Yoga offers many models that expand your view of the human experience. One of them is the kosha system, presented in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad. This Vendantic model presents the human organism as containing five koshas, or layers of consciousness, from the densest to the subtlest elements of existence. Although everyone is comprised of all five layers, not everyone experiences himself or herself that way. When yogis talk of “going inside,” what they are usually referring to is the innate desire to move their consciousness from the outer layers to the inner layers.
The 5 Koshas or the Five Layers of Being
Think of the human body like a set of five Russian nesting dolls. Many people get stuck operating on the outermost layers without:
- Ever consciously realizing there are deeper layers or
- Recognizing how they each relate to one another.
It is as if each nesting doll is operating separately, as opposed to them all moving as one cohesive unit. With a dedicated spiritual practice, however, the tradition promises you a journey to your innermost state, which is appropriately defined as Bliss.
Starting from the outermost, densest layer, moving inward, the five layers are:
- Annamaya kosha—Physical Layer: The first layer of consciousness consists of the physical (or “food”) body. It includes the muscles, bones, connective tissue, organs, fat, and skin.
- Pranamaya kosha—Energetic Layer: The second layer of experience consists of subtle body energy, or the elements that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Breath and prana (life force energy) are part of this layer.
- Manomaya kosha—Mental/Emotional Layer: Thoughts and emotions make up the third layer of being. Most people only consciously operate in these first three layers.
- Vijnanamaya kosha—Intuitive/Wisdom Layer: The fourth layer is comprised of intuition and wisdom. In it lies the ability to connect to higher knowing, to follow intuitive impulses, and see the bigger picture beyond logic.
- Anandamaya kosha—Bliss Layer: Finally, the fifth layer is the quiet place of peace, love, and joy that has no opposite—right at the center of your being. When operating from the anandamaya kosha, you experience a sense of presence and oneness among all beings.
Focus Your Yoga Practice on the 5 Koshas
Remembering that the term “yoga” translates to “yoke” or “union,” you may approach your yoga practice with a desire to experience the wholeness of who you are; that is, to experience all five koshas. Starting with the physical body, you learn that you can access the innermost layers only by going in and through. It’s like taking a bite of a delicious cake. The fork pierces the outer layers first, in order to get to the center. Only when all the layers are together on your fork can you experience the full delight of what the cake has to offer.
The journey through the koshas on the yoga mat is intuitive and natural.
- The first few minutes of a practice are when then the physical body (annanamaya kosha) is working through its initial stretch, stiffness, soreness, or strength. (You probably don’t go to your mat and immediately drop into a meditative blissful state; that’s why savasana comes at the end of your practice.) The physical body is the initial access point for the spiritual work, but is not the only aim of your practice.
- Soon after becoming aware of your physical body, you bring attention to your breath (the pranamaya kosha), and how the energy moves through your system. There is a sense of fluidity and flow, when experiencing the pranamaya kosha, since breath and prana are moving energy throughout the entire system.
- You notice that focusing on your body and breath helps to calm your mind and move stuck emotions; this is the manomaya kosha.
- Once your mind experiences a more peaceful state, there is greater access to awareness and wisdom (vijnanamaya kosha). The mental fluctuations seem to slow down or stop altogether, and there is space for intuition and greater understanding.
- Ending your yoga practice with seated meditation opens you to knowing the core of your being, as a quiet sense of aliveness and joy move to the foreground of experience (anandamaya kosha).
Witness Your Koshas
Try this approach to your yoga practice to witness your koshas in action, as a way of experiencing the whole of who you are.
- Starting in Mountain Pose, begin to move through several rounds of surya namaskar. Try not to modify or manipulate your breath at first. Simply try to experience how your bones and muscles move through space and in relationship to one another.
- After a few rounds of salutations, begin to add ujjayi pranayama. Notice how controlling and directing the breath changes your experience. Focus on sending energy out beyond the periphery of your body, and notice how at times you feel light, and other times you feel heavy. Without analyzing it, notice how you feel energetically.
- When your body feels warm, try a few balancing poses, like vrksasana (Tree), garudasana (Eagle), or natarajasana (Dancer). Steady your gaze to focus your mind. Notice how balancing poses stir up thoughts, judgments, and emotions. Remain focused and steadfast as you move through your postures, but remain compassionate toward yourself as you experience the third layer of being. Inversions like handstand and forearm stand can also help to clear the mind, and quite literally turn things upside down.
- As you notice your heart beating slightly faster, begin to move your awareness inward with some seated forward folds, like janu sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) or baddha konasana (Bound Angle Pose). With each breath, imagine your consciousness settle back behind your eyes to the space where you are aware that you are aware. It can help to rest the third eye point of the forehead on blocks or on your fists.
- End your practice with a seated meditation, and then savasana. As you sit, try to hold space for your entire being as one pulsing universe. Move your consciousness into the centermost part of your universe—the innermost nesting doll, if you will—and simply be with it. You’ll know you’ve tapped into your anandamaya kosha when you experience, however briefly, a sense of perfect contentment and presence with the moment, just as it is. After savasana, bless your practice and notice how you feel.
Cultivating a sense of curiosity and wonder about the depth of your being is one of the most transformational elements of the spiritual journey. The way to experience your fullness is by no means limited to this approach, and identifying one layer is not required before identifying the next. With practice and dedication, you will be able to drop into a state of bliss with more ease and regularity. Even a brief moment of pure bliss can be enough to remind you who you truly are.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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