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Five levels of awareness – the Five Koshas

Being aware means being in the present moment. Being in the present moment implies that we observe a situation without interpretation, a situation in its "as is" state. Having observed the situation, we can now intelligently analyze it and respond to it appropriately. In the absence of this level of awareness, we tend to offer a "knee-jerk" reaction which is driven entirely by the ego based on past experiences and impressions called "samskaras". Through awareness or mindfulness, we learn how to "respond" intelligently to a situation rather than "react" mindlessly. If we look closely at most of our life experiences, we will realize that reacting mindlessly is usually the cause of much suffering in the end. A "response" on the other hand is driven by our pure innate wisdom, our intuitive wisdom and thus results in a positive outcome and a peaceful mind.

How do we develop this awareness? Our ancient yogis have given us tools to develop our awareness at multiple levels. In the ancient text, the Taittiriya Upanishad (defined in section Brahmananda Valli with further elaboration in the section Bhriguvalli), it states that we can think our being as a composite of five layers, sheaths or enclosures, called "koshas". These are:

  • Annamaya Kosha (the physical sheath, sustained by food) (the word "anna" means food and "maya" means compose of or full of)
  • Pranaymaya Kosha (the energy layer sustained by prana or vital life force)
  • Manomaya Kosha (the mental ("manas") layer, primarily the cognitive mind, ego, memory and the lower intellect)
  • Vijnanamaya Kosha (the layer of intuitive wisdom ("vijnana"), the higher intellect)
  • Anandamaya Kosha (the layer of total "ananda" or bliss)

Our yoga practice can be used as an effective means of building this awareness. As you perhaps know, Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, defines the practice of yoga as comprising of eight limbs. Of these, the three that are commonly referred to as the key components of a regular yoga practice are – asana (physical posture), pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation (calming the mind). Through the practice of asana, we develop awareness at the physical level (annamaya kosha), pranayama helps develop awareness at the vital energy level (pranamaya kosha) and meditation can lead to awareness at the last three levels – manomaya kosha, vijnanamaya kosha and anandamaya kosha. Once you deepen your awareness during your yoga practice, you can carry that same level of awareness to your day-to-day life.

The concept of the five koshas was given in the Taittiriya Upanishad to help us understand what is ‘self’ and what is ‘non-self’. The lack of ability to distinguish between self and non-self is termed "avidya" (ignorance) which is the main cause of human suffering ("klesha") (Patanjali yoga sutras 2.3 thru 2.9). It is our identification with the ‘mind-body complex’ that prevents us from realizing our true nature (the self) which is represented by our soul (Atma). Once we develop an awareness at the level of the five koshas, it helps us slowly peel off these layers and bring us closer to our true identity. In this discussion, we will also apply these concepts to our Hatha Yoga practices.

Annamaya Kosha (Food Sheath)

The first and the outermost sheath is called the Annamaya Kosha or the sheath sustained by food. The word "anna" in Sanskrit means food and the word "maya" means "composed of" (not to be confused with a similar word "maayaa" which means illusion). This kosha represents our gross body (sthoola sharira) which is the "touch and feel" part of our being " our musculature, bones, blood, all the fluids in the body etc. This is the sheath that needs food for its basic sustenance and hence the name Annamaya kosha. This sheath is a composite of the five great elements (five "mahabhutas") – earth, water, fire, air and ether. It is our identification with this sheath, which is the result of "avidya" mentioned above, which results in suffering. An example of this identification is a simple statement like, "I am fat" or "I am ugly" etc. If you can take a step back and replace these statements with "my body is fat" and "my face is ugly", you have taken an important step in recognizing the distinction between the self and the physical body. By saying "my body", we are recognizing that we have an enclosure called the body but "I" am not THAT body.

Our gross body can be looked upon as the first port of entry into all the deeper layers finally leading us to our core which is our soul. It is our responsibility to take good care of this sheath, keep it healthy, clean and free of impurities so we can gain an easy access to the inner layers. We can achieve this goal by practicing the hatha yoga techniques of asana (physical postures), cleansing kriyas, proper diet and relaxation on a regular basis. It is important to remember that while practicing the asanas we need to be fully aware of the impact of each posture on every part of the body. This awareness will prevent any injury that we might cause due to negligence or competitiveness/overzealousness that might drive us to strive for something beyond our body"s innate ability. The body awareness also helps us make a connection with the deeper layers that will be discussed below.

Pranamaya Kosha (Vital Energy Sheath)

In order for the Annamaya Kosha to function it needs to be energized and sustained by the vital prana available via the pranamaya kosha, the energy sheath. If the energy sheath is absent the physical body will disintegrate and merge back into its five elements mentioned above. The pranamaya kosha can be looked upon as being responsible for all the physiological functions in the body " breathing, blood circulation, digestion, heart beat, all hormonal functions, communication between the brain and the cells of the body etc. This kosha is further subdivided into five pranas briefly described below:

  1. Prana: has an upward movement and is responsible for all inputs into the body " food, fluids, air, sensory inputs and mental impressions
  2. Apana: has a downward movement and is responsible for all forms of elimination and reproduction functions – stool and the urine, the expelling of semen, menstrual fluid and the fetus, and the elimination of carbon dioxide through the breath
  3. Udana: has an upward movement and is responsible for growth of the body, the ability to stand, speech, effort, enthusiasm and will
  4. Samana: has an inward movement " moving inward from the periphery and works in the gastrointestinal tract to digest food, in the lungs to digest air or absorb oxygen, and in the mind to homogenize and digest experiences, whether sensory, emotional or mental
  5. Vyana: moves from the center to the periphery. It governs circulation on all levels. It moves the food, water, blood and oxygen throughout the body, and keeps our emotions and thoughts circulating in the mind. In doing so it assists all the other Pranas in their work.

The major Hatha Yoga practice that is used to energize and vitalize the pranamaya kosha is pranayama. Pranayama techniques involve controlling the breath in various ways. A description of some of the simple pranayama techniques is available here.

Manomaya Kosha (Mind sheath)

Pranamaya kosha, described above, is directly influenced by our mind. When we are agitated, stressed or angry our breathing is fast, shallow and irregular. When we are calm and peaceful, our breathing is correspondingly soft and regular. In our scriptures, the mind is usually described as a part of the "antahakarana" (the inner instrument " the senses being the external instrument). The other major part of this antahakarana is the intellect which we will talk about next. Mind is responsible for our cognitive abilities, receiving input from the five senses, communicating with the intellect and directing our actions. Thoughts, emotions, feelings, memories are all a part of the mind. Every thought has a great inherent power; it affects our physiology, moods, physical body, responses, work efficiency, relationships and even wisdom. The modern day epidemic problem of stress is basically a problem at the level of mind, wherein a great negative emotion has been allowed to build up without giving it a vent.

Patanjali, in his yoga sutras, defines yoga as the ability to control the fluctuations in the mind-field. Only through controlling the mind can we experience our true inner peace and joy. The main techniques that are recommended for attaining this peaceful state of the mind are pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration) and meditation. Regular, uninterrupted practice of meditation, when done with a sense of total devotion, can bring about a total transformation in one"s personality and provide lasting peace and freedom from stress.

Vijnanamaya Kosha (Intellect/Intuition sheath)

The Vijnanamaya kosha is the sheath of the intellect (buddhi) and intuitive knowledge/wisdom. Our intellect gives us the discriminative capability that helps her differentiate between good and evil, between right and wrong etc. The intellect can be looked upon as having two components " one that is controlled by our ego and driven by our past memories and impressions (samskaras) and the other which is controlled by our pure intuition. The ego-driven intellect can lead to actions which result in pain and suffering while actions driven by pure intuition will give us satisfaction and happiness.

Through the practices of meditation etc, as stated above, our mind becomes purified and the intellect can then begin to depend more and more on the pure intuitive wisdom rather than be influenced by the ego.

Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss sheath)

The Sanskrit word "ananda" means bliss or pure joy. When we can transcend the other four layers described above, we can begin to experience a sense of pure joy which does not need any sensory input or any of the past experiences or impressions. This layer is the closest to our true "self" which is ever pure and ever-unchanging. We can experience this bliss as a result of "samadhi", the last of the eight limbs of Patanjali"s yoga philosophy. Of course, to get there one has to practice the other seven limbs on a regular basis.

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