In yoga philosophy, we are definitely more than our physical body. In fact, our being is broken down into five separate ‘koshas’ or sheaths, nested within each other like Russian dolls. Right at the centre, at the heart of our five koshas, rests Atman, our true nature or our soul, sometimes described as pure consciousness or oneness – the stuff that’s beyond words basically!
Anyhow, looking at our being through the lens of the five koshas can be a useful way to explore the totality of our beings, and shift our perception beyond the limitations of the purely tangible and visible. Much of the practice of yoga is designed to shift and expand our perception in this way. I like to use the five koshas as a practical way to explore our holistic self-care too – it’s kind of like a useful check-list, to make sure we’re not neglecting a part of our being. And, really, the more you explore, the more you realise that all the layers are of course interconnected; really it’s impossible to look at any single one in isolation. And, as with every interconnected system, if just one part is out of balance, then the whole is affected, so it’s really just another pointer towards the wisdom of taking a holistic approach towards our self-care. Over time, working with the koshas helps us gain a more comprehensive sense of ourselves, which gives us more empowerment to make good decisions for ourselves.
So, here’s a brief look at the five koshas, with some ideas about how you can investigate and tend to them in your own life. If you’re interested to learn more and dive deeply into an experiential day all about the koshas, then join me on my up-coming, ‘Journey Through the Koshas’ yoga day retreat in Warwickshire, central England on February 22nd 2020… 🙂
1. Annamayakosha – the ‘food’ body or physical body.
Annamaya kosha is the outermost layer of our being, the most ‘gross’ (as opposed to subtle), in that it’s fully perceptible by our five senses. We can see it, touch it, feel it, smell it, taste it (?!) and hear it. The phrase ‘we are what we eat’ sums up how we can best tend to this layer of our body. Our bodies manifest visibly for us the sum total of our treatment of it through our lives, as well of course showing us our hereditary traits. For example, if we have eaten a diet of daily pizza for the last ten years and mostly sat on the sofa, then our food body will show this very clearly. Conversely, if we’ve adopted a healthy diet and partake in regular physical exercise then the food body will look much more balanced. The yoga asanas are designed in large part to purify and balance the annamaya kosha. We first begin to work at this ‘gross’ level in our yoga practice in order to eventually access the more subtle layers. For example, until we’re able to sit still relatively comfortably for a sustained amount of time, meditative practices remain pretty challenging for us.
2. Pranamayakosh – the ‘prana’ (life force/energetic) body.
Now we are accessing the next most subtle layer of our being, our life force energy, which animates all of our actions. One way of looking at this is through the lens of the breath although, in truth, it’s not this straightforward. It’s really about the fact we are energetic beings and, separate from the state of our physical bodies, our energy levels can fluctuate a lot, depending on a variety of factors, not least our interaction with other energies in our external environment, such as other people or places. Life force energy or prana animates everything, not just humans, and we are all interconnected on some level. So, practices that help you become more sensitive to your experience of your own energetic being, and how and why this shifts, become a natural part of the yoga journey, and becoming aware of how you use your own energy and allow yourself to be affected by external energies becomes more and more important, the more your sensitivity and awareness of this layer of your being increases. Personally, I spend just as much time on energetic self-care as I do on physical self-care these days. I have to, to remain balanced and happy. As a good starting point, pranayama techniques begin to help us focus on our inner world and, along with intentional-based meditation practices, we can improve our ability to consciously move prana around the body, for health and healing, and strengthen our pranamaya kosha.
3. Manomayakosha – the mental body.
Well, I think we are all VERY aware of this sheath in the modern, western world! This is the layer that comprises the mind and how it processes the information that we gain from the five senses. Basically, the mind is always receiving sensory information, comparing this to previous experiences and putting out a decision of the experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on this, with associated instructions in how we need to behave. It is useful for survival in certain situations but, as we are pretty stuck in this layer compared to our other koshas, it can also be a hindrance to the health and happiness of our total being. If any of the five koshas becomes dominant, the others will become proportionately suppressed and, as previously discussed, the interconnected whole suffers. So, one of the best practices we can do here is watch our thoughts. There are hundreds of different mindfulness-based meditation practices that can help us do this but, in truth, over time we can become better at doing it in every aspect of our life – life has the potential to be a moving meditation eventually. Through disciplining ourselves to regularly watch our thoughts, we soon see the utter madness of our mind when it is overused, as it is in current modern society. It jumps around, contradicts itself frequently and often tells us complete nonsense (especially when we talk to ourselves about ourselves – have you noticed this?). Over time, through continued observation, we are held less in the thrall of the mind, finding ourselves able to change habitual and unhelpful thought patterns and associated repeated behaviour (called samskaras in yoga philosophy). Then we are free to connect more with the truth and wisdom held in other layers of our being, to counteract and balance out the mind-dominance. And we of course feel better as a whole as a result.
4. Vijnanamaya kosha – the wisdom or awareness body.
I love exploring this kosha alongside manomaya kosha – the two are so interwoven. Exploring vijnanamaya kosha involves dropping into a more subtle layer of our body still, which is sometimes called the inner observer. In order to watch our thoughts, we have to connect with vijnanamaya kosha. It is a wiser part of our being, able to discern right action aside from the reactive mental reasoning that we do as a default in every situation. I feel it as a non-judgemental and very loving, wise being that cares about me and sits somewhere deep within me, offering gentle guidance whenever I take time to listen. This layer is also the realm of insight and intuition – that inner knowing that is always within us, and those glorious ‘aha’ moments of genius that we sometimes experience. Through committing to regular quiet time for meditative inner listening, over time we find it easier to tune into this quiet, wise part of us, above the noise of the mental chatter, and we learn to trust it more and more. And, again, we come back to balance. I also like exploring how this kosha is so interwoven with the more ‘gross’ layers of the physical body and pranic body, both of which contain deep, deep wisdom that we can tap into through connection to our wisdom body.
5. Anandamaya kosha – the bliss body.
Aaah, how nice it would be to be here more often! Anandamaya kosha is the seat of bliss in the body. It is always a part of us but, as you can see from the drawing, it’s the closest to our centre and usually depicted as the smallest layer and so you can understand that, for the average human being, it’s the most difficult layer to access and have direct experience of. Most of us have to do a lot of work to balance and nourish the outer four layers before we can rest in our bliss body with ease. But, all of us will experience it at certain times of our life – perhaps during a sublime moment in nature, or an intimate moment with a partner, or at the birth of a new child. Through commitment to regular self-care, healing and consciousness expansion through holistic practices such as yoga, most dedicated practitioners will eventually find increasing experiences of the bliss body, often felt as the heart seemingly exploding with love for everyone and everything around you, and sometimes in a more subtle way of simply feeling deeply connected to the calm, happy truth of who you really are. Savasana, at the end of a yoga practice, is often a space where people can drop into the bliss body, even for a moment. That’s why it’s so important to take these still moments of integration whenever we consciously work to balance the totality of our beings. It is in these moments of stillness and quiet that we are most likely to drop to the centre of our beings. And, who knows, maybe one day we even have an experience of Atman – but I will have to leave you to your own explorations here, as it truly is beyond words I guess; beyond all polarity, duality, beyond everything…