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The Koshas: Five Layers of Being

Yoga is sometimes described as an inward journey, a movement through the human personality toward the center. Here the word personality is not used to mean one’s temperament or style of interacting with friends. It means more generally the collection of layers that surround the true nature of the self and serve as an everyday identity (the original meaning of the word persona is “mask”).

It is said that five dimensions of personality, called koshas (sheaths or coverings), surround the self. They function, in effect, like shades around a light—shrouding the intensity and vitality of our self-awareness. As yoga practice proceeds, the sages say, each of these layers will eventually become an integrated part of experience. Each will become more transparent, and as that happens, we will experience ourselves with more clarity and energy.

The journey through the koshas is the journey of yoga.

The journey through the koshas is the journey of yoga. It involves turning our awareness inward as we gradually relax and focus the whole personality. The process leads to one-pointed concentration, and this is the vehicle that takes us inward.

The Outermost Mask

The body, the annamaya kosha, is the most visible layer of our personality, and it is the one with which most of us identify. It is made up of the food we eat (anna means “food” in Sanskrit). Despite its substantial appearance it is in continual flux—taking in nutrients, eliminating wastes, transforming food into energy, and replacing decaying tissues with new ones. Yet in the midst of this ceaseless activity a sense of inner continuity persists.

There are four instinctive drives—the urges for food, sex (sensual pleasure), sleep, and self-preservation—that accompany the birth of the body, and much of life is consumed in satisfying them. These primitive instincts, in coordination with the senses, lead to our experiences of pleasure and pain. And even though these experiences do not need to impede our inner journey, they often do because of our tendency to focus primarily on sensual gratification. In fact, there are those who say that modern civilization virtually encourages an addictive relationship with the body. And addictive habits of living lead to physical imbalance and poor health.

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Preventing illness and managing the body skillfully are important aspects of yoga practice. Just as we must not overindulge the body, we must not deprive it, either. Yoga is adamantly opposed to extreme asceticism. The message it delivers is that it is important to bring awareness to the body so that we can observe for ourselves how to manage its needs. Periods of asana practice provide concentrated moments for doing this, and they reveal a surprising amount of information about our functioning at a physical level. But working with diet, sleep patterns, physical relaxation, and cleansing practices is also important in the process of restoring healthy self- awareness. These, together with asanas, are the primary tools for reducing unsound habits of living and preparing the body for the more internal practices to come.

The Energy of Life

The body is formed along the lines of internal energy, called prana in Sanskrit. The sheath that consists of prana, the pranamaya kosha, is internal to the body and more subtle. So if we wish to know ourselves completely, we will need to acquire experience not only of the body but also of this kosha. The pranamaya kosha is accessed through the breath, and it is through training the breath that our emotional reactions, changes in consciousness (wakefulness and sleep), fluctuations in energy levels, pain, and stress can be moderated. The pranamaya kosha is also associated with more integrated and vibrant experiences of energy that sometimes result from yoga practice.

The study of the breath is a profound science, and one that few of us appreciate. We focus only on the most obvious characteristic of breathing, never suspecting that it may also be a doorway to self-understanding. The quality of everyday breathing influences the quality of life—and breathing can lead us to a state of inner balance if we are willing to study it.

Prana is not merely a mechanical force—it is a living energy.

The pranamaya kosha has been repeatedly described as the interface between the body and mind; prana is the force that holds the two together, and thus sustains and regulates life. But prana is not merely a mechanical force—it is a living energy that animates the body and sustains the mind. Every movement and thought is a demonstration of its activity. And by paying attention to the quality of the breath and to the various states of energy that constitute how we feel, our awareness moves inward and transcends the body. Yoga breathing practices help to regulate and balance prana so that it may be consciously transformed to serve self-awareness.

Meeting the Mind

Even more subtle than the pranamaya kosha are the next three layers of personality. The most external of these is associated with the conscious mind, the mental screen upon which inner experience is illuminated, called manas in Sanskrit. Its sheath, the manomaya kosha, provides the self with the capacity for receiving sense impressions, making mental associations, bringing memories into awareness, and coordinating actions. For example, at this very moment, if you choose, you can become aware of your surroundings, of your physical sensations and sense impressions, of the thoughts passing through your mind, or of your relationship to your environment. You can create a chain of thoughts and reflect on it. You can manipulate your body. All these processes are coordinated in the field of the conscious mind.

Our experience is brought to the level of sensation by the annamaya kosha, and to the level of emotions by the pranamaya kosha. At the level of the manomaya kosha it is symbolized in words. But the functioning of the conscious mind is limited. For the most part our perceptions and actions here are automatic and habitual—they are reactions derived from instincts, impulses, and previous experiences. For example, we may plan a vacation and estimate how much money it will cost, but the conscious mind will not be able to determine whether it is wise to carry out our travel plans. For that, we will need to dive to a deeper level of the mind. In other words, at the level of the manomaya kosha we may categorize events in the world clearly, but we will not be able to measure their worth.

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Inner Wisdom and Discrimination

Traveling inward, the yogis describe two even more subtle layers of the personality. The first, the kosha of wisdom and discrimination, termed the vijñanamaya kosha, is the dimension of the self in which the meaning of experience is weighed and recognized. The short Sanskrit verb root vi-jña, from which the name of this kosha is derived, means “to discern, to know rightly, to understand.” And as our awareness deepens through concentration, we acquire a more clear and accurate vision of ourselves and our relationship to the world, and we act in accordance with it.

Each level of personality draws us closer to our true nature, but at this level, the light of the self shines so brightly that from time to time it is not at all uncommon to feel a pull away from the conscious mind toward a deeper and more peaceful inner experience. This level of the self is rarely attained in its full purity, but most meditative states travel the territory between the manomaya and vijñanamaya koshas. Here intuition and discrimination are highly developed, and inner joys replace the distracting excitements of sensual pleasures and emotions.

The Sheath of Bliss

More inward still is the anandamaya kosha, named after the Sanskrit word for pure joy or bliss: ananda. It is probably the level mystics refer to when their experience has taken them well beyond the distractions of outer life, but not yet to the final destination of the spirit. This is the innermost layer of the personality—not the pure self, but luminous in its light. In rare cases such a state has been attained in a flash by a highly evolved soul, but more often it is attained through pure and one-pointed concentration, nurtured over a long period of practice.

The Core of Life

The light of the pure self is said to be beyond the reach of mind and words, and when asked to describe it, many sages have chosen silence as their reply. It is better, they say, to let the experience of self-realization unfold without preconception or expectation.

In the self there is no incompleteness.

But other sages describe the innermost self as sat, chit, and ananda. The word sat means “true, real, or existent.” It carries the idea that the self is beyond all impermanence and can never cease in its existence. Chit means “awareness, or consciousness.” The self is the subject of experience, never the object. It is an awareness pervading all things. Finally, as we have already seen, ananda means “bliss.” In the self there is no incompleteness—no lack to create disharmony or pain. The self is full (purna), and even when those who know it remain active in the world, they nonetheless dwell in its perfection.

Source: Yoga: Mastering the Basics by Rolf Sovik, PsyD and Sandra Anderson

Further Reading

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Yoga: Mastering the Basics

Rolf Sovik, PsyD and Sandra Anderson

This book is the ultimate 101 for the aspiring yoga practitioner. An award-winning publication, it is both concise and thorough in explaining the essential concepts of yoga in a well-structured and easily digestible manner. Yoga is much more than stretching or doing a series of yoga postures; it is a comprehensive lifestyle choice. Through the expert instruction of Rolf Sovik, PsyD, and Sandra Anderson, you will gain a solid understanding of what constitutes authentic yoga practice.

About the Teacher

Rolf Sovik, PsyD

President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, Rolf Sovik, PsyD, began his study of yoga and meditation in 1972. He is a student of H.H. Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, and under their guidance has explored the teachings of the Himalayan tradition. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern Studies, and Clinical Psychology. He is currently a resident of the Himalayan Institute where he lives with his wife, Mary Gail. Read Rolf’s articles on yoga wisdom and spirituality in the Himalayan Institute Wisdom Library.

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