Updated: Dec 3, 2019
In the preface of his book “The Principal Upanishads,” S. Radhakrishnan succinctly describes the reason I am so drawn to the study of the Upanishads. He states:
“Human nature is not altogether unchanging but it does remain sufficiently constant to justify the study of ancient classics. The problems of human life and destiny have not been superseded by the striking achievements of science and technology. The solutions offered, though conditioned in their modes of expression by their time and environment, have not be seriously affected by the march of scientific knowledge and criticism.”
“They disclose the workings of the primal impulses of the human soul which rise above the differences of race and of geographical position. At the core of all historical religions there are fundamental types of spiritual experience though they are expressed with different degrees of clarity. The Upanishads illustrate and illuminate these primary experiences.”
One of my first experiences with the Upanishads was the concept of the Pancha Kosha, or the five sheaths of the human form as described in the Taittiyira Upanishad. This Upanishad describes the five “kosha” or energetic layers of the subtle (non-physical) body and their interactions. This was a concept that, while new to me, resonated as something I understood and had experienced in the practice of yoga. For example, in my first ever yoga class, the instructor made an adjustment to my pose after which I felt an expansive sense of peace and well-being. A slight adjustment to the placement of my hips caused a surge of positive energy and emotion to flow through my whole body. In fact, I credit that moment as a turning point in my life. I realized that there was more to yoga than just physical exercise. It truly was a mind-body-spirit practice, and I had experienced exactly what that meant.
The kosha, or layers, described in the Taittiyira can give us a framework to explain this type of subtle body response to a physical body experience. The first of the koshas is the outermost and is known as Anna Maya Kosha or the sheath made of food. This layer represents our physical body. Essentially, this is the sheath that means “We are what we eat” or, as the Upanishad states it:
“From food, verily, are produced whatsoever creatures dwell on the earth. Moreover, by food alone they live. And then also into it they pass at the end.”
The second layer is Prana Maya Kosha or the sheath made of prana. Prana translates as “breath” or “life force,” making this the layer of our lungs, circulatory systems and, at a more subtle level, our vitality or energy.
“Verily, different from and within that which consists of the essence of food is the self that consists of life (prana). By that (prana) this (food) is filled. This (prana), verily, has the form of a person. “ [parenthetical clarifications were added]
Through this description, we start to understand the structure and relationship between the koshas. Each kosha is different from the others and exists within the outer, filling it completely. I always envision Russian matryoshka dolls – the nesting dolls where one fits into the other. It can also help to use physical representations of the outer koshas to assist in understanding this concept. If you consider the respiratory and circulatory system as aspects of prana maya kosha, then as the breath enters the lungs, oxygen is absorbed into the circulatory system which distributes that oxygen to all the cells of our body, completely permeating the physical body. In this way, prana maya kosha exists within and completely fills anna maya kosha. But to view the koshas in only this way would be inaccurate. Anna maya kosha represents the physical body, but all of the other kosha have subtle body aspects that are the key to understanding the kosha. Prana isn’t just breath – but is the essence of life itself. Life permeates our bodies, affecting every cell.
The third layer is the Mano Maya Kosha or the layer of the mind. This represents our thoughts and consciousness, and always reminds me of Descartes – “I think; therefore, I am.” The term mano comes from the word manas, one of the many terms used in Sanskrit to describes aspects of the mind. Manas is associated with the experiential mind and the actions of the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. It may again help to use a physical representation of the mano maya kosha to assist in understanding this kosha. This sheath can be represented by the nervous system. The brain and nerves exist within the body and permeate it. But again, this is only a representation. Our thoughts and consciousness also permeate our body, but without physical form. I think of the these first three sheaths as the outer sheaths – the body, the mind, and between them, prana. In this way, the breath truly is the key between body and mind.
The fourth of the sheaths, and the first of what I consider the inner koshas, is Vijnana Maya Kosha or the layer of wisdom and intelligence. This layer references a deep knowledge inherent in the human form. This can be referred to as instinct, but it is much more. It is the knowledge from and of our higher Self. The last of the layers is the Ananda Maya Kosha, the layer of Bliss. This is the part of us that is interconnected with all living beings. It is our connection to the Divine and our true Self.
Each of us experiences these five kosha throughout our lives and, perhaps especially, in our practice of yoga. When we attain the sense of ease or effortlessness in a pose, even for a moment, we have touched upon vijnana (knowledge) and ananda (bliss). The peaceful, quiet calm in svasana? That’s bliss, or the ananda maya kosha. Did you ever “just know” that you shouldn’t attempt a particular pose on a certain day? That it just felt off? Perhaps that was vijnana maya kosha acting to keep you from an injury. The great sense of peace I experienced from a well-done adjustment by my teacher was definitely an expression of ananda maya kosha.
Once you become aware of the kosha, you can see their actions and effects throughout your practice. You can even start to use your knowledge of the kosha to enhance and enlighten your practice. Once you know that prana maya kosha is the sheath between body and mind, it may affect the way your approach your breath in your practice. You can use prana maya kosha as a tool to help join body and mind, which once joined, then tend to create an experience of vijnana and ananda maya koshas. And who of us wouldn’t benefit from a little more wisdom and bliss in our lives?
Heather Anastos, RYT-500