Koshas: The Five Layers of You

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The day that my yoga practice really took hold was at the end of a spontaneous private session; it was a new studio, and I was the only one who showed up for the group class. In the closing moments, the teacher said something about the “koshas,” which at the time meant absolutely nothing to me. But her words about the deepest layer of ourselves, our truest, purest form that was untouched by time, by history, by illness, by anything of this earth or this life… well, it rocked me to my core.

In other blogs and interviews, I’ve talked about how those words landed right in my heart, and that I had been waiting to hear them for years without knowing that I was searching.

Fast forward a number of years, thousands of classes, and hundreds of hours of study, training, and teaching later, and I finally feel like I understand the Koshas a bit better.

According to an ancient Tantric yoga text, there are five layers, or sheaths of the human body, or really, of the human being. The way that I have come to envision them is not as layers, one on top of each other, but interpenetrating. They are described as outer to inner, as layers of an onion, but that doesn’t really make sense to me either. I see them, feel them, as interpenetrating in the sense that they each take up the same space of the body, the space of the being, but only together, all five, create a density of the body that includes not just the physical form, but the energetic as well.

Difficult to grasp, I know, so I’ll try to break it down a little, and hopefully some of this will land.

The Annamaya kosha is the physical body. Literally meaning food, it is the part of ourselves that is fed by the earth and that will return to the earth - our bones, our physical self. While the physical body is the most tangible of the koshas, truly learning to feel your body, to listen and sense it from within, takes practice. Most of us think about our neck when it hurts, but to sense the more subtle messages that the body sends when, for example, we’re pushing ourselves towards injury, is a different level of awareness. Tuning in to how food affects us internally is one way to strengthen your connection to the physical body, as is a yoga practice that can be meditative within vigorously challenging or quieting poses.

Pranamaya kosha is not tangible, but I bet you can feel it. It’s the vital energy body - your qi, your prana, your life force. Waves of heat rippling through your body, sleepiness washing over you, restlessness, the vibrational “buzz” of a healing sound bath, or the feeling of your heart and mind expanding during meditation: these are all sensations of being connected to your vital energy body. How about the energy of a person that comes with them when they enter a room? You can sense it, right? You can feel the energy that you bring into a room, too. We communicate so much energetically in addition to verbally, right? Your yoga practice not only tones the physical body, but aims to move stagnant energy as well; the two kosha interpenetrate each other and even though one is not tangible, both can be reached through asana. If you practice meditation at the end of your asana practice, you may find it easier to connect with that sense of energetic expansion where you feel that the body reaches beyond the boundaries of the skin.

Manomaya kosha is the mental body where your thoughts and daydreams live. But just as your thoughts and emotions have superficial and deeper layers, so does the manomaya kosha. We know how powerful our beliefs, opinions and assumptions can be, and that they are formed over time rather than occur in a vacuum, right? Part of how we experience the world is processed through these powerful mental structures and patterns that we build and keep tending. In Sanskrit, these are known as samskaras, or deep thought grooves and patterns in the mental body. Those “I’m not good at…” or “I can’t do…” thoughts that keep us from going beyond our comfort zone? Samskaras. Facing challenge with “I’ve got this” or meditating with a mantra “I have enough. I do enough. I am enough”: Samskaras. Try committing to just one week of writing down your thoughts in reaction to what happens during your day. Once you see the ways that your mental patterns have taken on a life of their own, you can decide where you want to start shifting the patterns with new words, new thought patterns.

Vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom body is where your intuition lives. Remember that these layers are really existing within each other, interpenetrating, and they are just different categorizations of the elements that are, all together, your body, your being. In fact, knowing that we are more than our physical bodies and more than our thoughts and emotions is part of what the vijnanamaya kosha is about. Remember a time that you were so engrossed in something creative: writing, making music, drawing a blueprint or planning, and everything started flowing even faster than you could keep up with it intellectually. That intuitive “take over” is the vijnanamaya kosha at work. It can also be felt during meditation, or even in those quiet moments when you sit on the beach, looking out over the ocean, a problem or challenge in the heart or mind, and you just let yourself be quiet long enough that clarity comes. That. That is your intuition, your wisdom body, your awareness in observation.

At the core of all these is the anandamaya kosha, or bliss body. Even in the image of other layers taking up the same space and interpenetrating to create the physical and energetic density of my being, I still think of the bliss body as something separate, encased, deep, and precious. It is that part of your being that is untouched by time, by illness, by anything of this world. It is pure light, pure bliss, and ecstasy. Connecting with the bliss body can happen in deep meditation, but it can also happen in a state of prayer, devotional song, or even euphoric dance when you realize viscerally that all is love. You are love, and love is real, and all the rest is constructed and temporary. When you know that life is a miracle and completely natural simultaneously, you’re tapping into your bliss body, and connecting to that place in the other beings around you.