According to the yogic tradition, every individual has five koshas, or bodies, each made of increasingly finer grades of energy. These are known as koshas, directly translating to “sheaths” or “layers”. The koshas are energetic bodies that move from the outermost layer of skin to the deep spiritual core. They are often visualized as the layers of an onion. The journey through the koshas provides a framework for conceptualizing ourselves.
The kosha layers come packaged with their own individual physiological function and psychology. Only the densest kosha, the first layer, is made of matter. The other four koshas are energy states (invisible to the eye) that can be experienced when paying close attention. Just because one can’t physically see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The inner bodies are the source of well-being during life and are thought to be the vehicles that individuals travel in after death, making them of the utmost importance.
Here’s a journey through the koshas, starting from the outermost, densest layer, moving inward:
Annamaya Kosha—Physical Layer
The first layer of consciousness consists of the physical body. It includes the muscles, bones, connective tissue, organs, fat, and skin. Almost all individuals are aware of this kosha. This is where most people spend the majority of their time, locked in their physical senses. The physical body is the initial access point for spiritual work.
How to access annamaya kosha throughout your yoga practice
The first few minutes of practice is when the physical body is working through its initial movements, the stretching, strengthening, and shifting of the physical body, getting into the annamaya kosha.
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Pranamaya Kosha—Energetic Layer
The second layer consists of subtle body energy. Breath and prana (life force energy) are part of this layer. This is the life energy that governs biological processes, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of blood. It’s called prana in yoga.
When the pranamaya kosha ceases to function, the physical body can no longer operate. Without prana supporting and directing the physical body, it can’t survive more than a few minutes.
Exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, the complete yogic breath, and alternate nostril breathing are specifically designed to enhance the proper functioning of your second sheath.
How to access the pranamaya kosha throughout your yoga practice
Soon after the connection to the physical body has been experienced, attention can move to the breath and how the energy moves through your system. One may feel a burning sensation in their quadriceps while in Warrior 1, and then be prompted to access their pranamaya kosha in order to hold the pose longer in a state of ease.
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Manomaya Kosha—Mental/Emotional Layer
The third layer is responsible for sensory and motor activities, and day-to-day awareness when functioning “on automatic.” It processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively.
This body is called manomaya kosha (which means “body made of thought processes”). According to yoga, the entire nervous system (including the brain) merely mediates the activity of the manomaya kosha, expressing the commands of this higher energy state through the physical body.
Unlike the pranamaya kosha, which operates from the first breath to the last, the manomaya kosha shuts down temporarily on a daily basis, revitalizing and refueling itself during the state of deep sleep.
The health of the manomaya kosha is enhanced through the practice of mantra meditation. This soothes and balances this inner body, and helps release energy tied up in mental complexes and obsessive thoughts. Strengthening this kosha is exceedingly important as the modern world continues to intensify and pull individuals’ attention in multiple directions at once.
How to access the manomaya kosha throughout your yoga practice
Focusing on the body and breath helps to calm the mind and move stuck emotions.
Vijnanamaya Kosha—Intuitive/Wisdom Layer
As one continues their journey through the koshas, they come across the fourth layer of intuition and wisdom. In it lies the ability to connect to higher knowing, to follow intuitive impulses, and see the bigger picture.
Vijnana means “the power of judgment or discernment”. When this layer is developed, one chooses to feel or act with intention.
For example, someone who doesn’t seem to be in control of her life, who is constantly reacting to circumstances rather than making a decision and responding proactively has an underdeveloped vijnanamaya kosha. Another example of a deficient fourth sheath is someone without strong personal ethics and integrity. Their ability to discern between right and wrong is weak.
An activated fourth sheath is what distinguishes human beings from animals. Only humans have the ability to direct their own lives, free from the promptings of instinct, and to make moral choices. Emotions left unchecked by awareness are destructive. The awareness of vijnanamaya kosha illuminates deeper desires and motivations and allows individuals to see the choice they have in all things.
The development of a healthy vijnanamaya kosha is so important that the exercises to strengthen this kosha are at the very beginning of the yoga system – the yamas and niyamas. These are commitments every yoga student is asked to make: not to harm, lie, steal, overindulge, or desire more than you actually need; instead, you are asked to be content, pure, self-disciplined, studious, and devoted.
As one’s practice deepens, their ability to connect with inner guidance is enhanced. The yogic lifestyle, contemplation, and meditation lead to clarity of judgment, greater intuitive insight, and increased willpower as your vijnanamaya kosha grows stronger and more balanced.
How to access the vijnanamaya kosha throughout your yoga practice
In a more peaceful headspace, there is greater access to awareness and wisdom.
Anandamaya Kosha—Bliss Layer
The fifth layer is the quiet place of peace, love, and joy right at the center. When operating from the anandamaya kosha, one can experience a sense of presence and oneness among all beings.
The anandamaya kosha is the subtlest body that is experienced as ananda (spiritual bliss). Most people going through their day-to-day lives are unaware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves. Take note!
The anandamaya kosha is the final and thinnest veil standing between our ordinary awareness and our higher Self. Many individuals who’ve had near-death experiences have reported experiencing a brilliant white light radiating all-embracing wisdom and unconditional love. This is the experience of the anandamaya kosha. Saints and mystics purify their minds so that they can have this experience throughout life, not just for a fleeting moment at death.
Three practices help to access the anandamaya kosha. The first is seva, selfless service. This opens our hearts to our innate unity with other beings. The second is bhakti yoga, devotion to God. This opens our hearts to our unity with the all-pervading Divine Being. The third is samadhi, intensely focused meditation, which opens our hearts to our own divine being.
How to access the anandamaya kosha throughout your yoga practice
End the yoga practice with a seated meditation to open the heart, allowing joy to move to the foreground of experience.
Bringing It All Together
All five layers of self are interconnected and dependent on one another. If the body is tense, the breath is shallow, the mind is irritated, and wisdom and joy are absent.
If there is a disconnect from spirit, there is disharmony on all layers. On the other hand, when one is in tune with their bliss body, joy and peace permeate all aspects of who they are. Sounds pretty good, right? The practice of yoga in everyday life helps bring all the koshas into harmony, promoting overall health and fullness of being.