Here is a spiritual exercise to try: stop breathing. If you are still alive, you will have realised that this is impossible. Yogis have proudly proclaimed their ability to go without food for weeks and water for days – but as of yet, nobody has figured out a way to life without air. So it must be pretty important. The Air element represents the very essence of our experience as human beings: our perception of the world, our thoughts and our imagination.
The human imagination seems to know no bounds, we are able to literally create entire worlds in our minds. Our ability to invent is what has kept our species alive for so many thousands of years in spite of our blunt teeth and total lack of claws. Keep getting attacked by wolves? No problem, invent some fire! Need to carry some rocks a large distance? No problem, invent the wheel! Need more pictures of cats? No problem, invent the internet!
Our powerful imaginary sword has a double-edge though. For some of us, finding the real world a bit too daunting, happily pack up our bags and buy a one-way ticket to imagination-land. If we really want to turn any of our ideas into actions, we will have to at least occasionally pop back to reality. Our imagination can also lead us into trouble if we invent an idea of how things should be – we may find ourselves and our loved ones sorely lacking in regard to the high standards we have dreamed up.
Think About It
Reading eastern philosophy or any new-age spiritual material, it can sometimes seem like there is a war on thoughts, “thoughts are evil, we must eliminate them at all costs!”. Really though thinking is essential. Try getting through the day without having a single thought, you will probably find your toothpaste is in the fridge and that you have taken the toaster to work. What the gurus and hippies are really trying to say is that thoughts can lead us into serious trouble if we are not careful. The mind is the most powerful tool we possess, but thanks to the power of overthinking, it can be transformed into the most efficient and merciless torture device in the universe.
The average human is said to have some 60,000 thoughts a day, with 95% of them being thoroughly unoriginal, recycled thoughts from the previous day. Do we really need to think about 57,000 things today that we already thought about yesterday?
By learning to meditate, we can take a look at this endless storm of thoughts that blows through the mind and start to question how useful most of them really are. When practicing meditation, when a thought comes (which will definitely happen no matter how holy you are) we can follow a three step process:
- Note It
- Know It
- Let It Go
So we do not ignore the thought or push it away, we hear what it has to say then let it go.
A lot of people think that meditation is about stopping yourself thinking, but this really would be impossible. Try and stop yourself from thinking about a pink elephant right now…. See? What we are really doing is learning not to get carried away by our thoughts. Imagine you are deep in a blissful meditation, in the lotus posture with a massively smug expression on your face. Suddenly you hear a dog barking. Now you are thinking about dogs. You remember that time a dog crashed into your bike when you were a kid and you broke your arm, but your parents didn’t believe you and you had to go to a school with a broken arm. Now you are thinking about your family. You remember how annoying they are. Now you are angry. You realise this meditation is a total waste of time and that you’ll never be able to do it properly anyway… You give up and go for a beer. This is what we are trying to avoid. The correct way to deal with this would be to simply note, “a dog is barking”, and return to focusing on your breathing.
If we keep practicing eventually we will reach the point where thoughts do not have so much power over us. We may even be able to cut down that 60,000 to a more manageable number of pointless thoughts.
Of course, not all thoughts are unhelpful. Being at work and having the thought, “Oh no, I’ve left the oven on!” can help prevent your house from burning down. So how can we tell the difference between pointless thoughts and useful (or potentially life-saving) ones? One way is to simply ask the question, “Is there something I can do about it?” If yes then do something, if not then stop thinking about it. Worrying about things we have no control over seems to be one of the most popular pastimes these days, but maybe it is time for a less stressful hobby? If you practice meditation regularly you may find your ability to distinguish the useless thoughts from the useful ones improves dramatically.
Getting The Balance
If your mind is full of thoughts that go round in circles, or if you spend more time in your internal imaginary la-la land than the real world, perhaps you could do with a bit less air in your life. Having your head in the clouds all the time may have its advantages, but highly airy people tend to struggle with a lot of problems like insomnia, anxiety, disorganisation and the dreaded overthinking.
On the other hand, if you are having trouble coming up with ideas or you are relentless stuck in the material world, thinking of nothing but mortgages and spreadsheets, then perhaps you need to spread your wings and lift off a little more.
Yoga Postures To Balance The Air Element
When working with air, we want to allow more space for, guess what? Air! So we want to open the chest and the sides of the ribs to allow us to totally saturate ourselves with oxygen. These type of postures are also said to bring courage, which is always good! Some to try are:
- Spinal Twists
- Deep Backbends such as wheel pose
- Dog position with support for the head