The ancient yogis have drawn a map to explore the deepest levels of our being and to facilitate the inward journey of yoga. The concept of having five selves (atma) within our body appeared in the earliest yogic texts, the Upanishads. Fifteen hundred years later Advaita Vedanta refined these five selves into the koshas, the five sheaths or coverings that veil the light of our True Self (Atman). The koshas are imagined as layers of an onion and form a barrier from realizing our true nature of bliss and oneness with the universe. Yoga is the tool to peel back these layers to bring our awareness deeper and deeper into our bodies, eventually reaching the innermost core, our True Self. When we can clearly see, harmonize and align the layers of the koshas we then attain a state of yoga, oneness with the universe.
The outermost layer is our gross physical body, the Annamaya kosha. Anna means ‘food’, as this sheath feeds our awareness into the other layers and provides the ability to sustain the other 4 koshas.
The next three layers of the self are considered to be part of the subtle body or suksma-sarira.
The next layer within the physical sheath is the energy body, the Pranamaya kosha. Prana means ‘life force energy” as this sheath contains and regulates the movement of the physical and mental energies through the energy channels (nadis) and energy centers (chakras).
The next layer in is the mental body, the Manamaya kosha. Mana means ‘”mind” as this sheath contains mental thoughts and emotional feelings. This kosha governs the rational, linear, and sequential thought processes.
The last layer of the subtle body is the wisdom body, the Vijnanamaya kosha. Vijnana means “knowledge” as this sheath contains intuition, wisdom and witness consciousness.
The last kosha covering the True Self is the bliss body, the Anandamaya kosha. Ananda means “bliss” as this sheath contains the pure unchanging happiness, joy, love, peace and ecstasy that is found here at the deepest layer of our being. These are not merely feelings, but a state of being that has always existed yet has been buried by the other koshas. Behind this thin layer resides the pure consciousness of our True Self.
The koshas serve both a guide for the deeper practices of yoga and as map for our journey. The path of yoga is one of progressively moving inward, through each of the koshas, to experience the radiance of the True Self. At the same time, yoga allows this inner radiance to shine through our individuality.
In the beginning of yoga practice, the primary focus is on Annamaya Kosha, the alignment and physical sensations of the physical body. Once we have connected, aligned and harmonized this kosha we can then begin to use the breath as a bridge into the Pranamaya kosha, connecting with the energy manifesting in the body. Focusing on the body, breath and the energy absorbs the mind and the thoughts diminish allowing the Manamaya kosha to calmed, balanced and harmonized. Now we can explore the Vijnanamaya kosha to access our intuition and inner wisdom. Finally we move through the first four layers and taste the bliss, extacy and joy of the Anandamaya kosha. True enlightenment happens when all the koshas become refined and aligned to experience absorption in the oneness of our True Self.