Loosely translated as “sheath”, the Koshas are five layers of awareness from the more tangible gross physical body, through the mind to the subtle inner layers and ultimately the core of our existence – our “self”.
Sometimes likened to Russian stacking dolls with each sheath contained within the next or layers of an onion the koshas are instrumental in how we perceive the world around us, how we interact with others, our relationship with ourselves and our overall wellbeing.
Originating from the Taittiriya Upanishad, a philosophical text from around the middle of the first millennium BCE the Koshas can be used in yoga teaching to add a richness to a yoga class but are particularly relevant to the growing field of yoga therapy. On a philosophical level it is believed that if the Koshas are balanced then we can see reality clearly and are well mentally, physically, and spiritually but if not, then our judgment might be clouded, or we might be unwell physically or mentally.
The analogy of an onion has always appealed to me. As we peel the layers and move from the outer gross layer inwards whilst resolving physical, energetic, and psychological issues we can reach a better understanding of who we are (our “true self”) which ultimately brings joy, contentment and helps us make better health and life decisions. It is perhaps worth noting that in a yoga therapy context the Koshas are a wonderful multifaceted tool or lens through which to view a person and when determining what might be contributing to ill health or how to shape a yoga therapy plan therapists can start with any of the layers ( it doesn’t have to be one of the gross outer layers) and investigate what is happening there. Ultimately each of the layers are interconnected and one-layer can act as a catalyst of change for the other layers.
As a lens through which to assess the whole person the Koshas neatly align with the Biopsychosocial model of treatment which is gaining a wider appeal in healthcare (and to which I referred in my previous blog). The concept of the Koshas as a “multifactorial view” or a “holistic lens” ultimately allows them to be both a useful investigative tool to understand the patterns and habits causing pain and suffering and provide structure to a treatment plan to address that.
What are the five Koshas? How might we work with them as yoga therapists?
1. Annamaya Kosha – the physical sheath is the outermost layer and generally associated with our physical/gross body and where our senses reside. As the most tangible and visible layer this is often (although not always) the sheath with which an investigation starts. Imbalances here might manifest in poor posture, poor eye contact, tension holding patterns in the body, sleep disturbances and poor nutrition. As everything we feed our senses with has an impact upon wellbeing we might explore how stress manifests in the physical body, how sleep and dietary habits can be improved and we might do this through practices which explore physical postures/range of movement/ alignment, lifestyle advice and specific yoga practices which work towards helping the bodily systems (nervous system, digestion, and circulation) to function well.
2. Pranamaya Kosha – the energetic/breath sheath is the next layer and although this tends to be mainly linked to our breath (life force/prana) and functional breathing patterns this can go deeper and relate to energy on a cellular level. Possible issues in this sheath might arise from low energy affecting mood and overall wellbeing. Often paying attention to how we breath is a starting point to address issues here. Is the breath shallow, quick or slow and calm? How can we use our breath to release tension in the body? To what extent do our breathing patterns impact how we hold our body and posture and affect our mood and what brings us joy.
3. Manomaya Kosha – this sheath relates to the mind, and it is here that we develop habits of thinking which impact our feelings of safety, happiness, and wellbeing and the relationship between our thoughts and emotions. These determine our mental perception of both us and the environment we are in. Because our mind processes information from the other sheaths then what is happening in the other sheaths can influence our thoughts and mood. Imbalances in Manomaya Kosha may manifest in low mood, depression and apathy or anxiety and ruminating thoughts. Meditation, mindfulness practices, walking meditation, chanting are just some of the practices which might be relevant, but we may want to investigate issues in this sheath by exploring the physical body and breathing patterns first. We may also want to look at lifestyle and how a person feels connected to the world around us which we can explore in the innermost subtle sheaths.
The practice of Ujjayi breath is a great way to connect the body, energy and mind sheath – a calming slow breathing technique which can help address funky breathing patterns, the subtle noise may help focus the mind and the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system is ultimately calming and may help release physical tension.
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha – the sheath of intuition and wisdom. Perhaps best described as “discernment” this inner sheath connects to our ability to understand what is in our best interests. A balanced Vijnanamaya allows us to develop greater awareness, let go of our more ego driven self and explore the bigger picture of our life. Often, we get stuck in repeating certain behaviours or ruminating thoughts and this offers a way to step away and look at the whole picture. There is no doubt that this is complex and considering questions such as who we are and what is our purpose is challenging, hence exploring wellbeing through the three koshas above is often an ideal way to build the concentration, focus and awareness required here. Some things we might want to consider to create balance in this kosha might be time spent in nature or with others (in particular a supportive community), also philosophical texts and poetry (these might explore ideas about connection with the universe) and of course the yamas and niyamas which are ethical codes of behaviour both towards ourselves and others. You can probably see that philosophy is key here!
5. Anandamaya Kosha – the innermost sheath – often referred to as the bliss sheath! A place to totally let go of ego and feel truly connected with the world us – a sense of oneness with all other beings. An imbalance here is likely to show up in the other Koshas first but this is a great opportunity to help us feel the joy and one-ness that this sheath brings. Depression often exacerbates feelings of separation and isolation so via working through the Manomaya Kosha and other layers perhaps a sense of feeling safe and belonging can be attained. Other ways to connect with this Kosha might be focusing on what brings us happiness and joy, what are our hobbies and also what can we do to feel more connected to others for example charity work.
The Koshas reveal how an ancient philosophical text can be aligned with the more modern biopsychosocial model of treatment for overall wellbeing.
How can we apply the Koshas in a yoga class/our own yoga practice?
The next time we are moving through a vinyasa flow or holding asanas perhaps pay attention to sensations and thoughts arising- a balance or warrior pose may help us to feel strong and grounded, a backbend may leave us feeling vulnerable as we stretch the front of our body but perhaps also a sense of relief that we feel safe enough to move into this pose – a sense of connection and belonging. How does our breathing make us feel and how are our thoughts influenced by our yoga practice. How do we feel after a yoga class and how does that feeling influence our behaviour off the mat? How do mindfulness practices influence our emotional reactivity?
The Koshas are deeply woven into our practice and awareness of this adds a depth and richness to our yoga from which we can only benefit.
As yoga teacher Shiva Rea said,
“The five Koshas, or “layers” of the body, constitute a map for navigating the inner journey”
How wonderful to have such a map at our disposal.