This article was originally published in Conscious Lifestyle Magazine.
The koshas are a series of energetic sheaths (similar to energy bodies) that encase the physical human form and regulate health, consciousness, awareness and many other things, according to yogic philosophy.
A Guide to The 5 Koshas
The 5 koshas or sheaths (Pancha kosha) were first outlined in the Taittiriya Upanishad. The koshas, literally translated as “house” or “sheath”, map the process of embodiment from unmanifest, undifferentiated potential (the ocean) into the physical form of the body (the wave). Each of the 5 koshas is named as follows: Ananda (Bliss), Vijnana (Wisdom), Mana (Mental), Prana (Energy) and Ana (Physical) bodies respectively. Each body name is followed by the same suffixes: maya and kosha.
We know kosha means sheath, and maya means illusory. These suffixes indicate that these are illusory sheaths of embodiment which may appear to separate us from Source, but in fact do not. Thus the Ananda-maya-kosha would mean, “The illusory sheath of bliss that appears to separate us from the whole.” All of the koshas can be translated the same way. This is a subtle way of reinforcing that even though we are embodied, we are not and never have been separate from Source.
The 5 koshas delineate the subtle process by which energy progressively condenses out of the soup of unmanifest potential and eventually densifies into what we know and see as the concrete and visible physical body. A metaphor to understand the koshas or bodies as increasingly visible and materialized sheaths would be to compare the Bliss body to ether, the Wisdom body to air, the Mental body to steam, the Energy body to water and the Physical body to ice. It is harder to affect or shape ice than it is to affect water. At the water level (Energy body), water will assume the form of whatever direction it is given, whereas at the ice level (Physical body), we would need to use a hammer and chisel to effect the same changes. As you will see, one of the primary tools of Yoga Nidra—Intention (Sankalpa), makes use of this principle.
The process of embodiment first moves from formless into the most subtle condensation of energy at the Bliss body or Anandamaya kosha. Think of the Bliss body as the first undulation of an ocean as it begins to swell toward a fully formed wave. This sheath is said to arise from the initial mutation from oneness to the sense of “me” as a separate and distinct entity from the whole of the ocean.
An overview of the 5 koshas.
The Bliss body or Anandamaya kosha is the most powerful of all the 5 koshas, being the first involution into form. It is the finest veil standing between ordinary awareness and Source. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the Bliss body is equated with the transcendental Self or Source itself, although subsequent Vedanta schools consider it to be the final veil surrounding the ultimate Reality, or Self. We will go with the latter here—the Bliss body as the final veil to ultimate Reality or Self. If Source is pure light and love, the Bliss body, as the thinnest veil receives the greatest luminosity from the Source. As each sheath gets denser and further from Source, the light of Source is less able to penetrate through these apparent veils of separation.
1. Anandamaya kosha, the Bliss Body
The Bliss body is the junction between formless Source and form. It is the place where Shiva and Shakti or consciousness and energy meet and intermingle. It is experienced as a sense of purest silent joy. It is a space of abiding stillness and perfect contentment without cause or reason. There is no fear, desire or sense of inadequacy. The experience of love at the Bliss body is not emotional ecstasy, which has an opposite, rather it is a spontaneous opening of the heart that is so overwhelming, tears may come to your eyes. It leaves you with a feeling of great gratitude and oneness with everything. Among the 5 koshas, this one reflects the Divine bliss of the Self.
The vast majority of humans will rarely experience the Bliss body while awake. One of those moments can be when we fall in love. The heart opens spontaneously and we feel at one, not just with the object of our love, but with existence itself. Besides during profound heart-opening experiences, Andamaya kosha most fully manifests during sleep, or sleep-like states. This is why Yoga Nidra is a powerful path to the Bliss body.
The Bliss body is the reflected light of Source. Its only difference from Source is that it contains a sense of individuality or “I am-ness”—a pure sense of being-ness. Contained within the Bliss body is the unconscious mind, or our individualized consciousness, called chitta. Like a computer’s hard drive, it registers the impressions left by every life experience. These impressions are called samskaras. This is where all life’s memories, experiences and images are stored. Core emotions, habits, attachments and impressions reside here. Deeper than thoughts, they are more like residual imprints left on mental pathways that continue to drive our motivations and tendencies from within. They include actions that have eventually become second nature to us through repetition. Working with the 5 koshas, and Anandamaya kosha in particular, can help alter these.
Chitta comprises the Causal body—another name for the Bliss body. The Causal body is the vehicle through which the individual soul reincarnates and is said to remain through rebirth. It contains karmic imprints carried over from past lives, but only a few are revealed in a particular lifetime depending on the environment. Chitta, or individualized consciousness, is not bad. It determines our distinct character, personality and mind. However, some things held in our individualized consciousness are not helpful. Yoga Nidra can reach directly into this “hard drive” (chitta) and is a means to rewrite what is contained on it.
In its illuminated state, the Anandamaya kosha reflects the bliss of the Source. When asleep to its Source nature, the Anandamaya kosha operates through association with chitta—the storehouse of unconscious memories, impressions and tendencies. When we identify with these impressions (samskaras) rather than the Self, we experience our own mind stuff—beliefs, concepts and past—more than the transcendent light and love at the Bliss body. When identified with samskaras, these impressions and resulting tendencies can channel and direct the formless into form in both helpful and unhelpful ways. Yoga Nidra can be used as a tool to rewrite this programming directly at this critical changing station between formless and form.
2. Vijnanamaya kosha, the Wisdom body
The next condensation of energy toward visible form, rising out of the ocean and toward a wave, is the Wisdom body or Vijnanamaya kosha. Vijnana means “the power of judgment or discernment.” It includes conscience and will and encompasses all the functions of the higher mind. The higher mind operates as discriminating intellect. It is also called buddhi. Its job is to discern between what is real and what is unreal.
The Wisdom body digests and analyses incoming sensory impressions received from the outer mind (Manamaya kosha, the Mental body) and then extracts meaning from it. From this, our choices are made and subsequent actions are passed on to the body and organs of action to carry them out.
Of the 5 koshas, The Wisdom body holds a repository of information some of which is held outside of our conscious awareness. When working properly, this conscious and unconscious information is used to bring understanding, clarity of mind, good judgment, and discerning choices. The Wisdom body can function from pre-programmed conditioning or from beyond it. As a function of programmed perception, the Wisdom body is our intelligence—our ability to contemplate and engage in higher levels of thought such as philosophy, science, logic, and reason.
However, the Wisdom body, when unclouded by past programming, can operate from beyond mere intellect and can access true wisdom that stems from knowing Source itself. The higher knowing of the Wisdom Body has the capacity to perceive that the eternal is what is real and that the temporal is in passing and therefore unreal. This is not a function of acquired knowledge learned through books, but is known through experience. A Wisdom body opened to its higher potential brings intuition, wisdom, witness consciousness and objectivity.
When unobstructed, the Wisdom body acts as an inner divining rod that moves you toward truth and knowing of Source itself. It acts as your inner guidance system. In layman’s terms, one might call it the “higher Self” or inner knowing. Some would call it insight, clear-seeing or deeper perception. Undistorted, the Vijnanamaya kosha is able to perceive with pristine clarity. Balanced, objective insight into any situation is available. It can see what is, as it is. However, adopted fears, beliefs, conclusions and interpretations can cloud the Wisdom body’s ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal.
Often, this means we are not seeing reality as it is; we are seeing reality filtered through our past memories and beliefs. We no longer have access to insight or knowing because we cannot see clearly. We don’t simply see a man or woman walking toward us, we see a man or woman who reminds us of pain we experienced in the past; so we avoid them. Or we see a man or woman as a potential partner because they remind us of our father or mother whom we loved; so we move toward them. We are not seeing what is, as is. We are seeing our fears and desires superimposed over that person. These fears and attachments compel us to act in certain ways. These tendencies are called vasanas.
Whatever is held in the Bliss body can affect the Wisdom body. This is because the koshas act in a hierarchical fashion—each more refined than the next, but influencing those below it. Therefore whatever is held in the Bliss body will, when attached to, affect all other koshas.
Attachments and fears reside as samskaras in the Bliss body. Fear and attachment are the agents that most cloud the clarity of the Wisdom body. When we have no fear or attachment, we can give a friend solid, impartial and objective advice. However, when we are involved in our own story or drama, we lose our clear-seeing, particularly when we are attached or afraid of losing something we really want. Our clarity and judgment is clouded and we cannot discern what action is right for us.
Ultimately, what we consciously believe and act on can become an unconscious impression or a tendency held in the Bliss body. After repeatedly judging someone a certain way, we may continue to do so without even being aware of it. A conscious decision has become an unconscious way of being; automatically steering our thinking and behavior outside of mindful discrimination. Yoga Nidra is designed to take us through the 5 koshas to the Bliss body where we can affect this core programming even when it has become an unconscious pattern outside our conscious awareness.
In Yoga Nidra, we also work with the Wisdom body through witness. The dis-identification gained through witness, creates space from past memories, beliefs and conclusions so that we can clearly see the present for what it is, informed by the past, but not clouded by it.
3. Manamaya kosha, the Mental Body
More gross than the Bliss and Wisdom bodies and moving more toward the full shape of the wave, is the Mental body. Though we cannot see the Mental body, it is more easily definable than the Bliss or Wisdom bodies. After all, we are able to identify thoughts and their effects as they come and go. The Mental body is called the Manamaya kosha, or the body made of thought processes, and it is exactly that. In general terms, it is the outer mind that allows us to receive and digest sensory impressions from the outside environment. The Mental body is most connected with the eyes. When we close the eyes, we immediately begin to quiet the Mental body. The Mental body takes in data, and together with the Wisdom body interprets the information, which results in actions taken—with the Energy and Physical bodies acting as pawns of the subtler and more powerful mind and intellect.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says in 1.2: “Yoga is the stilling of modifications of mind.” In Sanskrit, the words are, “Yogash chitta vritti nirodaha.” In Yoga Nidra, we are stilling the way the incoming senses (via manas—Mental body) interact with the unconscious pre-programming contained in the chitta which together cause fluctuations of mind (vrittis). Yoga is the stilling of these fluctuations of mind (vrittis). As these mental fluctuations or vrittis are stilled, our true nature is revealed. We have enough clarity to perceive the Self beyond the fluctuations of mind with which we are habitually identified. For instance, if we have unresolved feelings or conclusions about being “left out” stored in our chitta (hard drive) and we are the only one left with no seat at a picnic, the incoming information through the Mental body (manas) interacts with our past conclusions and beliefs (held in the chitta at the Bliss body), resulting in fluctuations or vrittis in the mind. The resulting fluctuations, or internal reactions, are stilled in Yoga Nidra so that we may perceive what is beyond it.
4. Pranamaya kosha, the Energy Body
The Energy body or Pranamaya kosha is even more gross than the Mental body and more tangible. We can feel energy as sensation in the body very clearly. Even though we cannot see energy, the sensations in our body give us clear signals as intuition or instinctual signals. The difference between insight at the Wisdom body level and intuition at the Energy body level is physical sensation. The Energy body speaks through bodily sensation without language, such as gut feelings or impulses.
At the Wisdom body level, insight can come in the form of knowledge and words. You might receive information from the higher Self, telling you what to do, what to say, how to act. It almost speaks through you. At the Energy body level, Source also speaks, but through the language of sensation. Keep in mind that even though we describe the 5 koshas separately, they are an interconnected web. Everything is affecting everything else. So, our “inner divining rod” may speak to us through insight as well as sensation.
We feel the energy as sensation in the Physical body because the Energy body surrounds and infuses the Physical body. It is the energy or Prana body (Pranamaya kosha) that serves as the mechanism by which Universal Prana enters the Physical body and enlivens it via the chakra system and the thousands of meridians or nadis that feed the organs and systems of the body. It is the prana of the Energy body that makes the heart beat, the lungs breathe. When the Energy body leaves the Physical body, the Physical body dies.
It is prana that maintains homeostasis and heals the body—and it is the same prana that is the visible aspect of the Divine that has the potential to take us back to the formless. Prana is the Spirit in you. In Christianity it would be called the Holy Spirit. It is that which connects the “Son” (you and I) to the “Father” (Source). When the Prana body or Spirit is very strong as a result of connection to Source, the Prana body can even become visible to the naked eye as a certain glow or aura emanating from around the body. This is depicted as a halo around saints and mystics in many traditions.
5. Anamaya kosha, the Physical Body
Finally, the most condensed form of energy is the Physical body or Anamaya kosha. It is the wave in full visible manifestation. Ana means “food” or “rice” because it is composed of the foodstuff we take in. It is tangible, visible, most dense, and least easy to change. The furthest from Source, it receives the least light and radiance. However, the more clarified all the bodies are, the more transparent and less dense all the 5 koshas become, resulting in a visibly more radiant countenance and skin. You will see this effect when you begin to do Yoga Nidra consistently.
The Bliss body is also known as the Causal body. It is invisible and intangible—even to the subtle senses. The Wisdom, Mental and Energy bodies together are also called the “Subtle body.” The Physical body is called the “Gross body.”
The Amrit Method of Yoga Nidra focuses most heavily on the Energy body. The Energy body has the capacity to heal physically, mentally and emotionally at an accelerated level. The Energy body, unlike the Mental and Bliss bodies, is gross enough to feel and sense, yet—like water—is subtle enough to shape and change quickly and effectively. It is the place where we can affect the subtler Mental and Bliss bodies and the gross Physical body quickly and easily.
This article on the five koshas is excerpted with permission from Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep by Kamini Desai, Ph.D, published by Lotus Press, a division of Lotus Brands, Inc., PO Box 325, Twin Lakes, WI 53181, USA lotuspress.com. ©2017 All Rights Reserved.