The Koshas: Understanding the Yogic View of the Mind-Body Connection – Part 2

images-4In last week’s article, we began our exploration of the koshas, or the layers of the human body and consciousness.  In today’s article, we’ll take a look at each of the five layers in more detail, including how they impact one another and how a deeper understanding of each can lead to greater health, peace, and compassion.

The Annamaya Kosha: Our “Conspicuous” Material Being

Working from the outside in, our first layer is the annamaya kosha, which comprises what most of us think of as our bodies – e.g., skin, muscles, organs, bones, blood, nerves, etc.  This is of course the level in which the phenomena mentioned above are most readily seen and accepted – we all know (although we also often forget) that the body is always changing.  Studying this can help deepen our understanding of the same fact with the other, subtler layers, and is one of the primary purposes of our physical practices such as asana.

Equally important, however, is the fact that the state of the annamaya kosha directly impacts the pranamaya kosha, which in turn directly impacts the manomaya kosha, etc.  In other words, even though the annamaya kosha is the most “coarse” or material layer, it ultimately ends up impacting and influencing even our most subtle layers of energy and consciousness.  This interconnection means that if we wish to experience inner-peace we cannot just ignore our bodies – if we want to think and feel in a constructive way, we need to stay aware of our physical existence and do our best to foster harmony and ease on that level as well.

The Pranamaya Kosha: Beyond Breathing….

The pranayama kosha is often referred to as the “breath body,” but of course prana is far more than that.  As discussed in previous articles, prana has several meanings in Yogic metaphysics: it can refer to breath in general and one of the five directions in which breath is seen to flow in the body/locations in which it resides; it can refer to the nerve force of the body, both afferent & efferent (that is, both the force that guides movement as well as the force that conveys sensations); and it can also refer to the vital force that animates the body as a whole, very much like the Chinese concept of chi.

These varied meanings of the term prana reinforce the fact that building and guiding prana is not as simple as controlling the breath – if we learn to control the breath but not to control our thoughts, no amount of respiration we will keep us from dissipating energy or experiencing other aspects of prana that is out of balance.  That much said, prana still represents a powerful bridge between body and emotion, and by learning to guide the breath, we can not only help the body become more healthful and harmonious but help our feelings and thoughts to do the same.

The Manomaya Kosha: The “Material” Nature of Emotions

The manomaya kosha is generally referred to as the “feeling body” – in this case, referring not to the senses but rather our inner emotions.  It is important to understand that this layer includes what we refer to as our intuition – that is, our deeper and true inner feelings – but it also includes our programmed or “conditioned” emotions as well.

In this sense, it’s valuable to realize that the manomaya kosha is neither more nor less “pure” than our physical bodies or somehow closer to spirit, but rather, just like all the other layers, it is a mixture of inspirations and inclinations that can be both constructive and negative.  In this sense, just like all aspects of the material world, the contents and nature of our manomaya kosha need to be explored and analyzed before choosing to dismiss or follow any given feeling.

Again, like the pranamaya kosha, the influence of the manomaya kosha flows in both directions.  Learning to guide our feelings in a more healthful direction can calm the breath and open the flow of energy in the body, helping our physical layer to be more healthy.  And of course healthier emotions also make it far easier for us to reason clearly and calmly, which means the manomaya kosha also influences our next layer, the vijnanamaya kosha.

The Vijnanamaya Kosha: Mind as Matter

The next layer is the vijnanamaya kosha.  Vijnana means “wisdom,” and in turn this layer is viewed as the layer of reasoning and understanding based on both logic and personal experience.  Again, it’s important to understand that this layer is made up of the three gunas, just like all the other koshas, and therefore is subject to the same challenges.  The Yogis remind us that our thoughts are conditioned, just like our bodies and our emotions.  We also need to remember that our thoughts are every bit as transient as our feelings, and so we must watch for the natural tendency to presume past experiences or values will hold in our current situations.

Another important aspect of the vijnanamaya kosha is its direct connection with the manomaya kosha – in other words, the Yogis realized our emotions profoundly impact our ability to reason.  And, since our physical and energetic state deeply influences our feelings, it is equally true that our cognitive abilities are as dependent upon good care of these koshas as care of our minds themselves.

You will perhaps note that this is in strong contrast with much thinking in Western culture.  We tend to tell ourselves that we can treat our bodies poorly or fail to deal with our emotions and still think clearly and “objectively” – a belief the Yogis strongly challenge.  If we don’t treat our health – both physical and emotional – seriously, we will have a very difficult time calming or focusing the mind, let alone growing wiser.

Finally, it is also important to remember that the koshas are not hierarchical and therefore that the position of the vijnanamaya kosha “above” the other koshas is not meant to suggest that it is superior to or truer than our feelings or physical state.  Again, each layer of our being plays a crucial role in our functioning in the world, as well as our spiritual growth.  That much said, it is significant that our cognitive layer sits between our bodies, energy, and feelings on one side and what is referred to as our “bliss body” on the other – that is, the clarity of our minds directly impacts whether we focus so strongly on the worldly that we lost touch with our inner joy, or instead build the ability to embrace both our material circumstances as well as our inherent inner peace at the same time.

The Anandamaya Kosha: Peace Within

The fifth and final layer is our anandamaya kosha, or the “bliss body.”  According to the Yogis, this layer of joy and happiness is always present inside ourselves.  However, our ability to experience it is directly related to our state of mind.

If our minds are agitated or undisciplined, it is hard to experience joy, even if our bodies are healthy and lives harmonious – in other words, without mental control, it is easy to be so caught up in the external that we fail to realize the true source of our peace inside of us, a challenge that is even greater when our lives are in a state of turbulence.  In this sense, gaining control of the mind (and readers of this blog will recall that “control” is one of the meanings of the word yoga ) is largely about building the ability to stay in touch with the anandamaya kosha amid the challenges we experience in the other layers.

That much said, it’s also very important to remember a theme throughout this article, which is that all the layers are connected and interdependent.  This means it’s important not to focus on the anandamaya kosha to the point that we lose touch with the other layers – if we do, the disharmony and friction we will soon experience in body and mind will quickly pull our lives out of balance.  Again, the key is to stay in touch with this inner joy while also honoring the reality and merit the other layers of life.

The Koshas, Interdependence & Life

To conclude, two of the most valuable lessons to be learned from the koshas are the principles of conditional existence and interdependence – the more we observe each layer, the more we realize that our thoughts and feelings are an ever-changing product of the conditions of our lives.  The more we can appreciate both of these, the more openness we can have to ourselves and to those around us.

Ultimately, this becomes the avenue for true compassion, even in areas of profound difference.  When we can see that even our most deeply-held beliefs and feelings are the results of our experiences, we can hold a place for people who think and feel differently, knowing as we do that their lives and experiences have of course been different from ours.

Similarly, as we come to appreciate the fact that our different layers have a constant impact on one another, we get better at remembering that the same is true of life – that we are all constantly influencing and being influenced by one another.  The Buddhist referred to this as “interdependent co-origination” – that is, that we are all constantly affecting one another and that the process is always multi-directional.

When we learn to embrace this interdependence and to live in a way that stays in constant awareness of this, we are able to rise above mistaken emotions that harm us, such as blame and vilification and judgment, and reside in a place of peace and ease.  In this way, greater appreciation of the koshas inside us can help us live with greater compassion and joy, even amid the natural dance and drama of life….

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