The Koshas

Swami Dayananda Saraswati

The yogic body goes beyond the physical and extends into more subtle layers of energy. Yoga says that each person has five distinct energy bodies or koshas, vibrating at different speeds. These interacting and overlapping layers of energy form the complete spiritual, mental and physical nature of the human personality.

Kosha is a Sanskrit word meaning sheath, moving from the gross physical body to the subtle spiritual body. Each kosha signifies a more refined dimension of consciousness. The koshas are known as annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya. Maya means 'composed of', so these sheaths are composed of food, energy, intellect, intuition and bliss.

The first two sheaths equate to the physical body. Annamaya kosha is the actual physical body, that part dependent on anna, meaning grain or gross food, for nourishment. Pranamaya kosha is composed of prana, the vital life energy which organises the body parts and provides movement for mental and physical expression.

What we can loosely term 'the mind' exists in two parts. Manomaya kosha is the dimension of the lower mind, incorporating intellect, reason, concept and memory. Vijnanamaya kosha is a more subtle area of higher knowledge and intuitive awareness. The most subtle body is anandamaya kosha. It is essentially a body of pure light in the realm of spiritual bliss, beyond the reach of language.

A deeper understanding of the koshas or sheaths of interacting consciousness reveals the interconnecting worlds in which body, mind and spirit exist. It reveals that the constant interplay of manifest and un-manifest consciousness is fuelled by very subtle, but potent forms of energy. This life process involves natural stress and fluctuation.

Purification of these energy bodies is the means of experiencing them. This is best approached through an understanding of the energy networks which bind and connect them. We can then utilise yoga in its purest sense, and go deeper into the regions of harmony and balance.

Annamaya kosha is the material part of creation, regardless of whether it is a stone, a plant or a human being, which all exist in different degrees of consciousness. This kosha is considered to be the gross manifestation of energy as matter in different strengths and quantities.

Prana permeates the entire cosmos as life force or energy impulse. Maha prana is the initial impulse linking matter and consciousness. In general terms it is said that it is the pulsation of the atom within the planetary body. It forms the original wave of energy seen as light rays from stars or pulsars.

The impulses in our own bodies which travel from the body to the brain, and from the brain to the body are of physical prana. The same prana coordinates the activities of body, mind, rationality, emotions and other aspects of our personality. The five major pranas - prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana - circulate within the body and perform different energy functions.

Manomaya kosha is the energy field where the gross expression of mind occurs. When we relate mentally or emotionally with the world, then we are expressing manomaya. Our feelings of love, hatred, depression, joy, jealousy or compassion are played out on this level. Ego and its natural characteristics and needs are manifested in the domain of manomaya. This area of the mind is said to function through modifications or vrittis: correct cognition, incorrect cognition, fantasy and memory.

Vijnanamaya kosha is the sheath where subtle intelligence evolves, where the four aspects of mind originate in their pure form, born of mahat or supreme intelligence. Deep karmas and samskaras are stored at this level and form the reservoir of encoded experiences, or memories which filter through to manomaya kosha, and manifest as our conditioned personality.

The concept of soul becomes a living experience in anandamaya kosha which is the sheath or body of bliss and happiness of attitude. All the impurities and dross evaporate, and effulgence of soul is experienced. At that point a human being experiences true divinity, the realisation of Self or God.

The koshas symbolise an aspect of yoga psychology which tends to start where contemporary Western psychology ends. These energy sheaths portray our personality as permeating different fields of energy and consciousness. Yoga says we evolve through the koshas as our awareness deepens and expands, and that is a matter of karma and free will.

Some people remain in annamaya and manomaya koshas all their lives. They can literally subsist at a survival level without ever realising more subtle intelligence. Very few people are aware of pranamaya kosha which forms the intricate energy systems weaving the consciousness into personality. The blockages occurring at this level prevent people from knowing this part of themselves and condition them to grosser experiences of life. Difficulties with past life karma at vijnanamaya kosha usually inhibit people from knowing the bliss of ananda or soul.