YOGA AND THE 5 KOSHAS: AN INWARD JOURNEY OF AWARENESS
The ancient yogis have drawn a map to explore the deepest levels of our being and to facilitate the inward journey of yoga. This map describes five different layers or veils of consciousness within us. Each layer has its own characteristics and functions and thus requires different methods to experience and uncover.
By cultivating awareness of these subtle layers, we gain insight into ourselves by developing a greater awareness of our inner world. Understanding how the practices of yoga bring the three shararas and the five koshas—body, breath, mind, wisdom, and spirit—into harmony, not only promotes overall health and wellness but also brings you closer to the ultimate aim of yoga, self-realization, and enlightenment.
What are the koshas?
Kosha is a Sanskrit word translated as layer or sheath. It is used in yoga philosophy to describe the different layers of our being. These layers are called sheaths or veils because they cover each other, one on top of each other.
Koshas are often compared to the image of a Russian nesting doll or the concentric layers of an onion. The physical body is the outermost layer and coarsest sheath of the koshas. The deeper layers include the emotional, mental, and causal bodies. At the deepest layer of one’s consciousness is the bliss sheath, which is said to contain our true nature, pure consciousness itself.
Origins of the koshas
The concept of having five layers within our body appeared in the earliest yogic texts, in the second chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad. This ancient yoga text is thought to have been written during the sixth century B.C.
It provides teachings on attaining self-realization—a state where there is no separation between self and the oneness of the entire universe. This is also known as the layered Maya theory. Maya translates as “illusion.” This theory states that our deepest knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual understanding are hidden in layers within us.
The 5 koshas
The outermost layer is our gross physical body, the Annamaya kosha. Anna means “food,” as this sheath feeds our awareness into the other layers and provides the ability to sustain the other four koshas. Our bodies need to be nourished every day to survive, grow and develop. We can support this physical layer by exercising regularly, sleeping well, and eating healthy foods.
The next three layers of the self are considered to be part of the subtle body or Sukuma-sarira.
The next layer within the physical sheath is the energy body, the Pranamaya kosha. Prana means “vital energy” or “life force energy” as this energetic layer contains and regulates the movement of the physical and mental energies through the energy channels (nadis) and energy centers (chakras).
We can support this subtle layer by incorporating breath work, chakra activation, and mudras in our asana practice. Pranayamas, ancient yogic breathing exercises, are the most potent practices for unblocking stagnant energy and strengthening and activating prana.
The next layer is the mental body, the Manamaya kosha. Mana means ”mind” as this sheath contains our mental thoughts and emotional feelings. This kosha governs our mental activity, perceptions, beliefs, and habit patterns. We can support this mental and emotional layer with regular meditation practice and mindfulness techniques. Meditation helps you understand what is going on inside of you and how to better control your mind and emotions.
The last layer of the subtle body is the wisdom body, the Vijnanamaya kosha. Vijnana means “knowledge” as this sheath contains intuition, wisdom, and witness consciousness. In this kosha, we are detached from thoughts, ego, and sense of self. We can support the wisdom sheath through deep meditation, the practice of detachment, and the techniques of Jnana yoga.
The last kosha that directly covers the True Self is the bliss body, the Anandamaya kosha. Ananda means “bliss” as this sheath contains the pure unchanging happiness, joy, love, peace, and ecstasy that is found here at the deepest and innermost layer of our being. These are not merely feelings, but a state of being that has always existed yet has been buried by the other koshas. Behind this thin subtle layer resides the pure consciousness of our True Self.
The blissful body is the place of eternal happiness. When you are connected to this body, you feel lightness, ease, contentment, and finally, a great unending Joy. We can connect to this layer through the practice of bhakti-yoga.
Benefits of exploring the koshas
When we understand the five koshas of the human body, we begin to see how each layer affects us individually and collectively. We become aware of the layers of our own being and how they interact with others. By consciously exploring the koshas, we also strengthen our ability to recognize them in other people and situations. Exploring the koshas helps us:
- Become more mindful and aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Learn about the relationship between our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves
- Create a clearer path and purpose for our spiritual journey
- Experience the power of transformation and self-inquiry
- Softens and dissolves the ego-mind’s selfishness, greed, anger, and jealousy.
- Strengthens mental focus and concentration
- Have a clear sense of center to better navigate your inner self.
- Gain an understanding of the true nature of reality
- Feel empowered and connected to the universe
- Move toward experiencing powerful states of Self-realization and enlightenment
Integrating the koshas
All five layers of self are interdependent and connected. The practices of Yoga help bring all the koshas and the shararas into harmony. When we peal away the outermost layer, we become aware of the next layer beneath it. As we peel away the layers, we discover the truth of who we really are. As these deep truths arise, we must integrate them into our sense of self. This integration requires patience, humility, trust, and surrender. It takes time to cultivate the wisdom to know when to move deeper and when to stop and integrate.