Without thinking about it too much, many of us are probably aware that there are many different ‘layers’ or Koshas to who we are. As a being, we’re not just a body, nor are we exclusively a mind.
The question of “Who am I?” is something we could spend a lifetime exploring, and usually do. Often, we identify ourselves with external aspects such as our job, relationship status, the amount of money we might earn or how ‘successful’ we feel we are in comparison to others. Maybe you identify yourself with the family role you play, your diet, or your chosen form of movement or spiritual practice. Finish the sentence “I am”, and you’ll notice there’s more than one answer. All the answers are sort of right, but they don’t give a finite definition. What we ‘are’ is something far deeper than a label. What we are is something pure and unchangeable, yet expansive and interconnected to the whole universe at the same time.
The Five Koshas
Within Vedantic philosophy, Koshas, also known as Sheaths, correspond to the different layers covering the Atman or True Self. You might think of them like the layers of an onion (and yes, doing the work of getting to True self at the core can involve tears…) Described in the Taittiriya Upanishad – composed around the 6th century BC – the five sheaths or ‘pancha kosha’ are:
· Anamaya kosha – ‘foodstuff’ or ‘anatomical’ sheath
· Pranamaya kosha – ‘energy’ or ‘physiological’ sheath
· Manomaya kosha – ‘mind-stuff’ sheath
· Vijnanamaya kosha – ‘wisdom’ sheath
· Anandamaya kosha – ‘bliss’ sheath
The first sheath makes up the physical body, our gross layer of matter. The Sanskrit prefix ‘anna’ refers to food, related to the taking in of food or any external nutrition to nurture the physical body. You could say this layer holds the origins of ‘you are what you eat’. As well as foodstuffs, annamaya kosha relates to everything we take in through our senses: the scents, sounds, sights and textures available around us. This outer kosha also links to the element of earth, being the most firm, observable and often the first place we look to when developing and connecting to ourselves. The word ‘maya’ is seen over and over again in Yogic literature, and refers to a sense of ‘illusion’ that separates us from one-ness and unity. Maya is the very thing that makes us feel limited and divided, and when we’re experiencing anxious thoughts and ruminations, we can recognise this as the whirlings of Maya preventing us from seeing reality, and feeling at ease in the universe.
Often thought of as ‘breath’, prana is really the energy behind the breath. It’s the life force within us and everything around us, and as long as we have prana within us, we’re alive. As with many things, there are different levels of prana present in everything. A person experiencing a sense of dullness, lethargy and low mood levels could be said to have low prana, whereas someone at ease and content, with plenty of energy and a sense of purpose may have high levels of prana. What we take in through the annamaya kosha can affect the pranayama kosha, for instance eating a juicy organic apple from the tree will provide higher levels of prana than one sprayed with pesticides and wrapped in plastic. A beautiful view of nature will provide more prana than a polluted road or chaotic street. This sheath is linked to the water element, and just like water itself, it has many varying states and qualities, and allows for a fluidity and movement to occur.
Composed of manas or ‘mind’, this sheath relates to a sense of I and mine. It’s where the ego and sense of identity is held. Whilst the mind can be the place our darkest times are spent, the manas layer of us also allows for diversity and creativity, and is powerful in the sense of turning potential ideas into reality. The manomaya kosha is affected both by what we eat and take in through the senses (annamaya kosha) and our breath and energetic state (pranamaya kosha). Linked to the element of fire, this layer is sharp and discerning: it mulls over ideas, creates new ones, and perceives our experiences to create opinions and memories.
The ‘wisdom’ or ‘intellectual’ sheath, Vijnanamaya can be thought of as the witness, the one observing our thoughts and actions. It’s the part of us that can observe thought without becoming entangled in thought. Whilst in a meditation practice, you may recognise vijanamaya kosha when observing your thoughts, allowing them to come and go. We can be aware of vijnanamaya kosha when acting instinctually, and from a place of observing ourselves. Linked to the element of air, we can’t necessarily see the things vijnanamaya does, but it’s always there and pervades all other layers of the body and mind.
Referring to ‘bliss’, ananda is thought of as a state of joy and divinity and may be recognisable as the feeling you sense in savasana at the end of a yoga class: the feeling that everything is in harmony, a sense of upliftment, ecstasy and joy. We can move in and out of this bliss state, and back and forth through the many sheaths on a regular basis.
The Body As A Communicating, Connected Whole
As Prana Vinyasa founder Shiva Rea says, the state of bliss “Isn’t a V.I.P zone”. It’s something available to all of us, and the more we bring each layer of being into balance, the more readily available this state becomes. Bliss isn’t something we need to look outwardly for. It’s something that exists within us, and something that is found when attention turns inward.
Whilst the Kosha system seems to present each layer as separate, what it also reveals is how very interconnected each layer is. Everything we take in through the senses and outer body will impact upon the inner layers, and everything emitted from the inner layers results in our outward actions and place in the world. Founder of Be-Yoga in Sussex, and the Be-Yoga Academy Teacher Trainings, Bryony Hamerton, has studied with Shiva Rea in depth, and also with the Minded Institute as a Yoga Therapist;
“The way I work with the Koshas is to see the person as a whole, with all the different layers having an effect and connection to each other. The Manomaya Kosha (the mind) is profoundly changed by the way we breathe and move, and in turn, the way we breathe and move can be a result of how we think”.
When viewing the kosha system from this angle, we can see how all aspects of us are so deeply connected, and that the way we feel from day to day isn’t just due to one thing, it’s created by everything we experience and do. All layers of us communicate and connect to create the moment we’re experiencing right now. Notice how you feel energetically when you breathe fully. Notice how what you eat or drink affects your state of mind. When you move or speak from a place of wisdom and intuition, how do the layers of your body react? When you read, create or converse, does your intellectual layer of manomaya come into play?
Beneath the many layers lies the Atman, our True Self and the core of ‘who we are’. At this core is the soul, the divine, God, the truth, the expression of creation within you, or however you might refer to it. This True Self is the unchanging part of us. No matter how much turmoil the other layers might experience, this place remains at peace. No matter how many different opinions, dreams, or changes of habit we adopt, the Atman remains always unaffected, always true.
Journeying through the five koshas isn’t a one-way trip, though with more harmony between all aspects of ourselves, an allowing of back and forth pulsation from annamaya to anandamaya kosha, we find a more harmonious and free-flowing body and mind. Through finding balance and harmony in the five sheaths, we can glimpse the stillness and peace of the True Self. In essence, it becomes evident that the sense of bliss and joy we’ve been looking for all along really doesn’t come from reaching outward beyond ourselves, but from looking within.