Yoga and the Koshas – the layers of being

Many of us are drawn to yoga through asana practice, but this is just the start of a multi-layered journey...

Yoga and the Koshas

Just as salt dissolved in water becomes one with it, so the union of Self and Mind is called samādhi.

When the breath becomes exhausted, and mind becomes still, they merge into union called samādhi.

This equality, this oneness of the two, the living self and the absolute self, when all desires end is called samādhi.

Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā

The subtle layers

Many yoga practitioners are drawn to the practice through the asanas – the physical postures – of which there are thousands. There is a pose to represent everything, from a boat (Navasana), to a lion (Siṃbhasana), to an enlightened sage (Vaśiṣṭhasana). These poses and movements help to keep the body healthy, as well as unblocking energy channels so that after a yoga practice we feel strong, healthy, vibrant, and peaceful.

But what actually is happening to make us feel this way? Through asana practice, we fine-tune our awareness of the body and become more aligned and aware of what signals our bodies give us about the overall state of our health. This is the beginning of a process of fine-tuning that starts with the body, and grows ever more subtle though layers of our being—which perhaps we have yet to realise even exist.

[Our asana practice] is the beginning of a process of fine-tuning that starts with the body and grows ever more subtle though layers of our being – which perhaps we have yet to realise even exist.​

The purpose of this article is to briefly highlight these layers of our existence, according to the ancient yogic texts of the Rāja Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali and the Upaniṣads, along with my experience and understanding of them. Your deepening awareness of these can evoke an expansion of yoga practice on all levels, and point the way to a profound Truth which resides within us all – the Self.

The Eight Limbs of yoga

In his Rāja Yoga Sūtras, the sage Patañjali describes the practice, or sādhana, of Rāja yoga as having eight limbs. These limbs evolve in a process of fine-tuning from the grossest levels of our understanding to the most subtle:

1. Yamas, and 2. Niyamas: these are codes of conduct and qualities of self-realisation which a yoga practitioner should aim to cultivate. Doing so can enable a shift in consciousness, which is then mirrored in our experience of the external world.

3. Āsana: typically known as the physical practice involving the body. Patañjali defines āsana as: a steady, comfortable posture.

4. Prāṇāyāma: defined by Patañjali as regulation and control of the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, creating luminosity and preparing the mind for one-pointed focus (dhāraṇā).

5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses, which results in a calm, non-stimulated mind.

6. Dhāraṇā: focusing the mind on one element or single area (concentration).

7. Dhyāna: an unbroken flow of perception between mind and object in the form of one, continuous thought (meditation).

8. Samadhi: the knower, knowing and that which is known. Becoming one pure essence/awareness (mystical absorption)— the aim of all yogic practices.

Five Koshas of our existence

We will next examine the kośas (pronounced ‘koshas’), or layers of our existence, and how these eight limbs of yoga sādhana stated in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali relate to and weave their way through them.

According to the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, there are five layers, sheaths, or kośas to our seemingly individual existence. Similar to the eight limbs of Rāja Yoga, they range from the densest part of our being (the body), to the most vast and subtle (inner joy/peace). Although presented in a linear fashion here, these layers are interconnected and each subtle layer comprises and encompasses the layers denser than it. In becoming aware of, and examining, these aspects of our being through the 8 limbs of Rāja Yoga, we can help bring our lives into balance and integration on all these levels and eventually transcend them through a deep knowing of them and rest in the Self—the loving aware presence which allows it all to be possible.

1. Annamaya-kosha (food sheath, Earth element)

Annamaya-kośa consists of your physical-material body, the grossest, densest part of our existence. It comprises, and is fuelled by, the food we eat. Annamaya-kośa is usually the sheath with which we identify the most, because it is through this instrument that we sense and feel and move – it is our field of activity (kṣetra). 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 which flows in and around the body. One familiar aspect of Pranāmaya-kośa is 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. Pranāmaya-kośa is also influenced and fuelled by the prāṇa absorbed through the breath, through food, and from the cosmic Universal 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), 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 this aspect of our being which knows Life intimately at the deepest level and from which we receive messages from beyond what our minds could ever understand. Within this sheath, there is still the illusion of duality, where there is a knower, the knowing, and the known. However, through the process 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.

The second and third sutras in the very first chapter in Patañjali’s Raja Yoga Sutras state:

1.2 Yogas chittavrittinirodha – Yoga is the cessation of the activities and patterning of the mind.
1.3 Tada drastuhsvarupe ‘vasthanam – When this happens, the perceiver rests in his/her true nature. 

It is by resting in this true nature, free from the influence of thought, emotion, and experience, that we can listen  with  an inner hearing that transcends what we do with our ears and hear Life’s message to us…

It is by resting in this true nature, free from the influence of thought, emotion, and experience, that we can listen with an inner hearing that transcends what we do with our ears and hear Life’s message to us. This allows this message to align itself into our thoughts (manomaya-kośa), our energy field (pranāmaya-kośa), into our field of activity, the body (annamaya-kośa), and thus into our actions and experiences. This develops into our svadharma, our deepest purpose or calling in Life.

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. It’s free from our thoughts, emotions, energy and body, and yet at the same time embracing them all. It is the sweetness of all Life that we feel when the mind is still, also known as sat-cit-ānanda – absolute truth-wisdom-bliss. It may be the super-conscious state of samādhi, the 8th limb of Raja Yoga. But even in this layer, there remains the duality between a knower of the sweetness and the sweetness itself.

The Kosha Yoga Series with James Reeves

These 5 koshas are, as James Reeves so beautifully says in his Koshas series, “the Gateways to the Soul”. The study of Vedānta (Upaniṣads) refers to them as veils for us to examine, know and transcend so that we may be led back to our true nature – the Self.

The kośas are intimately related to our states of awareness (waking, dream and sleep) and our 3 bodies (gross, subtle and causal). As we get to know and understand each kośa from the densest to the most subtle, and how each works within our own existence, we can open each Gateway and experience the path we are treading as the road to knowing and being at One.

Learn more about the Koshas series with James Reeves

An introduction to the 5-week mini-series which offers a methodical and accessible means to experience the ‘atman’ – the true self of expansive wholeness and peace.

Oneness of the two – Living Self and Supreme Self (Om)

Beyond these 5 kośas, and still comprising and embracing them all is the Supreme Self, known also as Brahman in the study of Vedānta, and Puruṣa in the Rāja Yoga Sūtras. It is difficult to talk about this because it is a non-dual concept and ground of all experience. The mere formation of language that attempts to describe it creates a duality between description and the experience itself. Words can only point to it, as it is something which goes beyond what words can describe. Yet at the same time it IS also the words being used to describe it, as well as the speaker, the listener, and the meaning behind it all!

The Self is THAT which is timeless, unchanging, and makes everything that exists possible. It holds us all, comprises us all, and IS everything, and at the same time it isn’t anything at all. It is what sees through our eyes and experiences Life through the illusion of our “personal” experience, and yet the Self that is me is the very same Self that is you.

Eckhart Tolle has a very beautiful summary of the Kena Upaniṣad which states:

“Not that which is perceived with the senses, but THAT which makes perception possible, know THIS to be the Eternal.”

The 5 kośas and the entire practice of yoga essentially serve to point the way as a dance of examining, knowing, and experiencing the densest parts of our existence into the most subtle … and eventually dissolving into the experiential knowing of Oneness … of THAT which makes the whole dance possible.

Enjoy the journey!

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Tracey CookThrough the transformational tools of meditation, Pranayama, philosophy, self-inquiry, and silence, Tracey encourages students to reveal the profound truths, which reside deep within their own hearts.