The Koshas of Yoga: Using the 5 Layers of Being To Navigate Life
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
– Albert Einstein
At one point or another, we all experience the feeling of being stuck in a situation, circumstance, or pattern we don’t feel we’re in control of.
Maybe you feel like you’re stuck in a dynamic in your relationship.
Or maybe, like me, you feel stuck with a health challenge.
Maybe you feel stuck with your weight.
Or you feel stuck in your career.
Or you’re stuck in a disempowering habit or feeling/thinking/behavioral pattern.
And maybe you’re even experiencing all of the above.
Everyone’s stuck in something.
Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.
– Susan David, Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of ‘Emotional Agility ‘
Often, we can’t change uncomfortable and challenging moments, but we can change our relationship to it and how we respond to life.
By changing the way we approach such challenges in life, we reduce our suffering because much of our suffering comes from our perceptions about what’s happening.
There’s a little known yogic concept that can help us navigate life better so we experience less suffering and more well-being.
Understanding this concept can help us shift the way we perceive ourselves and our circumstances so we move towards self-realization.
Self-realization (Samadhi) is the ultimate end goal of yoga practice.
“Yoga is seeing life the way it is.”
– The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the foremost authoritative text in Yoga Philosophy
Applying this concept in your life can also help you cultivate more personal power (shakti.)
Your personal power lies in your ability to shift your perceptions so you see life as it really is.
This means seeing both sides of things, not just one.
As your perception changes, you act, think, feel, and choose differently.
And by doing that, you make different decisions, which will lead to different outcomes.
Before you know it, you’ve shifted your outer circumstances by doing the internal work.
The Five Koshas: The Layers of the Self
Modern psychologists refer to the three dimensions of the mind as the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious.
In philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga, they are known as gross, subtle, and causal dimensions of the human personality.
These three dimensions are again subdivided into the 5 koshas or bodies which constitute the total expression of the human personality from the grossest to the most subtle dimensions of existence.
– Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Founder of the Bihar School of Yoga & author of ‘Yoga Nidra’
Yogic philosophy views your entire person as being beyond simply mind and body.
The human being is viewed as a complex system consisting of five components.
These components constitute the 5 Layers of our being and are called koshas.
Kosha means “sheath” in Sanskrit.
Like the layers of an onion or a Russian doll, each sheath wraps around us layer by layer.
You can think of these 5 layers as fields of energy that vary in frequency and density:
The densest layer is the physical layer – everything we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste.
Moving upwards each layer becomes more and more subtle in energy and frequency.
Each layer after the physical layer is invisible and unseen.
The equilibrated layer is the subtlest layer and the one with the lightest frequency.
Let’s go through each layer in depth to understand it all better…
The Physical Layer (Annamaya Kosha)
This layer pertains to the physical body (cells, tissues, organs, bones, blood, fat, skin, etc.)
It’s also called the Food layer because our bodies are the result of everything we eat and ingest such as the water we drink, and the air we breathe.
Our nutrition gets processed by the body to eventually become the building blocks and fuel for each of our trillions of cells to produce the physical aspect of who we are today.
We tend to this layer by mindfully moving our bodies such as when we practice asana (yoga poses.)
This layer is perceived through the senses, and as mentioned, is the densest of all five layers.
Level of awareness: the physical plane
The Energetic Layer (Pranamaya Kosha)
This unseen layer houses the invisible bio-plasmic energy network of the human body.
This sheath is referred to as the energy body.
Vital force energy (life force energy) moves through subtle energy channels called nadis and fills the body and each of the trillions of cells.
This layer is also called the Pranic layer because this vital force energy running through the channels of the body is called Prana in the yogic tradition and chi or qi in traditional Chinese medicine.
We tend to this layer by practicing Pranayama (yogic breathwork.)
Level of awareness: bodily functions (e.g. digestion, circulation)
The Mental Layer (Manomaya Kosha)
Perception, cognition and understanding are the basic and primary qualities of the mind.
– Swami Satyananda Saraswati
This sheath is referred to as the mental body.
This layer pertains to what we’ll call the ‘lower mind‘:
- craves source of temporary happiness and quick pleasures
- unconscious mental processes
- unconscious behaviors
- unconscious impulses and instincts (moving away from pain, towards pleasure)
- ruled by the five senses
- processes inputs and perceptions from the outside world and through the outer senses
- creates an incomplete picture of reality
- emotional mind
- subconscious memories
- “autopilot” mode
- “I” and “mine”
- Bound by time (past, future) and space
We tend to this layer by engaging in contemplative activities such as therapy, coaching, self-inquiry, and the yogic practice of svadhyaya (self-study.)
Level of awareness: body and environment, mental and emotional processes
The Wisdom Layer (Vijnanamaya Kosha)
Higher-minded self-awareness is recognition of consciousness – not only understanding that you exist but further comprehending that you are aware of your existence.
– Dr. John Demartini, Educator & Author
Sometimes also called the Intellect layer or wisdom body, this level pertains to the “higher mind”:
- Integrated self
- Self-awareness – the Observer/ the Witness
- Timeless – lives in the present moment
- Not bound by space
- Inner perception and experience (transcends the five senses by turning inwardly)
- Transcendent nature
- Mission and purpose-oriented
- Intellect/ higher intelligence and knowing
- Seeks the expression of full potential and realization
- Seeks greater meaning
- According to inventor Buckminster Fuller, your lower-minded brain was used to perceive tangible objects and your higher mind was used to envision the invisible and conceptual relationship between these objects. (1)
- As the Wisdom layer, the objective here is to be discerning and distinguish between what’s real and true and what’s not.
We tend to this body by engaging in deep meditation (dhyana) and introspection.
You can also chant this mantra found in the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts containing wisdom that’s still relevant today:
Level of awareness: inner environment and senses (the world inside), internal processes and experience
The Equilibrated Layer (Anandamaya Kosha)
When your mind has become steady in experience and does not fluctuate under any condition, that is ananda.
– Swami Satyananda Saraswati
This fifth and final layer is the outermost layer that connects us to our true nature – our spirit.
This layer is the most subtle frequency layer and is the one that connects us to our:
- transcendental (causal) dimension
- universal self
- cosmic light
- higher self
- entelechy (fully realized potential self)
- atman (as it’s referred to in yoga)
This layer is often called the Bliss sheath, because some translate ‘ananda’ to mean ‘bliss’ or ‘joy’ or ‘happiness.’
But according to some yogic philosophers such as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the word goes way beyond bliss and happiness thus creating a misleading misinterpretation of the true meaning:
Anandamaya kosha is the transcendental dimension of human personality existing in total absence of pleasure or pain.
This is very important, but difficult to explain.
‘Ananda’ has been misinterpreted as ‘felicity,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘bliss.’
It is actually a particular state where there is awareness of neither pain nor pleasure.
At that time, a total homogeneity is experienced, and this state of homogenous awareness is known as anandamaya kosha.
Normally, when you experience either pain or pleasure, it produces mental fluctuations.
It means pain is an experience, and so is pleasure.
But in anandamaya kosha, the most subtle body of all, there is no experience.
The instrument of experience has been totally transcended.
– Swami Satyananda Saraswati, ‘Yoga Nidra’
Because we have transcended experiencing reality as a seesaw of “good” or “bad” or as “pleasure” and “pain” we’ll call this layer the Equilibrated layer.
This equilibration and balanced perception bring with it a total transcendence of everything we’ve known about the human experience and all the different levels of human consciousness.
This is a deep and heavy concept to grasp, so take your time digesting it.
(And don’t worry if you can’t seem to wrap your head around it… I’m still working on fully understanding it myself!)
This layer is very underdeveloped in most of us.
Traditionally, only sages and mystics managed to get here.
According to author and yogic teacher Kamini Desai, Ph.D., this layer also contains things we’ve falsely attached to and emotional charges from past experiences that separate us from the source of what we are.
We make conclusions from those impressions and that brings us out of equilibrium.
Desai states that these emotional charges and false perceptions held in the equilibrium layer affect the layers below, starting with the wisdom layer: (2)
“What’s held at the subtle or causal level affects all the bodies below it and moves you in a particular way…
There are times when experiences move in and they stick, we make conclusions about them… and they are held at the level of the bliss body (equilibrium layer).
These impressions that we make conclusions about, that we get frozen around, they can – when we attach to them – affect everything below it.”
Level of awareness: neutral perception, transcending experience
Applying the 5 Layers of Self to Your Life
Each of us carries emotional charges from our past.
We subconsciously carry these emotional charges with us through life.
These charges are like forgotten baggage weighing us down and keeping us stuck looping past trauma, painful memories, and emotionally charged recollections.
Underneath our level of awareness, these stored past emotional memories create ripples that impact our present moment and our future.
Our emotional charges skew the way we interpret the world around us.
The unprocessed emotional charge then becomes the lens through which we perceive our current environment and circumstances.
Our future becomes a reflection or mirror of the past because we create fear-driven anticipations and expectations.
Our nervous system, and especially our brain, scan through a staggering amount of information each second of the day.
This means that reality is happening all around you, but your conscious mind is only picking up .00045% of it.
Add to this the fact that as your brain scans incoming information and data, it is comparing it with relevant past memories in search of a pattern match for those impressions formed.
So if you have a deep unconscious emotional charge, you won’t be seeing reality as it is, you’ll be seeing it as it was and as you expect it to be.
This, in turn, affects all other layers of your self.
Your wisdom layer won’t be able to discern between what is real and what is not.
Your intuition and inner knowing won’t be able to come through to the surface.
Mentally, you’ll keep perceiving things through that lens, which will keep you stuck in lower minded, reactive emotional states.
You’ll be operating out of impulse and instinct.
Energetically, you’ll feel chronically uninspired and angry or frustrated or drained.
Eventually, if this goes unaddressed, your body won’t function properly.
You may develop digestive issues like IBS.
Or you may experience other psychosomatic and stress-induced disorders like autoimmunity.
You may become chronically anxious or depressed.
Every life experience creates a ripple or domino effect that impacts all layers of your self.
I’ll give you a personal example…
As a child, I experienced a chain of traumatic events related to my mother and her mental illness and addictions.
As a result, from a very young age I constantly felt afraid, in danger, and neglected.
This emotional charge stuck so deeply in my layers that I developed a subconscious belief that: “There’s something wrong with me and I am not worthy of love and belonging.”
This resulted in my developing certain mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns that had me:
- playing small in the presence of others
- doubting myself
- feeling insecure about not being smart enough, pretty enough, attractive enough
- selling myself out for a connection with lovers, friends, and family
- avoiding pain and seeking pleasure through my own addictive tendencies
As a result, I felt very unstable in my own skin.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
I felt constantly tired and drained and had very little energy to do much at all.
I battled insomnia.
I struggled to open up to intimacy and trust with another.
Eventually, I was also diagnosed with an autoimmune inflammatory bowel condition.
It wasn’t easy or comfortable to dig deep and do the inner work necessary to identify those key core charges and perceptions that were causing me to show up how I was showing up in my world.
I’m still working through this whole web of layers each and every day.
Some days I take three steps forward and two steps back.
But first, identifying the emotional charges and then secondly, working hard to shift my beliefs and perceptions around past and present circumstances in my life have helped me shift internally.
When we shift internally we change how we think, feel, and act.
We choose differently.
We show up differently.
Then, sometimes, our environment begins to respond differently.
We experience different outcomes.
And this whole domino effect can then shift our circumstances.
We can use this knowledge of the 5 layers to understand ourselves better; to remember that we are multi-dimensional beings.
When we truly live this information and learn to apply it daily in our lives we begin to shift in the face of our circumstances.
Our relationship with them changes.
We begin to view difficult or challenging circumstances differently because we’re different.
Because we’ve shifted internally within our layers.
So the question then becomes:
When pain comes knocking at your door, what do you do?
How do you respond?
Do you welcome it?
Do you remember all the different layers that make up your being?
Do you choose to tap into your higher mind? Your intuition? Your presence?
Do you choose what inspires you instead of what you resent?
Making this shift and applying this stuff is serious work.
It’s not easy and it’s not meant to be easy.
But you’re not reading this because you’re choosing easy.
You’re reading this because you’re seeking answers and new ways of approaching your life.
I’ll leave you with one final thought that has become one of my go-to mantras whenever I need a reminder of why I’m not choosing easy:
MY CIRCUMSTANCES DON’T MAKE ME WHO I AM, THEY REVEAL WHO I’VE CHOSEN TO BE.
(1) Prophecy I Experience, Dr. John Demartini,www.drdemartini.com