Updated: Jun 27
In the West, so many of us are accustomed to living life from the superficial, or outer most, layer. How one looks, the type of clothes that one wears, the type of car that one drives are often determining factors for individual worth. What's more, we can often find ourselves confused or lost when this physical focus fails to bring true meaning and joy to life. What if I told you there was more to life than this visible, outermost layer? What if I told you that this physical plane only highlights one aspect of a highly complex and interconnected system?
According to the ancient Yogic text of Taittiriya Upanishads (6th century BCE), the human body of existence is described as having 5 distinct but interconnected layers, or 'sheaths,' known as the 5 Koshas. Each layer is encased by the next like a Russian Matryoshka doll, only inseparable, with the state of one layer affecting the health of all the others. For example, if we primarily live life focusing our awareness on the physical layer, then we are depleting energy from the other more subtle layers, sometimes to the point we may not even be able to recognize them. Understanding each layer and the role that they carry in relation to the Whole can help us learn: how our thoughts affect our physiology; how a single deep breath can help regulate the nervous system; how simple self awareness allows us to more mindfully respond to the world around us; how we may better choose what thoughts we'd like to enter our energetic and biological field; and how me may create greater balance and harmony into our being by recognizing the beautiful orchestration of the physical, energetic, mental, intuitive, and spiritual layers into a single unified Whole. So what are these 5 layers?
The Pancha Kosha Theory
First, let's begin by exploring the meaning behind the Sanskrit. Kosha translates to 'sheath' or layer. Each layer is identified with the common suffix of 'maya'. In this context, maya means illusion. The illusion is the perceived sense of separation from the Universal Source. The illusion that we are defined by the limitations of this human experience, how we look, how much money we make, how we think, how we feel, or the experiences that we've been given. The journey through the 5 Koshas is a practice of transcending each of these illusory sheaths, one by one, to reveal to innermost truth of who you are. Infinite, Absolute Bliss. The 5 layers are:
Annamaya Kosha (the physical layer): 'anna' means food. This is the outermost, physical container of our Self. It is comprised of bones, muscles, tissues, organs, and fluids. It is built from the food that we eat in this lifetime, and the DNA that we inherit from our ancestors including: memories, experiences, traumas, and lifestyle. It is made up from the 5 elements earth, water, fire, air and ether, also known as the Doshas in Ayurveda. It is the vehicle through which we experience the soul through the 5 senses: sight, smell, listening, taste, and touch. The Annamaya Kosha is most dense of all the layers and is limited by time and space.
Pranamaya Kosha (energetic layer): 'prana' means life force energy. The main source of prana comes from the breath. It is the breath and oxygen that is responsible for the movement of physiological functions like the nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system, as well as the currents of subtle energy. Unlike the Annamaya Kosha, where much of the layer is inherited, Prana is something that we build ourselves through breathwork and expanding our energetic field by consuming fresh foods, spending time in nature, soaking up healthy levels of sunlight, and building a strong meditation practice. This layer is subtle, light, weightless, untouchable, and expands beyond the boundaries of the physical container. Pranamaya Kosha is the bridge between the body and the mind. For this reason, it is considered to be one of the most powerful tools that we have to balance our nervous systems, moderate stress responses in the mind/body, and reprogram the mind from negative thought patterns, beliefs and behaviors by simply consciously slowing down the breath and extending the exhalation.
Manomaya Kosha (mental layer): 'mana' means mind. This layer consists of the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind. It is built from sensory input and impressions made from our environment, society, culture, family, school, friends, the media, etc. It is how we categorize and process information. Manomaya Kosha is referred to as the lower mind, or the reptilian brain, that operates the survival mode and generates most of our fears and doubts. Thoughts that are created in the mind have a huge impact to the physiology of the body. Stress, self limiting thoughts or negative beliefs trigger a stress response in the body, often resulting in tension, inflammation, energetic blockages, lowered immune system, difficulty in digestion, fatigue, insomnia, and so much more. This area is also the place of the wounded ego that perceives self as separate from the rest of the world. This perceived sense of separation often encourages an externalization of power which can lead to victimization, manipulation, social control, loneliness, disconnection to self, loss of identity, and so much more. It takes a lot of energy to process our thoughts, tiny mental impressions can quickly ripple into tumultuous waves that completely take over how we think, how we behave, and the functioning of our biological systems. A regular meditation practice can help us to filter through our senses and thoughts to make better decisions in life that allow us to live in greater harmony and balance in our overall system.
Vijnanamaya Kosha (wisdom layer): 'vijnana' means consciousness. This layer is comprised of our inner wisdom, intuition, and intellect. It is characterized by awareness of our immediate experience and our ability to witness our thoughts objectively, without becoming entangled or consumed by them. It is awareness of the witness itself that is witnessing. It's often related to that gut feeling that you get whenever you realize that you are, or aren't, on your true path. Or, the inner knowing of a single apple seed to blossom into the most abundant apple tree. It is in this layer that allows us to discern from a higher level of consciousness to recognize and even reverse some of our negative habits and motivations.
Anandamaya Kosha (bliss layer): 'Ananda' means bliss or joy. This layer consists of our cosmic self, or pure consciousness. It is the most subtle and pervasive of all the layers. It is the soul, our essence, our true nature, our inextricable part to the Universal Whole. It is bliss that is achieved by coming to the realization of Universal Oneness. Connecting to this layer is our birthright and true purpose in life.
Now that we have explored each of these layers, it is important to note that there is not one that is superior to the other in this lifetime. It is the physical layer that allows us to experience this human life. It is the life force layer that awakens the physical container and directs all of the physiological processes. It is the mental layer that processes and categorizes our world to bring understanding. It is the inner wisdom that guides us in times of uncertainty. In our human experience, we are not a body without a soul or a soul without a body. While the journey through the 5 koshas is the transcendence of each of the illusory sheaths to reveal the truth of who we are, it is the soul that returns to the physical form so that it can remember itself again and again as infinite, boundless, omnipresent, omniscient, unbroken, and complete.
Please share your experience with the 5 koshas. Have you experienced each of these layers? Are there certain times where one layer feels more abundant than others? Do you have a tendency to lean into one layer more than other? Do you implement any practices that bring balance within these 5 different bodies?
If you are interested in diving a little deeper into the Koshas, you can check out some Youtube videos from my teacher, Yogrishi Vishvketu at- https://youtu.be/WIBgAsbY21Q