By Heidi Sokka

Yoga – a word familiar around the world today. Wherever we are, we’ll find yoga studios and advertisements for yoga classes with different names and styles to choose from. It can be almost overwhelming to navigate in the ‘yoga jungle’, not knowing which direction to choose. Becoming consistent and serious in our endeavours is not the easiest task, especially when the destination is unclear and we never received a map to begin with.

So where is this journey of yoga actually leading us to? To become more flexible and healthier? To control our mind? To balance our emotions? Yes, all of the above, but the journey of yoga is a gradual process, and it continues beyond the benefits we gain on the physical, mental and emotional level. The ancient texts on yoga describe the concept of Pancha Kosha, coverings or layers of awareness that filter our experiences and prevent us from realising the ultimate purpose of yoga; our real nature in connection with the Divine.

These coverings, precisely translated as sheaths, are often described as layers of an onion, and the process of yoga is to peel off the layers to get in touch with the core or the essence. Swami Sivananda explained this as a process of interrelation. “Yoga is an integration and harmony between head, heart and hand. Through the practices of yoga, awareness develops of the interrelation between the emotional, mental and physical levels, and a disturbance in any of these affects the others. Gradually this awareness leads to an understanding of the more subtle areas of existence”.

The more regular and committed we become in our practice, the more we start to peel off these layers and the journey of moving inwards from the outer level of physicality begins. This process starts from the gross physical body and the first layer is known as Annamaya kosha. When one is living at this layer or level, he or she identifies with the physical body and lacks Viveka (discernment) to identify the true Self distinct from the body. Out of all the koshas, this Annamaya kosha has the slowest vibrational frequency. The next layer within the physical covering is the subtle energy body, known as Pranamaya kosha. Prana means lifegiving force, and this kosha regulates the movement of the physical and mental energies through the system of energy channels, nadis, and energy centers, chakras. Breath is one of its physical manifestations.

The next layer is Manomaya kosha, which refers to the mental body as Mana translates to mind. This kosha contains thoughts and feelings, and it takes care of the basic needs such as protection, safety and security. Like all the koshas, Manomaya kosha is interactive and dependent on the other layers. As powerful as the mind is, this kosha can dominate the outer layers. The second last of the layers is Vijnanamaya kosha, the wisdom body. Vijnana means the awareness, the mind or the intellect – the faculty that discriminates or wills. This layer contains wisdom and intuition and is associated with the organs of perception.

The last kosha covering our real Self, is Anandamaya kosha, the bliss body. It’s the subtlest of the five koshas and also known as the causal body. Ananda means bliss, and this kosha contains the pure unchanging happiness and joy that is only found at this deepest layer of our being. Only by working our way inwards through the outer layers can we get back in touch with this state of being, which has always existed but has been covered with the other koshas. Under this last thin layer resides our True Self, the pure consciousness, connected with the Divine source behind everything existing.

As the Sanskrit word Yoga means to link or to connect, the ultimate goal and purpose of all the yogic practices is to peel off these layers and come to this state of pure consciousness and connection. Our modern lifestyle often takes us further away from our natural state of being – being loving and connected – and the practice of yoga is so rewarding in systematically guiding us back to this state.

Understanding the layers, or the koshas, is beneficial in navigating in the ‘yoga jungle’ and understanding the purpose behind the system of yoga. In the famous Yoga Sutras, the author Patanjali Muni describes the system of Ashtanga Yoga, known as the eight-limb path, to guide us through the peeling process with a set of practices. Stay tuned for the next article, in which the path from Bahiranga – the external limbs of yoga- to Antaranga – internal limbs- is explained.

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