A Journey Within: Traveling Through the Inner Landscape
Jun 01, 2020 09:00AM
By Sheila Ewers
The month of June often heralds the beginning of a summer filled with travel and retreat for yogis around the world, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with its shelter-in-place orders and social distancing requirements, has brought most plans to an abrupt halt.
Have you been lamenting a canceled vacation or retreat? Longing for adventure? Wishing for a change? Despair not! The greatest journey you can ever take is still available to you, and the ancient rishis and sages left a travel guide of sorts in the form of the koshas.
The koshas were first identified in the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit writings, some 3,000 years ago. They described the terrain of consciousness as being composed of five layers, or sheaths, which range from the density of the physical body to the pure clarity of our highest Self. The eight limbs of yoga identified in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide the tools we need to journey through these layers and polish awareness along the way.
The outermost layer—and the point where most yogis begin—is the annamaya kosha. The Sanskrit word “anna” means “food,” and this sheath identifies the physical body, created by the food we digest. It is the tangible aspect of self that can be seen, touched and felt. In the modern era, most people experience yoga first through the physical body by practicing yoga asanas. Here, we begin to identify the landmarks of muscle and bone and practice aligning the physical body to create greater stability and ease. Even in this familiar ground, new perspectives can emerge as we reacquaint ourselves with sensation throughout the entire anatomy, practice moving each part with intention and precision and investigate boundaries with grace and compassion.
The journey continues through the next three layers of discovery that make up the subtle body. These areas of exploration cannot be felt tangibly, but they can be perceived through close inner observation.
The first layer within the subtle body is the pranamaya kosha. Prana means energy or life force, and this sheath identifies the energy body, comprised of the huge powerhouses known as the chakras as well as the nadis, thousands of flowing rivers of energy. The most accessible way to experience this part of the journey is through the breath. As one consciously manipulates the breath, one can feel the rise and fall of energy, the illumination of parts of the physical body that may have felt dormant or dense, and the harmony of breath and movement. In the landscape of awareness, the pranamaya kosha is like a breeze blowing through and ruffling the terrain of the annamaya kosha. Sometimes it can be vigorous, sweeping away obstacles and resistance, and sometimes it can be gentle, quieting the nervous system.
Journey Inward to Bliss
More subtle than the pranamaya kosha is a layer of thought and emotion, the manomaya kosha. This part of consciousness processes the input from the senses, interprets experience and creates the dialog within. It regulates emotions, stores memories, questions, analyzes and projects into the future. It is often called “the great barrier” because, like stopped traffic, it can become a hurdle that seems insurmountable on a journey towards the light of awareness.
When the manomaya kosha feels overly active, cultivating a single-pointed focus can help reroute the path, quiet the mind and shift attention more deeply inward. Repeating a mantra or gazing at a candle are traditional ways to harness focus for this purpose.
Once the manomaya kosha quiets down, the final layer of the subtle body is revealed. The vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom sheath, works like a navigation system, anticipating the distractions of the other layers, observing fluctuations and changes and guiding us towards smoother terrain. This layer functions as a compassionate witness. It grows stronger through meditation and helps to differentiate between the fluctuations of the mind and the still and changeless self.
When we learn to travel the first four layers of awareness, we arrive, finally, at the causal body. Here we experience anandamaya kosha, the bliss layer. The bliss of this experience is different from the emotion of happiness; it is the bliss of experiencing wholeness, an awareness that, permeating each layer we’ve traveled through, is an infinite light of awareness that has been with us all along. It arrives when we immerse entirely into the experience of the moment and sense the unity of our experience. In the Yoga Sutras, it is called samadhi, union with Consciousness itself.
When we arrive here, we discover that the map we have traveled has simply brought us home, We find that that “home,” the light of awareness itself, has been a beacon, always summoning us towards sanctuary within the layers of our own body and spirit.