You probably already know that yoga is a holistic practice that affects much more than your physical body. But did you know that – according to ancient yogic knowledge – we have five bodies?
First outlined in the Upanishads, ancient Vedic texts, the koshas are described as five layers of awareness that veil the true Self within. Discovering each body is said to bring the practitioner closer to oneness with the true Self. This process of Self-realization is the goal of yoga.
The Sanskrit word kosha means “sheath” or “cover” and is used to identify the five bodies that are collectively referred to as pancha kosha.
You can visualize the five koshas surrounding the true Self as layers of an onion or a matryoshka – the Russian nesting doll that contains smaller and smaller versions of itself. Starting from the outermost layer and moving inward to the core of the self, each kosha is made up of increasingly subtler energy: from the physical body to the energetic body, to the mental body, to the wisdom body, and finally, to the bliss body.
However, unlike the Russian doll, the five bodies cannot be separated from each other. The layers are interconnected and interactive – what happens on one level affects all layers of self.
The outermost layer, known as annamaya kosha, is the physical body comprised of organs, bones, muscles, and skin. In Sanskrit, the word maya means “made of” and anna means “food” which nurtures and sustains the human body.
Even though annamaya kosha is the most tangible layer, we often don’t have a real sense of what is happening inside our bodies. When we aren’t paying attention to the body’s signals, we eat without being hungry, we deprive ourselves of sleep or get injured during excessive training – all activities that can harm the body in the long run.
To improve their health, more and more people start practicing yoga. The asanas (postures) offer many health benefits that are key to maintaining the functions of the physical body: improving heart health, increasing strength, balance, and flexibility, boosting energy, and reducing inflammation levels. And that’s not all! Many yoga practitioners also report feeling more connected to their bodies.
Pranamaya kosha means “body composed of prana”. Prana is the vital life force energy which is why this layer is often referred to as our energy body. The driving force behind every atom, cell, and organ, prana governs all physiological activities in the body, from the pumping of the blood to the digestion of food.
We receive prana through air, water, food, and sunlight. We are also able to give and receive this life energy through relationships with other living beings like animals and people. When there is enough prana in us, we feel strong, healthy, and full of life. When we lack prana or the energy flow is blocked within the body, we feel low or experience different kinds of illnesses.
In the physical body, prana manifests as the breath. It also acts as a bridge that links the physical body (annamaya kosha) with the third layer of self, the mental body (manomaya kosha). It transfers signals from the mind to the physical body and back, allowing all actions and reactions to be possible. Thus, imbalances in one kosha greatly affect the others: When we are anxious or stressed, our breath becomes shallow, creating an unsteady flow of prana. Important bodily functions (such as digestion) are slowed down as the body tenses up and goes into “fight or flight mode”. This tension in the physical body further restricts our breathing, creating more agitation in the mind.
The key to escaping this vicious cycle of stress and tension? You probably already know the answer – it’s your breath! Thousands of years ago, ancient yogis developed breathing techniques (called pranayama) in order to control, expand, and direct their vital energy. These techniques are still widely practiced today and have been proven to positively influence our physical body and state of mind.
The third sheath corresponds to your mind – expressed as streams of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is known as the manomaya kosha, derived from the Sanskrit word manas which means “mind” or “thought processes”. This sheath is made out of the mind itself and its tools – the senses (indriyas). It allows us to receive, absorb, and process information from the world around us, controlling our automatic reactions and reflexes.
Manomaya kosha is the cause of duality – good vs. evil, pleasure vs. pain – and our sense of separation – you vs. me, yours vs. mine – these are all creations of the mental body. Below the normal level of consciousness, the deeper layers of the manomaya kosha store the impressions left by all intentions, thoughts, and actions we have ever experienced. In Sanskrit, these mental imprints are called samskaras. They can be considered as psychological or emotional ‘grooves’ in the mind that cause our perception of life to run in certain fixed patterns. Samskaras not only color our experience but also help shape it: Each time a samskara is repeated, the groove gets deeper and the impression becomes stronger, ultimately leading to the creation of behavioural patterns, habits, and character traits.
According to Hindu beliefs of reincarnation, every person is born with samskaras from their past lives. Therefore, our bondage in the cycle of reincarnation is caused by this mental sheath – and here too, our liberation (moksha) begins. Practicing meditation can provide insight into certain patterns that an individual can learn to recognize and eventually release. Once the mental sheat is dissolved into the infinite divine Self, we are able to go beyond the limitations of the mind and free ourselves from the false ego.
Beneath the fluctuations of the thinking, processing, and reactive mind (manomaya kosha) lies an inner knowing and higher intelligence. This is the fourth layer of self, the vijnanamaya kosha, which means “body composed of higher intelligence”.
Commonly referred to as our wisdom body, this is the faculty that discriminates between reality and illusion – the power of discernment. We also experience this aspect of self as the “witness”.
More subtle than any of the other outer sheaths, vijnanamaya kosha is the link between individual consciousness and universal consciousness. Activating this sheath through meditation, we acquire the ability to discern reality from illusion, gaining access to supreme knowledge and inner guidance, which is in fact always there, but cannot be received when vijnanamaya kosha is drowned out by a constant stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the mental body.
Anandamaya kosha is the innermost layer known as the bliss body. This is where you experience the limitless freedom, love, and joyousness of your true nature. It’s the deepest and subtlest of all five bodies — so much so that some people say you can’t use words to describe it. Instead, it must be felt and experienced.
Most people aren’t aware of this layer of self, as the thinking mind often masks the bliss body, making it difficult to access. But chances are that you’ve had glimpses of your anandamaya kosha throughout life: When looking into your lover’s eyes, holding your newborn child, or perhaps during a meditative yoga practice. In these moments of pure joy, you may have dropped into your radiant bliss body.
In the yogic tradition, anandmaya kosha is considered to be the finest veil covering the true Self, which is reflected from within this sheath as the unlimited source of unconditional love and supreme knowledge. Connecting to Anandamaya kosha, we can let in the light that dissolves individuality along with its limitations and suffering, and experience abiding joy that surpasses all material pleasures. This is where we understand that happiness is not something we need to achieve — it is already who we are.
WHY ARE THE FIVE KOSHAS IMPORTANT?
The five koshas envelop the true Self that is to be drawn out through yoga in order to attain Self-realization.
We all rest on different levels of consciousness and are identified with different koshas: Those whose consciousness rests in annamaya kosha identify with their first layer of self. Therefore, their primal concern is to provide food and shelter for the physical body. For those whose consciousness rests on the level of pranamaya kosha, the focus is on the accumulation of energy in the form of wealth, strength, or vitality.
Exploring each of these layers, we can acquire a better understanding of how they function and relate to one another and our human experience. This will help us navigate a happier and healthier life on the way to discovering the true nature of what we are. Eventually, through the practice of yoga, we move inward, dropping one sheath after another until our true essence is revealed.
Do you want to learn more about yoga philosophy and how it relates to your life? Join our transformational 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training, available in Thailand and online!