Human beings, like ogres, resemble onions in that our being is made up of layers, and one of our goals for this existence is integration of each into a fully realized life. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to forget this: how many times have we suddenly realized that we are living so much in our minds that we’ve lost touch with our bodies? Conversely, how many people spend their lives only on the physical plane without making time for intuition? Yogic philosophy teaches that there are five layers, or koshas to the human experience, each of them connected to the others. While the onion metaphor is used to describe the way in which we experience these layers, we can explore and study each one in detail, thereby allowing for a more nuanced understanding of who we are and why we are here.
The foremost layer, called the Annamaya Kosha, refers to the physical level of our lives. Information gathered here can be surprising. Think about the time when a yoga teacher reminded you to relax your jaw while exploring a standing pose, for example, or when you realized that the position of your feet affects the opening of your hips. This layer gives us our most direct experience of the world.
The Pranamaya Kosha or vital energy sheath, describes your dynamism. In the morning, are you lively or sluggish? In the late afternoon, do you need a pick-me-up? Do you play well with others, or do you leave negative vibrations in your wake? This layer allows us to experience and interact with the world in a more subtle fashion.
The mental sheath, or Manomaya Kosha, allows us to bring our minds into the equation. Integrating our ability to think our way through a situation can protect us from injury or energy depletion. This is also where inner beliefs reside, ideas that can help or hurt us. Exploring this layer gives us the ability to move on from stuck places and change both the quality of our energies and the experience of our bodies.
Our intuition lives in the Vijnanamaya Kosha, or wisdom or body. Many of us are not aware that our ‘gut reactions’ can allow us to make surprising, sometimes miraculous connections between our lives and the rest of the world. If you’ve ever experienced ESP, you’ve worked from this layer. Our creative abilities also reside here.
Finally, the Anandamaya Kosha is that deep, existential place where our joy resides. Called the ‘bliss body’, this part of our existence is much more profound than ordinary emotion. Corresponding to the final limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, Samadhi, this is the most introspective of the koshas, as well as being the sheath most difficult to explore.
When next you take that yoga class, why not try to bring in more than just the body? When you study for a test or wrestle with a problem, why not work with more than just the mind? When we reach out to the estranged parts of our being, we can move forward with our life’s goals; when we use all of our faculties, we experience this world on a more vibrant level. The study of the koshas allows us a path to experience this fuller way of life.