If you have attended a yoga class or meditated, you will understand that the experience goes far beyond the physical. Many people, myself included, proclaim to have begun attending yoga classes for the possibility of physical benefits but found themselves returning again and again for the well-being and mental effects as well as the undeniable sense of peace and ease that the practice helps to cultivate both on and off the mat.
Understanding the yogic model of the Koshas helps to explain that the practice of yoga and the way we experience our lives is far more than a physical experience. In this article, I will be explaining the Koshas, or layers, of experience.
The Koshas describe a model of experiencing the world that goes far beyond the depths of the physical experience. By using the Koshas as a model, it can help you to understand yourself a little bit more deeply as well as help you to understand your experience of yoga and meditation. Understanding the Koshas helps to explain the journey of yoga and enables you to explore what the esoteric concepts of "enlightenment" and "realisation of the True Self" means for you.
The ancient yogis understood that the human experience goes deeper much than just the physical. They were aware of this physical, energetic, mental, intuitive, and spiritual experience and explained these states of consciousness or experience through the concept of the Koshas, or sheaths. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient yogic text thought to be written during the 6th century BC, a human being is described as having five Koshas (the Sanskrit word translates as layer or sheath), or five different layers or veils of consciousness. These sheaths range from the densest to the subtlest and although presented in a linear fashion, these layers are interconnected, and each subtle layer comprises and encompasses the layers denser than it.
The journey of the yogi is to explore and attain each layer of consciousness and all yogic practices facilitate this aim. The 8 Limbs of Yoga as detailed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras demonstrates the central principles of yoga and and is a clear framework that you can return to again and again to help you experience each Kosha, or layer of consciousness.
These five Koshas are:
1. The Annamaya Kosha (The Physical Body)
This is the grossest and densest Kosha and this layer consists of our physical body; our skin, our bones, our organs etc. The Annamaya Kosha is comprised of and fuelled by the food that we eat, and this is reflected in the Kosha's name; anna meaning food and maya meaning comprised of. When we focus on this Kosha, we are cultivating a greater awareness and connection to our physical body. You can explore the Annaymaya Kosha by practising physical yoga asana (or poses). This could be described as the most tangible Kosha because especially in the West, we have a tendency to focus on this aspect of our lived experience. All Koshas are interlinked and therefore, this Kosha is also influenced by prana, the lifeforce energy in our bodies and all around us as detailed in yoga philosophy.
2. The Pranamaya Kosha (The Energy Body)
The Pranamaya Kosha is described as the energy field of the individual. Together with the Annamaya Kosha, the Pranamaya Kosha constitutes the basic human structure, and these two Koshas form the vessel of experience of the next three Koshas. The Pranamaya Kosha is influenced and fuelled by prana absorbed through the breath, through food and permeating from the world around us. Examples of feeling the energy body include feeling waves of heat or coolness in your body, feeling energised or sleepy or dull or restless or calm, even the subtle energy you feel when you are in the company of others. When we focus on this Kosha, we are cultivating a greater awareness of the breath. You can explore the Pranamaya Kosha by practising Pranayama (breathwork) and by doing so, we can help to keep this subtle energy flowing freely. The free flowing of energy in the body also affects the physical body or Annamaya Kosha, demonstrating how these Koshas are all interlinked.
3. The Manomaya Kosha (The Mental Body)
The Manomaya Kosha is described as the part of you that creates meaning from the world around you and is the bridge between our outer and inner worlds. There are many layers of the mental body ranging from the most superficial such as passing thoughts, images, perceptions, and emotions, to the deeper levels of beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that have been absorbed from your family and culture, as well as from accumulated mental patterns. When we focus on this Kosha, you become aware of your thoughts, judgements, and emotions. You can explore this Kosha by practising meditation techniques that include withdrawal of senses (Pratyahara) and one-pointed concentration (Dharana) as well as by practising giving space to all your thoughts and emotions without pushing them away. Our mental landscape affects our energetic and physical health and again, this demonstrates the interconnected nature of the Koshas.
4. The Vijnanamaya Kosha (The Wisdom Body)
The Vijnanamaya Kosha permeates the denser layers (Annamaya, Pranamaya and Manomaya) and this layer is described as the part of you that experiences inner knowing, intuition, and wisdom. This Kosha relates to our subconscious and unconscious mind and is said to the be link between the individual and the universal mind. When we focus on this Kosha, we allow the thinking mind to quieten down, and within this stillness, wisdom arises; we begin to experience life at an intuitive level. You can explore this Kosha by practising meditation. Again, it is only by practising yoga asana, pranayama, and concentration techniques that we can create this cessation of the activities and patterning of the mind, as described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (Sutra 1.2 Yoga chittavrittinirodha).
5. The Anandamaya Kosha (The Bliss Body)
Beyond the other four Koshas, permeating and comprising of them all, is the Anandamaya Kosha, or the sheath of bliss. This is the aspect of our experience where we feel a deep sense of inner peace and joy. It can be known as the state of mind called samadhi, the 8th Limb of Yoga. When you focus on this Kosha, you experience a deep instinctive knowing that life is worth living, that to be alive is the happiness we have been searching for, that we are an unlimited well of joy, bliss and contentment and to look externally for happiness is not necessary. You can explore this Kosha deeply during meditation, however, this experience of bliss can arise in the simplest moments of life.
These are the five Koshas, or sheaths, of experience and these are the five layers that we approach when diving into the journey of yoga. Yoga is so much more than a physical experience and so much more than a fitness class; it is the chance to experience the full spectrum of life. A life without all the facets is a dulled life, a life lived by looking through the window at yourself experiencing life rather than experiencing life itself. When you practise yoga, you take the time to examine, know and transcend each layer, each Kosha of experience to ultimately understand that the inner joy and contentment is already within you. The gift of yoga is to facilitate us to take the journey to experience our own blissful inner joy; our true nature.