The ancient yogis have drawn a map to explore the deepest levels of our being and to facilitate the inward journey of yoga. This map describes five different layers or veils of consciousness within us. Each layer has its own characteristics and functions and thus requires different methods to experience and uncover. By cultivating awareness of these subtle layers, we gain insight into ourselves by developing a greater awareness of our inner world. Understanding how the practices of yoga bring the three shariras and the five koshas—body, breath, mind, wisdom, and spirit—into harmony, not only promotes overall health and wellness but also brings you closer to the ultimate aim of yoga, self-realization and enlightenment.
What are the koshas?
Kosha is a Sanskrit word translated as layer or sheath. It is used in yoga philosophy to describe the different layers of our being. These layers are called sheaths or veils because they cover each other, one on top of each other. Koshas are often compared to the image of a Russian nesting doll or the concentric layers of an onion. The physical body is the outermost layer and coarsest sheath of the koshas. The deeper layers include the emotional, mental, and causal bodies. At the deepest layer of one’s consciousness is the bliss sheath, which is said to contain our true nature, pure consciousness itself.
The koshas function is to protect, contain and support the atman, the individual soul. They help create a healthy balance among the various aspects of our personality and provide an opportunity to develop compassion and empathy. When we can clearly see, harmonize and align the layers of the koshas, we then attain the unitive state of yoga, an experience of oneness with the universe.
What are the shariras?
Sharira is a Sanskrit word translated as “body” and relates to the three layers of our awareness. The three shariras are similar to the koshas but are a more simplified system that may be easier to understand. The three bodies are made up of the five koshas, with the second sharira grouping three of the koshas together. The three layers or bodies are:
- Sthula Sarira. The outer layer is the physical body that eats, breathes and moves by the will of our ego or ahamkara. The physical body includes our external and internal organs of sense and action which connect our Jiva or soul to the external world.
- Sukshma Sarira. The second layer is the subtle body that contains the four functions of the mind and prana, the life force energy that flows throughout the body. It includes the five organs of sense, the organs of action (genitals, anus, hands, legs and speech), the five vital breaths, as well as wisdom and intellect.
- Karana Sarira. The innermost layer is the causal body. It is the seed of the subtle body and the gross body. This body is described as a state of deep sleep, where the buddhi aspect of the mind is dormant. It is also the seat of karma, the accumulated actions from past lives that determine our current state of existence. Past karmas become stored in samskaras, which are unconscious habit patterns. This body holds the keys for us to grow into our highest spiritual awareness.
Origins of the koshas
The concept of having five layers within our body appeared in the earliest yogic texts, in the second chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad. This ancient yoga text is thought to have been written during the sixth century B.C. It provides teachings on attaining self-realization—a state where there is no separation between self and the oneness of the entire universe. This is also known as layered Maya theory. Maya translates as “illusion.” This theory states that our deepest knowledge, wisdom and spiritual understanding is hidden in layers with us.
Fifteen hundred years after the Taittiriya Upanishad, Advaita Vedanta refined these five selves into the koshas, the five sheaths or coverings that veil the light of our true self or atman. The koshas are imagined as opaque layers that form a barrier from realizing our true nature of bliss and oneness with the universe. Yoga created the tools to peel back these layers to bring our awareness deeper and deeper into our bodies, eventually reaching the innermost core, the atman.
The 5 koshas
The outermost layer is our gross physical body, the Annamaya kosha. Anna means “food,” as this sheath feeds our awareness into the other layers and provides the ability to sustain the other four koshas. Our bodies need to be nourished every day to survive, grow and develop. We can support this physical layer by exercising regularly, sleeping well and eating healthy foods.
The next three layers of the self are considered to be part of the subtle body or suksma-sarira.
The next layer within the physical sheath is the energy body, the Pranamaya kosha. Prana means “vital energy” or “life force energy” as this energetic layer contains and regulates the movement of the physical and mental energies through the energy channels (nadis) and energy centers (chakras).
We can support this subtle layer through incorporating breath work, chakra activation, and mudras in our asana practice. Pranayamas, ancient yogic breathing exercises, are the most potent practices for unblocking stagnant energy and to strengthen and activate prana.
The next layer in is the mental body, the Manamaya kosha. Mana means ”mind” as this sheath contains our mental thoughts and emotional feelings. This kosha governs our mental activity, perceptions, beliefs, and habit patterns. We can support this mental and emotional layer with regular meditation practice and mindfulness techniques. Meditation helps you understand what is going on inside of you and how to better control your mind and emotions.
The last layer of the subtle body is the wisdom body, the Vijnanamaya kosha. Vijnana means “knowledge” as this sheath contains intuition, wisdom, and witness consciousness. In this kosha we are detached from thoughts, ego, and sense of self. We can support the wisdom sheath through deep meditation, the practice of detachment, and the techniques of Jnana yoga.
The last kosha that directly covers the True Self is the bliss body, the Anandamaya kosha. Ananda means “bliss” as this sheath contains the pure unchanging happiness, joy, love, peace and ecstasy that is found here at the deepest and innermost layer of our being. These are not merely feelings, but a state of being that has always existed yet has been buried by the other koshas. Behind this thin subtle layer resides the pure consciousness of our True Self.
The bliss body is the place of eternal happiness. When you are connected to this body, you feel lightness, ease, contentment, and finally, a great unending Joy. We can connect to this layer through the practice of bhakti yoga.
Exploring the five koshas
The koshas serve both as a guide for the deeper practices of yoga and as a map for our spiritual journey. The path of yoga is one of progressively moving inward, through each of the koshas, to experience the radiance of the True Self. At the same time, yoga allows this inner radiance to shine through our individuality.
In the beginning of yoga practice, the primary focus is on Annamaya Kosha, the alignment and physical sensations of the physical body. Once we have connected, aligned and harmonized this kosha, we can then begin to use the breath as a bridge into the Pranamaya kosha, connecting with the energy manifesting in the body. Focusing on the body, breath and the energy absorbs the mind and the thoughts diminish, allowing the Manamaya kosha to calmed, balanced and harmonized. Now we can explore the Vijnanamaya kosha to access our intuition and inner wisdom. Finally, we move through the first four layers and taste the bliss, ecstasy and joy of the Anandamaya kosha. True enlightenment happens when all the koshas become refined and aligned to experience absorption in the oneness of our True Self.
Benefits of exploring the koshas
When we understand the five koshas of the human body, we begin to see how each layer affects us individually and collectively. We become aware of the layers of our own being and how they interact with others. By consciously exploring the koshas, we also strengthen our ability to recognize them in other people and situations. Exploring the koshas helps us:
- Become more mindful and aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Learn about the relationship between our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves
- Create a clearer path and purpose for our spiritual journey
- Experience the power of transformation and self-inquiry
- Softens and dissolves the ego-mind’s selfishness, greed, anger, and jealousy.
- Strengthens mental focus and concentration
- Have a clear sense of center to better navigate your inner self.
- Gain an understanding of the true nature of reality
- Feel empowered and connected to the universe
- Move toward experiencing powerful states of Self-realization and enlightenment
Integrating the koshas
All five layers of self are interdependent and connected. The practices of Yoga help bring all the koshas and the shariras into harmony. When we peal away the outermost layer, we become aware of the next layer beneath it. As we peel away the layers, we discover the truth of who we really are. As these deep truths arise, we must integrate them into our sense of self. This integration requires patience, humility, trust, and surrender. It takes time to cultivate the wisdom to know when to move deeper and when to stop and integrate.