The Three Bodies of Yoga

ACEBE posts always try to make ‘yogic talk’ relatable –not overly esoteric and understandable for the Western mind. What we write, however, is a bit more complex than your usual fast-food yogic marketing stuff. Still, despite our efforts to make everything sound plausible and coherent, some topics are hard to approach without falling victim to a bit of ‘bewildering’ subtle talk; and this is simply because, by their very nature, some topics defy ideas of what is real and possible for us ‘rationalists.’ The Three Bodies of Yoga is one such topic.

The three bodies of Yoga or three Sariras

It is a fact that Yoga takes for granted a variety of phenomena and experiences that any Western-raised person would immediately tag as ‘abnormal,’ if not ‘absolutely bananas’ on first hearing about them. And that is fair. Our posts on Kundalini Shakti, for example, or Alternative Forms of Wellbeing already spoke in this regard. But if the world were made only of those things we can easily rationally understand, accept, see, or experience it’d be a most boring place! For life to remain interesting, for change to actually happen, there must always be an element of mystery, of randomness, a measure of uncertainty and perplexity even, and of possibility as well.

The Three Bodies of Yoga remain one of the most interesting, mysterious, and profound teachings that the Vedic-Yogic tradition has to offer. This is so not just because of how they relate to other esoteric or subtle elements such as the Chakras, Nadis, or the Koshas, but also for how they account for the processes of life and death themselves. So, stay open and be ready to test the limits of your own thinking when you read what’s coming next.

Peeling the yogic onion: ‘the gross’ or physical body

To make it all a bit easier to follow, let’s take as our point of departure the ‘Physical Body’ (our Sthula Sarira): the level of gross experience in the world of material things like you and me. Indeed, any conversation about the three yogic bodies is easier when one begins by speaking about the physical body first. In the end, that’s just the level all of us can relate to from conscious personal experience! So, yeah, this would be the plane of existence you woke up into this very morning.

The gross body is the body made of things like flesh and bones and tissues of different sorts, such as our blood or fascia, that in a discipline like Ayurveda would be further subdivided into different ‘substances’ –such as ether, air, fire, water, and earth–, or that in fields such as Chemistry gives place to the chemical elements. The Ayurvedic substances and the Chemical elements are just different ways of speaking about pretty much the same type of thing –that is, what this world that we experience through the senses seems to be made up of.

The gross body, then, is the body where elements of the other two bodies find some degree of physical manifestation according to the laws of Physics, which are the laws imperative in our world. According to Yoga, the physical body –the body we can physically touch and see– is but the material expression of a much more complex and ethereal system, one that becomes more and more subtle and refined the less confined by matter it is. And so, the other two layers or levels of this metaphorical yogic onion can be understood as different “aspects of the entity that we usually call the mind” (Frawley, 2008: 80).

Indeed, the mind has a measure of manifestation at the level of the gross body –the mind of logical and rational processes in charge of perceiving sensations, impressions, and information through the senses that are later processed by our brain. But it also finds a measure of manifestation beyond the physical body in the other two bodies. There, its processes become less externally oriented towards the world around us and more internally directed towards the experiences of the Self.

The subtle or electrical body

The next layer in the three bodies’ system, then, corresponds to the ‘Subtle Body’ or ‘Electrical Body,’ also often referred to as the ‘Astral Body’ (the Sukshma Sarira). Whatever the name you decide on, the subtle body is that layer of our body no longer necessarily confined by skin. As the world-famous feminist theorist Donna Haraway once wrote: “Why should our bodies end at the skin [...]?” (1990: 220). At the time, she was speaking of women and cyborgs, so not entirely our usual yogic talk! But, appealing to a broader understanding of what makes for a human body –a body that is, after all, meant to interact with, affect, and be affected by the medium it inhabits– Haraway’s question is a great point of departure for anyone to think about the other two levels of expression of the physical body according to the yogic worldview.

In traditions like Buddhism, the subtle body corresponds to the central nervous system (Thurman, 1994: 36), something that is not entirely different to the views offered by the Vedas, for example, where the subtle body amounts to the medium where the Chakras and the Nadis and our Prana or life force, and our senses are in, as well as the point of emanation of our breathing impulses. So it is, in a way, the medium where a number of electrical phenomena seem to take place.

At this level of expression, universal consciousness manifests through what is referred to in Yoga as the subtle or Buddhi mind: a more internally-oriented type of mind than the one characteristic of the Sthula Sharira, which can be thought of as the connecting point or bridge between our externally-oriented physical bodymind, and the very internalized form of mind we experience once we reach the level of the third body or Causal Body. It is the mind of intellection, judgement, and inner knowing.

The causal body: the ‘indestructible drop’

The final, most subtle, and deepest body of all three is the Causal Body (the Karana Sarira): the seat of the (non)human soul in some traditions and, for others, the layer preceding our actual encounter with our true soul or Atman. This is the sheath where, according to the scriptures, the other two bodies originate from and to which they will eventually return after the process of physical death.

The causal body, then, is a place of refined and subtle expression; a boundary zone, in a way, between life as we know it and that part of life we presume exists, but are as yet unable to gain full rational awareness about. Known as the ‘indestructible drop’ in the Buddhist tradition, the causal body is the only one of the three bodies that never perishes: the one to which our physical and astral bodies will revert to after the death process kicks in, and the one from which a new subtle and gross body will eventually form, once we are ready for rebirth (Thurman, 1994: 36).

At this level of manifestation, the mind is devoid of any external desire whatsoever; and so, perceived or imagined objects are no longer a thing. We know it’s kind of hard to get a real picture of it, but we hope you can at least be open to the idea! Just think of it as the layer of your body most closely in contact with raw and unfiltered cosmic intelligence and, thus, most directly in touch with your soul.

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What to make of the three bodies?

According to the Tantric tradition, these three bodies put together correspond to three different levels of experience that we as humans go through everyday. Hence, the gross body is the body we inhabit and experience during the waking state. It is the one we eat with and speak with and move with while awake. The subtle body would then be the one we recede into during the dreaming state. That makes it the one we are temporarily absorbed into during certain moments of the sleeping process. And finally, the causal body is the body we inhabit during the deep sleep phase. Since we generally have no recollection whatsoever of what happens during this phase of sleep, not many of us have really much of a clue about how this part of the ‘experience’ feels or even looks like (Frawley, 2008: 83).

You can take all of this literally –we dare you!–, or else think of it as a figure of speech. In this sense, the three bodies’ system is the way ancient and not so ancient yogis found to describe the different modalities of experiences a person could undergo while awake, asleep, while immersed in conscious observation of mundane life and nature, and while absorbed in deep states of meditation.

The three bodies are thus the yogic means to account for the variety of human experience both with regards to those facets of life we have been trained to pay attention to and consider ‘normal and possible,’ and to those that defy our understanding of things as we know them. What the three bodies do offer, however, is a way for us to make sense of precisely those experiences that Western Science hasn’t cracked yet –such as where the actual motivation for us to breathe comes from, for example, or where do 'we' come from and go to during birth and death.

For us yogis, the three bodies’ system offers a way to conceptualize, think of, or imagine the most subtle elements and aspects of our practice, particularly during meditation. Hence, the three bodies' system gives structure to our method, something of a basis to our worldview, and a way to relate the yogic teachings to the larger interplay of cosmic forces and energies around us.