The Nervous System and the Air element

Perhaps the most elusive of the four elements, Fire, Water, Air and Earth, is the one that travels the fastest and whose lightness allows it to move easily through matter in many of its forms. It is the element that is mostly associated with the nervous system in the Ayurvedic medicine. Air makes the Breath of Life possible; apparently a baby takes its first breath within ten seconds of birth and air is released with the last breath at death.

It is invisible to our eyes unless we engage with it with our other senses, maybe noticing a refreshing breeze on the face as we are walking outside, cycling against the wind, or practicing breathing exercises. Sometimes it is just sitting calmly and quietly that one can feel and hear their breath most clearly, without any effort. In Ayurveda, the manifestation of the air element within the human constitution is called Vata dosha. Having access to clean, fresh air is recognised as beneficial not only as a general wellbeing booster, but also essential to the lungs and nervous system.

“Vatha is considered to be of prime importance with regard to the nervous system. The vatha dosha represents movement, and is identified with the prana vayu (one of the five types of vatha that resides in the head and governs reasoning, learning, creativity, reception of information, interpretation of and reaction to signals, consciousness). One of the prime indications of vatha imbalance for sensitive people is anxiety. Anxiety can arrest our creativity and attention significantly. Unresolved anxiety can convert into chronic debilitating stress. Vatha needs a balance between stability and movement to be effective.”

When in harmony with the air element, you may experience some of its refreshing and life giving qualities such as easy communication through speaking and singing, ability to move around easily, enjoying hearing and being receptive to sounds, inspiration and creativity. A balanced movement of the air in someone’s mental and emotional constitution supports easy socializing, collaboration with others, freedom to express oneself or share, and to consider different perspectives. Being inventive, inspired and enjoying the ability to learn are also associated with the movement of the air element through the mind and body. Other times, in the presence of unbalanced mental or physical activity, there may be an experience of feeling scattered or difficulty in focusing. There may be restlessness, forgetfulness, feeling lightheaded, ungrounded and volatile. It seems to be a matter of balance, after all.

It is interesting how since early last year the air element has come so much into the foreground of people’s awareness, as, with good reason, we began to be concerned about the quality of the air inhaled. Air is something that we all share when in close proximity and even from a distance. As it circulates everywhere unseen and unheard, we are bathed in air in every moment; so much in constant contact with it, as with the earth that we touch with every step we take. As for the plant world, think about all the plants and crops that depend on the wind force for pollination.

Air, somewhat like water, is breaking through boundaries and obstacles. And in its human manifestation, even boldly breaking social norms, like in the following scene from the ‘Gone with the Wind’ movie:

Paying attention to our relationship with the air element is perhaps one of the least practical things on our ‘to do’ list, yet, when for whatever reason, the air is not moving freely through body, it is likely that we would feel it at some level, physically, mentally or emotionally, and then we will know what is important. For example some of the symptoms associated with anxiety include shallow breath, reduced ability to breathe, choking feeling in the throat, shortness of breath, or rapid breathing and thinking.

So how does a person engage with the air element depending on their mental and emotional experience in the moment?

One way to become aware is to mindfully bring the attention to the quality of your breath and the movement of the mind when thoughts, emotions and sensations are present. It can be a huge step, and quite different than how we have our minds trained, which is normally to cling to the pleasant and push away the distressing experience. The different step is like going up one level from knowing that you are upset or angry, for example, to being open to knowing how you are breathing. It takes a momentary shift of awareness.

Feeling grateful for being able to take a deep breath when tension arises, sensing the release of air through the outbreath when feeling relief, or just needing to inhale more deeply at other times, this is how intimately we are all connected to air. How long can a person survive without air? I am not keen on finding out.

Click the following link to practice a meditation on the air element and to find out what air offers to humans and the planet, or how we can bring balance to it.

Moving freely between the Sky and the Earth, air is connecting one to the other, just like in a relationship. The image that comes to mind for this relationship is a messenger carrying messages between the Earth and the Sky. When somebody feels positively inspired, they may find ways of creating a happy medium between their human beliefs, ideas and values on one side, and their complex earthly human reality on the other side. You may agree or disagree with this, that in the way many of us have been trained to think and live, it seems that finding balance in living can be an ongoing challenging process.

Wondering about what possibilities there are out there in the arts field to move forward with the question concerning air and balance, I was glad to find the following clip from the same movie as above, featuring actress Vivien Leigh in her role as Scarlett O’Hara listening carefully to her inner messages. Can being on the verge of despair lead to sparks of inspiration or insights that feel like “a breath of fresh air”?

Wishing you easy breathing and earthly hope this winter!