Yoga facilitates the journey within to the deepest level of our being. According to ancient texts, every one of us have energetic layers or sheaths known as ‘Koshas’ that move from the periphery of the body towards the core of the self: the embodied soul. Annamaya Kosha, Pranamaya Kosha, Manomaya Kosha, Vijnanamaya Kosha and Anandamaya Kosha are the five layers that represent the aspects of our personality.
The koshas provide a framework for conceptualizing ourselves. As we go deeper with the help of meditation and other spiritual practices, we peel the layers away one by one just like peeling the layers of an onion, to bring our awareness deeper into our bodies, eventually reaching the innermost core, our True Self.
Each layer is an outcome of the energy it feeds on. Lets begin with the outermost layer, Annamaya kosha is made up of food, Pranamaya Kosha of Prana energy, Manomaya Kosha is formed with thoughts, Vijanamaya Kosha is formed with wisdom and knowledge and the last but significant layer, Anandamaya Kosha is experienced as eternal bliss. Let us understand these Koshas and how they work in detail.
1) Annamaya Kosha, the Food Body
“The infinite is Brahman. From it, from this SELF, space came to be, from space the wind, from the wind, fire; from fire, water; and from water, earth, then from earth, the plants, from plants, the food and from food, the body of man. This body of man, composed of the essence of food is the physical sheath of the Self.” ~ Taittiriya Upanishad (2.1)
‘Anna’ means ‘Food’ and ‘Maya’ means ‘made of’, Annamaya Kosha is made up of the food we consume and represents the physical body – skin, muscles, bones, tendons and tissues. The physical identity of a man often consumes him and leads to ignorance. For most people awareness and observation of themselves doesn’t go beyond the level of ‘Annamaya kosha.’
The primary way to impact this kosha is through asanas – this teaches us to go beyond the physical dimension, to be able to feel your body and sense it from within. Once you become more aware of your body, then you will feel more grounded and present in the moment.
2) Pranamaya Kosha, the Energy Body
Shvetashvatara Upanishad states, “Man and woman, beast and bird live by breath. Breath is therefore the true sign of life. It is the vital force in everyone that determines how long we are to live. Those who look upon breath as the Lord’s gift shall live to complete the full span of life.”
After an intense session of yoga, meditation or any type of spiritual work, you might feel waves of energy flowing in your body, you are in contact with the vital energy body or Pranamaya Kosha. Prana or chi moves through the body in a network of energy pathways or nadis. It governs the movement of blood, fluids, digestion, respiration, etc.
Holding the body and mind together as one unit, the vital force is of crucial importance in functioning of the heart & lungs. When they cease functioning your physical body can no longer operate. Conscious breathing or types of Pranayama like alternate nostril, abdominal breathing can increase prana into our system and tone the energy body.
3) Manomaya Kosha, the Mental body
Our thought processes, feelings, actions and our day-to-day awareness while we’re functioning “on automatic” creates the Manomaya Kosha. It takes care of our instinctual needs, plus it also helps us obtain our individual desires.
Manomaya Kosha shuts down temporarily and regenerates itself every night when we sleep. Usually animals operate at this level and even human beings in a state of coma. When in coma, we can observe that the first and second layers are working actively but due to the shutdown of the mental body (third layer) there is no movement.
When you examine the contents of the Manomaya kosha closely, you will find repetitive thought patterns in your life in the form of perceptions, reactions and opinions. Mantra meditation is a great way to refine and balance this kosha; focusing on your breathing and being completely centered in the moment helps tune up the Manomaya Kosha.
The external environment is another significant factor in building & functioning of this layer. When we constantly feed ourselves positive and happy thoughts, we feed this layer with good vibes. But if we feed it with negative actions and thoughts, it leaves us feeling exhausted.
4) Vijnanamaya Kosha, the Wisdom body
“Within the mental sheath, made up of waves of thoughts, there is contained the sheath of wisdom. It has the same form, with faith as head, righteousness as right arm and truth as left. Practice of meditation is its heart, and discrimination its foundation. Wisdom means a life of selfless service. Even the gods seek spiritual wisdom. Those who attain wisdom are freed from sin, and find all their selfless desires granted.” ~ Shvetashvatara Upanishad.
Only after removing the blockages in the three lower koshas can we experience deeper insight of Vijnanamaya Kosha or the wisdom body. This layer is composed of intuition, awareness, intellect and conscience. Like when you stop identifying with your thoughts and simply witness them. Vijnanamaya allows us to step back from our current situation and view it from a better perspective; giving a sense of inner knowing.
A person who has an underdeveloped fourth body would be weak in decision making, lack creativity and will have a poor sense of judgement. In Ashtanga Yoga, the practice of Niyamas (not to steal, speak truth, self study, devotion to god, etc.) and yamas (five restraints include Non-Violence, Truth, Honesty, Continence and non-possession), allows us to refine this layer. Vijanamaya Kosha is also experienced with the help of mantra chanting and additionally meditation.
5) Anandamaya Kosha, the Bliss Body
The inner most layer, right outside your true self (center of consciousness), is Anandamaya Kosha or the bliss body. Its the awareness of being whole and complete, exactly as you are; happiness and joy is your natural state.
It is the final layer standing between individual consciousness and universal oneness; a testimony of the love between Shiva and Shakti. This bliss state is usually experienced in fleeting moments, but can remain for longer periods. When you’re fully present in the moment you experience the Anandamaya Kosha as well as deep meditation.
Shvetashvatara Upanishad states, “Within it is contained the sheath of bliss, which has the same form, with joy as the head, contentment as right arm, and delight the left. Bliss is the heart, and Brahman the foundation. Those who deny the Lord deny themselves; those who affirm the Lord affirm themselves. The wise, not the unwise, realize the Lord.”
In order to activate this sheath one requires a deeper level of knowledge, detachment and dedication. We experience different layers at different times. When Yoga, Pranayama and Mediation are practiced regularly they help us balance these bodies and experience our multidimensional nature.
Moderate exercise helps in activating the outermost layer. With the help of breathing practices, we awaken the Pranamaya Kosha. In a meditative state, we activate the Manomaya Kosha. Furthermore, the intelligent & logical self that is commanding us right now to sit in a place and meditate, needs to be acknowledged and sensed. This acceptance would activate the Vijananamaya Kosha. Only after complete realization of the former layers do we get to access Anandamaya Kosha – the dimension of bliss, wholeness and contentment.
The Kosha Model
In yoga texts, the five sheaths are combined into three – the physical body (annamaya kosha) is also called, “gross body.” The three middle sheaths (pranamaya, manomaya, and vijnanamaya koshas) collectively comprise the realm of the “subtle/astral body”. The anandamaya kosha is also called “causal body.”
As you become more aware and conscious of the five koshas, you will begin to create a deeper connection with your own ‘self’ that was hidden and shrouded in different layers developed over the years.