You know about your physical body. It’s always been right there. You can feel it, see it, move with it, and it’s relatively easy to know how to care for it — because the effects of the food you eat and the way you move are evident.
But in yogic teachings, there are four more ‘bodies’, called koshas or ‘sheaths’.
These sheaths are described in the Taittiriya Upanishad; a text that is thought to date back to sixth century BC. The five koshas are not completely separate from one another, but form layers that encase the soul or spirit, or atman.
Here I’ll describe each of the koshas, and then explore how knowledge of the sheaths can be woven into our yoga and meditation practice.
The Five Koshas
The five sheaths become progressively more subtle; with the first, outer sheath being the physical body, and the fifth being the experience of ananda, or spiritual bliss.
1. Annamaya Kosha - The Physical Body
The Sanskrit word maya means ‘made of’, and anna means ‘physical matter’ or ‘food’.
You already know your physical body and the way it works and supports your whole being, so all I’ll add here is that the things you do with your physical body also affect the subtler bodies.
For example, yoga practice moves, strengthens, and stretches the physical body, but it also creates awareness of the following subtle bodies — whether or not that awareness is conscious or simply a felt experience.
Read: You Are What You Ea
2. Pranamaya Kosha - The Energy Body
Prana means ‘life force energy’. In yogic tradition, it is everything that keeps you going - that makes you a living being - and if the energy body is not well, the physical body will also begin to fail.
Yoga practice and pranayama rejuvenate and care for the energy body, and the impact of this is felt very clearly — in your energy levels, your health, mood, and enthusiasm for life.
3. Manomaya Kosha - The Body Made of Thought Processes
Mano is sometimes translated as ‘thought processes’, and sometimes simply as ‘mind.’ This sheath, more subtle than the energy body, governs our sensory activities and experiences and motor skills, and our thoughts and actions when we’re functioning in an automatic mode.
For example, when you’re driving a car or riding a bike, the actions you take without having to think about them are attributed to manomaya.
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha - The Body of the Intellect and Higher Mind
Vijnana means ‘discernment’ or ‘judgement’. It is the energetic body of the thinking mind — beyond automatic processes.
Conscious and will fall under this kosha. It’s closely tied with the choices you make in life, and the way you interact with the world and other beings.
5. Anandamaya Kosha - The Body of Spiritual Bliss
The most subtle sheath is anandamaya — with ananda translating as ‘spiritual bliss’. It’s generally thought that only enlightened saints and sages will experience the bliss of this body; a level of consciousness overlooked by most people.
It is seen as the thinnest veil that exists between us and our atman, or higher self. And so those that experience it, or come close to it — during, for example, near death experiences — feel a rush of pure bliss that can’t be compared to anything in everyday life.
Although most of us never work deeply enough to feel it, all of us have this fifth sheath deep within our being.
Read: Know Your Atman (Self)
Meditate Through the Five Koshas
You can begin to experience the five sheaths by drawing your awareness of them into your yoga and meditation practice.
To help you get started and feel the depth of your energetic levels, here’s a practice to try. You can choose to meditate on each stage for just a few moments, a few minutes, or longer.
- Find a comfortable seated position
Close the eyes, and take a few breaths to settle into the physical body. You are here. You are present. Everything else can wait.
- Focus the awareness on the physical body
Do this in any way that feels intuitive to you. You could move through a full body scan with your mind, or focus on the way the body sits in space and time.
- Notice the head and the brain
Narrow your field of awareness and shift it upwards to the head. Notice the brain. Acknowledge any senses or sensations governed by unconscious motor processes: muscle twitches, itches, and the rhythm of your breath.
- Move higher — become aware of conscious thought processes
Acknowledge the parts of your brain that allow you to make decisions — to choose to meditate. Become aware of the brain processes that make you want to learn more about the five sheaths, and the energetic bodies.
- Come to the heart
Allow your body to become involved in this, perhaps the breath deepens and the chest expands. Notice the stillness and steadiness at the centre of your heart. There is peace and contentment there. Become aware that you are exactly where you need to be — there is nothing else you need to do. Nowhere else you need to go. You are at home.
- Become aware of your attention and awareness
Entering the finer realms of energy, it can take practice to connect with the more subtle experience here. Notice how you are noticing. Become aware of your awareness.
- Come back to the breath
In your own time, bring the awareness back to the breath. Return gently to the physical body. Open your eyes when you are ready, and say (out loud, or silently in your mind):
“I am here.”
This is a wonderful practice to include at the end of your physical yoga practice. Movement and asana will heighten your connection with your physical and energetic bodies, and from that place of openness and readiness, you'll move more easily through the koshas.
Enjoy this journey into your Self.