Yoga and meditation are often talked about as pathways towards inner connection or described, vaguely, as a journey inward. It sounds enticing, taking this journey to inner connection but what does this journey inward entail?
According to Vedic philosophy, specifically mentioned in the Taittiriya Upanishad, each of us has five distinct layers of our being. These five layers are called the Five Koshas, meaning sheath, layer, or covering. These sheaths exist nested within one another and make their way from the densest, most tangible space (the physical body), all the way to the most subtle, expansive layer (the bliss body). While each layer can be explored on its own, they are all inherently woven to make up our existence. Through understanding the Koshas there is an opportunity to deepen the understanding of ourselves.
This journey inward or path to inner connection that’s thought of when speaking of meditation or yoga is the journey through the Koshas.
The Outer Most Sheath: The Annamaya Kosha
The first layer, and outermost layer, of our being is called the Annamaya kosha which is the densest layer of them all. Anna in Sanskrit is translated to food, this layer gets its name because our physical, tangible being is fueled by the food that we eat.
The Annamaya kosha is the layer that most of us will identify with because we can see and touch it. This is the physical, tangible body encompassing the skin, muscles, bones, and organs. Of the five, this is the only one that is made of matter. The rest of the layers are more subtle energy states and are not visible to the physical eye, though we can see and feel their presence when we pay close attention.
Often, we can move through our lives with a perceived connection to this layer simply because we see it every day, yet we’re missing the depth of the connection. We tend to get stuck thinking about the physical body, telling our bodies what to do and how to be that we lose sight of feeling the body. Through practices like yoga asana, mindful movement, and pranayama we can build deeper connection that allows us to feel and sense the physical body from the inside, out.
The Energetic and Breath Sheath: The Pranamaya Kosha
Next is the Pranamaya kosha, which is the vital energy sheath. Prana is known as our vital lifeforce energy, the energy moving within and all around us. At this layer, the gross and subtle bodies are united. This kosha is deeply connected with the first layer because it animates and informs every aspect of the physical body – every atom, cell, organ, and system in the body. Prana, or vital life energy, coordinates every physiological activity from the pumping of the heart to elimination of waste, even carrying impulses through the nerves from our bodies to our brains and back.
This kosha is fueled by our breath, oftentimes our breath serves as a vehicle in moving energy through our body. When prana is flowing with clarity and ease it brings a vibrant, aliveness to everything it touches. There are various channels in the body that prana will travel through that are called nāḍis or meridians. When thinking about prana, it is not only a mechanism we can use and guide, but it is a living force that sustains and supports the body and mind.
Mental and Emotional Sheath: The Manomaya Kosha
The third sheath is known as the Manomaya kosha, which is the mental and emotional layer of our being. Manas is a Sanskrit term translated to the processing or sensory mind. This is the sheath where our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and functions of our minds related to daily life exist. At this layer, the sensory and energetic experiences from the previous two layers are transformed into understanding through thoughts or words.
Our thoughts influence the energy flowing in and around us which, in turn, impacts our physical bodies and sensory experiences. Often, the activity at this layer is informed by our perceived likes and dislikes, Samskaras, and can become automatic because of that. When we’re navigating on auto pilot, our mental activity is formed from habit, impulse, and previous experience and can lack intention.
In becoming more aware of our thoughts and emotions we can cultivate intention in the way our thoughts are shaped. We can harness the power of this kosha through meditation practices, specifically dharana or one-pointed concentration. With continued practice in toning this sheath we are less likely to get stuck in the habitual patterns of the mind and can move into spaces of deeper awareness.
The Wisdom Sheath: The Vijnanamaya Kosha
As we travel inward toward even more subtle layers, we begin to connect with the Vijnanamaya kosha, known as the wisdom sheath. Vijnana translates to consciousness or awareness. This is where we begin to discern, to understand, and to recognize the meaning of experience. At this layer we begin to settle into the seat of the observer and connect with our inner, truest nature, free from the influence of thought, emotion, and experience.
When we tune in here the previous three layers begin to dissolve and knowingness rests in the higher mind. This is where the conscious mind, the higher mind, and the universal mind connect. In this space we recognize that we are not our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, or even our bodies. We are the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our emotions, and observer of all that is happening in our space. Resting in this kosha, we start to hear the heart’s longing revealing our truest purpose.
The Bliss Sheath: The Anandamaya Kosha
Existing beyond all previous four koshas is the Anandamaya kosha, or the bliss sheath. The Sanskrit word for bliss is Ananda, which is where this sheath gets its name from. In contrast to the wisdom body, this is not something that can be witnessed or observed. This layer is our truest nature, you do not witness the bliss body because you are bliss.
At this layer there is just a small separation between you and what is divine. When this layer is peeled away, we reach our connection with the divine, with the essence of all that is, which is pure consciousness. It is often said that this layer isn’t something we can use words to describe because it must be felt or experienced. This is not the feeling of bliss; it is the experience of bliss.
Accessing this state may come in fleeting moments throughout your life. With continued practice and deepening your understanding those moments can be prolonged. You may have already experienced this state, perhaps in meditation, yoga asana, kirtan, or immersed in a project or craft that you love deeply.
The five koshas are the pathway to the deepest layers of ourselves. When we embark upon any journey to and through ourselves, we are taking a journey through these layers of existence. Each of these layers is seen as a veil that has been created for us to develop deeper understanding, to examine, and ultimately to transcend as we find our way back to our truest Self.
Practice connecting with the five koshas in the program Discover the Layers of Being: Exploring the Five Koshas, a six-part series with Daniel Sannito, available now in the Chopra App.