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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.

14-day Meditation Intensive, Dec 5-18

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Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

I am pleased to announce the next Meditation Intensive. In this program, I plan to discuss the basic concepts of meditation and practice several of the meditation techniques. Most of the information that I will be sharing is based on the concepts discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and related classical yoga texts.

No prior asana, pranayama or meditation experience is required.

Here are the particulars:

  • What: 14-day Meditation Intensive
  • When: Monday, December 5 – Sunday, December 18, 2016
  • Time: 6:00 – 7:30 AM
  • Location: 4000 Bearcat Way, Suite 102, Morrisville, NC 27560
  • Daily Routine: Light stretching (10-15 minutes), Pranayama (15 min), Relaxation (15 min), Meditation – discussion and practice (45 min)
  • Commitment: A firm commitment to follow this schedule and attend every day
  • Fee: $90
  • To register: fill out the registration form, providing information in all the fields, and submit it online

Strongly recommended

  • Light,’sattvic’, nutritious, VEGETARIAN food
  • No alcohol, drugs, tobacco or any other item of similar nature
  • A personal commitment to continue the practice after the program is over

Please visit here for more details…

Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I look forward to your participation.

Three attributes of a mantra to deepen your meditation experience

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Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, gives the definition and purpose of the practice of yoga as:

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः॥२॥ Yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhaH (sutra 1.2)

"Yoga is the ability to still the fluctuations of the mind"

In order for us to attain this objective of yoga, Patanjali gives us the amazingly practical and effective eight-fold path of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga given are:

Yama (five restraints), niyama (five observances), asana (physical posture), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (focus), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (total absorption).

The last three, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, are three stages of the practice of meditation. Patanjali uses the term "samyama" to denote the practice in which all these three stages of meditation are merged together as one practice.

Let us briefly look at the definition of these three stages of meditation as given in the sutras:

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Janushirshasana (Head-to-knee pose) Variations

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Head-to-knee pose

In a previous article, I wrote about the basic, classical technique of practicing the Janushirshasana (head-to-knee pose). In today’s article, I will be presenting a few variations to the standard pose that you can add to your practice. As always, try to maintain full awareness at the body, breath and the mind level so you don’t overdo any of the poses.

I hope you will enjoy practicing with the video.

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21-day Yoga Immersion, Level 2, Oct 24 – Nov 13

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Virabhadrasana (Warrior2)

I am pleased to announce the next 21-day Yoga Immersion program. This will be the introductory Level 2 program. I invite you to join me on this exciting and deeply rewarding 21-day yoga journey.

Please note the class duration will be one hour and 45 minutes.

  • What: 21-day yoga immersion, Level 2
  • When: Monday, Oct 24 – Sunday, Nov 13, 2016
  • Time: 6:00 AM – 7:45 AM
  • Location: 4000 Bearcat Way, Suite 102, Morrisville, NC 27560
  • Commitment:
    • A firm commitment to complete the program without missing a day
    • At the end of the program, continue the same practice at home for another 21 days to make it a life-long habit
  • Fee: $150
  • To register: Fill out the registration form, providing information in all the fields, and submit it online

In this program, we will be practicing some of the intermediate level asanas (physical postures) and pranayama practices that are not covered in the regular 21-day yoga program. These will include:

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The Three Bandhas (locks) (video)

In an earlier blog post, I talked about the concept of Kumbhaka – कुम्भक – (breath retention). As noted therein, breath retention can be done after a full inhalation, or after a full exhalation, or at any time during the breathing cycle. 

A natural extension of Kumbhaka is the concept of the Bandhas – बन्ध – (energy locks). The bandhas are a very important part of the pranayama techniques as they help balance out the prana (the vital life force) in the system. As per the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, bandhas help us cleanse the chakras and allow the Kundalini Shakti (the dormant creative power) to awaken. The kundalini can then start its journey toward its final destination- the Sahasrara Chakra (thousand petal lotus), abode of the supreme consciousness represented by Lord Shiva, situated at the crown of the head. 

There are three bandhas which are practiced as a part of the pranayama routine:

  1. Mula Bandha – मूलबन्ध – (root lock)
  2. Uddiyana Bandha – उड्डियान बन्ध – (navel lock)
  3. Jalandhara Bandha – जालन्धर बन्ध – (chin lock)
  4. Maha bandha – महाबन्ध – (Great lock) – when all the bandhas are applied at the same time after full exhalation

Enjoy the guidelines for the bandha practices as given in the video here.

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Sarvangasana (Shouder Stand) with wall support

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Sarvangasana with wall support

In a previous article, I discussed the Sarvangasana – सर्वाङ्गासन –

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(shoulder stand), along with Matsyasana (fish pose) and its variations.The technique discussed therein was appropriate for those who have adequate neck and shoulder strength so they can get into the pose without needing the wall for support. If you are a beginner to yoga practice or don’t have the required strength in the neck and shoulders and the core strength, you may need the support of the wall to help you get into the pose.

In this article, I will first discuss some possible variations to get into the pose while still not using the wall for support. If that doesn’t feel comfortable, then I’ll take you through the steps required for using the wall for support.

I hope you will enjoy practicing with the video sequence given below.

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Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) with variations (video)

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Sarvangasana (shoulder stand)

Sarvangasana – सर्वाङ्गासन –

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(Shoulder Stand) and Shirshasana (Head Stand) are two of the most commonly practiced inverted poses in yoga practice. They are considered intermediate level poses and should be practiced under the guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. In this article, I will be discussing the Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) along with some of the commonly practiced variations that you can attempt while in the pose. I will also be discussing the Matsyasana (Fish Pose) which is commonly practiced as a counter pose for Sarvangasana. The word "sarvangasana" can be broken into two words "sarvanga" and "asana". The word "sarvanga" is a compound word consisting of "sarva" meaning "all" and "anga" meaning "limbs". The word sarvanga implies that this pose, when practiced regularly, can bring benefits to every limb of the body. The beneficial effects of the pose are mainly achieved by harmonizing the endocrine system, in particular the thyroid and parathyroid glands.

I hope you will enjoy practicing with the video demonstration.

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Kapalabhati with bandhas (video)

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Vajrasana

In some of the earlier articles, I have discussed the concepts of Kumbhaka (breath retention) and the Bandhas (energy locks) as part of the common pranayama practices. In this article I would like to introduce kumbhaka and bandhas as an extension of the Kapalabhati practice.
If you have attended a yoga class with me, you are aware that the practice of Kapalabhati is an integral part of the yoga routine that we practice in the class. In fact, we practice at least one round of Kapalabhati at the beginning of the class, right after we do the cat and cow stretch (Marjarasana) as a gentle spinal warm up. In the last segment of the class again, we include more kapalabhati as part of the pranayama routine.

As a cautionary note I would like to emphasize here that these advanced practices involving kumbhaka and bandhas should be learned under the guidance of a qualified teacher. In general, you should practice the basic techniques of pranayama without kumbhaka and bandhas for at least six to eight weeks on a regular basis before attempting these advanced techniques.

I hope you will enjoy practicing with this video sequence.

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14-day Pranayama Intensive, Sep 19 – Oct 2

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Vishnu Mudra

I am pleased to announce the next Pranayama intensive. In this program, we will be practicing some of the main pranayama techniques given in our ancient yoga texts. I will also discuss the underlying concepts in the practice of pranayama and all the wonderful benefits that the practice can bring us.

No prior pranayama or meditation experience is required.

Here are the particulars:

  • What: 14-day pranayama intensive
  • When: Monday, Sep 19 – Sunday, Oct 2, 2016
  • Time: 6:00 – 7:30 AM
  • Location: 4000 Bearcat Way, Suite 102, Morrisville, NC 27560
  • Daily Routine: Light stretching (10-15 minutes), Pranayama (40 min), Relaxation (15 min), Yoga philosophy/meditation (15-20 min)
  • Commitment: A firm commitment to follow this schedule and attend every day
  • Fee: $90
  • To register: fill out the registration form, providing information in all the fields, and submit it online

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