Balancing the Five Elements: Looking into Mindfulness Post-Ovarian Cancer

Balancing the Five Elements: Looking into Mindfulness Post-Ovarian Cancer


Survivors of early stage ovarian cancer report a good physical quality of life. However, more than half of survivors report fear of cancer recurrence and anxiety when their CA125 is tested. Survivors with recurrent disease may require long term treatment involving chemotherapy and surgery over many years. The development of mindfulness can be beneficial for the long haul of cancer survivorship at many levels.

However, it is a skill that requires patience and persistence. Given the changeability of the mind, it is important to develop a repertoire of different ways of approaching mindfulness practice.

Ayurveda as one of the world's oldest healing mind body systems has something to offer in this regard.

Ayurvedic philosophy considers space, air, fire, water, and earth as the building building blocks of all material existence including the human body and mind. We each inherit a unique mix of the five elements operating in a dynamic interplay. At times, these elements are operating in harmony and at other times they are out of balance. Ayurvedic therapeutics are based on balancing the qualities expressed by the five elements. The utility of the 5 elements in meditation relates to their capacity to provide a framework for engaging with our lived experience.

For example, the air element is characterised by lightness. According to Vasant Lad, a leading Ayurvedic practitioner, this quality of the air element makes the body alert and attentive. However, too much lightness can create the sensation of instability and manifests as insecurity, fear and anxiety. If you are meditating on the breath and you experience anxiety, from an Ayurvedic perspective, this suggests an imbalance in the air element.

The opposite of light is heavy which is best represented by the earth element so one option is to shift your focus to the earth element. This can be felt in the hardness of your body pressing on the seat and the weight of your limbs and head. Regular practice of various static yoga postures may help you cultivate the stability of the earth element. Alternate nostril breathing is another way to work constructively with the air element. This technique modulates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the flight or fight response) and brings it into balance with the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Examples of the qualities of the five elements are described below:

  • Space is the subtlest of the elements. It is expansive, empty, and has no resistance. It is the source of all matter. It allows for growth and change to take place. It is the space between your cells, your breath, and your thoughts.
  • Air is movable, changeable, light, dry, mobile, and dynamic. It represents the capacity for motion and gives flight to ideas or goals. Externally, it is seen as wind. Internally, it is the movement of breath, circulation, and nerve impulses.
  • Fire is hot, light, intense, powerful, and can be transformative. Externally, we see it as the sun or fire. Internally, it drives digestion and cognitive processes. The fire element indicates temperature—warm or cold—and the capacity to digest or to eat.
  • Water is smooth, flowing, cool, and movable, and can be solid. It transports, connects, and provides protection and nourishment. The water element implies not only water but also blood, urine, sweat, tears. The characteristics of the water element buffers us from extremes and provides us with flexibility in mind and body.
  • Earth is heavy, solid, stable, and rigid. It represents all solid matter and the structure of the universe. Earth gives form to the human body. When the earth element is in balance, you feel very grounded and rooted like a tree, able to withstand the challenges life brings your way.

At a deeper level, observing the elements within us, or even just one of them, can be an important way of recognising how our individual composition is the same as the composition of the rest of the universe. This may be an intellectual understanding at first, but eventually, with practice, it becomes more visceral. The effect of this, is we feel less threatened by external forces or situations, because we recognise that everything, and everyone, is composed of these same five elements. Without the feeling of separation from the rest of the world, we also lose the compulsion to change the way things are. We can relax into just being.

Fiona has worked both as a registered nurse and hydrogeologist. As a hydrogeologist, she has an interest in the sustainable use of natural resources and she has published some of her work in the Groundwater Journal. As an RN, she has experience working in oncology/haematology at Sir Charles Gardener Hospital and in cancer research at Royal Perth Hospital in Perth Western Australia. She has an interest in the use of complementary approaches to health as a strategy to engage patients positively in their journey towards healing.