Many great masters describe their enlightenment as the capacity to see with the eyes of a child—to see everything as if for the first time. According to the nondual Shaiva-Shakta Tantra tradition, adbhuta, which means “wonder,” is one of the nine rasas (“tastes” or “juices” of life). The rasas are said to encompass the full range of human emotion.
When you let yourself experience wonder, your mind opens and becomes vast like the sky. There’s nothing that puts me into a state of adbhuta more than looking up at the stars on a clear night. Many of us probably experience this, but why? For one thing, the stars are beautiful. And for another, everything in this manifest universe has its origin in the stars. All 92 elements of the periodic table of elements are formed in stars. When a star dies, it implodes, becomes extremely hot and pressurized, then it explodes into a supernova, where heavier elements are created. These then fly out into the universe and merge with other elements, forming planets, galaxies, and other stars. This is how our solar system was made, how we were made. When the conditions aligned just right for life on Earth, we emerged as one-cell organisms and eventually walked out of the water to evolve into who we are today. We have a “wonder-ful” history, don’t we?
According to yoga philosophy, we are made of the five great elements—earth, water, fire, air, and sky—referred to as the pancha mahabhutas. Masterful living is said to be achieved when these elements are balanced within. When out of balance, you may feel “contracted” (too much earth), “under water” and emotionally stressed out (too much water), unmotivated (not enough fire), anxious and fearful (too much air), or ungrounded (too much sky).
Tantra yoga teaches that you are the universe condensed into time and space. You are the crystallization of the Divine’s desire to know itself. Your life has great meaning. To know the five elements is to know yourself.
The Four Essentials of Ashaya Yoga are intended to provide a blueprint of alignment for every posture and action. They correspond energetically and in their qualities to the five great elements in this way:
1. Open — Sky
2. Engage — Earth
3. Align — Water and Fire
4. Expand — Air
Have you tried applying the five elements to your asana practice? No? Well, then you might want to try doing so in the practice of cobra pose. Each element has a corresponding physical action in the body that can support your optimal alignment.
• The physical actions of the First Essential are lengthening your side ribs, softening your skin, and releasing the back of your heart between your shoulder blades.
• The physical actions of the Second Essential are hugging muscles to the bones, squeezing the midline, and drawing from periphery to core.
• The physical actions of the Third Essential involve making two contrasting actions complementary—the goal is to find the place in the middle where those two contrasting energies are balanced. This helps you to find your optimal alignment.
• The physical actions of the Fourth Essential are expanding away from the midline, radiating out in all directions from the core of the body, and moving energy out from core to periphery—down toward the foundation of the pose first, then from the core up toward the sky.
Now that I’ve explained the concept of essentials, you’ll get to explore them firsthand in the practice below. They are interwoven into every aspect of bhujangasana.
BHUJANGASANA: COBRA POSE
1. Come onto all fours. (Be sure to pad your knees if you are on a hard surface.) Bring your knees under your hips. Place your hands under your shoulders with your wrist creases parallel to the front edge of your mat, your fingers evenly spread like the rays of the sun, and the center of your wrists in line with your outer shoulders.
2. Take a moment and feel your body. Deepen your breath and melt your heart. (In this position, melt the heart means softening the muscles between your shoulder blades—the tightest area of our back is typically the area behind the heart, the muscles surrounding the mid-thoracic vertebrae.) Balance your weight evenly between all four foundations: your two hands and knees.
3. On an inhale, lift your sitting bones upward, arch your back, and look up.
4. On an exhale, draw your tailbone down, draw your belly toward your spine, and look toward your heart.
5. Repeat several more times. Coordinate your breath with your movements. Move smoothly and evenly. Enjoy the flow.
Open Sky: Be in Wonder
1. From hands and knees, come to lie on your belly with your hands under your shoulders, forehead on the floor. Stretch your right foot back as far as it will go. Then stretch your left foot back. Find your breath and relax, soften your skin (meaning, relax your muscles, allowing your skin to drape over the muscles). Release the subtle nature of stress that’s just under the skin as you expand your awareness of your skin, the largest organ in your body. Allow yourself to reflect on the mystery of life.
2. Lengthen your side ribs from your hips to your armpits. Imagine you could inflate your prana body (your energy body, which is one of the five sheaths, or koshas) and breathe into the back of your heart and waistline. Remember the whole universe lives inside you as you. With wonder, open to the vastness of your being.
Engage Earth: Be Safe, Secure, and Steady
1. Inhale and contract your leg muscles gently by squeezing them toward your bones. Wrap your muscles around the bones 360 degrees like a wonderful and full hug that you might receive from a loved one. When you hug your muscles, you create support and stability around the joints. This sends a signal of safety to the brain, and the brain responds by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our ability to relax and be at ease. Paradoxically, in Ashaya Yoga we engage in order to relax.
2. Draw your shins and heels closer together so that your toes point straight back behind you and don’t sickle. Bringing your heels closer together so your feet point straight back tones the shins, which in turn supports the lower back and can relieve pressure on the spinal discs in backbends such as cobra.
3. Squeeze the midline (the energetic line between your legs and up through your spine).
4. Pull energetically from your toenails all the way up through your calves, thighs, and into your pelvic core (periphery to core). Every pose, like the earth itself, has a gravitational center that pulls energy from the periphery into the core. In cobra pose, that nucleus is the pelvis.
5. Begin to claw your hands into the earth. Press all of your finger pads and the roots of your fingers (where the fingers join the hand) down and drag your hands backward isometrically (without moving them). Keep your side ribs long even as you claw your hands backward isometrically.
Align Water and Fire: Be Accommodating and Dedicated
1. Keep your legs hugged into the midline and roll your thighs inward (lifting your inner thighs up toward the sky). When your thighs roll in and away from the floor, your lower back arches. Notice how the front of your groins hollow, creating an arching “wave” in your lower back as the femur heads move back into the hip sockets. This is the water element, which according to the yoga tradition is located in the pelvis (the area correlated with the svadhisthana chakra).
2. Keeping your thighs back, scoop your tailbone down (making these two contrasting actions complementary). A scoop is like a “tuck” but not as forceful. It’s a gentle toning of the gluteal muscles, which elongates the curve in the lower back. Notice how your lower belly draws in toward your spine as you scoop. This is the fire element, characterized as unwavering dedication, which is needed to follow your heart as a yogi and walk through the fires of transformation. This action engages your core and adds additional support in the form of strength and heat.
The refinement of these two actions can create an optimal position for the pelvis and release pressure in the lower back and sacroiliac joints.
Expand: Stretch Your Body, Reach for Something Higher
1. While maintaining all of the previous actions, extend out from the core of your pelvis through your feet. Then from the pelvic core reach up through your torso. Keeping your side ribs long even as you claw your hands backward isometrically, inhale and lift your head, shoulders, and chest off the floor. As you extend forward, lengthen through your spine. It’s more important to go for length than height because length creates space between the vertebrae in the spine. This is the air element, which expands and extends. Like the fragrance from an essential oil diffuser, the air element seeks equilibrium and spreads itself evenly throughout space.
2. Take the heads of your arm bones back (that’s the top of your shoulders) and hug your shoulder blades onto your back ribs. Curl the bottom tips of your scapulae into the back of your heart and lift the front of your chest up more. Turn your lower arms inward and your upper arms outward. Then, holding all of that, expand slightly from the center of your heart outward in all directions. Do this without losing the integration of your shoulder blades—keep hugging them onto the back ribs.
3. Continue to lengthen through your spine all the way through your neck and head. Take the sides of your throat back, which feels like your head is drawn backward but moving from the side of your neck. Then take your palate back. Imagine a round disc the size of a quarter on the roof of your mouth. Imagine you could move the quarter backward, or imagine the roof of your mouth is a drawer that can open behind you. When your palate goes back, your head goes back, and you create a cervical curve that is beneficial to your spinal discs, allowing space between the discs and releasing pressure on the nerves. Keeping your palate back, lift your occiput up. The occiput is the bony ridge on the back of your skull. When you lift up from that place, it lengthens the curve in the neck, which creates more space for the discs in the neck. Extend your neck and head upward following the natural trajectory of your spine.
4. On an exhale, release the pose and lower down to the floor.
Take a moment now and reflect on your experience of cobra. Notice if you feel more wonder-ful. Observe any areas in your body that feel more open or aligned. Also notice if any discomfort you may have felt prior to the practice is diminished or completely gone.
When you embody and balance the five elements in a pose, you feel spacious like the sky, tension in your physical body can begin to release (earth), blocked emotions can begin to flow (water), your energy brightens (fire), and your capacity to expand and reach beyond previously held limits increases (air).
According to Shaiva-Shakta Tantra philosophy, our true nature is bliss and joy. When we align with the five elements, we return to our hearts, where we recognize and feel this joy. We get a glimpse into the deepest mystery of life—that the whole universe is inside us.