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Over the last several decades the practice of Yoga has become a global phenomenon. Yoga classes, books, videos, and online resources have made this timeless practice available to students like never before. Many students though, view yoga simply as a system of physical fitness, largely focused on the bodily attributes of strength, balance, and flexibility that are cultivated through specific Asanas (body positions) during a Hatha Yoga session. However, yoga is far more than an exercise routine; yoga is a science, a philosophy, and a thoroughgoing way of life. The physical aspect of yoga poses makes up only a very small part of a much deeper body of knowledge.
Discovering the Layers of Life
Yet, contained within your asana practice are the keys to also explore one of the deeper aspects of yoga philosophy known as the Layers of Life. The layers of life are an exploration into the many different levels on which you experience your daily existence. You are not merely a biological machine that learned to think; you are a multidimensional being living life simultaneously on different levels.
This aspect of yoga philosophy was first explained by the Vedic Sage Adi Shankara. A child prodigy born in the 8th century A.D., Shankara was fluent in Sanskrit from an early age and was presenting his own commentaries on the Vedas in his teens. He later went on to establish four seats of learning in India dedicated to helping humankind overcome suffering. His interpretation of Vedanta was known as Advaita or “non-dualism.”
The core of his teachings was the understanding of the way your non-local spirit expresses itself as the multifaceted aspects of your being. Consciousness plays a marvelous game of hide and seek with itself, and by understanding the forms it takes, you can more easily peer through these disguises to a deeper level. Shankara called these layers of life Koshas, meaning “coverings” or “sheaths” and they are arranged into three primary layers.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these layers and their subcategories and see how we can enliven them during our yoga practice.
The First Layer: The Physical Body
This is the level at which you experience your physical reality or the field of molecules. It is comprised of three distinct layers: the extended body or environment, the personal body, and the energetic body. By shifting your awareness during your yoga practice, you can experience each in the following ways:
1. Extended Body or Environment: Become aware of the environment in which you are moving through your yoga poses. The space, the sights, the sounds, the temperature, the air you are breathing, the mat beneath you, the other students or teacher—these are all a part of your larger environmental body. Try to feel the connection between yourself and this larger body that you are a part of and recognize that there are no firm boundaries between you and all these interdependent elements. You are not an isolated being; you are an interwoven part of the cosmos.
2. Personal Body: Known as the Annamaya Kosha or “the sheath made of food,” this is the layer of your physical body comprised of cells, tissues, organs, bones, and muscles. It is your vehicle for experiencing the world, and by drawing your attention to the sensations in your body during your yoga practice, you “come home” to your body. Yoga is an amazing opportunity to have an in-body experience that contrasts the tendency to not be present in your body throughout the day. How does each pose feel? How can you experience it more profoundly and deepen the conversation between mind and body?
3. Energetic Body: The Pranamaya Kosha, or “sheath made of vital energy” is comprised of the life force that animates and vitalizes your body. Without prana or primordial energy, you could not live—and when prana is moving freely, you feel awake, alive, vital, and creative. During your yoga practice, this layer of life is most directly experienced through your yogic breathing exercises, known as pranayama. As you move through or hold your poses, feel the expansion of your energetic body as your breathing deepens and mobilizes this life force through all the cells of your body.
The Second Layer: The Subtle Body or Mind Field
Going deeper, this is the level at which you identify yourself with your mind, intellect, and ego. Refocusing your attention to these more refined layers during your yoga practice can help facilitate a more profound yoga experience.
1. The Mind: Also known as Manomaya Kosha, this is the level that serves as the repository of your sensory impressions. Any time you experience the input from one of your five senses, it is registered at this level. Shift into this layer of life during your yoga practice by tuning into your senses. What do you see, smell, hear, taste, or feel as you move through your poses? These individual qualia or the internal components of sensory perception form the foundation of your mental experiences and are influenced by your changing mental states. Notice how your sensory experiences are different depending on your emotional state, moods, or changing states of consciousness. By putting your attention on your senses during your practice, you can deepen your experience of present moment awareness in each pose.
2. The Intellect: This is the Buddhimaya Kosha or the layer from where you discriminate, evaluate, or judge your experiences. It analyses the sensory input of the mind to make the most appropriate choices and to discern your likes and dislikes.
For example, during your yoga practice, notice as your intellect evaluates which poses you like or dislike; the positions that feel best for your body or dosha; the specific benefits of a particular asana; or whether you should avoid a movement to prevent injury. The intellect is always studying, comparing, and appraising the situation, but its ultimate purpose is to help you distinguish the unreal from the real. By tuning into the intellect and watching it cycle through its moment-by-moment assessment, you can recognize it as just another layer of your being rather than the ultimate reality.
3. The Ego: Known in yoga as the Ahankara or “I-former”, this is your most immediate and recognized sense of I, Me, My, and Mine. It is the layer that identifies with your position and possessions in life, your self-importance, and your need for approval and recognition. Your ego wants to be noticed and to feel special or better than others.
During your yoga practice, notice if you can become aware as your ego:
- Asks, “What’s in it for me?”
- Tries to find ways to get noticed
- Shows off in a pose
- Compares itself to others
- Takes a yoga selfie
According to Shankara, this is the most constricted layer of life. But the ego isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just another disguise that spirit wears, albeit a convincing one. Simply becoming aware of when the ego is dominant can help you dive deeper into your true nature.
Here’s a simple way to think about the interactions of the layers of the Subtle Body: When you first get to a yoga class and look around the room and take in the sensory impressions, this is the level of the mind. Then the intellect comes into play and evaluates where you want to position yourself during the class. Finally, once you put your mat down on the floor, the ego steps up and says, “This is MY spot.”
The Causal Body: The Field of Pure Potentiality
Giving rise to both the physical body and subtle body is the realm of spirit. This is the immeasurable level of infinite possibilities and unbounded awareness. It is also comprised of three sub-layers to explore.
1. The Personal Soul: Each of us has an aspect of pure spirit that is unique to us, our soul’s fingerprint if you will, that contains its own distinctive memories and desires. At this level, you answer the deeper questions of “Who am I?”, “What do I want?”, and “How can I help?” During your yoga session, you can explore this layer of life by allowing yourself to slip into the stillness between the poses and come face to face with the soul. Known as Atma Darshan, or “glimpsing the soul”, you open up to the ever-present witness when your mind and body settle in and become one with the poses. You lose the sense of “I” or “me” as you dive beneath the turbulent surface of your being and into the stillness at the heart of your being. Each moment of every asana is born from this silent awareness and the more profound that silence is, the more effective the movement will be. This is the true meaning behind Krishna’s direction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita when he says, Yogastah Kurukarmani, meaning, “Established in Yoga, perform action – keeping your attention in the non-local as you experience activities localized in time and space.
2. The Collective Soul: This is the layer of our group consciousness or the combinations of multiple personal souls resonating together. This is the layer of archetypes, myths, and gods and goddesses. These energies have the desire to be born through you. During your yoga practice, you can cultivate them by embodying those qualities you wish to manifest in your life. The beauty of practicing yoga at this level is that the poses themselves contain the archetypal energies you wish to call forth.
For example, allow yourself to deeply personify the courage of a Warrior in Virabhadrasana; the stability of a Mountain in Tadasana; the flexibility of a Tree in Vrksasana; or call upon the power or the Sun in Surya Namaskar. Drawing these qualities into yourself allows you to give birth to those divine qualities waiting to be born within each of us.
3. The Universal Domain: This is the deepest layer of our being; the field of pure potentiality that has no qualities of its own, yet it manifests itself as the infinite universe of all forms and beings. This is the ocean of consciousness, undifferentiated, beyond time and space, the layer through which you merge your individual self with the universal Self. During your yoga practice, you have your most direct experience of this layer during Savasana or Corpse Pose at the end of each yoga session. With the physical body profoundly relaxed and the subtle body settled and quiet, the spirit can expand and soar without limits, unifying with its source, the non-local domain of awareness. Take the opportunity during this pose to not merely relax at the end of class, but to embrace the yoga or unity of mind, body, and spirit at its deepest level.
This elegant map of the layers of life provided by Shankara is a useful tool to help you have a more profound experience during your yoga session. Through it, you recognize the way in which your awareness expresses itself in multiple ways to awaken your highest potential.