Why Only Some People Have Bending Powers In The Last Airbender
8 mins read

Why Only Some People Have Bending Powers In The Last Airbender


  • Bending in Avatar universe comes from lion turtles, spirituality, and possibly genetics.
  • Not every nation in ATLA has the same number of benders because of their size and spirituality.
  • Creators purposely left bending rules ambiguous to create an exciting narrative.



Some characters in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe are gifted with incredible bending abilities – but not everyone. The majority of people in the Four Nations are non-benders, born without the aptitude for bending fire, earth, water or air. While the precise reasons behind the distribution of benders in the world are largely mysterious, both Avatar: The Last Airbender and sequel series – The Legend of Korra – have shed some light on them. The Legend of Korra two-parter “Beginnings” revealed that humans in the Avatar universe first learned bending from the lion turtles.

Ten thousand years before the start of ATLA, the world was full of spirits, and humans lived on the backs of lion turtles to stay safe. When they left, the lion turtles each gave their people control of a different element. Humans learned greater mastery of the elements from non-human masters like dragons, mole badgers, sky bison, or even the moon. However, not every human in Avatar: The Last Airbender gained bending abilities. While there’s clear lore about the origins of bending, the explanation for some people having bending abilities while others don’t is quite nebulous.


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Avatar’s Bending Powers Come From A Spiritual Connection

Kyoshi looking down at Aang in a vision in Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

The percentage of benders in the population varies from nation to nation. Before they were purged by the Fire Nation, all the Air Nomads were airbenders. Speaking in an interview with Avatar Spirit, Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creator Bryan Konietzko explained that the prevalence of benders is connected to the overall spirituality of a nation:

From early on we thought the Air Nomads would be all benders… It’s more of a spiritual connection. But they have – they had – the smallest population. Earth Kingdom has the biggest population but the smallest percentage of benders. So yeah, there were these notions we kicked around that it wasn’t going to be regimented or ruled through specific lineages. We liked the idea that each of the cultures have a different spiritual vantage point… coming at it from a different angle.”

The spiritual connection explains why some nations have stronger bending abilities. No two nations will have the same faith base, even if they connect to the same spiritual world. Additionally, this explains why the Avatar can bend all the elements, whereas humans are limited to a single type of bending. The Avatar is part spirit, rather than simply possessing spirituality. As such, they have a unique connection to the spirit world. Humans’ bending abilities, on the other hand, are based on their ancestors, who first learned one type of bending from the lion turtles in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Bending Is Not Necessarily Genetic In Avatar: The Last Airbender

Katara and Sokka in the tunnels in Netflix's Avatar

Bending abilities appear to be a blend of genetics and spirituality, rather than being of a singular origin. Bending can skip generations so that a bender can be born to non-bender parents. There’s no indication that either of Toph Beifong’s parents were earthbenders, yet she became the most powerful earthbender in Avatar: The Last Airbender history, as well as the first ever metalbender – a subtype of bending based on the idea that metals come from ore in the Earth’s crust.

Besides the four main types, there are 12 specialized subtypes of bending – including metalbending, bloodbending, and spiritbending.

Fire Lord Azulon, Ozai’s father, believed he could combine his own lineage with that of Avatar Roku’s in order to create unparalleled firebenders, arranging for Ozai to marry Roku’s granddaughter. While Zuko and Azula were certainly powerful firebenders, it’s unclear whether they had their genetics to thank for this. This could have just as easily come from the spirituality of the Fire Nation or the firebending needs of their population.

The Avatar: The Last Airbender comics and The Legend of Korra also delve into what happens when families include people from different nations. If parents have different types of bending abilities, their child can inherit one, the other, or neither, but not both. Only the Avatar can bend more than one element. Having two parents who are both benders, even masters of their art, is also no guarantee that their children will be benders. Most of Aang and Katara’s children possessed bending powers at birth. Tenzin was an airbender, Kya was a waterbender, and Bumi was a non-bender.

Different Nations Have Different Amounts Of Benders In ATLA

Not every nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender possesses the same number of benders and non-benders. The balance between benders and non-benders within a nation is tied to both the size of that nation and the intensity of spirituality among its people. There could also be a genetic component, though the degree to which that dictates bending abilities is uncertain.

While all nations can become benders, The Legend of Korra reinforced the idea that airbending has a unique connection to spirituality. When the portals to the spirit worlds were opened, a number of non-benders from all four nations, including Aang and Katara’s non-bending son, suddenly developed airbending powers due to the influx of spiritual energy. However, no additional firebenders, waterbenders, or earthbenders were created. This shows that nations with more spirituality are more likely to become benders.


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Additionally, earthbending is exceptionally uncommon in Avatar: The Last Airbender even though they are the biggest nation. This is likely because they are grounded in nature rather than spirituality. Their entire bending abilities rely on things they can touch and see, rather than faith in the spirits. Unlike the other benders, they can’t create something from nothing. Putting all these factors together, the Earth Nation is at a disadvantage when it comes to inheriting bending abilities.

Ultimately, there’s no way that all nations would have the same number of benders and non-benders because that would require them to allhave the same size, spirituality, and genetics. Even if that were to occur, not every bender would have the training to master their skills, leaving some dormant. It’s worth noting, though, that non-benders are far from helpless. They can train to become chi-blockers, with the ability to temporarily block a person’s bending ability. Additionally, characters like Sokka prove that determination and bravery are more valuable attributes than any type of bending.

ATLA’s Creators Purposefully Left Bending Rules Ambiguous

Katara, Sokka, and Aang take defensive positions in Avatar The Last Airbender series

In the interview with Avatar Spirit, co-creator Bryan Konietzko explained that they purposefully left the rules about bending unclear. They wanted both the audience and the characters in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe to wonder who would be a bender. This choice has multiple narrative benefits. The unpredictability of bending abilities contributes to the excitement and surprise that occurs when someone starts bending suddenly. Additionally, the ambiguity allows audiences to pick and choose which bending they would want to possess if they were in the Avatar: The Last Airbender world. There are fewer limitations, allowing for more imagination.

Source: Avatar Spirit

Avatar the Last Airbender Netflix Poster

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Live-Action)

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Release Date
February 22, 2024


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Albert Kim

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