Understanding The 5 Koshas
In yoga philosophy and its ancient health system Ayurveda, humans have five 'layers' to the Self that are like the layers of an onion. The outermost layer is our physical body and the innermost layer is our soul or Self (Atman) - the part that makes us uniquely who we are.
You don't need to be seeking nirvana to benefit from an understanding of these layers. Whenever we practice yoga, we're trying to get a sense of balance across each of them.
ANNAMAYA KOSHA (THE PHYSICAL SHEATH)
As this is the layer we can easily see, you would think it's the easiest for us to access right? The thing is, many of us don't actually have a lot of awareness about our physical body - ever get your left and right side confused? Do you know where your organs are or what's going on inside your body right now? Sometimes we only begin to pay attention to the physical body when it reaches its extremes - when we are tired, or sick, or injured.
If we are present in this kosha, we feel grounded and stable, we notice our body and how it's doing. If we aren't connecting fully with our physical body, we can feel ungrounded and fearful, and it can lead to health issues such as eating disorders or obesity (not noticing or ignoring the body's cues for feeling of hunger or fullness).
PRANAMAYA KOSHA (THE ENERGY SHEATH)
From this layer on, the sheaths are subtle as they are not present physically. This is about prana, or energy, and the way it flows around the body (so on a more scientific level our respiratory and circulatory systems). You can feel it in yourself when you do a yoga pose that feels strong and energising - like the energy is moving, or when you've been sitting down for a long time and it leaves you feeling sluggish and sleepy - like the energy is stuck. Different breathing practices can help shift energy by calming us down or leaving us feeling energised.
Energy can also be felt in your surroundings; ever been in a room where someone has bounced in enthusiastically and their energy has been 'infectious'? Or someone has entered the room in a bad mood and left everyone feeling down? This is why it's important to find a sense of balance in this sheath.
MANOMAYA KOSHA (THE MENTAL SHEATH)
This one's all about our emotions and feelings and how we are affected by them. Focusing on the previous two sheaths helps us create the space needed to reach this layer and focus on the present moment. For example, in Yoga Nidra, a special type of guided meditation, we need our physical body to be comfortable and our energy to be awake yet relaxed before we can direct our attention properly to our emotions and feelings.
In yoga, it's believed that we store our emotional experiences in our physical body - especially around the belly and pelvis - that manifests in tightness, tension or health issues. When we perform physical poses or asanas that address these areas, we may have an emotional release that allows us to let go of these emotional traumas.
If we get stuck in thought patterns here, it can lead to repeated negativity along the lines of 'I'm not enough'.
VIJNANAMAYA KOSHA (THE INTELLIGENCE SHEATH)
Not just observing our mental patterns, but having an understanding of why we behave the way we do is hugely empowering. It gives us the potential to break unwanted patterns and to let go of thoughts and emotions we may otherwise have dwelled on.
If we're stuck on habits we have developed due to previous experiences or putting too much into future possibilities that haven't yet eventuated (and may never happen!), we can't fully live in the present and appreciate what's right in front of us. Awareness, understanding and restored trust in intuition is what this layer is about.
ANANDAMAYA KOSHA (THE BLISS SHEATH)
This is the innermost kosha and is accessed primarily through meditation, prayer or mantra; beyond the physical body, thoughts, feelings, emotions and patterns of behaviour. Once all the other layers are removed, you're left with a natural state of joy - and you can get glimpses of experiencing this without being spiritual. Have you ever witnessed a child playing and looking purely happy? Or felt that easy state of contentment? Feelings of being connected with yourself and those around you? No other emotions, physical feelings, mental patterns or energies interrupt it.
And at the heart of it all is your true Self - separate from all the layers over the top.