Wu Xing, The Five Elements Introduction

Through the observations by ancient sages, the natural trinity of, “yin & yang, the Five Elements, and the Eight Trigrams” were created to explain how all things are naturally balanced and in continuous interaction. It is integrated into all parts of Chinese culture, and it is the essence of Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang.

Just as yin and yang represent sunlight and shade, heat and cold, dry and wet, tension and relaxation, the Five Elements (or Phases) represent the seasons of the earth, the stages of human life, and the increasing and decreasing of yin and yang.

The Life Cycle:

Water represents the most yin phase, pregnancy. This moves to the yang phase of birth, new life, and the period of rapid growth, represented by wood. The peak of this yang phase is in adulthood, when we are in our prime, corresponding to fire. Our “ripening” stage is during our mature years when we “reap what we have sowed,” and is represented by earth. We revisit yin during our senior years of degeneration and aging, corresponding to metal. Our dying is our return to the most yin, water, or the emptiness we came from.

The Daily Cycle:

Our “waking up” or initiation of any activity corresponds to wood. The active period of our day (work, school, or whatever) is the fire phase. When we rest and regroup, we are in the metal phase. Sleep is represented by the phase of water. Earth is the period of stillness between activity and rest, or the balance of the extremes.

The “Physiology” of the Five Phases:

Chinese medicine applies the Five Phases to each “Organ System” of the body. The Organ Systems include the yin/yang pairs of the Liver/Gall Bladder (wood), Heart/Small Intestine (fire), Spleen/Stomach (earth), Kidneys/Bladder (water), and Lungs/Large Intestine (metal). Each Organ System refers to a complete set of functions, both physiological and psychological, all inter-related as a network, and not just the physical independant structures as viewed in western medicine.

Practical Applications Applied to Health and Self Defense:

The Five Phases applied to self defense tells us when to use “hard power,” when to use “soft power,” and how to generate that power. It tells us when we need to move, and when we should be still. When to advance, and when to retreat. It also tells us where to strike and where to defend, as well as what kind of strike or defense.

We also use the Five Phases to get the most benefits from our practice time. How to balance internal training with external training to make our bodies and minds stronger while avoiding harmful imbalanced practices. Abuse or neglect of any Phase will lead to difficulties.

Water

The Water Phase represents the most Yin aspect of the Five Phases. This is the receptive, introspective, and storage time. It is the “Winter” of the seasons, when we curl up and seek inner warmth.

If we observe water, we see that it is fluid and moves downward. It tends to be calm and slow, but it can also be quick. It will yeild, yet it is capable of conquering all. Water will always find the path of least resistance.

Water conquers Fire. Water is cool and is capable of absorbing a great amount of heat. And just when the heat is too great, it becomes steam and reforms in another place.

Water creates Wood. From the quiet meditative stillness of the Water Phase comes the creativity, birth and growth of the Wood Phase.

Neglect and Abuse:

The most yin aspect of our body is the essence, Jing, or Original Qi. When we were conceived, the condition of our parents at that moment has a strong impact on our essence. It is our “lifeline”. What we do with this essence on a day to day basis will determine our health. One with a weak essence will need to take better care than one with a strong essence. However, abuse of a strong essence will also lead to sickness.

Neglect

Neglect of the Water Phase is easy. It is very common in our society in the U. S. When there is too much work and not enough sleep (“burnin’ the midnight oil”) the Fire Phase will get out of hand, leading to a more restless mind and more difficulty sleeping. Eating after the sunset, when it is time to rest causes our body to go to work with digestion, leading to a lack of quality sleep. Watching television when we need rest causes us to use mental energy, therefore, we are not really resting. Simply spending more energy than we have on a daily basis will put our body at a deficit, and in turn, put a strain on our essence.

Abuse

Abuse of the Water Phase will also cause an imbalance in people. Too much sleep leads to lethargy. Sitting around too much makes it more difficult to get going leading to stiffness and degeneration of our body. An object that sits still takes much more energy to put in motion than one that is already moving. This lack of action also leads to more storage and excess weight.

Practical Applications Applied to Health and Self Defense:

Using the concept of water in our training will develop the ability not to waste our efforts. The quiet mind is able to see problems with clarity and come up with solutions. It is able to be more creative. We will use less energy by being more focused.

In self defense, it is the quiet mind that is able to be brave. To remain soft against the strength of our attacker allows us to move in without notice. Find the path of least resistance.

Fire

The Fire Phase represents the extreme Yang aspect of the Five Phases. This is the peak of expression, and the time of activity. It is the “Summer” of the seasons, when we are most outgoing. Activity and interaction are at a peak.

If we observe fire, we see its brilliance rising upward while it consumes its source. It has no substance, yet its power can cause great damage. It is quick and explosive.

Fire controls Metal. Just as the heat from fire is used to melt and shape metal, the explosiveness of the Fire Phase can disrupt the settling of the Metal Phase.

Fire creates Earth. From the peak activity of the Fire Phase comes the harmonizing factor of the Earth Phase. It is the moment of the extreme that can no longer continue, bringing it back into balance.

Neglect and Abuse:

The Fire Phase is our consciousness and our mental activity. It is also the physical activities that we engage in daily. School, work, and physical exercise are each daily activities that consume our energy every day. It is very much the opposite of the Water Phase.

Neglect of the Fire Phase would include not getting enough activity in our life. An example is the senior who retires from his job only to find nothing to do and a lack of feeling important or useful. Many will die a short time later.

Lack of having a goal or a vision for oneself to strive for tends to lead to complacency, a lack of progress, and then a blurring of the days as life goes by with little reward.

Abuse of the Fire Phase includes too much activity, mentally and/or physically. Constantly doing something, and not getting enough rest leads to burnout. As discussed in the Water Phase, if you keep spending more of your energy than you can replenish you will deplete yourself and eventually not have enough energy to function.

Practical Applications Applied to Health and Self Defense:

The use of the Fire Phase in our training would include getting the right amount of physical practice and exercise. The proper amount is necessary to keep your body in top condition. Your muscles will remain strong and gain strength and endurance as the demand is increased. Without the proper spending of energy, your body will lower its standards and become weak as well as overweight.

In self defense, it is the ability to do damage when it is necessary to end a confrontation. If there is any other choice or question in your mind, do not fight! Without this ability, a fight is prolonged allowing greater chance for you to get injured. In a real fight, remember: “Being kind to your opponent is being cruel to yourself!” (However, once you have control of the situation, self-control and restraint is necessary to not go too far. Show compassion, even to your enemy.)

Earth

The Earth Phase is the harmonizing and stabilizing aspect of the Five Phases. It gives the whole concept a center. The energy represented by the Earth Phase is firm without being rigid; it is unmoving without being stagnant.

Earth creates Metal. As the energy of Earth brings all back into balance, it leads to the period of rest and recovery of the Metal Phase.

Earth controls Water. Just as the physical earth itself contains water as in a lake or gives it a pathway to follow as in a river, the stabilizing forces of Earth helps to guide the quiet mind keeping us aligned in the direction of a desired goal.

 Some other examples of Earth energy would include: if a house has a strong foundation the building will be supported and provide a safe environment for everyday life; a responsible, stable person in a family brings harmony to a home; a strong physical body provides a base for our thoughts, actions and our true self.

Neglect and Abuse:

Neglect of the Earth Phase includes poor eating habits and a lack of proper nutrition, leading to a weakened physical body.

Lack of responsibility or direction leads to an unstable life full of confusion, worry, and insecurity. Having a vision for your life provides you with the stability of directed daily actions.

Remember,

“A man without a goal

is like a ship without a rudder.”

Abuse of the Earth Phase would include overeating, leading to excess unhealthy fats both inside (in the blood) and outside (obesity).

It would also include being too rigid in your ways leaving no room for change, or overthinking every move that you make leading to paralysis by analysis.

Practical Applications Applied to Health and Self Defense:

The use of the Earth Phase in our training pertains to getting the proper amount of nourishment which would support your physical body. The body needs nutritious whole foods and pure water in the right amounts in order to be strong and healthy and provide us with the strength to perform our daily activites over a long life.

In self defense, nothing you learn will be effective without a root. Without a root, you will easily lose balance. Your movements will “float”, and therefore you will have no power. You cannot defend because once you lose your balance, you become an easy target for your opponent. This is why stance training is so important: stationary, moving, and jumping.

“A tree will only grow as high as its roots are deep.”

Wood

The Wood Phase represents new beginnings – birth, growth, and development. It is the creative phase of any project. Wood is the “Spring” of the seasons, and it is the start of any new action that was inspired by the quiet of the Water Phase.

The energy represented by the Wood Phase can be observed in both the trees and the wind:

As one end of a tree is rooted in the Earth, the other is free to bend and turn as conditions change around them. Trees will reshape themselves to find light; they will move with the forces of the wind; they will bend around obstacles as they grow.

The wind is like an agent of change. It naturally has rhythm. It changes geographic areas over time by moving seedlings and insects. It produces the need for flexibility. The “Winds of Change” are the unpredictable events that shape our lives, causing us to alter our plans for ourselves.

Wood creates Fire. As Wood is the start of something new, Fire acts on what already is. Fire will take the initial action of Wood and run with it.

Wood controls Earth. A tree can move earth in its aggressive stages of growth as well as deplete the earth’s ability to nurture.

Neglect and Abuse:

Neglect of the Wood Phase would include a rigid unwillingness to adapt according to the forces acting around us. Truly experiencing life’s many facets is what allows each of us to grow into whomever we are to become. Ignoring this results in a lack of individuality.

Abuse of the Wood Phase would include changing without reason; changing too often, or always starting new things with a reluctance to finishing. Seeing a pursuit through once it is started is how one accomplishes anything and experiences real growth in life.

Practical Applications Applied to Health and Self Defense:

The Wood element in our training involves the circulation of energy through the use of Qi Gong exercises. Qi Gong means, “energy work”. All life is in constant movement. This is the natural way of things. With no movement there would be no life. The body is no different. Promoting the circulation of energy in one’s body allows it to maintain balance and remain in optimal condition.

The Wood element in self defense is probably the most difficult to obtain. It is the “changing principle” that epitomizes the true meaning of Pa Kua Chang. Obtaining the ability to spontaneously and reflexively move from one technique to another, according to the opponent’s reactions, keeping one step ahead at all times is the highest level and ultimate goal.

Metal

The Metal Phase is very much the opposite of the Wood Phase. While Wood is the rising of Yang energy, such as the morning, Metal is the rising of Yin energy, such as the evening. Metal represents the point in our lives where we are past our prime and are in the process of degeneration and old age. It is a time of harvesting our life experience. Metal is the “Fall” of the seasons, and the finishing phase of any project.

The energy represented by the Metal Phase is contractive and indicates a movement inwards towards a center. It also depicts a period of separation; keeping what is useful and discarding what is not – a process that comes with the wisdom of experience.

Metal creates Water. As we tire and slow down to recuperate after a period of activity, it leads a period of quiet and stillness. The Fall season is a time of gathering and accumulating for the coming of Winter.

Metal controls Wood. Metal in its physical form can cut through wood, and the contractive nature can limit the growth and expansion of the Wood Phase.

Neglect and Abuse:

Neglect of the Metal Phase includes a lack of preparation or accumulation for future winters in life. For example, not saving money and spending freely all that you make will leave you unprepared for unexpected emergencies and keep you working into your so-called “golden years.” You’ll never have any real control over your life limiting your subsequent choices.

The same goes for accumulating knowledge and experience throughout life. Taking some chances, going for what you want, and exhibiting a willingness to fail and feel some pain (emotionally or physically) is what makes us stronger and wiser. You can never truly know what you have not experienced.

Abuse of the Metal Phase can be akin to hoarding one’s money and possessions, or always being so concerned with accumulating for the future that one neglects the present.

Wallowing in grief (the emotion of metal) from some past experience and not allowing yourself to learn and move on to new possibilities is another example.

Practical Applications Applied to Health and Self Defense:

The metal element in your body corresponds to the Lungs. Breathing is the act of “gathering in” energy or Qi. Oxygen, of course, is the main vital component of the Qi of the air, and it is your mind that spends as much as 75% of your available energy on a daily basis. Specific breathing exercises build energy, increase your vital capacity and strengthen your resistance to disease.

In self defense, an example of the metal element is the use of hard or bony surfaces, such as the knuckles or elbows, when striking. The concept of “shrinking” (like a turtle into its shell) is another example of using the contractive nature of metal.

Author:

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.