I have written articles on this blog about the four elements of the classical cosmology: earth, fire, water, and air/wind. Aristotle added ether as a fifth element. So did ancient Indians. They called it akasha (“space” or “void”). We know now, of course, that the universe is made up of atoms. More than a hundred chemical elements have been identified in the universe so far. We also know that space is not static; it is expanding.
How do we expand our awareness of space around us and within us? How do we deal with our worldly conflicts from the perspective of an expanding universe? As we struggle for justice, the universe invites us toward expanded options. We can incorporate the wonder of science in our liturgy and in our politics.
We live in space on our planet. We occupy space in our world. We sometimes say we need more space in our personal relationships. Space is not only an element in cosmology, it is a psychological and religious reality. It is a phenomenon we experience in our bodies in yoga practice.
Modern cosmology challenges the ancient cosmologies, including the biblical cosmology. This is a matter to be considered when we ask where Jesus went after his resurrection. We say “he ascended into heaven.” But where, actually, is that? We will consider that question at the end of this article.
The four or five elements of ancient Greek cosmology served as the working model of Western cosmological science for centuries. Albert Einstein revolutionized cosmological thinking by demonstrating in his general theory of relativity that space is curved – also that it is not empty; it is a gravitational field. While Einstein’s theory was revolutionary, it retained the ancient notion that there is a boundary or limit to the universe since space curves around on itself. Even for Einstein the universe was a static entity.
Then Edwin Hubble demonstrated through his telescope that space is expanding. One can see that galaxies are moving farther apart from one another. It took a bit of convincing to get Einstein to admit this; he had to look through the telescope himself. Space has an energy (called the cosmological constant) that allows it to push farther and farther away from its point of origin.
The question inevitably arose: is the universe moving at a steady rate or is it slowing down? Recent calculations have concluded that the rate of expansion is accelerating. Galaxies are moving farther apart. This was discovered in 1998 by two independent projects, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z Supernova Search Team, which both used distant Type 1a supernova to measure the acceleration. But in actuality, the galaxies aren’t moving. It’s the space, the gravitational field that contains them, that is expanding; the galaxies just go along for the ride wherever the expanding gravitation field takes them.
So, if I understand the current science, it is possible that the universe is both limited and unlimited; it is contained in space but the container is getting bigger, with no evident force that would stop its expansion. Are there other universes with their own space? Scientists think so. The incredibly rapid expansion from the Big Bang produced a multiverse, multiple universes of which ours is just one. Will our expanding space bump into another expanding space? Yes, but there is more space because space is always expanding. It seems that physics has become metaphysics.
The Value of Space
We tend to take space for granted. But space gives definition to everything that exists in the universe and in our own bodies. If space weren’t separating the planets and stars, everything would be one great mass. It’s the same in our bodies. We would be one big blob if there wasn’t space, however imperceptible, between the organs, muscles, tissues, bones, etc. One of the reasons for stretches and twists in yoga practice is to expand the body’s space so that it can be filled with more prana or energy.
Space not only separates bodies and body parts, but it also necessitates relationships between separate parts and particles. This notion invites reflections on the relationships not only between cosmic bodies like the sun, planets, and moons, but also between living bodies. We define ourselves over against other living bodies. Yet we only exist in relationship.
The same might be considered in the relationship between God and creation (especially between God and humans created in the image of God) and heaven and earth (taking earth as a stand-in for all bodies in the cosmos). These entities—God and humans, heaven and earth—are separate, yet exist in relation to each another. Space is an important element in cosmology, but also in our relationships. Philosophically we ask: what are the characteristic of space?
In yoga practice the elements are not abstract theory; they are experienced in the body. This is perhaps the main difference between modern cosmology and the ancient Indian cosmology. In modern cosmology the elements of the universe are objects to be observed and analyzed. For the yogis the elements were sensed in the body. They are even identified with the five senses and their respective sense organs; therefore the elements have a phenomenological quality. Earth is related to smell (nose), water to taste (tongue), fire to sight (eyes), air to touch (skin), and ether to hearing (ears). The locations of the elements in the body are the perineum (earth), pubis/sacrum (water), navel (fire), heart (air), and throat (space). These are the locations of chakras, and it is at the chakras that we have access to the elements.
The elements of earth, water, fire, and air all originated in space; therefore they remain connected with space and with each other even though they are separate entities. In the yoga body the relationship between the elements is that the lighter elements purify the heavier ones. Thus space purifies air, air purifies fire, fire purifies water, water purifies earth. In the body, this is experienced by accessing the ether/space element around the throat; there the body is experienced as open in all directions. From there energy can flow downward along the nadis (energy channels) to the air element around the heart area, then to the fire element in the abdomen, then to the water element in the inner thighs, and finally to the earth element in the pelvic floor. Or, in a practice related to the chakras (energy votices) the yogi can experience the flow of energy upward from the perineum to the head.
It should be understood that since all five elements are in the body, to say that one element can be accessed in a particular chakra does not mean that other elements are not present. It simply means that a particular element is dominant in that location.
This chart shows the five yoga elements and the corresponding Taoist elements in parentheses located at the seven principal chakras. This is the subtle body that is a dimension of ourselves that exists simultaneously with the physiological body.
In yoga practice ether/space has no substance of its own. Ether is experienced as the space between breaths as well as the space around the body in the asana practice. In a sense, ether can help the yogi to become more aware of the breath and the asanas because space differentiates one breath or pose from another. A yoga practice that focuses on ether/space will hold inhales before exhaling and hold exhales before inhaling. It will hold a pose before going on to the next one. Perhaps if you are inhaling/exhaling at a 4:4 count, you could hold the breath another four counts and hold the pose as long as you desire or are able. One can experience spiritual power in the stillness of that space between breaths and poses provides. Perhaps this is because space sharpens our awareness of different realities.
The element of ether is associated with the throat chakra (visuddha). The energy of the throat chakra is connected with sound and communication. Communication serves the purpose of making connections, and it is through ether/space that sound waves pass from transmitter to receiver. Yoga poses related to the element of ether/space could therefore be ones that move the neck up or down or from side to side, such as in low cobra, fish, and shoulder stands.
A pose related to the throat chakra is Simhasana (lion pose). This pose exercises the throat and facial muscles. It also exercises the vocal chords since it involves opening the mouth, sticking out the tongue, turning the eyes upward, and letting out with a roar (Aaaaaaahhhhhhh).
Ether/space yoga could also focus on expanding the universe of the body, particularly by lengthening the spine to create more internal space for prana (energy). Space can expand the body just as it expands the universe. But space is not nothing. Just as space in modern cosmology is the field of gravity, so space in yoga cosmology is the field of prana or energy.
Where is Heaven?
The ancients visualized Heaven as the space beyond the sky. The sky is what we would understand as space. We can only conclude, therefore, that Heaven is in another space. That’s why the Soviet cosmonauts didn’t find God when they went into space (actually not very far into space). Heaven can be envisioned as another reality that is in its own space-time dimension.
When the Bible speaks of heaven and earth, it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum. Nor is it talking about a physical world and a non-physical world. It’s talking about two different realities that exist in their own dimensions.
Novelists and film makers often portray parallel worlds in their stories. C. S. Lewis portrayed parallel worlds in his Narnia stories. The space between Earth and Narnia is the wardrobe. We love the concept but regard it as fantasy because it doesn’t fit into our modern scientific cosmology (although some scientists speak of parallel universes).
Heaven and Earth occupy different spaces, and it would seem that ne’er the twain shall meet. But God’s saving act in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ has reconciled Heaven and Earth. The tomb was the space between death and resurrection, earth and Heaven. After his resurrection Christ ascended into Heaven. But Christ then passed back and forth from one dimension to the other as he continued to meet with, instruct, and commission his apostles.
Eastern Orthodox church buildings are noted for their icon screens (iconostasis) that separate the sanctuary (altar area) from the nave (the assembly’s area). The sanctuary symbolizes Heaven and the nave symbolizes Earth. The liturgical ministers pass back and forth between these two spaces or dimensions through the royal doors during the liturgy to bring the word and the sacraments to the people and to take the prayers of the people to God. The doors are like Lewis’ wardrobe: they are the space between two worlds.
Doors or thresholds are called limen in Latin. Anthropologist Victor Turner talked about liminality as the betwixt-and-between experience between one reality (what we leave behind) and another (what we are incorporated into) in rites of passage like initiation. There’s a sense in which Christians live their lives in the space between this world and the life of the world to come. Our daily existence is liminal, on the threshold between two realities. Space is where we live our lives. This is the value of space for our lives. It is something yogis too might consider when they get on their mats and move from one posture to the next. Awareness of the element of space can be a focus for meditation in and of itself.
A lot of things are strung together here in this article as I have explored the element of space. Some are speculative, including both modern cosmology and ancient Indian cosmology to which yoga appeals as well as the biblical cosmology of heaven and earth. But your thoughts on the element of space are welcome.