Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The 5 Koshas

The science and spirituality of yoga invites us to explore many different ways of looking at the self. There are several useful conceptual models that can help us understand the multidimensional beings that we are. In addition to using western anatomy to understand and condition our physical being, yoga philosophy offer us maps to explore the terrain of the subtle body, or energy anatomy.

One of these maps, called the koshas,  is an ancient system made up of 5 layers, or sheaths, that comprise our physical, emotional and spiritual being.  These layers progress from the most dense to the ethereal, yet they are not completely separate, discrete entities—they are interdependent and intertwined. In brief, they are:

Annamaya kosha: the physical body, or “food” sheath. This is the most dense and obvious layer—our bones, muscles, organs, and outer appearance.

Pranamaya kosha: the breath sheath. This is the vital life force that moves through the body. The breath is the primary vehicle by which we can increase the flow of this life force through the energy channels (nadis) of the subtle body.

Manamaya kosha: the mental sheath. This layer is made up of our continually changing thoughts and feelings, the vacillations of mind and waves of emotion. This kosha governs the rational, linear, and sequential thought processes. It is sometimes referred to as the “lower” mind (not because it is bad, but because it does not operate with expansive awareness).

Vijnanamaya kosha: Wisdom mind.  Also considered the “higher mind,” this kosha brings us intuitive knowing and higher levels of consciousness. It allows us to develop “witness consciousness”, the ability to observe the comings and goings of mental and emotional states without judging them or being identified with them. It allows us spaciousness of mind and heart as we move through life’s joys and challenges. It is the bridge between the egoic self and the higher Self.

Anandamaya kosha: the bliss sheath. When we have moments of deep peace, awakening to Presence with a sense of connectedness to All That Is, we are dwelling in this kosha. We get a glimpse of our limitless, spacious self, our true magnificence.

Awareness of these layers of being is not a linear progression. Our consciousness moves freely between them, and each one influences and informs the others. For example, breath control practices increase the flow of prana, or life force (pranamaya kosha), which can be felt in the body as energy and physical sensation.  Our heart rate and blood pressure are affected (annamaya kosha), while the thoughts and emotions come into stillness (manomaya kosha).

It is interesting to note that each of the koshas has the word maya in it, which means “illusion,” or “veil.”  Even the bliss sheath is a thin layer of separation from Pure Consciousness. All of the layers are manifestations of form, but beneath them all lies the undifferentiated, primordial essence of Brahman.

If the koshas are seen as coverings that veil the light of our true self, does this mean that the intention of our life’s journey is to transcend the first four to finally arrive at bliss? Kripalu teacher and writer Danny Arguetty suggests that the goal is to awaken to the presence of ananda (bliss) in each one of these layers.  “In lieu of a systematic journey wherein the mission is to travel through each kosha in turn to find only joy in the last, we engage in an ongoing, dynamic dance that unearths the ecstasy embedded in each sheath.”

The various practices of yoga support us in the exploration of each of these layers. Our asana practice  supports inquiry of the physical sheath.  Breathing practices (pranayama) aid in the exploration of our energy body. Concentration and meditation support clarity and balance on the emotional and mental layer. All of these practices help cultivate the witness, clearer seeing and greater access to our intuitive wisdom. When we tone our layers in this way, we create the conditions for us to open to and experience moments of bliss, the grace of seeing our true expansive nature.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Why do we chant OM at the beginning and end of class? What does it mean? Is it a religious prayer?

Many students who are new to yoga ask these questions, and due to the unfamiliarity they may feel tentative about participating in chanting OM. A reader of this blog asked me to speak to this topic, so I thought I would share a bit about the practice of chanting OM.

OM is a bija, or “seed” mantra, which has no concrete linguistic meaning but has a powerful effect on the body and psyche through vibration. It is a very simple and direct way to call yourself home to your Center. Chanting OM helps the mind to focus when attention is scattered. It also balances the chakras (energy centers of the subtle body) as the vibration moves up the spine. It is an ancient, primal resonance that simulates the effect of a sonic womb. When chanting OM in a group, many yogis experience a sense of being enveloped by an all-encompassing, loving force that connects everyone.

OM is considered the cosmic YES, affirming the the Divine Presence (however one may conceive of That).

However, the audible OM is just a symbol of the vast cosmic resonance that embraces the universe. The true OM is an unstruck sounding, the primordial field out of which all vibration emerges. It is what the Taoists speak of as Tao, what the Kabbalah refers to as Ein Sof, the root of roots, or the primal emptiness from which all creation emerges.

Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond 
is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see. ~Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell

When chanted, OM is often broken up into 3 syllables: A-U-M. We begin by taking a deep yogic breath, inviting the lower abdomen to expand, then widening the ribs as the air moves into the middle of the lungs, and finally lifting the heart by drawing the fullness of breath all the way into the upper chest. We may pause for a moment to feel the delicious fullness, and then we begin to empty the chest with the syllable “AH.” As we release and soften through the ribs, we round the mouth to flow into the syllable “OH.” Finally, the lips come together as the belly empties and we draw the navel inward, allowing the “MMM” sound to reverberate up the spine, all the way into the cranium.

Through the skillfull contraction of the abdominal muscles, you should control this humming so that it smoothly tapers off into a silence of the body, mind and heart. As you can see, the practice of the great yogic breath is necessary to derive the full benefit of this mantra. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the great yogic breath must accompany the great yogic sound.  ~ Russill Paul, The Yoga of Sound

Each part of the AUM corresponds to a particular state of consciousness: A is the waking state, U is the dream state, and M is deep sleep. The silence that the AUM resolves into is the fourth part of the mantra. It corresponds to Turiya, the field of spacious consciousness, a state of yogic power that encompasses all the other states. This silence is the sound of Brahman, the Absolute.

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.  After a time you hear it:  there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence.
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters, it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.   ~Annie Dillard

OM is often used as a prefix to other mantras, as an acknowledgement of the sacred. For example, in the Sanskrit mantra OM Namah Shivaya, the words Namah and Shivaya mean “I bow to Shiva, transformative power of the universe.” OM has no translatable meaning, but adds power and sacredness to the mantra.  

In yoga class, OM is offered as a salutation and an invitation to come home to the place of peace within us. It is the simplest of invocations and benedictions, creating a sense of sacredness around our practice. One does not need to believe in any deity or ascribe to any particular religious doctrine—it is simply a calling upon the Essence toward which all spiritual paths lead.

Having said all of the above, I must emphasize that, in my classes, it is always optional to chant OM (or any other mantra, for that matter). One can simply bathe in the vibration rising and circling through the space without choosing to actively participate. Either way, one receives the benefit of the vibration.

OM is a mantra with tremendous power to uplift and transform one’s spirit. May you find great joy and peace in this practice, both on and off the mat.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cultivating Prana Flow

Hello Dear Yogis,
It's an absolutely magnificent spring day here in Ithaca, and the forecast predicts glorious weather for the next several days. Given that yoga is a practice that involves our whole being and life, consider taking your yoga outside. I'm talking about much more than dragging your mat outside and doing sun salutations (although that is a wonderful way to greet the day!). Yoga is about so much more than postures. It's about being fully alive, drawing upon all that is available to us to support the flow of the life energy(prana) in us, through us, and around us.
Prana is life force - the stuff of those million, zillion stars circling and exploding. Human beings receive it directly into the body through the air. We take it in other ways as well - through live foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, through fresh water, through living, breathing, trees and vegetation, and, if we are open to it through the love of other people and creatures. We probably take it in more mysterious ways, too, I think - through music, the sound of inspiring words, and perhaps through beautiful sights.
~Stephen Cope
Prana is the first and most essential nutrient that we need. The good news is that it is all around us, and we have plenty of opportunities to cultivate it and invite it in. Here are some simple ways you can increase the flow of prana, off of your yoga mat:
  • Spend time by a waterfall, at this time when the abundant rains and the melting snows have given rise to a powerful flow, and feel the spray on your face.
  • Sit under a magnolia tree and breathe deeply. Take in the fragrance like it's nourishment for your soul (it is!).
  • Let your eyes delight in the colors of all that is in bloom everywhere. Look deeply and be grateful, as these ephemeral blossoms will soon fall to the ground.
  • Prepare and eat a salad of locally-grown baby greens.
  • Enjoy a good belly laugh. Laugh for no reason.
  • Share a big,warm hug with someone today. If there's no person to fill that role today, embrace a pet or a tree.
  • Listen to birds, and sing back to them. Sing your joy of being alive, in a spontaneous, made-up language.
There are infinite ways to invite prana into your being each and every day. Let your practice be deep and wide, on the mat and in the beautiful world around us. Let your yoga be your life.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Hello Dear Yogis,

Spring is bursting forth everywhere, and even though it's been rather wet, I've been enjoying the transformation. I hope all of you are taking the time to notice the miracles, all around us and within us, vast and small. As I revel in the unfolding of life around me, I am awestruck by this amazing universe in which we live. No matter what craziness is going on in my head, no matter what drama is distracting me in my life, no matter what sorrows are pulling at my heart, I can always count on the constancy of the cycles of the season, the opening of the blossoms, the return of the verdant fields.

A couple of people have asked me for the words to the Sufi song we sang in class last week. So here they are, ever reminding us to trust the gift of impermanence, and the returning of beauty and grace:

Be fool not, O night, the morn will break!
Beware O darkness, the sun will shine!
Be not vain, O mist, it will once more be clear--
My sorrow, forget not, once again joy will arise,
once again joy will arise!

~Hazrat Inayat Khan

And I offer you this beautiful poem by Walt Whitman. Enjoy the miracles!


… I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet
and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with miracles. 


Poetry, readings & words of wisdom from modern and ancient sources