You’re Not Just a Body; There’s 5 of You!
Another complicated philosophy I’d like to try and simplify is that of the kośas, (pronounced Koshas), or layers of our existence, and how these eight limbs of yoga sādhana, (practice), relate to and weave their way through them. According to the ancient Sanskrit texts, there are five layers, sheaths, or kośas to our seemingly individual and finite boundary.
Similar to the eight limbs of Rāja Yoga previously, they range from the densest part of our being (the body), to the most vast and subtle (inner joy/peace). Although presented in a hierarchy here for understanding, these layers are interconnected and each subtle layer comprises and encompasses the layers denser than it. I like to think of the Russian Doll analogy. In becoming aware of, and examining, these concepts and possibilities of our being through the 8 limbs of Rāja Yoga, we can help bring all aspects of ourselves into balance and integration at all these levels resulting in feeling movement towards wholeness and away from fragmentation.
1. Annamaya-kosha (food sheath, Earth element) Annamaya-kośa consists of your physical-material body, the grossest, densest part of our existence and it is comprised of, and fuelled by, the food we eat. The one we’re obsessed and angst ridden over. Āsana (and prāṇāyāma) as well as a healthy diet help to keep this physical layer in optimal condition so that we can experience life through our bodies with ease, free from dis-ease.
2. Pranamaya-kosha (vital sheath, Water element) This surrounds and penetrates the physical body as the vital energy, (chi, qui, prana, life force), which flows in and around the body. One familiar aspect of Pranāmaya-kośa is known as the aura and the life force which flows through the intricate system of nāḍis or meridians, of which there are approximately 72,000 in and around a human body. These are not to be confused with tangible vessels such as arteries or nerves but a subtler vessel. Pranāmaya-kośa is influenced and fuelled by the prāṇa absorbed through the breath, through food, and from the life- force that surrounds and permeates us. The practice of prāṇāyāma helps to keep this energy flowing freely, which also affects the health of the physical body.
3. Manomaya-kosha (mental sheath, Fire element) Even more subtle than the first two koshas, Manomaya-kośa consists of the thinking mind and emotions and permeates the vital and food sheaths. The thoughts and emotions we experience affect the energy flow in and around us, which in turn affect our energetic and physical health. So, by becoming aware of our thoughts, judgements, and emotions as they arise and dissolve through sense-withdrawal (pratyahara) and one-pointed concentration (dhāraṇā), (see previous on 8 limbs), giving space to all of our thoughts and emotions without pushing them away and by applying this also in prāṇāyāma and āsana practice (and also in life!), we can deeply enhance the overall state of our wellbeing.
4. Vijnanamaya-kosha (intellect/intuitive sheath, Air element) Permeating the 3 denser layers (manomaya, pranāmaya, and annamaya) is the home of our inner knowing and wisdom. It is our higher self, that gut feeling that guides us free of bias at our deepest level and from which we receive messages from beyond what our minds could ever understand. We’ve all had those moments of clarity where we just ‘know’ but can’t explain with our limited societal confines. Through the practice of āsana, prāṇāyāma, dhāraṇā, and then through meditation (dhyāna), the mind becomes still and we can truly listen to the silent messages that Life speaks to us through all that exists. This is the only way our purpose will reveal itself.
5. Anandamaya-kossa (bliss sheath, ether/space element) Beyond the other 4 kośas, and yet permeating and comprising them all, is the sheath of bliss. This is the aspect of our being which we recognise as a deep inner peace and joy, free from our thoughts, emotions, energy and body, and yet at the same time embracing them all. The place we yearn for through other avenues of entertainment and addictions but never find. It can be known as a super-conscious state of samādhi, the 8th limb of Raja Yoga.