It is very popular in both the East and the West to draw up a list of magical correspondences with everything under the sun, and the Five Elements has not escaped this treatment at all. Indeed it has often been at the core of most tables. While these can be useful in seeing relationships, they can become inflexible tools that instead obscure what the original philosophers had set out to illuminate.
A case in point is the concept of the Five Element theory. More properly it should be understood as the Five Phases of Energy. Why the change? Because it is obvious after some study, that Phases (or modes) is a much better describer of what is being set forth by these ancient Taoists. It should be noted that both India and Europe have their system. Europe most likely derived their categories from India. But since I am the Taoist Druid, and not the Taoist Yogi Druid, I will limit this discussion to the Five Elements of the Taoist tradition. Later I will discuss the Elements in the European tradition.
Part of the confusion lies in the fact the word "Element". Scientists have taken this word and have made it their own, chastising others who use it in a fashion not to their lacking. But alas, before the esteemed scientists got around to modifying this word, it existed in the speech of the common person. So here we go: Element as it comes to us, meant something that was foundational, a part of the whole, something essential. The scientist carries the meaning forward, but gives it a much narrower meaning: something that can't be broken down chemically into a simpler form. So while the common person says something like "water is a fish's element" or "salt is elemental to this style of cooking" they are expressing the idea of something being foundational, something very important. One could also say a certain ballplayer is elemental to the team, meaning they are a very essential part of the whole.
The scientists on the other hand, is narrowing the meaning to apply only to physical substances, with the restricted meaning that they cannot be broken down through currently know methods. So while this is a very useful concept for a scientists, isn't a bit absurd for them to critique concepts such as the Elements using their restricted definitions of common English words? Yep, and they do do it, all the time. Perhaps it makes them feel better, to show how "clear" headed they are, and how everyone else is speaking gibberish.
Instead if we understand that what is being spoken of is one thing "Energy", and not how a physicist defines it, but how everyone else defines it, as "activity", then things become more clear. In addition, we then observe that this "activity" can manifest in different forms, we are on the right track.
In this discussion, I will talk about the Five Elements in of themselves, understood that they are five parts of the whole. I am not going to worry about correspondences, what direction the Elements are, etc. I think these tables can obscure more than they illuminate.
In the Taoist tradition, the Five Phases are Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth. Now, its important to keep in mind that these names are simply metaphors, images that help us experience the different phases this Energy transforms into or can manifest as.
Fire is primarily a "sticky" energy. While many seem to think of fire's burning, destroying qualities, I believe its actually the way fire can "stick" to a stick, and not let go, is the quality to keep in mind. Light a wood match. Now try to blow it out. Start with a gentle puff of air. See how the flame "sticks" to the match, not allowing itself to be pushed off so easily. See how much force you have to exert before the flame is "pushed" off. Next time you go camping, put a rather thick stick into the campfire. After several minutes, pull it out. Now wave it hard, trying to get the flame off your stick. You will notice how hard this is.
This is the central image of Fire. This is the kind of energy that is being talked about. A sticky energy that is difficult to push off, and can stick to other objects when they come into contact. I don't really worry about what "direction" or what other correspondences go with Fire. In the T'ai Chi form, think about where the "sticky" energy manifests. What motions, what technique seem to embody Stickyness? When practicing pushhands, try to bring the imagery of Fire into being, about how sticky it is. Become the flame "sticking' to its opponent, never allowing to be shaken off.
Water is flow. While there are many qualities to the Element Water, the primary idea being expressed is Energy that flows. Simply take a cup of water and pour it over your hand. See, and more importantly, feel how it flows over your hand. If it all possible go to a river, the larger the better, and spend the better part of the day on the banks, just losing yourself in the flow of all that water, coursing its way to the sea. Flow. While water can be channeled through rapids which alter its flow, its still flow, coursing through a conduit, channel, wearing away the edges of its container. Flow. Even better, find a slower moving part and immerse yourself in the flow. Feel the water swirling, pushing, embracing, enfolding, enveloping. Be careful not to be swept off your feet, as sudden pulses push against your body, some gentle, others forcefully ramming your body. Flow. When practicing the form, your whole form should flow like water, but in some parts, more so.What parts are these, do you think?
Wood is an expansive Energy. It comes from the imagery of the tree ever growing, ever expanding its girth. Trees have merged with other trees, with rocks, anything really, in its way. Think of the tree and its roots pushing into the soil, penetrating into the rock. Think of the tree pushing its canopy of branches into the sky, pushing the air about. Think of the trunk pushing ever outward, pushing up against obstacles. Wood Energy can expand in any direction really, otherwise if one pushes in just one direction, they can become unbalanced and topple over. Think of where in the form the Energy transforms from simply flowing into an expansive, outward flowing Energy. If one visualizes the Tree, it becomes easier to feel, and then to perform.
Metal is a curious one, because most think of the hard cutting edge of an axe. But Metal in some older traditions is Clay. The central idea is a kind of "moldable" Energy. An Energy that can be molded, but then will hold its shape. When metal ore is refined, at high temperatures metal is a liquid it can be poured into a mold, and when it cools, it will hold its shape. So now we see the relationship to Clay. Clay is moldable when wet, and can be shaped into almost anything. Upon drying, the shape is fixed. So if we think instead of Clay, we can understand this energy a little better, at least in my experience. This Energy is one that can mold to any different shapes, or intents, but then holds its shape. This is, in a way, a bit strange for T'ai Chi, which is all about the flow. In this sense, water too can be molded, can be frozen into a solid shape by cold. The reason I like the analogy of Clay better, is that clay will hold its shape, but is not brittle like ice or so hard like metal. Clay will hold its shape, but if there is enough resistance, clay will change its shape. In some sense, its just a stiffer Water. Moldable is a somewhat harder Energy to experience, but again, direct experience is helpful. Take a big block of clay and get it nice and wet (but not too wet). work it well, pushing, smooshing, squeezing. Feel how it resists your Energy, but giving enough force, will flow around your fingers, around your fists. Feel how it molds itself into one shape, now another. Now as the clay begins to dry, feel how much harder you have to work to change its shape, how much stiffer its becoming. After awhile it will no longer be able to be molded; it will be just a rock in your hand, and a rock can be moved at the right leverage points, regardless of size.
Last of all Earth. Earth is where everything collects back to, where everything flows back to the Center. Earth is a Gathering Energy. This one is simple. Take a handful of dirt. Now let it fall from your hand. Where does it go? Take another. Throw it up into the air. Where does it go, eventually? Roll a rock down the slope. Where does it end up? Where does all the rocks and dirt falling down a mountain wind up? Right, the Earth. The central image is the gentle pull of the Earth, pulling rocks down to her, apples off trees, the rain from the clouds. All things come to her, eventually. Earth is all about being Centered, Feeling your Center, not just your dynamic center as you play pushhands, but truly your Center, your Energetic Center, gathering all things in to you.
If you have been doing T'ai Chi, but have not been introduced to the Five Elements, I encourage you to try this out. Think about how Energy can manifest, and how in different ways it manifests in the long form. You will be pleasantly surprised.