Understanding the Koshas: The 5 Layers of Self
Known as koshas, meaning “sheaths” or “layers,” each of us has five bodies, one encased by the next, similar to a succession of Russian Matryoshka dolls.
Starting from the outermost layer and moving through the layers to the core of the self, each body is made up of increasingly subtler degrees of energy: from the physical body, to the energetic body, to the mental body, to the wisdom body, and finally, to the bliss body.
However, unlike a series of Russian dolls, the five bodies cannot be taken apart and separated. These layers are interwoven, interrelated, and interactive—what happens on one level affects all layers of the body.
Therefore, we cannot neglect the more subtle aspects of our beings. If complete happiness and total wellbeing is what we are after, we must pay attention to and care for all layers of our beings.
The Five Koshas
As we begin to explore the koshas below, you’ll notice that they map out an inward journey, from the periphery of the body and arriving at the very essence of who you are.
1. Physical Body
We begin at the outermost layer, the physical body (organs, bones, muscle tissue, and skin), known as the annamaya kosha in yoga. Anna means “food” or “physical matter” and maya means “made of.” We are the most familiar with our annamaya kosha—the experience of our physical body in yoga.
2. Energy Body
Sheathed by the physical layer, the energetic body is called the pranamaya kosha and is composed of the body’s subtle life-force energy prana, also known as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The animating force behind every atom, cell, organ, and body system, prana coordinates every physiological activity, from the pumping of the heart to the elimination of waste.
Imbalances or blocks within this energetic body greatly affect the overall function of the physical body. What’s more, the body’s subtle energy greatly influences the state of the mind, which is the next layer of self. Prana is closely related to the breath—you receive prana upon the air you breathe.
When breath is shallow and sporadic, your prana is also erratic. Unstable pranic energy causes the mind to become agitated and the body’s various systems irregular. Smooth out the breath, and prana becomes more stable, the mind gets calmer, and all the body’s living systems function more optimally.
If you’re interested in working with your vital energy, yogic breathing practices known as pranayama exercises, increase and regulate prana in the body.
3. Mental Body
The third layer corresponds to your mind, emotions, and nervous system—expressed as streams of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and is known as the manomaya kosha, from manas, which means “mind” or “thought processes.”
Many of us have an overactive manomaya kosha that wears on our nervous system and plays out through our emotions. Yoga helps calm our minds and soothe our nervous systems, allowing you to recover from the effects of stress and fatigue on your third body.
Your mental body is also where we experience the five senses. It’s the sheath that allows us to receive, absorb, and process input from the world around us, governing our automatic responses and reflexes. When you go on autopilot and zone out, you’re operating from your manomaya kosha.
4. Wisdom Body
You begin working with the first three bodies as soon as you start practicing yoga.
Coordinating your breath with your movement brings you present on your mat—synchronizing your physical, energetic, and mental bodies. However, the next layer, your wisdom body, takes a little more internal awareness that is cultivated over time.
Beneath the constant stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations (the processing, thinking, and reactive mind), lies an inner knowing and higher intelligence in your wisdom body, which is called the vijnanamaya kosha, from vijnana, or “intellect.”
Your intuition, conscience, and the reflective aspects of your consciousness are all part of your wisdom body. Here, we develop our awareness and deeper insight into the nature of who we are and how we relate to the world around us.
The practice of yoga helps quiet the mental body so that our wisdom body can be heard and begin to guide us. One simple way to start working with your vijnanamaya kosha is to simply pay attention to any sensations or pulsations taking place internally throughout your practice.
For example, after a Bridge Pose or backbend, once you’re back down on your mat, close your eyes, feel the sensations taking place on the inside, and become aware of your heartbeat.
5. Bliss Body
The deepest layer of our being is the core of our existence, known as the anandamaya kosha, from ananda, which means “bliss.” Often referred to as your highest self or spirit, your bliss body is where you experience the unbounded freedom, expanse, and joyousness of your true nature.
Connection with this kosha is like coming home. There’s a sense of peace and connectedness during which time ceases to exist and your consciousness expands beyond the limits of your body.
While most people aren’t even aware of this aspect of their being, chances are you’ve experienced glimpses of your anandamaya kosha throughout your life.
Holding your newborn child or looking into your lover’s eyes, you may have dropped from conscious awareness and into your radiant bliss body. You might have also touched upon it while losing yourself in a painting, poem, film, story, or song, or perhaps while giving a speech or performance.
I dip in and out of my bliss body when I’m teaching yoga. Without having to involve my thinking mind, wisdom, directions, and insights pour out of me and fifteen minutes can go by in the blink of an eye.
Integrating the Five Bodies
All five layers of self are interconnected and dependent on one another. If the body is tense, the breath is shallow, the mind is irritated, and wisdom and joy are absent.
If there’s disconnect from spirit, indicating a weak bliss body, there’s disharmony on all layers. On the other hand, when you’re perfectly in tune with your bliss body, joy and peace permeate all aspects of who you are.