I’ve given a bit of thought to the koshas in my years with yoga, but I didn’t ever find it particularly meaningful in my practice until very recently… last week, actually. The kosha model is a map of the different aspects of our human selves- the physical, the energetic, the emotional, the mental and this blissful aspects of being human. It is often drawn to look like a target with concentric circles and a bullseye, with each circle representing one of these sheaths or layers. It makes for a pretty poster. Until last week, I thought of the kosha poster like the planet-mobile in the corner of my 3rd grade classroom: colorful, cool to look at, but not all that useful on the playground. But lately, I’ve been shifting my yoga practice a bit and I’m attempting to move and and breathe from the inside out—directed not so much by how my body is feeling, but how my soul is feeling. I’ll admit, I haven’t figured out exactly how to navigate from this starting place yet, but now I have a map. You know what map I’m using to explore this idea? That’s right. The koshas.
Long, long ago, in India, sacred rites, hymns, chants and stories were transcribed and collected in a huge tome collectively called the Upanishads. There is a lot of beautiful metaphor, poetry and ritual in these texts that are there to help us understand what it is to be a spiritual human. The Taittiriya Upanishad, contains a description of this model for understanding ourselves, the pancha-maya Kosha model. The koshas are sheaths, often likened to an onion with one layer contained within the next or to the sheath of a sword covering the Self-saber. I’ve been thinking of them as an everlasting gobstopper because those colorful candy layers are less clearly defined than those of an onion. You might have an everlasting gobstopper in your mouth, pull it out to check on it and see that you only sucked off half of the red layer and then the blue layer is starting to come through or maybe you even get down to a little bit of the yellow and green and you can see all these colors at the same time. I think the koshas are like this. Each layer deals with some changing-aspect of our existence and any number of these layers can influence our experience of a situation at any time. In the center of the 5 koshas is something different, something unchanging and permanent. There resides our Self. Our purusha. In this model, it’s called the atman. It can’t be described with words, only experienced.
The first, outermost sheath is the annamaya kosha. “Anna” means food, so the annamaya kosha is the layer that is nourished by food. This is our body and our organs. This is the physical sheath. You can pinch this one.
Number two is the pranamaya kosha. Prana is this special life force that we are working to collect, contain or move around in our yoga practice. It is very closely related to the breath. Like the breath, if prana leaves our system, there is no life and we die. The pranamaya kosha is in the realm called the subtle body. It isn’t something that we can poke at or lay a finger on like the physical, but it greatly influences our system and we can directly influence it with our breath. Pranamaya kosha has the special signifier of being the bridge between the physical and the subtle. It connects and effects both systems very directly.
Sheath number three is the manomaya kosha. Manas is one of the words that Patanjali uses to describe the mind. This is a mind that is not directable. It is directed by the senses. A loud noise rumbles through the sky? Your eyes look up and your manas wonders what it was. You have a pain in your leg? Your manas keeps worrying and complaining about that leg. In the reading that I’ve done, there is a little disagreement as to whether the manomaya includes the senses or if they belong in the next kosha, but because of this manas/senses connection, I’m voting to put the senses with this layer.
Vijnanamaya kosha is the layer of intellect and wisdom. It’s here that we contemplate and consider. This layer is where the ego resides. This layer can help us go within and gain access to deep truths. But too, it can be easy to get a little stuck here in Vijnanamaya kosha because high-level thinking and processing can be quite intoxicating and that in combination with the I am-ness of the ego might leave you feeling like VK is what you are. But no. It is but another layer of your subtle body. It’s an important, fun and interesting layer that can take you deeper, but it isn’t the actual depth. It’s still not You.
The innermost sheath is the anandamaya kosha. “Ananda” means bliss. If I ever decide to don a yoga name, or a stripper name, it’s going to be Ananda Bliss. Sweet, right? Ananda isn’t any regular bliss, either. It’s the kind that resides closest to our consciousness and our Self. It is a bliss that hangs out there separate from the intellect and the mind. It is the bliss of just being… I guess. I’ll admit that the bliss of just being human doesn’t always feel very accessible to my striving, contemplating self, but in the moments I’ve come close I can feel a bit of the peace and joy that we humans can feel when we are most deeply connected and living closely to our true Self and in a way that honors the divine nature within us. That sounds blissful, right? I’ll let you know more about it as I figure it out.
Those are the five sweet and colorful sheaths that envelop and contain the Self. It seems like there are times when working from the outside in – physical to subtle to bliss to Self—is a good option. I might not be able to tune into how my Self is doing, but I can put my foot just so on a mat and push into my heel, breathe, focus, feel, experience and then have a chance of tuning in. I guess you could pick any starting place and really focus on that experience to take you into the other layers. Lately, I’m really interested in feeling into this Self of mine, right there next to bliss, and then from a connected and blissful place let my mind, my senses, my breath and my body extend from there. I wonder what my asana will look like when I attempt to start from this place? I wonder if my mind will be more tuned into how I feel and less engaged with the details of alignment. We’ll see. I’m excited.