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5 elements – the air, fire, water and earth transformation practices

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Reading time: 9 mins

There are different ways we can work with the 5 elements. Today I want to present you transformation practices, powerful shamanic techniques that should be at the core of any shamanic practice.


Literally, ‘to transform’ means to change your form.

They include weird and wonderful things such as burials, burnings, dismemberments, dissolvings, cocoonings, poisonings and shapeshifting.


We can:

  • deliberately ask for a specific transformation practice
  • seek out a specific practice if we have a personal issue that we wish to work on
  • do one of these practices to gain more knowledge and experience of it, as part of learning shamanism and the 5 elements
  • choose to do a particular practice for simple reason of enjoying it (hat is fine too!).

transformation practices


These practices happen frequently in Lower-World journeys. There are numerous benefits to these practices, and to working with the 5 elements.


Transformation practices take us apart, dismantle anything that is unhealthy or unhelpful to us, and then remake us into a healthier form, cleansed and healed. This is why it is good to do these practices regularly, as part of our ongoing healing and ‘energy hygiene’ (keeping our energy clear, and our energetic boundaries healthy and intact).


The more we can let go of being overly-attached to our everyday human identity, the deeper and more powerful our shamanic practice can become. That’s why we need to loosen our attachments to our habitual and familiar middle-world form. Being able to do this allows us to travel the shamanic realms, shapeshifting and experiencing being other things in the process. Otherwise, our journeys will always inevitably be coloured by our middle-world stories and led by our egos instead of our Guides.


Another benefit of the transformation practices is that they are excellent preparation for the greatest shapeshift and transformation that awaits us all, our physical death at the end of our middle-world life. 

Facing and accepting the reality of our death fully, helps us to make the most of our precious time here. Shamans often talk about living fully with the awareness that death is always at our shoulders, waiting for us.


working with The Earth Element

As well as having the usual benefits of the transformation practices, burials can help us when we:

  • are ungrounded in any way.
  • are not feeling that we really ‘belong’, or that we do not have a place on the Earth. Maybe at some level, we even feel we have never fully ‘arrived’ here.
  • struggle with being fully present in our body and tend to live in our head instead, or are prone to feeling dreamy and spaced-out.
  • need help strengthening and deepening our connection to Mother Earth.
5 elements earth

The Christians adopted and adapted this practice, as they did with many other pre-Christian practices. In doing so they called this practice ‘Easter’. Easter is a death, an entombment in the earth, followed by a resurrection, and emerging transformed. In this, it is based on ancient shamanic burial practices.


working with The Fire Element

‘Earth to earth’, and so too, ‘ashes to ashes’.

Burnings can be useful for anyone who has a fear of fire. This can be in the sense of anyone who has a fear of actual physical fire. But fire means more than physical flames. The fire element in us is our personal power, the source of our authority and integrity; our ability to hold our healthy boundaries, to assert ourselves when needed, to speak the truth as we see it. It is our vitality, our ‘energy’, our motivation, passion and drive. It sparks our enthusiasm and zest for life, our desire to seek out new things and experiences and challenge ourselves. The fire element also nurtures our courage and confidence, our optimism and happiness.


5 elements fire


In ‘depression’, it is the fire element that is being de-pressed, literally held down or even lacking altogether. Even if the other 5 elements are embodied well, if we lack fire, then we feel low. We feel apathetic, dispirited, lacking in motivation, energy and drive. We may feel gloomy, sad, dejected, despondent, and even hopeless. Or we can feel like a doormat, unable to assert ourselves and speak out, but instead letting people walk all over us. We may feel stuck and unable to make the changes necessary to move on from a situation that is making us miserable. In all these cases, burning journeys can be of great help in that they can teach us to embrace the fire element and not be afraid of it.



Sky burial is a version of dismemberment, where carrion birds dismantle and consume our body. Many cultures of the world perceive birds as messengers of the gods; as having a close relationship with Upper-World beings and being able to move at will between the middle and Upper worlds. In this, birds can be powerful assistants with the process of letting go of this earthly form and returning to Spirit. As such, sky burial does have an Upper-World element and flavour to it. However, it is still a Lower-World practice, in that it involves working with the Animal People.

5 elements air



Working with water can help us deal with:

  • fear of actual physical water, such as being in deep water or a fear of drowning.
  • fear of being ‘out of our depth’, or of ‘letting go and going with the flow’, or the fear of being ‘swept away’ by emotions
  • wallowing in the past and not letting things go, holding on to things such as unfinished business, unresolved grief, guilt and regret, and so on.
5 elements water


Dismemberment is the experience of being eaten, digested and then reformed by an Animal, usually your Power Animal. As such, it has the usual benefits of these practices, plus the additional benefit of deepening and strengthening the bond between you and the Animal. For this reason, given that your Power Animal is the most important of all your shamanic Guides and Teachers, asking for dismemberment by them is something that is worth seeking out on a regular basis.

You can also ask other Animals, that are not your Power Animal, for a dismemberment too! It is a great way of receiving their healing gifts, learning about them, and forging a connection with them.

Cocooning involves working with insects, masters of transformation. Most insects go through four very different phases and forms in their life cycle: egg, grub, chrysalis, and adult.

The difference between the shape and lifestyle of each of these forms is often very marked indeed, and so the transformation processes between them are quite profound. This is especially true of the change from pupae to adult, which of course takes place within the chrysalis or cocoon.

Much of the life of an insect is spent in the grub (or caterpillar) phase. In many ways, this is a life of constant toil, head down and focusing on staying safe and eating, with barely a glance upwards to the heavens or the bigger picture.

This is symbolic of the drudgery of many peoples’ modern-day lives. If the caterpillar or grub manages to survive this period (and of course, many get no further than this) then they get the chance to transform. The caterpillar or grub enters the cocoon stage of life, from which it eventually emerges having been utterly changed. In its adult form, the insect now finds freedom and can take flight, leaving its earthbound existence.

As the name suggests, these practices involve being transformed by being poisoned, dying, and then coming back to life again. Most commonly, they involve ingesting a poisonous plant (in the safety of a shamanic journey!), but they can also involve being stung or bitten by a poisonous animal, or ingesting a poisonous mineral.

Each different Plant that you do poison journeys with, plus the usual benefits of transformation journeys, will of course come with the healing and teaching of that specific Plant. 

Essentially, in a journey, shapeshifting is the act of experiencing becoming something else. It involves stepping outside of your domesticated and sanitised modern human life. It means being able to reach beyond your familiar sense of ‘self’, even beyond what it is to be a human being. The trick to being able to shapeshift deeply is to let go of the familiar as much as possible. 

When I see students who are new to shamanism, they usually tend to hold onto their human self when shapeshifting. They are a human experiencing what it is like to be Tree, for example. This is good, but even better is to experience not what it is like to be Tree, but to be Tree. The more you can let go and really become the thing that you are shapeshifting into, the deeper the experience is.

This is not an intellectual understanding, but a deep felt-sense, a knowing from the inside out

transformation practices ceremony


Want to learn more about shamanic transformation practices and working with the 5 elements?

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Reading time: 9 mins

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