The Four Elements as Archetypes in Fitness

“There are four common elements, and each has at its center another deeper element [the archetype] which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the world. They were in the beginning evolved and molded out of chaos [First Matter] by the hand of the Creator; and it is their contrary action which keeps up the harmony and equilibrium of the mundane machinery of the universe; it is they, which through the virtue of celestial influences, produce all things above and beneath the earth.” - wrote Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636)

 

 


Archetype is a term that was created by the Psychologist Carl Jung to refer to instinctual drives of the body and psyche. They are also prototypes from which copies are made.  Common archetypes such as the warrior, mother, father, king, queen, shaman, hero, trickster, hunter and gatherer are all self-emerging from the natural order, and thus archetypal.  Though in the same vain Earth, Air, Fire and Water are also archetypes in nature (perhaps the oldest).  The concept of archetypes can be seen in all aspects of life and they also emerge in movement/fitness/health.  People all over the world have used the elements in martial arts, dance, theater, yoga and shamanic traditions to tap into these natural forces and harness their power. 

Paul "Fire Power" Gray of the Art of Functional Movement System

Paul "Fire Power" Gray of the Art of Functional Movement System


In today’s world of unconventional, tactical, functional and athletic training, the concept of the elements is not very common. Aside from a few daring and pioneering souls in this arena, the concept of organizing your training according to these natural powerhouses is all but lost in modern training culture. In my own journey, to both use the latest and best of what human movement has to offer and fuse it with the older and ancient perspectives, this elemental approach has been pivotal. Not only does it allow you to use training as a way to connect to the world around you,  it also helps to diversify your kinesthetic IQ with an innate form of “cross training”.  A huge inspiration for me in this vain has been Paul Gray’s and Pawel Widuto’s Art of Functional Movement system. Their approach has given me a ton of perspective, though I have taken the concept in my own direction. Their fantastic view on this can be seen below: 

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Here is a small example of the elements applied to martial art-

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Here they are applied to yoga and there is a pretty cool self-assessment test with it to figure out which element you are:  

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Here they are applied to personality:  

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When it comes to the elements and their relationship to our bodies, we really have to look at them as our building blocks, as we are quite literally made out of them. The body is just one big sack of fluid, flesh and bone (earth & water) that is catalyzed to life by Fire (electricity) and Air (oxygen). Oxidation (burning) in the body occurs through oxygen metabolism as Air fans the flame.  If we are moving fast and hard, our metabolism increases and so does oxidation; we are burning are at a quicker rate. If we slow down and move smoothly our body quiets down and burning slows.  If we do not quicken this “body of water and earth” from time to time with fire and air, we get slow, stagnant and stuck. Even if you lift a lot but only do it slowly with nothing else, you will probably experience this stuckness.


Primal Recovery™ is an elemental system of movement and health meant to “fuse” the various elements together on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. There is an innate education which can occur by simply connecting. To become an all-around spiritual athlete and to discover the cycles and elements inside of us are major goals of this work. The system is also influenced by the process of alchemy, whereas the goal is a fusion of opposites or a balance of the elements.  Here we unite the masculine and feminine elements inside of us. Moving between all four is called the “rotation of the elements” in alchemy  The polarity between the elements and their pull towards their opposites is what causes the motion from one to the other to occur. At a practical level this is how work and recovery feed into one another.

 
Everyone’s who trains knows how good you can feel after a solid and challenging movement session.  Intense physical challenge can purify and renew, burning away stored tension and stress. The opposite is also true, excessive intensity can burn us out and make us crash, as fire is radical and must be balanced and controlled by the other elements. That is why there is the need for consistent work on structure, recovery, mobility and rest. There are a lot of ways to apply the elements to movement on a practical level, some examples: you can take on elements physical patterns, you can embody the feeling of the element, or you can move with the spirit of the element. It also has to do with orientation in the body, in that fire and air will lean towards moving bio-energy upwards while water and earth will lean towards moving energy downwards towards the earth. Hard training stimulates the need for softer training and vice versa. Of course these are just tendencies and are not hard and fast rules or dogmas. 


We all contain and also have a unique balance of all four elements; an equal 25% split across all four is likely rare and most people have one or two predominate elemental constitutions. Many people get stuck in one element and become a “one speed athlete” where the intensity/style of their training is always constant; this leads to stagnation, overuse and hormonal disruption.  The natural cycles of movement for humans varies in intensity from nothing (at rest/lounging) to all out (hunting, defending, dancing, playing) and everything in between.  Not only that, but our potential inner capacities are also just as diverse.  The goal is to address our strengths and weakness while developing a complete physical and mental vocabulary. Ask yourself honestly if you can be stable and strong, smooth and fluid, hard and fast as well as swift and light? This is not just a question for your body but also for your mind.  If your answer is no to any of these then your elemental balance is off and one of your four pillars is diminished. Just as we don’t want to burn out, we also don’t want to be to sludge. 

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As mentioned previously, there is an inherent polarity between the elements, in the sense that two are masculine and two are feminine.  The masculine is light, ephemeral, quick, agile, moves outward and upward. The feminine is heavy, dense, slow and moves inward and downward.  Thus air and fire are masculine, while earth and water are feminine.  Though this is in reality a spectrum and all the elements contain one another and come to life with different expressions in different individuals - as what is light and easy for one is grueling for another. You can also find aspects of femininity or masculinity in every element.  


Below are examples of the elements applied to movement as general concepts. Though in the end it depends on what aspect of an element we decide to use in a particular situation as Air can be both a light breeze or a tornado, fire can be used to destroy a forest or to warm a home, earth can a foundation or something that we get buried under and water can be a static shallow pool or a tidal wave. 

Water deals with smooth, fluid, and restorative qualities in movement. Disciplines like Yang and Wu tai chi can be found here.  Practices like Vinyassa yoga, Yin yoga, joint mobility, soft dance, light recovery runs, stretching, foam rolling and flow work of any kind are water. Water is also “heavy” in that its tendency is to move downward like “water moving downhill”, so if you’re leaving the ground completely but still doing light work, you’re looking more at Air. Also, the development of fluidity and smooth transition is in the realm of water. Though Air and Water have very similar movement patterns and both can be flow vehicles. Water leaves us feeling supple and fluid.


Earth deals with slow, fundamental and heavy; this includes powerlifting,  grinding lifts of all kinds,  planches, hard pushups, working on stability, isometrics, crawling, working on simple basic human movements, a focus on structure and moving close to the ground. Earth also requires for at least one limb to be attached to the ground, if you’re completely lifted off of it (like a pullup) you’re working more in the realm of Air or Fire, both of which move upward away from the earth.  In Earth we learn to resist unwanted movement, lay a platform for more complex work, connect our body into one unit and be solid like a rock. 


Air deals with movements which are swift, agile, expansive, light and complex. If you watch Air you see that it is capable of highly complex and circular patterns, so movement complexity is often in the realm of air. Acrobatics, movement complexes, light ballistics, trail running, light plyometric’s (such as hops), agility training, dive rolling, hanging, pullups/chin-ups/dips (depending on intensity), Chen style Tai Chi, Bagua and dynamic dance (also depends on intensity) are all Air. Air can also be restorative and “opening”. If you are feeling too heavy after some hard lifting, Air can restore a feeling of lightness. 

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Fire is the most volatile element and can be extremely destructive if improperly handled. Fire is also the source of life and when properly managed, is life giving with the potential to offer renewal and purification. Fire deals with all that is fast, explosive, quick, and high intensity. Thus any of the other elements, if taken to an extreme can become fire. Vinyassa yoga and dance are examples of this, and if either of these is pushed too hard and too fast they can become fire. Fire can be seen in high intensity interval training, intense gymnastics (and their primary skills), sprinting, Olympic weightlifting and sledge hammer work. Another aspect of fire is explosiveness, if your exploding into something your on fire.   Anything that is metabolic conditioning or that is meant to activate the metabolic furnace is fire. Any training with the intent of creating “heat” in the body is also a form of fire. Fire ignites and energizes us, but also renews.


Even if you do not practice Primal Recovery™, consider looking at your training from an elemental perspective. It could be anything you do really. Have fun with it! 


  I leave you with this quote by the great Rumi where he describes the elements as expressions of the love to the divine spirit.

“Last night I asked the moon about the Moon, my one question for the visible world, Where is God? The moon says, I am dust stirred up when he passed by. The sun: My face is pale yellow from just now seeing him. Water: I slide on my head and face, like a snake, from a spell he cast. Fire: His lightning – I want to be that restless. Wind: Why so light? I would burn too if I had a choice. Earth, quiet, impregnated: Inside me I have a garden and a bubbling spring.” - Rumi