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About the Six Elements

Element theory is at the foundation of every traditional medicine system. This includes systems all over the world including the Greek which has heavily shaped our current culture around medicine. And really, the elements are part of every day life. Where modern science uses elements like sodium and helium to describe specific building blocks of the universe, the old ways use elements like earth, water, fire... to describe principles found in the universe. We still use them in our daily framework, but we don't always notice. How many times have you thought of someone as a fireball or salt of the earth? These are references to element theory and possibly this is you noticing something about the person's elemental constitution.

Let's look at one of the elements a little more in depth. Water element isn't just about literal water (two hydrogens and an oxygen). Water element can be described through the experience of fluidity and cohesion. There are a thousand other ways to describe this element in its many forms, but this is the basic experience. This can be experienced through someone's personality: someone who can go with the flow. Or through the weather: cold & wet. If you notice, water is cold, until fire (often literally fire) heats it up. Or through visiting a lake which, being a body of water, gives rise to countless forms of life. We can also visit water element through drinking a cup of literal water, and so on. Any time we notice something fluid or sticky, water element is involved. Even if the material is dry.

Elements aren't magical, mystical things. They are one way people all over the world have categorized what they notice in the world. Each element has its own experience. The following are included in Thai element theory:

  • Earth is all things solid. It provides support. And some resistance like pushing off the solid floor to jump. The floor both supports us and resists our push so we can jump. If the floor was watery, um, like maybe a waterbed??? you can imagine the result.

  • Water we discussed above.

  • Fire brings heat and transformation- paper is no longer paper after it has been burned, but it is paper if you fold it or throw it or even cut it. The fire transforms it into something else.

  • Wind is all movement- from the wind moving branches of trees, to the current in a river to the waving of your hands to the circulation of blood to the thoughts in your head.

  • Space is literally space. Outer and inner and everywhere. Space between things, space to move, space to put something...

The sixth one is more subtle and hard to describe. It is consciousness. Not like unconscious vs. conscious movement or sleeping vs. awake. It's more like a basic consciousness, more subtle than those examples. A traditional doctor won't be treating the consciousness, especially not one using physical/manual therapies. But they still acknowledge that none of us would be here, interacting, recognizing each other or even ourselves, without the element of consciousness. I won't go into more detail here because to understand this element, one must make a deep dive down the rabbit hole of Buddhist theory, meditation practice and element study.

Clear as mud? (That's water and earth elements mixed together, by the way).

Because the area we know as Thailand has been heavily influenced by a long history of Buddhism, the traditional culture uses the foundational theory of Six Elements which was taught over 2,000 years ago by the Buddha himself. He taught that there were Six Elements found in nature, which I described above: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Space and Consciousness. So this is the basic lens through which someone brought up in the old ways, and especially the old ways of medicine, might experience daily life.

In choosing the business name "Six Elements Bodywork," I'm not saying I'll have any effect on that subtle consciousness (although several people have gone unconscious by falling asleep on occasion!). I am paying homage to the system where my main training originated.

Wait, what about Metal, Wood, Air, Vata, Pitta...?

Every culture has had medicine and elemental theory. They might differ in detail but those two things are constant. Metal and Wood are from Chinese theory, which I believe uses Five Elements. A few systems might use air, but not Thai or other systems deriving from Buddhist theory. Vata and Pitta... well, that's a whole other conversation, but in the context most people think, it's from Ayurveda. (When people think of "doshas" that word does not actually mean someone's constitution. It means "offense" so in the context of medicine, it refers to the imbalance. It's often what we notice most strongly, however, so maybe this is how we got to thinking this was our solid constitution.) Anyway, there is no one way to look at the world or to look at medicine. It's good to see things in this way so we don't get too dogmatic about any one view. Each system has its strengths and weaknesses. We don't have to pick one that is The Best or The Right One. This way we can accept them all as good tools, which all deserve to be remembered in their own context in their own right so as not to dilute and misinterpret them.


And that, though a long read on a website, is the very short, very abridged story of the Six Elements.


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