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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Turning Inward Through the Koshas

Feb 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Mila Burgess
According to yoga tradition, each person has five energetic layers called koshas. Sometimes referred to as “veils,” koshas are metaphorical sheaths that move from the body's outer layer, through the mind, to the inner spiritual core. Like Russian nesting dolls, the koshas are encased within each other as they move from the density of the physical body to the subtlety of inner spirit and highest self. These koshas, left untended, can become barriers to accessing one’s true nature. Yoga empowers the practitioner to work through these layers to peel back the veils and reveal the innermost self. 

First described in the text of the ancient Upanishads, the theory of koshas provides a framework for understanding the deepest level of self and posits that attention to these layers enhances awareness, develops a stronger mind/body connection and leads to greater levels of fulfillment. Each kosha can be accessed through practice. In his book, Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the Iyengar yoga method, explained that the koshas do not exist in a clearly defined, linear fashion but, rather, are integrated to create oneness or bliss. Yoga and meditation are excellent vehicles for not only tapping into each layer but also seamlessly blending them together.

Many yoga classes begin with a few moments to create a personal space on the mat. Yoga teachers invite students to notice how they have arrived and often suggest that they not only look at the physical aspects of their being but also look beneath the surface to see what lies there energetically, mentally and emotionally. It’s a reminder from the outset that one arrives on the mat as a whole, multilayered being, not just a physical one. 

Annamaya kosha, the outermost layer, refers to the physical body and all of its systems. It is associated with the earth element. “Anna” means “food” in Sanskrit; this layer gets its name because food nourishes and sustains the human form. In the early stages of a yoga practice, annamaya kosha is the primary focus as students work through the bodily sensations and alignment of the poses. Those who adopt a regular practice generally fine-tune their self-awareness; gain strength, flexibility and balance; and experience a greater feeling of groundedness. In that way, yoga enables students to metaphorically peel back and move through the somatic layer to better attune to what lies beyond the physical. 

Pranamaya kosha, is also known as the “energy sheath” and refers to the vital energy that flows through and around the body. It includes the movement of breath, blood, lymph and spinal fluid. The Sanskrit word prana means “life force,” and pranayama refers to the practice of directing or controlling the breath in both yoga and meditation practices. Associated with the water element, this kosha fuels the mind and body, allowing for the movement of both physical and mental energies. 

On the mat, breath and breath awareness serve as bridges between the body and the mind; a breath-centered focus diminishes distracting thoughts, allowing the practitioner to concentrate more fully on the poses’ alignment, sensations and flow. While asana is considered to have the greatest effect on annamaya kosha, the breathing practice associated with asana also nourishes pranamaya kosha, as does meditation. 

Manomaya kosha is the third layer and is subtler than the first two. It is the “mental sheath” that consists of the thinking mind and the emotions. Associated with the fire element, this kosha is responsible for an individual’s perception of the world, as well as their values and belief systems, opinions and even certain patterns of behavior. Referred to as samskaras in Sanskrit, these patterns are subconscious and typically cycle on repeat, keeping practitioners stuck in a proverbial rut until they become aware of them. Connecting more deeply with the manomaya kosha helps bring these impressions to light. Yoga practitioners cultivate a strong focus on physical sensation, breath and energy as they move through sequences on the mat. Both yoga and meditation work to diminish cerebral distractions, allowing practitioners to notice thoughts, judgments and emotions as they arise. With a quiet mind come greater clarity, presence and mindfulness. It’s worth noting that in the human body, emotions begin as physical sensations before becoming emotional ones. Yogis learn the art of turning inward to move through sensation, including discomfort, one breath at a time, paving the way for the healthy expression of both physical and emotional feelings. 

The “knowledge sheath,” the vijnanamaya kosha permeates the denser veils and is comprised of wisdom and intuition. It lies beyond the thinking mind, revealing deeper insight, and is associated with the air element. Both on the mat and off, yogis work on dharana, which is loosely translated as “concentration.” Cultivating the ability to find a singular focus allows the practitioner to access this kosha. The feeling of being in the zone and completely immersed in an activity is an example of this higher state of consciousness. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a collection of aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga, Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind and suggests that when the active becomes still, the practitioner rests in their true nature [Yoga Sutras 1.2, 1.3]. Yoga and meditation allow practitioners to access the vijnanamaya kosha by providing tools to be focused, to be present and to quiet the distraction of mental chatter, allowing the active to become still. 

Anandamaya kosha, which is associated with the ether/space element, is the innermost sheath. “Ananda” means “extreme happiness, joy, and bliss” in Sanskrit. Yoga philosophy explains that all people are born inherently blissful, but age, experience and conscious thinking, over time, can bury or mask this inner peace. By accessing the anandamaya kosha, humans have the capacity to return to or retain this joy. This connection with the natural self is attainable through consistent, focused practice of yoga and meditation. 

As it gets progressively inward-focused, the practice of yoga brings together body, breath, mind, wisdom and spirit to promote overall health and well-being. The five koshas, with their increasingly finer grades of energy, collectively serve as a guide to integrating these various parts of oneself. ❧

Mila Burgess, E-RYT500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected]

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