When I teach yoga I often ask my students to notice how their body feels, how their breath feels, and how their emotions and mind feel in a particular moment. These reflections might be done at the start of a class or after a specific posture or sequence. Although this can be quite hard initially to sense, over time these reflections develop into a self-awareness practice that can be used at any time to adjust and fine tune your health and wellbeing. However, these reflections also serve a deeper purpose of enabling each of us to connect with the five layers of human existence or the five koshas (to use the Sanskrit term).
Let me explain the five koshas
The ancient sages believed that there are five layers of human existence:
A sense of wellbeing occurs when you live fully and gracefully at every level of your being. It is probably easiest to imagine the five koshas like layers of an onion: you start on the outside with the physical body and peel back the various layers until you uncover the Self residing in bliss in the centre. So, let’s look at each of these layers of human existence in turn.
Annamaya kosha: Physical body
Annamaya kosha is the layer that represents the physical body; such as the skin, muscles and bones. Some people will live much of their lives in this layer as they are concerned with weight, body image or appearance. Others are completely oblivious to this layer of their being as they take the physical condition of their body for granted and may only become aware of it when they experience pain or illness.
To develop a healthy connection to the body requires mindful movement, to notice places of ease or discomfort, strength or weakness, or mobility or stiffness. Imagine how it would be to know how to use movement to support your body in the way that you live to create ease and good health.
Pranamaya kosha: Physiological body
This layer works with the physiological body or the life processes within and it is this layer that creates energy in the body. This energy is both the everyday energy to get up and do things but also refers to the yogic energy of prana. The word prana translates as life force and it is believed that it is contained in the fresh air that we breath, the food that we eat, as well as sunlight. The good flow of prana around the body is paramount to the body’s health and wellbeing.
The easiest way to influence and connect with this layer is to work with the breath. Techniques like abdominal breathing, deep yogic breath or alternate nostril breath all help increase oxygenation of the body and improve the flow of prana.
Manomaya kosha: Emotional body
The emotional layer drives our feelings. It is all too easy to be buffeted around by our emotions being drawn to what we like and avoiding what we don’t like irrelevant of whether it is beneficial to us or not. The stress response is very much linked into this layer as if we perceive stress, real or imagined, then this starts a chain reaction as our thoughts and feelings are transformed into physical responses.
Meditation is an ideal tool to calm the emotions and create balance and resilience within our modern day lifestyles.
Vijnamaya kosha: Intellectual body
This layer deals with our thoughts. Much of Western culture is based around the premise that “knowledge is king,” but this focus around intellect, knowledge and logic for its own sake can lead to a disconnection with the other layers of our awareness. How often do you feel tired and allow your mind to ignore this internal cue? Using our intellect with wisdom and discernment is key as it is this layer of being that has the power to direct our actions.
For example, I find it very hard to act from a place of discernment if I am rushing from one thing to another. I know busyness and stress leads me to poor decision making. For me developing a healthy connection with my thoughts revolves around creating space: opportunities to pause, absorb and reflect, as well as meditation and deep relaxation.
Anandamaya kosha: Bliss body
Can you remember when you last felt that feeling of complete contentment, that feeling of gentle joy residing inside you or the feeling that all is right in your world? Maybe this was on holiday, or at a special event or maybe it was simply chatting over a cup of tea with a friend. This is the bliss layer in action. Our challenge is to recognise this layer more frequently and to allow ourselves to dwell here for longer. To find the joy in the simple things and to bring this layer more into our every day life.
Bringing it all together
Of course, each layer does not function in isolation, the layers can and do naturally influence each other. For instance the pain of a headache can lead to feeling tired (pranamaya kosha), when you are tired it is easy to feel irritable and grumpy (manomaya kosha), when you are irritable it is easy to make rash decisions (vijnamaya kosha) and all of this leads us further away from bliss and contentment.
Alternatively, by using our mind wisely we can guide our intentions, thoughts and actions towards an upwards spiral of empowerment, health and wellbeing.
If you would like to know how to know more about how ancient yoga wisdom can help you to improve your long-term health and wellbeing, then please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Align me.”
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