Hidden Layers of the Self: The Five Koshas
Like the Russian nesting dolls (called matryoshki), yogis have long viewed the body as having five layers, or koshas. Neatly fitting one into the other, the koshas comprise not only our physical body, but our energetic body. These layers intertwine and direct our spiritual journey from the outside all the way to the seat of our innermost being.
Understanding the interplay of the koshas provides insight into the purpose behind many familiar yoga practices and the ultimate goal of helping you find your sense of wellbeing.
In this post, I will guide you through an in-depth look of each layer and the associated yoga practice.
The Five Layers
In the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient Vedic yoga text, a human being is described as having five sheaths, or koshas that intertwine each other, encasing the soul.
Vedic Definition of Sheath:
that which shields us from the truth
According to these ancient writings, our work is to unveil, at each layer, what is standing in our way of seeing ourselves as we are→ the pure, egoless, inner light.
Each of the five layers fit in the next one much like the Russian dolls. Only the densest is made of matter as we know it; the other four are energy states invisible to the physical eye. Though if we pay close attention, we can easily sense their presence. Since the inner bodies are the source of our well-being during life and the vehicle we travel in after death, India’s ancient yogis developed specific exercises to strengthen and tone each one in turn.
1. Annamaya Kosha: The Physical Layer, Casual Body and Food Sheath
The annamaya kosha is our most superficial layer. It is our physical body and is composed of skin, muscles, bones, connective tissue, fat and organs.
The annamaya kosha is the layer we are most easily aware of, as it is linked closely to our sensory experience in this world—what we see, feel, hear, touch and smell. It is also linked to our sense of survival, ego, and interactions with the world around us.
2. Pranamaya Kosha: The Energetic Layer, Subtle Body and Life Force Sheath
The next layer is our energetic body and breath. In essence, it is the circulatory system for prana. It governs our biological processes, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood.
In psychological terms, pranamaya kosha controls our bodily and spiritual rhythm. Awareness of this kosha allows you to move stagnant energy to experience greater vitality and an energetic connection to yourself, those around you and nature.
It’s all connected: If you read my recent blog on the Vagus Nerve or “nerve of emotion,” you’ll better understand that the vagus nerve serves as a communication superhighway relaying messages from the gut to the brain and back. One of the simplest and most effective ways to tone the vagus nerve is deep diaphragmatic breathing. Practicing three-part yogic breathing sends a signal through the vagus nerve to the brain that says, “time to relax.”
3. Manomaya Kosha: The Mental-Emotional Layer, Lower Mind and Mental Sheath
The third layer takes us into the deep recesses of the mind, emotions and nervous system. It involves the functions of the mind that relate to everyday living and our individual interpretation of life. It acts as a messenger, bringing experiences and sensations from the outer world into our intuitive body.
The manomaya kosha is linked to the left side of the brain, the sympathetic nervous system, and the reactive part of our mind representing:
- inner world
Our minds provide a constant commentary about our experiences as we go about our lives. It is this “mind-chatter” which can be a major hindrance to the development of the mind. Our minds create judgments and assumptions based on our one-sided perceptions of an experience.
Yoga Practice: Getting in touch with this kosha involves looking at our perceptions and mental patterns. When on our mat, we can direct our focus to our breath, our bodily sensations in asanas as well as our gaze helping train the mind to stay present. Instead of being pulled into the stories we tell ourselves, we can develop our concentration muscles (called dharana) by keeping the attention on both our physical sensations and as an observer of our minds.
We again have an opportunity to engage this layer in Savasana where we draw our attention inward (pratyahara). With practice, we are better able to observe our mind’s commentary as it arises, recognize the truths and then allow the untruths to fall away.
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha: The Intuitive-Wisdom Layer, Power of Judgement and Wisdom Sheath
The vijnanamaya kosha is often translated as “intellect,” but its real meaning is much broader. This kosha encompasses all the functions of the higher mind*, including conscience or psychic body that is the seat of intuition.
The vijnanamaya kosha allows us to develop a deeper awareness of ourselves and to see reality for what it is. Sometimes labeled “the mind beyond the mind,” the wisdom layer is connected to the more subtle layers of thoughts.
*The labels “lower mind” and “higher mind” do not indicate that one is better than the other. Both are essential.
Yoga Practice: Linked to the right side of our brain, the parasympathetic nervous system, or the part which remains aware of thoughts without getting caught up in them. it is the portion of our consciousness we aim to activate in yogic practices like meditation.
It is the piece of your brain watching, as if from an outside window looking in and saying: “Why did I act or react this way? Why did I say that? Why do I still let it get to me this much?”
This kosha sees the self not separated, but connected to the entire universe and everything in it. It is the part of the brain which is genius, creative and all-loving.
5. Anandamaya Kosha: The Bliss Layer and Bliss Body
The final and deepest layer, the anandamaya kosha, is the deepest and subtlest of all layers in which all the layers merge into the cosmic consciousness and is considered our soul. Because it is subtle, some people even say you can’t use words to describe it. Instead, it must be felt and experienced.
Yoga Practice: Accessing this layer is the work of all the koshas together. When we “do the work” of yoga (usually over a lifetime) and dive in through and beyond all of these layers, we arrive at the seed of all the layers called Samadhi. Transcending all five sheaths can lead to this state of pure bliss or joy. Here the separateness of the individual becomes united with the universal consciousness and all living things.
I hope you now see how the koshas inform the arc of a yoga class, beginning with asanas and flowing into relaxation, followed by pranayama and finally meditation. This kosha framework is integral to the practice of Yoga Nidra and guides yoga therapists like myself when working with clients.
The ultimate goal → to assist you in the reclaiming of a sense of wholeness.
If you’re curious to learn more or would like to schedule a yoga therapy appointment, reach out.