogi’s are familiar with; the five elements also known as the five-phase theory or more traditionally the Wu-Xing. It was originally conceived by Tzu-Szu around 450 BCE (492-431 BC), but later elaborated and expanded by Mengzi around 300BCE. The Five Phases were first developed as its own theory but over time combined with the theory of Yin and Yang to further portray Dao in its process of change. 

The whole Wu Xing system cannot be completely understood until we have learned every piece, and there are aspects of each piece that can’t be totally understood until we’ve learned the whole system.

To understand the five phases let’s think about observing a painting of a natural vista. The whole painting represents the universe in its entirety or Dao. When gazing upon this painting we can notice qualities of the painting that define duality, separation or polar opposites of interrelated phenomena within it, like lighter areas compared to darker areas or land and sky or land and lake or alive tree or dead tree. The space between them that creates individuality and separateness is Yin and Yang. Then there are the interacting separate parts that are both contributing towards the creation of other parts but competing for space within the painting; these are the five phases, labelled as Fire, Earth, Metal, Wood and Water.

Evolutive Phases

With this understanding let’s take a look at the phrase Wu-Xing which is commonly understood as 5 elements but perhaps translated more correctly by William Pokert as the five “evolutive phases”. This description animates the 5 static manifestations of life into a dynamic process that continually transforms into the next.  Let’s go back to our nature vista which of course is actually the dynamic movements of Dao, like the Earth which is mined to collect Metal. Metal then attracts the condensation of Water upon dusk. This Water will nourish the plants to grow and create Wood. The Wood will then decay and become Earth which will gift us more Metal and the cycle continues. In this way, the five evolutive phases are the qualitative standard that allows us to characterise the functional dynamics of the whole.

What we can see from the previous example then is the whole or Dao is considered a closed energetic system.  In other words, everything in this system is dependent on and relates to everything else in the system. Let’s take another example of a closed energetic system and how the parts break down.  We know that Tao is nothing or no-thing, no duality, no change, no time, no space. From this one point which is void of all description and location, came space which gave us something as we could now orientate and describe and so, therefore, designate the different parts like light and dark or as its known Yin Yang. The Five Phases are merely the harmonising, yet competing, different parts of the whole like the colours of the rainbow. None of those colours is Dao but can describe the dynamic movement of the parts of Dao. 

This idea was inspired by observing the underlying forces which govern the cycles of nature, this Chinese philosophy also asserts that these same forces also organise our bodies. Each and every part of nature like the plants, animals and even humans collectively depict nature in its organisation of the whole through the process of harmony and simultaneous conflict. Like the seasons, there are the forces that expand, contract and sustain us. Which is very similar to the Hindu cosmological notion of the universe; Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. 

The most common way of seeing how these energies play out for each of the elements is their correlation to the energies of the season. Again the use the term season is not static rather there are parts of summer that feel more like spring initially and ultimately will be parts that feel like autumn.  Each day of summer will feel different from the next as it’s an evolutive phase. 

Each of the five phases of seasons has its own energetic nature and predetermined interaction with the other season. Winter is a sustained contraction of the dormant seed like potential. Spring arrives with an enthusiastic expansion as the seedling breaks free of the husk. Summer represents the sustained expansion of the seedling into a giant tree. Autumn comes as the tree’s momentum falters and begins contracting as it sheds its seeds and leaves. Those seeds lay dormant in a contracted state during winter to await the beginning of the cycle again. There’s a constant change from one to the next, yet each contributes to supporting the annual cycle as a whole. 

There was one season I didn’t mention which is what the Chinese call Late Summer or Harvest. The energy of harvest is one of consolidation of efforts and nourishing to create a foundation for the next stage of life. Like the pause between the breaths. It’s a moment to pause before moving into the next expression. Late Summer can be better thought of as Late Season, and is, in fact, the last 18 days of each season. Late season is the still point or the balance between the shift from Yang to Yin as in Summer to Autumn.  A time of consolidation to build the energy to inspire the transformation into each of the next season or phase. 

The Five become One

All things in nature including the elements transform and give birth to the next. This is reflected in our human personal, social and political activities. Together we are individually so different but together we make the whole of existence. 

Within the body, there are transformative phases and energies that mimic the phases of the natural world. An example is the tissues and organs whose physical nature emulate the five evolutive phases or elements. The flow of our own life also mimics that of nature: gestation (winter/water), birth (spring/wood), growth (summer/fire), ripening or maturing (late summer/earth), degenerating (autumn/metal) and dying (winter/water).

The five evolutive phases are generally depicted by a five-pointed star or pentagram shape placed inside a circle. Each point of the pentagram is a phase or element. The diagram describes the functional energetic relationships between the elements, like the interrelationships between the organs, the interrelationships between the emotions and the interrelationships between the organs and the emotion. What we begin to see is the relationships between the organs and the seasons or between the seasons and the emotions create a vast list of possible interrelationships. 

The five-pointed symbol in a circle’s relationships are called the Sheng-Ker cycles and are described by the lines of the circle and the pentagram. The circle that surrounds the pentagram also links up to the elements and this is called the Sheng or nourishing cycle or mother-child relationship.  It depicts each element’s ability to nourish and strengthens the next one on the circle. Therefore fire increases earth, like when a tree decays or is burnt it becomes new earth. Earth then nourishes metal, like mining of the vast resources of metal from the earth. Metal generates water, like water condensing on metal when left outside overnight. Water enhances wood, like water which nourishes the trees to grow. The wood strengthens fire, like the stoking of the fire by adding more wood.  

The pentagram on the inside of the circle describes the Ker or controlling cycle or grandparent-grandchild cycle. We can see that fire controls metal, like metal being reshaped by fire. Metal controls wood, like the falling of a tree with an axe. Wood controls earth, by creating abundant root systems and so reducing available nutrients. Earth controls water, like a lake being filled in by a landslide. Lastly, Water controls fire, as water extinguishes fire. 

But energy can flow in the opposite direction. When it flows in the opposite direction of the nourishing or Sheng cycle. This is when the child pushes energy back at the mother this is called one element overacting on another. As an example, water generates wood when the tree’s roots suck up all the water stopping the flow of water. The other wood around then withers and dies creating erosion until the soil can no longer support plant life. An organ that overacts on its own nourishing element will cause its own demise. This occurs if the overacting element is in excess or if the promoting element is in deficiency. 

It also flows in the opposite direction of the controlling or Ker cycle; we call this the insulting cycle. Grandchild pushes the energy back towards the grandparent. This can be understood in nature as you can see Metal smouldering Fire, Fire evaporating Water,  Water washing away Earth, Earth being too dense for Wood to grow from, Wood being too strong for metal to cut through and so shattering it.  

Each of these imbalances depicts a specific dis-ease pattern and become more obvious when we learn more about the organ systems and how they interact. We begin to notice the subtle energies of our bodies and how they act to create a state of balance or ease within us. We notice the shifting ‘seasons’ of our being and how by making subtle changes to our mind, our diet and our lifestyle we can create harmony between the different parts of the body’s ecosystem. When all parts are harmonised and balancing each other we begin to experience a dis-ease free state. This ultimate expression of nature in harmony or nature expressing Dao within our own being is realised. In this way, we will begin to find our balance within our personal life, family life, work-life, our community and ultimately our being.

How about a podcast version?

Tune in to Truth’s Living Yin podcast to learn from experts in their fields discussing Yin Yoga, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Philosophy and meditation.

Scan the code