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.