I first realized that yoga could impact me in ways beyond my physical body during deep relaxation practice in the classes I took over 25 years ago. After 45 minutes or so of physical movement, we would lie on our backs on a yoga mat in a pose known as savasana. For goodness sake, what the heck was happening? I didn’t know, but I knew I wanted more of that. It was extraordinary to feel so transported, almost like an out-of-body experience. And so began my deep dive into yoga therapeutics and Ayurveda, the ancient system of healing from India.
I resonate with the yoga philosophy, which teaches we are multi-dimensional beings and that the mind and body are not separate. I believed, then and now, that there is much more to our being than meets the eye, and that each of us can work with these various aspects of our being to improve our health and our experience of life.
Yoga refers to these aspects as koshas. They are also sometimes called sheaths or layers. Here is a brief description of the five layers we all possess. They’re like Russian nesting dolls. While the koshas themselves do not decrease in size or relevance, they are more subtle the deeper you go.
Let’s begin with the outermost sheath or body, which is called the Annamaya kosha. The Annamaya kosha refers to the physical body, and is sustained by the food we eat. The quality of the food we ingest is an important aspect of a healthy Annamaya kosha. It’s the densest layer of our being and it’s the only layer that we can see, touch, and feel. Most people who initially come to a yoga class are interested in a physical workout. After a while, they may find themselves drawn to deeper and more subtle layers of practice. (I know I was.) This is a natural progression. Yoga is unique in its capacity to impact not only the body, but other koshas too.
The second sheath or the energy body is called the Pranamaya kosha. Prana is energy. It is often referred to as chi in Eastern medicine. Both prana and chi refer to the vital life force. Its physical manifestation is the breath. Prana is quite literally the bridge between the mind and the body. When we learn to use the breath in a skillful way, it becomes a portal to our mind, emotions, and spirit. Modern science is proving what the ancient sages knew: breathing techniques not only enhance physical well-being, they have the capacity to reduce stress, improve vitality, and lessen anxiety and depression. Eating whole foods feeds our prana, as does the sun, the most vital source of prana to all living beings.
The third sheath is the mind, known as the Manomaya kosha. This kosha takes a break from conscious awareness when we sleep, but during our waking hours, it is the layer that encompasses mind and emotions. It often runs on automatic, such as when we drive, brush our teeth, or do anything we’ve done countless times. It’s also the sheath we use to interpret things anew. If we have thought patterns that are negative or unproductive, the Manomaya kosha can often misinterpret things, but it can be trained. Mind practices such as meditation are fundamental in developing this sheath. It’s also important to remember that while we don’t literally feed the mind, it digests everything we put before it in what we choose to read or watch. In this way, the diet you feed your mind via sensory stimulation is just as important as the food on your plate.
The fourth body or sheath is the Vijnanamaya kosha, and it is concerned with our capacity for judgment and discernment. It is responsible for the highest functions of the mind, including willpower, ethics, and wisdom. Key tools to develop this aspect of the mind are the Yamas and the Niyamas, the ethical guides to living. The Yamas provide guidelines for social restraint in the world, and the Niyamas address practices for cultivating self-discipline and self-control. (Read more about the five Yamas in my blog posts on Non-violence, Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Moderation, and Non-greed.) Through this kosha, we develop deeper insight into ourselves, discover our life purpose, and acquire a more inclusive understanding of the world.
The fifth and final body is the Anandamaya kosha, or the bliss body. Ananda means bliss. Generally, we think of spiritual leaders possessing the capacity to live 24/7 in this kosha. The Dalai Lama and Gandhi are two incarnated beings who come to mind. Most of us are working on it; it’s a process! We can aspire to this kosha and experience it on many levels, even if we can’t continuously sustain it. This realm can be nurtured through selfless practices like volunteering and serving others. Some find they develop this sheath by practicing devotion to whatever calls to them, be it a religious path or not. The true expression of this kosha includes not only bliss, but joy, peace, and a sense of unity.
A trained yoga therapist views the human body as a holistic system. Much akin to the butterfly effect, which states that small and seemingly insignificant things occurring in one part of the world can have a significant impact elsewhere, the kosha model acknowledges the interconnectivity between all layers of body, mind, and spirit. Healing, growth, and self-realization is never linear. In fact, while healing may not occur in the physical body the way we might desire, it may manifest in other layers. The koshas provide a roadmap for this worthy and mysterious journey.
Over these past two decades, I’ve experienced challenges, accomplishments, and loss. Understanding and working with the koshas helps me surf the waters and be fully present for the richness, tragedy, and joy that life has to offer. In working with clients, the sheathes can serve as a wonderful guide — a compass, if you will — for revealing the most useful approach in helping people achieve their goals.