Avatar: Why All Air Nomads Can Bend – and What That Says About Nonbenders

Bending is one of the most exciting parts of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but not everybody in the world gets to wield the magical martial arts. Nonbenders make up a majority of the population of the Avatar world, and for as much as the series focuses on the greatest Benders in the world, it's actually a rare ability. That is part of what makes the Air Nomads so incredibly weird.

Unlike the other nations, the Air Nomads were entirely made up of Benders born with an innate affinity for their native element. Airbenders are only rare following the destruction of the nation at the start of the Hundred Year War, though their numbers were eventually revitalized by the Harmonic Convergence. But what is it that made Air Nomads so different that they had no Nonbenders among them?

8 airbenders and sky bison

The fact that most people in Avatar are born as Nonbenders was rarely brought up in the original series, but it's easy to figure out even from the start. Katara's status as the Southern Water Tribe's only Waterbender could have been chalked up to the Fire Nation specifically hunting their Benders down, but as the Gaang ventures to the Earth Kingdom, they quickly come across villages bursting with Nonbenders. They don't meet a single Bender on Kyoshi Island, Haru's status as an Earthbender is treated as special when they discover him, and even in areas like Ba Sing Se, protected from the Fire Nation, the majority of people are Nonbenders.

The Legend of Korra outright confirms that Nonbenders make up the majority of the world, with it becoming a point of tension for the all-Bender council that initially rules over Republic City. And yet anytime the Air Nomads are seen in flashbacks, every one of them is a Bender, but no one ever outright brings this up. It's relegated to trivia from outside the show, but the explanation is actually quite simple. The entirety of the Air Nomad population are born as Benders because of their deep spirituality.

More than any other nation, the Air Nomads maintain a deep spiritual connection with nature that disciplines their lives. They are sex-segregated between temples, have a strict vegetarian diet, bond with an animal companion at an early age, and undergo regular ritual meditation. Even in the time of the first Avatar, the original Airbenders are seen living idyllic lifestyles where tattoos along their chi lines mark them as early as infancy, so it's clear these traditions run deep in the Airbenders' culture.

Such spirituality is important, as the Harmonic Convergence restored the Airbender population and proved how the Spirit World is a wellspring for the spiritual energy that allows Benders to command the elements. This begs the question as to whether Nonbenders can become Benders through deep meditation and spirituality, but there seems to be a definitive conclusion with one character: Zaheer. Despite being deeply spiritual and involved in Airbender philosophy throughout his life, it took Harmonic Convergence for Zaheer to become a true Airbender. And yet when he did, all of that practice and preparation allowed him to wield the ability more ably than any others who gained their powers alongside him.

Air Nomads during the time of Wan

Spirituality, chi and bending are all clearly connected in Avatar. Chi-blocking locks off the ability to bend, and part of the Avatar's power comes from the rich resource of energy that Raava provides them while in the Avatar State. Airbenders, being so attuned to all of these systems, had such a deep connection that every new birth came with a new Airbender. But will that continue?

That is perhaps the most interesting question of all as Avatar forges on into the future. The new generation of Airbenders made it a plot point that there were aspects of their previous lives they were not willing to part with, and the tradition of the Air Nomads, had to grow and change like never before in order to survive at all. That could very well sever the deep spirituality which allowed their Bender population to boom. Their numbers may be on the rebound, but the new Airbenders may need to rediscover their spirituality and age-old traditions if they hope to bounce back to their full numbers anytime soon.

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