Shape Shifting

Shape Shifting Practice (formerly Elemental Needs)

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“Versatility as well as all of the core virtues, including authenticity, character, and self- control, cannot be manufactured. True excellence must be cultivated through a process that integrates our thoughts and feelings with our muscles.”   Stuart Heller


The Shape Shifting practice is designed to increase our versatility, resourcefulness and clarity to what we need in any given moment. This practice is inspired by Dr. Stuart Heller’s creative Tai Chi teachings. Derived from the Latin versatillis meaning “turning easily,” versatility is the ability to bring forth a way of being, thinking, feeling, and/or responding that best fits the situation you are in and the people you are with.

On an emotional and mental level, it is helpful to imagine the elements as movements of energy that develop qualities associated with their movement. As you explore and visualize the elements, notice the shifts in your body.

As you practice, engage your imagination and pay attention to the sensations, feelings, and changes in your body. You can develop whole body/mind impressions or “somatic impressions” of the qualities of being that you wish to cultivate, such as dignity, clarity, understanding, joy, play, appreciation and security.

In time, you can develop a richer relationship and understanding of these qualities. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to call up these somatic impressions of our various “elemental needs.”

In time and with intentional practice, accessing a greater range of qualities becomes far more instantaneous and creative.

With deliberate, creative and intentional practice over time the qualities will gravitate from a thinking process into a whole mind/body experience.

Like a divining rod moves towards water, your body will inform you and flow more easily to the elemental shape and intelligence that you have practiced into it.

Practice this set of shapes and movements on your right side and left side. I suggest learning these shapes and intentions in the sequence shown here. As you develop and explore Shape Shifting, I invite you to be creative, change the sequence and adapt the shapes and needs expressed to your own liking. See if you can notice how these elements relate. In truth, they are all facets of the same gem. As you go about your day, notice how your thoughts and feelings are effected by the wind on a windy or icy day. Do they get more clear or crisper? How does it feel to walk with more gratitude for the ground you stand on and along with that connection a responsibility for stewardship? The elements can teach you about your larger purpose in life, by affirming your harmony with Nature. Notice which element seems most meaningful to you, and as you explore, you can find guidance about the directions you are taking in your life.


Group or single person practice/Daily practice




What’s your predominant element and which do you practice least?

We each have all the elements, but we tend to practice certain ones more than others. Each element has advantages and drawbacks in any given moment.

Ground- Do you see yourself as a person who’s really solid, firm in what you care about and grounded in what you love and know? You can learn to align yourself with the earth to find centeredness and balance as you walk on your path. You can appreciate beauty and perfection of even the smallest forms of life as essential

Qualities- meaning, stability, understanding, centering and focusing

Shadow side– stubbornness


Water- Are you adaptive, calming, fluid, and do you have a strong sense of belonging and connection within your self and relationships? By merging with the water elements you can explore and let go of conditioned responses and move towards unconditional Love and greater acceptance.

Qualities- Belonging, flowing, surrender, acceptance and harmonizing

Shadow side– wishy washy


Fire- Are you expressive, creative and focused? By merging with fire you learn a more purposeful focus and power. Fire can be purifying, stimulating and expansive.

Qualities-expression, creativity, decisive, focused

Shadow side– explosive, overly intense


Wind- Are you playful? Do you have a lightness of being that does not get hung up or too attached to what other people are saying or doing? By merging with air you gain perspective. Moving from me-ness to We, wind can be freeing and uplifting.

Qualities-lightness, broader perspective, ease, joy and freedom

Shadow side– brittle, ungrounded, air-headed

Space- Are you often present, accepting, somewhat empathic and in the moment?

Shadow side– Spacey, not present


The more you bring your imagination to the practice and explore each of these elements of your self, the more they become a part of you and the more quickly you can access them.

Practice as fast or slow, as you want, spending just a few seconds in each position or several minutes. Enter this like an actor moving into different roles. Explore the feelings, the sensations, how your breath changes, how you feel when you’re in each of these different modes and the stories that enhance each. See if you can notice the relationship between each of these elements as you flow and shift between them.



To Begin:

Stand in an open stance, straight up, with your head above your heart, and your heart above your belly. Take a relaxing breath, settle into your full length; not too stiff and not collapsed. This, I like to imagine as an up-right stance of dignity.

*Practice all these elemental shapes on both your right and left sides.



GroundMeaning, Clarity, and Understanding

With your left foot forward, bend your legs slightly so that you feel grounded and centered. Have your hands down by your side and about a foot in front of you. Have your palms open and facing the ground and your fingers spread open. Keep your body vertical, head above heart above belly. Move into this position consciously with your whole body. In your own way, muster a sense of gratitude for the ground that is supporting you, that is under each of us and that brings under-standing and meaning to our lives.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you shape yourself:

  • What do I deeply care about?
  • What is the ground I stand on?
  • What brings meaning to my life?
  • What can’t I truly get enough of?

All of these questions lead to the same answer.

Each day articulate what you care about in a word or sentence. Be as succinct and to the point as possible. Each day feel your way to what is on center and what is not.   The clearer your answer, the more it can become an organizing reference point for your life. This can become a personal vision statement to help you organize your life.

You can speak it as a quality(s) to yourself or out loud such as “Integrity.”

You can shape it as a short sentence such as, “I care about dignity” or “I care about walking and expressing my truth with honesty, integrity and compassion.”

And you can ground your statement with:

“For the sake of……”

Ex: “I am committed to walking and expressing my truth with honesty, integrity and compassion for the sake of contributing to a better world for the children to flourish in.”

Find ways to say what you care about and what ground you stand on in your own words, so that when you speak it, the words resonate and inspire you.

Whether it is one word or a sentence that expresses a quality of a need and/or commitment, you can learn to feel how that feels in your body. Explore it, and as you move to the next element, see if you can hold the somatic impression of the later previous element.

A powerful practice is to develop a somatic impression of a need’s qualities and explore it for a month, several months or a year; in this way you can really get to know it deeply and intimately. In time, understanding of these qualities will become more expanded and accessible.



Fluidity, Belonging, Adaptability


From the “Ground” position you are going to shift directly into “Water” position. Take your left foot (which is currently forward for Ground position) and move it back so that it is behind your right foot. Keep your hands open to receive and offer, with your arms wide out in front of you, as if you’re holding a 3-foot beach ball. With fingers pointing out, reaching, imagine you are receiving what’s coming to you and offering what you

Before you move from water, you can bring your hands to your sides and slightly behind you. In one movement bring what is behind, to the sides and in front of you forward. Bringing these resources forward as you move to the next position, helps to stabilize and empower your words and actions (See pictures).

Use your imagination to remember, appreciate and find gratitude for those all around you, both past and present- all your relations.

  • Behind– The teachers in your life, the great teachers of our world (past and present), older relatives and ancestors that were healthy and whole (be mindful about who you invite) and the nature around you and the wisdom contained in your genetic history since the beginning of time.
  • At your sides- Friends, brothers and sisters, partners, associates.
  • In front- The younger ones in your life.

More about water:

Water is about belonging and relationship. As we shift to water, your body moves back and down. As we back down, we can take some rest and solace in the knowing that we are always connected to all the relationships around us. Resourcing all our Relations is a practice of elder wisdom cultures around the world. In our culture, we often forget these powerful resources and imagine that we are alone in this world. Take time to feel what is at your back and around you and choose wisely what you choose to invite.


Imagine, with gratitude and appreciation:

  • Your genetic history that goes back to the beginning of time, and the wisdom contained within that.
  • Your ancestors who came before you- who were wise and whole. Leave the crazy ones out for now. Though you might not invite those difficult ancestors right now, in time, you can actually have some conversations and even arguments with whomever you choose to reconcile; to learn from, to connect with and resource.
  • With gratitude, remember the teachers who are at your back, the great ones on this planet and the ones who have been in your life. Remember, at times when you don’t know what to do or say, you can learn to bring these wise voices through you.
  • Now, take a moment to remember those who walk beside you in your life: your associates, your partners and friends. In time, with practices, you can get more familiar with some of the difficult people who walk beside you as well. They are the ones who actually can shine a light on places within you that the easy relationships rarely do.
  • As a daily practice you can learn to empathize with those difficult ones around you; to appreciate those whom you love and to allow those connections to become resources accessible to you at any time.
  • Bring your attention in front of you- to those young ones in your life who remind you about the beauty of lightness of being, playfulness and joy. This is a moment to be grateful to these young ones who are so full of life.
  • From this place of belonging and inclusion of all your relations, you can actually express yourself. (see Shape Shifting Role Play Practice). Fire is more often a place to express and to advocate strongly for what it is we would love. When we speak and request to another from the place of water, it comes from a place of inclusion. But this is by no means the only way to use these conversations…. be creative.
  • Extra practice- Needs as a whole mind/body/spirit experience: Imagine an ancestor (that was healthy and whole) as a supportive person at your back. Think about a quality you might love to have more of that you like (admire) about them.   Let that wash over. you Build an impression.

As you move to fire to express yourself, you can imagine these qualities coming through you. You might not know what to say, but they do. To add to this practices and bring through you one quality at a time. You can also bring qualities from those who walk beside you or from the young ones in front.




 Document3Expression, Creativity, Decisiveness

Now bring your left foot in front again, putting you in the same stance as you were for the “Ground” position. Bring your hands up to head level, with your hands flat, palms toward each other and about a foot in front of you. Now bring your right hand forward enough so that your left thumb is a few inches from your right hand’s pinky finger. Imagine that your hands are like a sword and that you are preparing to cut through, cut away or clear the way with this sword. Open your hands and have your fingers pointing toward the sky with the blades of your hands reaching, pushing forward. Have your arms extended, but not too stiff or collapsed with just a slight bend in the elbow. Hold “the ground you stand on” within the “ocean of all your relations” as you enter this shape of expressing yourself with the fire of your unique creativity.

More about fire:

  • By knowing where we stand and by remembering we are not alone and that we have many resources around us to draw from, we can relax and better express ourselves with dignity and graciousness. The more relaxed we are, the more aware we can be.
  • As you move the blades of your hands in front of you, bring them to a place that is not too close to your body and not over extended away from your torso. If the blades of your hands are too close to your body, connecting with another is weak. If your blades are too far from your torso, it feels disconnected to your core. In this practice of fire, your blades are there to meet the other, to cut away what is unnecessary and to make room for that which we choose to bring into our lives. As a cook uses sharp knives to create beauty in the kitchen, sometimes we must be very decisive, articulate and creative to manifest the beauty we want in our lives.
  • By evoking and practicing with the impressions of (ground) what we care about and (water)qualities we appreciate and admire, we can draw up whole body/ mind/spirit felt impressions and over time with practice, embody them.






Autonomy, Joy, Playfulness, EaseFrom the “Fire” stance, do not shift the placement of your feet. Turn your feet and your body 90 degrees so that you are now facing sideways. With your left foot pointing forward and your right foot pointing back, open your arms and hands wide as if you were a bird that has spread its wings. Bring a lightness and buoyancy to this shape and let it evoke a sense of joy and freedom. Like the matador, as you turn, remember to get off the line of attack. As you do so, watch where it comes from, let it go by, and then- again- bring your attention to where it actually came from.

This practice helps us to differentiate clearly between what others say and what we hear and to not take things other say and do quite so personally!

More about Wind:

  • Wind is a lovely element and one that we often forget to access. REMEMBER, If you feel stuck and don’t know what to do, go to wind. When you feel overwhelmed, stuck or frozen and don’t know what to do, go to wind and imagine whatever is overwhelming you, blowing by. This is like a matador stepping off the line as he guides the bull to go by.
  • Wind is about lightening up, about playfulness, and most importantly it is about not taking what other’s say personally. Let it go by and remember to not take another person’s pain on as your own.This can be very hard to do in intimate, caring relationships where we can lose our sense of self and get confused in those arguments filled with blame and shame.




Presence, Empathy, Spaciousness

Come back to that original open stance. With both feet directly under each respective shoulder and facing forward, breathe deeply while you imagine and explore a quality of spaciousness within and around you. Feel your presence. This is a shape of being in this moment with your head over heart over belly. Settle into this shape with empathy and curiosity as you listen intuitively. Breathe.

Space happens between all the other elements. It is the backdrop to all that is going on. The other practices help give us the space we need to be present. Including another in this field is the essence of empathy and empathic presence.

You can enliven space by drawing up a quality that you would love to feel more of. (See S.U.R.F. Practice).



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