The Koshas: Understanding the Yogic View of the Mind-Body Connection – Part 1

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Most regular students of yoga are already familiar with concept of prana, or the vital energy of the body, but may notunderstand exactly how it relates to the other elements of our bodies, as well as our thoughts and feelings.  In today’s article, we’ll take a closer look at what the Yogis referred to as the koshas – the five fundamental layers, including the pranamaya kosha or “energetic layer,” that make up our human existence.  We’ll examine how these layers impact one another and how a deeper understanding of each of them can help us experience greater health, happiness, and peace of mind.

The Five Layers 

In the Yogic perspective, each of us is made up of five interconnected and interdependent layers or “sheaths” known as koshas.  Depending on your preference, you can think of these layers as progressing from outer to inner, or from coarse to more subtle.

  • Annamaya Kosha – “The Food Body.”  This is our physical body, which includes our muscles, organs, nerves, bones, etc.
  • Pranamaya Kosha – “The Energetic Body.”  This layer includes the breath, the vital nerve force of the body (including both afferent and efferent nerve activity), and also the “vital force” of the body.
  • Manomaya Kosha – “The Emotive Body.”  This layer is made up of our feelings, both active and dormant (that is, conscious and unconscious).
  • Vijnanamaya Kosha – “The Cognitive Body.”  This is the layer of reasoning, analysis, and introspection.
  • Anandamaya Kosha – “The Bliss Body.”  This is the inherently tranquil part of the mind, a part that is always present and available underneath the normal patterns of feeling and cognition.

In a moment, we’ll explore each of these layers in more detail, but before we do, let’s talk a little about one important element that all five koshas have in common.

The Koshas & the Three Gunas

Perhaps the most important aspect of the koshas, and the one most elusive to Western practitioners, is the fact that all five layers are “equally material” – that is, they not only are all made up of matter, but are equally subject to the same fundamental principles.  Even our feelings and thoughts, in the Yogic view, are material entities, and thus are governed by the same rules as our muscles and organs.

As discussed in earlier articles, the Yogis believed that all matter is made up of three fundamental elements, known collectively as the gunas.  Each of these elements – rajas or “agitation,” tamas or “inertia,” and sattvas or “tranquility” – is present in every aspect of the material world.  Even the most easeful person or thing has elements of rajas and tamas, and this applies not only to things but energy (prana), feelings, and thoughts.  In this sense, the subtle, inner koshas are every bit as conditional and mixed as the outer layers – even if this can be harder for our untrained eyes to see.

Related to this and equally important is the fact that the gunas are fundamentally unstable – that is, there is not only no such thing as “pure” sattvas or rajas, but also no such thing as permanent sattvas.  As observed by the Yogis, the fundamental nature of the gunas is transition, which means they are always flowing into one another.  In turn, this means that not only is each layer of our being made up of a mixture of all three, but it is in fact impossible for us to achieve a lasting state of homeostasis on any of the levels.

To put it more concretely, whatever might seem sattvic or peaceful to us, today – the food that we find agreeable, the sensation that calms us, the thought that seems reasonable – may have exactly the opposite impact tomorrow.  By understanding this crucial fact, we can save ourselves the vast amount of frustration and suffering inherent in looking for a “permanent solution” that we will never find – not because we stop looking for the things that work for us, but rather because we learn to let go of the myth of the “perfect” diet, or job, or relationship, and focus instead of truly enjoying the “here and now.”

Now that we’ve covered the key principles behind the koshas, in our next article we’ll take a closer look at each layer, including how they impact one another and how they can contribute to a life of greater health, compassion, and peace.  Until then, wishing you the best in your own practice of Living Yoga….” 


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