Five Gates to Wholenessby Graham Fowler
Has your yoga practice ever surprised you?
You came to class expecting to do a few sun salutations and work up a light sweat but then, for no apparent reason, you suddenly felt a powerful upsurge of anger? Or sadness? Or joy?
Or has this happened to you: When you least expected it, you had an insight, an “aha” moment, that finally resolved an issue that had long been plaguing you?
How about this? At the end of yoga practice, while resting in shavasana or immediately afterward, did you ever have a blissful experience of inner happiness? A feeling that, in that moment, all seemed to be right in your life?
When such insights arise, we naturally get curious and want to learn more. We think, “There's more to this yoga than I realized!”
So what yoga practices might go beyond the obvious physical benefits and reveal the freedom that is the promise of yoga? According to the Taitteriya Upanishad, a 2,000-year-old yoga text, we occupy not one but five bodies, each within the next, like Russian dolls. These five bodies are called the Pancha Kosha, or five sheaths.
The five koshas surround that which dwells at the core of our being, our deepest true nature—sat chit ananda, or absolute bliss consciousness. Tradition says that this inner Self is a limitless reservoir of creativity and intelligence, beyond the ups and downs of life.
Moving outward from that center, each sheath is progressively denser than the last, concealing more of the light of our essential nature. Our life is like a gift in five beautifully wrapped boxes, each inside the next.
No child would stop at the outermost container, no matter how beautiful the wrapping. We too should not stop at the surface but rather proceed to open each nested gift within.
Exploring these sheaths—from gross to subtle to subtlest—can give us a perspective into who we are and how the practices of yoga can help us on our road to self-discovery and wholeness.
We love our asana practice for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is a way in to a deeper part of ourselves. To that end, each kosha can become either a barrier or a doorway, depending on your life, your practice and your relationship with yourself.
Let’s look at how the practices of asana, pranayama and meditation support the smooth functioning and interconnectedness of each kosha with the whole of ourselves.
Annamaya Kosha, the food body, is the outermost sheath. It is so named because it is made up of digested food, and because when it dies it will again become food for other life forms. While visible and therefore more apparent, it’s only our outer shell.
The body instinctively closes down around pain, fear, belief in limitation, and unexpressed emotions. While perhaps temporarily useful, this contraction can become chronic, creating a barrier to deeper layers of being.
Our asana practice addresses the physical body: resolving imbalances, improving health and facilitating release of tension.
Our inward journey is made easier when the body is supple and freer of tension. The journey works both ways. By releasing tension through our asana practice, the body becomes more open and receptive to the flow of prana, our life force.
Pranamaya Kosha, the energy sheath, is the next kosha in. Subtler than the physical, the pranamaya kosha is the realm of prana. Without prana there is no life, so the pranamaya kosha and the annamaya kosha are intimately related.
Whether by themselves or along with asanas, pranayama breathing practices animate life while they help the physical and subtle body release the stressful effects of past experiences.
Increased sensitivity to our pranamaya kosha leads to more conscious lifestyle choices that favor fresh air, sunlight and nutritious food. In this way, a healthy pranamaya kosha supports the annamaya kosha and assists our continuing inward journey.
Manomaya Kosha is the next sheath inward. Called the mental sheath, it’s the domain of the conscious and unconscious mind. The manomaya kosha includes thoughts, feelings, desires, imagination and memories.
At a deeper level, the manomaya kosha contains samskaras. These deep, vibratory traces of past experiences are often dormant, like seeds, and escape our awareness until something in our environment activates them.
When our manomaya kosha is in alignment, positive, life-supporting emotions, choices and behaviors tend to spontaneously follow.
But when samskaras are triggered, this deep conditioning powerfully colors and shapes our behavior and our relationships with ourselves and the world around us. And there we go, lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.
When we feel our manomaya kosha is out of alignment, we can use yama and niyama, the first two limbs of yoga, to help us make adjustments. We can do so both on the yoga mat and in our life. [For more on this, see our article on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in our July 2018 issue.]
Samskaras are at the root of many addictions and unhealthy, unconscious mental patterns resistant to behavior modification. Meditation can soften their grip and empower us to make more conscious choices in life.
Vijnanamaya Kosha, more subtle than the manomaya kosha, is known as the wisdom body.
Through a balanced, coherent set of yoga practices and a conscious lifestyle, we gain well-being in our physical body and release obstructions in our energy body.
Penetrating the vijnananamaya kosha, we get closer to what’s real. We begin to notice more peace and freedom from patterns that do not serve us. With increased steadiness of mind comes intuition, discernment and a reliable inner compass.
Anandamaya Kosha is the innermost sheath. Ananda means bliss. Throughout time, the message of the great spiritual teachers is that our essential nature, hidden from view at the core of every human being, is bliss.
The Buddha said that you can't get bliss from external things. He said all things— relationships, possessions, even belief systems—are impermanent.
Instead, Buddha, Patanjali, Krishna, the great teachers of the Upanishads and so many others advocated a teaching they all validated through direct experience.
It's called yoga.
We locate, attune to and begin to partake of this utterly delicious source place within through the practice of meditation. It is our home; it is a place of wholeness and pure aliveness that reveals itself from the inside out.
A coherent and balanced practice of meditation, pranayama and asana clarifies and refines the koshas, so that rather than concealing it, each kosha begins to reveal the light of consciousness within us, bringing to light the gifts of all the koshas: wisdom, clarity, life force, love. And yes, bliss.
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
Founder of Peachtree Yoga, Graham Fowler teaches Anubhava Meditation. Reach him at [email protected].