Water is the fourth element that manifests and can be seen as that which allowed life as we know it to begin. We are told that as the earth cooled and gases condensed, water was formed and life began. This primordial ocean contained the right combination of nutrients to allow the first single-celled organisms which then eventually evolved into the many life forms our Earth now supports.
I can’t help but see the parallels in this with how an individual human life begins: two gametes unite (elements coming together) in a contained environment (like a protected inner earth) and the developing zygote is wrapped in its own protective inner ocean, the amniotic fluid, cushioned and kept safe, warm and nourished.
Water and the human system
This comparison introduces us to one of the most important features of water as an element in the human system: protection. Whether it is the nourishing fluid that engulfs the developing foetus or the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the central nervous system, the element of water both protects and nourish some of the most delicate and essential tissues of the human system.
Water-based fluids in the digestive and respiratory tracts perform similar functions. Mucous membranes protect the smooth muscle of the digestive tract from the acidic digestive enzymes. An imbalance in this relationship where the mucous is too thin can result in gastritis, duodenitis and eventually ulcers. In addition, these same fluids ensure the smooth transit of material through the digestive tract from mouth to anus. In the respiratory system, the mucous membranes lining the respiratory tract keep the airways clean by continually moving this fluid away from the lungs carrying any unwanted particles with them to be disposed of in the digestive tract. A little like a stream carrying debris downstream and away into the ocean (the ocean in this case being the stomach where such debris is digested and thus rendered safe).
Essential to all life
The very beautiful chant Mantrapuṣpam celebrates these qualities of water as the powerful primordial force offering the bounty of offspring, flowers and cattle. In other words, the essentials of a good life along with providing a good home in the heart for purusa. Although we often do not recognise it in our busy, modern, technological world, water is as essential to life now as it ever was. Try to imagine, if you can, what would happen if it were to stop – if there were no more rain, the rivers dried up and oceans became deserts. All life would cease to be, water is that essential!
How can we care for this powerful and essential element within the human system? In the commentary to Chapter 1.58 of the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā it states, ‘The yogin should fill two parts of his stomach with food and the third with water, leaving the fourth free for the passage of air.’
What this interesting statement illustrates is the necessary balance for the elements to combine healthily in the system: food representing earth with water and air, and fire being the digestive enzymes that break down the food.
Water and Space
Finally, space is that in which all this exists and occurs. Remember, no space – no anything. In terms of water, we need the right amount: too little and the mix will be dry and digestive transit will be inhibited, too wet and the digestive enzymes may be diluted, again impairing the digestive process. This reminds me once more of the wonderful lesson held in The Bhagavad Gītā, 6.16-17 which advocates a balance in all things, eating, drinking, activity and rest. The same idea is represented in Ayurveda which teaches us that illness comes from imbalance (the presence of too much, too little or simply the wrong thing). Thus with water we can have too much, too little or perhaps other liquids which are not helpful and might bring about disease.
Harmony and symbiosis
Most of us in the West have never known what it means to want for water – we turn on the tap and out it gushes, purified and plentiful. We then use this purified, drinking water to flush away waste and clean our vehicles! Perhaps through our practice of yoga, we can come to a more appreciative relationship to water, of its essential role in supporting us and all life on earth, an understanding of how our individual actions can either conserve this precious resource or waste it.
Chanting mantras such as the aforementioned Mantrapuṣpam and Laghunyāsaḥ, with appropriate gestures, can remind us of the fundamental link between ourselves and everything else in creation, that everything is part of us and we are part of everything. The same five elements comprise all of creation. All is prakrti and so if we heal our planet, we heal ourselves and, if we heal ourselves the planet will heal. Harmony and symbiosis are the ways to a healthy, happy future!