In my last blog, The Ancient Indian Philosophy of Aroma & Incense, Part I, I spoke about the beautiful tradition of healing plant smoke, Dhumapana, and the many used of incense for therapeutics. I also spoke to the foundations of Ayurvedic philosophy by introducing the Elemental system that lies at the core of its teachings. In the eyes of Ayurveda, and many other ancient systems, everything in life has its own unique combination of the 5 core building blocks: The Elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether (Space).
Each person is made up of a unique balance of these Elements (which we’ll delve into later in this article). When different factors like diet or environmental changes affect the human organism, this Elemental balance can get thrown off, causing disease. By learning to read and understand how the Elements in nature, in the human body, and in plants move and manifest, one can more carefully and precisely determine exactly which plant or plants will be of the greatest benefit to an individual, whether used internally, topically, or as essential oil or incense (dhumapana).
This is a careful type of match making where a person who has certain Elemental imbalances is precisely paired with a plant, oil, or incense that has a certain Elemental balance to help bring them back into harmony. The next piece to this system is learning to see how the Elements manifest in plants.
Seeing The Elements in Plants
As discussed previously in Part I of this blog, the Elements can be experienced on all sensory levels. The Elements manifested through plants can be smelled, tasted, touched, seen, and felt on an emotional and inner sensational level. In addition to the classifications I gave you on the types or groups of aroma (sweet, pungent, minty, citrusy, etc.) and their Elemental correspondences, we’ll now discuss a few other means to which you can discern a plant’s dominant Element(s).
When classifying a plant using the system of the Elements, it’s important to look at the entire picture. Looking at just one aspect, like the type of environment a plant grows in, can be revealing but won’t give you enough information to make a proper determination of its Elemental correspondence. You need to step back and look at all aspects of a plant: habitat, growth patterns, seasonal growth, parts used, tastes, smells, energetics, effects on human physiology and psychology, etc. With all of these pieces you can create a full portrait and make a more educated determination of its Elemental Correspondence.
Qualities and Energies of the Elements:
Earth: cold, dry, heavy, solid, static, dull, rough, cloudy
Water: cold, wet, heavy, static, dull, smooth, cloudy
Fire: hot, dry, light, mobile, sharp, rough, clear
Air: cold, dry, light, mobile, sharp, rough, smooth, clear
Space: cold, dry, liquid, mobile, sharp, smooth, clear
In terms of environment a plant’s natural habitat can certainly add to its full Elemental portrait. For example, plants that grow in deserts or hot and arid lands often (but not always) have a stronger Fire Element in them. Plants growing in marshes or at the edges of water often (but not always) express a stronger Water Element. Plants growing in dense forests or in valleys and canyons often carry dominant Earth Element qualities. Some bromeliads and other plants that grow high up in branches of other trees can sometimes express a stronger Air Element, and so on.
Plants that express a strong Earth Element tend to have thicker stalks and roots and are sturdy and strong. They often have large or expansive foliage. As we covered in part I, sweeter, heavier, earthy aromas are associated with this Element. Plant roots and below ground parts are most associated here. Plants with a strong Earth Element tend to create feelings of groundedness and down-bearing energies that promote assertiveness, contentment, stability in the mind and nervous system, and feelings of nurturing. A few aromatic Earth Element plants are Myrrh, Patchouli, and Spikenard.
Plants that express strong Water Element qualities are often very moist or contain a high water content. Moisture can often be detected when pressure is applied to a Water plant’s leaves. These plants are often curvy, smooth and soft, or seem to be flowing like Water. Floral, cooling, fresh aromas are most associated with the Water Element. These types of plants often affect the Waters or fluids of the body, release anxieties and stress, and help stagnant energies, emotions, or thought patters release or “wash away.” Some classic Water Element aromatics are Jasmine, Rose, and Ylang-Ylang.
Just think of a burning Fire for a moment. Imagine all of its qualities. Now think of what types of qualities could be found in Fire dominant plants. Fire expresses itself in plants through bright and brilliant flowers, oftentimes with red, orange, or yellow coloration. These plants usually have a certain radiance and a vibrant, healthy energy to them. Trees or shrubs with thorns or serrated edges can sometimes be a strong indication of the Fire Element. These plants give off pungent, spicy, warm, and sharp aromas. Plants with warming or stimulating effects on the body and mind are often of the Fire Element. Some great examples of this are Cinnamon, Clove, and Ginger.
The Air Element expresses itself in plants through spacious or reaching branches, tendrils, or leaves. These plants are often expansive with plenty of space between their parts. They’re often thinner, ascending in nature, and have a certain lightness or delicateness to them. Air Element plants have opening and clearing effects on the nasal passages, chest, respiratory tract and lungs. They often have camphorous, minty, piney, and fresh aromas. When their aromas are inhaled, Air Element plants literally create more space in the airways by clearing congestion. They can also strengthen breathing rhythms and refresh the senses and mind. These types of plants have a stronger affinity for the mind, promoting mental clarity, strengthening intellect, memory and alertness. Some classic Air Element plants are Cardamom, Eucalyptus, and Pine.
Ether is an Element quite different from the rest. It is invisible in its nature, acting as the space in which everything happens. It is primarily a spiritual Element—the Element of oneness, of universal intelligence—that creates the space for the rest of the Elements to exist. It’s also seen as a perfect balance of the other 4 Elements. All Elements are found within every plant in varying degrees, though there are a very small handful of plants that contain a dominant Ether Element. These are the plants that are thought of to be “master plants” or “teacher plants,” or plants used specifically for their strong spiritual nature. A great example of an Ether Element plant is Sandalwood.
The Doshas: Your Personal Constitution
Now that you have a bit more understanding of how the Elements can be found in nature and plants, how this information of actual use and benefit to you? Now comes the second half of the equation: understanding the Elements in people. The Doshas are the next Ayurvedic system in which the 5 Elements are combined into pairs to form three dynamic forces, 3 Elementary principles, 3 primary constitutions. The 3 doshas are seen as life forces, or biological humors. They are known as Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
Again, each person has a unique balance of all 5 Elements within them. At the same time, as the doshas are each a combination of Elements, each person has a unique balance of all 3 doshas, most commonly having one dominating or more pronounced dosha.
Vata: Ether & Air. People with dominant vata doshas are usually skinny and underdeveloped. They tend towards anxiety and fear and are easily stressed. They are usually creative, thinking types, who are active, alert, and restless. They will understand something right away, but are quick to forget it. When the energies of Vata become too strong, it can cause issues like nervous system disorders, digestive and intestinal issues such as gas and bloating, mental agitation and overthinking, ungroundedness and feelings of spaciness.
Pitta: Fire & Water. People with a dominant Pitta dosha are typically more athletic with medium builds. These people tend towards overheating, perspiration, and typically run hotter than other types. Pitta people tend towards the more fiery emotions such as frustration, anger, hate, and jealousy. When Pitta energies become overly abundant, we see issues of excess heat in areas like the digestive tract, and things like skin irritations, emotional outbursts, and fiery inter-personal confrontations.
Kapha: Water & Earth. People with a dominant Kapha dosha tend to be more well-developed in their physical structure, and tend to carry excess weight. They have slower metabolism and digestion, and tend to move slower than other types. Kapha people are usually fairly content, happy, and peaceful people. It takes more time for them to understand something, but it’s easily retained in their memory. When Kapha is in excess, it can cause mucous buildup in the respiratory tract and lower GI tract, and illnesses related to build up and stagnation. It can also create stubbornness, stagnancy, laziness, obsession, envy and greed.
When you learn to understand your own personal constitution, your unique doshic balance, you can learn which herbs, essential oils, or incense may aggravate your body/mind, and which support your natural doshic balance. You can also learn how to tell when certain Elements and doshas become out of balance through the signs and symptoms your body expresses. Once this is figured out, an herb or formula with a specific Elemental balance can then be sought out to help re-establish your natural Elemental harmony. For example, use certain Water plants to douse the flames of an overly abundant Pitta dosha.
There are countless online tests and Ayurvedic books to help you determine your unique doshic balance.
Aromatic Culture in India
Unlike in Western societies, In India, aromatics are not separate from daily life, but an intrinsic part of life. Natural perfumery, incense, topical use of aromatic plants, culinary spices, and spiritual applications of aroma are used by nearly everyone on a daily basis in one form or another. Each of these applications is used for a wide scope of purposes.
Aromatics in India bridge the medicinal with the spiritual with the simple enjoyment of scent. For instance, perfumery is used for simple enjoyment, and in a sacred manner by others, and used as a therapeutic medicine by others. The same goes for incense, fragrant oils, and topical pastes such as Chandan, or Sandalwood paste.
Unlike in the Western world, natural plant-based aromatics are used much more frequently than man-made fragrances and chemical scents. My favorite saying in Ayurveda is, “the nose is the doorway to the brain.” With this saying in mind, it’s incredibly important that we nourish and refresh our sense of smell with actual plants and plant-based products instead of bombarding our olfactory bulbs with an assault of chemically designed scent-mimicking products. What we breathe in passes directly into our brains, either promoting clarity, awareness, intellect, and memory, or damaging receptor cells, clouding the mind, and creating build-up of who knows what types of chemicals.
I hope these two articles have inspired you to journey deeper into the Elemental system of Ayurveda to bring a greater level of understanding and depth into your practice with aroma, whether you burn incense, love essential oils, use herbs in other ways, or incorporate multiple applications into your life or work.
If you missed Part 1 of this blog, you’ll definitely want to read it here to help deepen your understanding of these teachings.
Article by Evan Sylliaasen
Evan Sylliaasen is the founder of the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine and Higher Mind Incense. For the past decade his incense company has been a leader in sustainability and conscious sourcing of aromatic plants. As the head instructor of his online school, he teaches aromatherapists, incense lovers, herbalists, and spiritually-minded folks the traditional art of incense crafting, incense as medicine, and the art of wild-harvesting aromatic plants responsibly.
Evan lives with his family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains of Washington state. He channels his creative passions through writing, photography, wood working, craftsman building, and music. When he’s not working, he’s out in the garden, forest and fields, walking along rivers, beaches, or in the mountains breathing deeply.
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*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.