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Understanding the Koshas

Who doesn’t like a Danish roll? Have you ever tried one of those cinnamon-rich buns? If you have, you will for sure agree that there’s few things out there as densely layered with moist sweetness and toothsome flavor as one of these waistband unforgiving things... Now, think about one of these sugary rolls and then bring the yogic notion of the Koshas to the forefront of you imagination. Can you see where we’re driving at?

Koshas and cinnamon rolls

The Koshas, numbering five in total, are the different layers or sheaths ‘hiding’ or covering the human soul. They relate to The Three Bodies of the yogic tradition, of which we wrote but a few months ago, and though people generally speak of them as a series of concentric layers more or less mapped onto a human figure (or an onion), we like to think of them as each of the different layers of an intricately delicious cinnamon roll. And yes, the roll in this metaphor is you!

Protecting the Tender Center

With each spin of a cinnamon roll’s dough, its moist center and outermost layer separate. Being one and the same strip of dough, they remain connected, but the level of relation spanning between core and outer layer decreases with each consecutive turn. As a result of this –and partly because of the intricacies of the baking process– the outer layer is a bit coarser and drier than the innermost one. The heart or center of the bun is much softer and tender, its mushy sponginess protected by layer after layer of fragrant syrupy dough; and to get to it, you need to bite your way through all of the other layers of the roll. We believe you get the point, right? That’s, in a nutshell, your ABC’s on the Koshas.

Pancha Kosha

Because of a certain egocentric streak in us, whenever we think of something concentric and have to place the human body in it, we tend to do so at the centre with the rest of the layers emanating from it. But when speaking about the Koshas, the center (the heart of the roll) is your soul and your physical body (the part of the roll you have come to think is equivalent to ‘who you are’) constitutes but its outermost carcass –the crustier bit. Hence that, when speaking of the Koshas, the deeper you go within the roll, the more subtle and also layered the nature of the work and effort you have to put in to get to it.

As noted, Yogis speak of five different layers –the 'Pancha' part in the title above meaning ‘five’:

1. Annamaya Kosha: the physical body, the sheath concerned with biologically driven impulses such as the need for nourishment, digestion, excretion, and bound by matter and physicality. This is normally connected to the Manipura Chakra (the navel center) and pertains to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

2. Pranamaya Kosha: the energetic body, the source of our breath and of the ‘breath of life’ as well, connected to both our physical body and our energy body, and thus to our instincts and motor organs. It is this breath that allows us to move both the body in space and thoughts in our mind.

3. Manomaya Kosha: the sheath where all thought and feeling emanates from. This is where information is gathered and processed and where conditioning and programming into particular ways of ‘doing life’ actually takes place. This is the heart of ‘manas,’ the mind, a mind conditioned by past experience that must learn to transcend its attachments and desires.

4. Vijnanamaya Kosha: the layer of pure intellection, discernment, wisdom, conscience, Buddhi and intuition. The place where our ‘inner teacher’ awaits.

5. Anandamaya Kosha: the sheath of Bliss, often referred to as the Causal Body. The most subtle covering of the soul, the place where all our Karmas are stored and where our deepest awareness of love, unity consciousness, albeit a still individualized consciousness, abides.

In general, the Koshas fundamentally refer to a subtle map for healing. Each of these different layers or coverings of the soul provide insights into the level of attachment of our awareness; because, each of the Koshas is a different level of ‘illusion’ (Maya) we need to transcend in order to eventually realize the truly unbounded and unconditioned nature of our soul.

When working with transcending the attachments characteristic of each of these sheaths in a lasting way –physicality for the first sheath, instincts in the second, the weight of sensory impressions in the case of the third, value-judgements for the fourth, and individualized ego-identity in the fifth– healing must take place progressively in each of these layers at a time, and reach the deeper sheaths of the roll. So we need to progressively balance each of these layers in order to better synchronize the flow of energy, information, and intuition through the entire strip of dough.

Healing & the Koshas

Still, how to heal our bodyminds through working with the Koshas is a rather complex thing; not least because each of these sheaths is also related to elements like the chakras but also to the vayus and other subtle elements in Yoga. But in an effort to keep things very simple and shed some light into it, we could say that, ideally, one would try to balance Annamaya Kosha and Pranamaya Kosha first, seeing to us having the right type of diet and nutrition and that we practice both pranayama and exercise. The practice of Hatha Yoga, for example, would be a great go-to in here; but this is also partly the terrain of Ayurveda, with its different health-preservation tips.

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Manomaya Kosha would come up next, being best worked on through control of our sensory impressions (what Yogis define as practicing pratyahara or sense withdrawal). This would amount to lessening the amount of hours spent in front of a screen or practicing energy-consuming activities such as playing video-games, or else playing intense and depleting sports, and opting, instead, for the practice of introspection, art, or simply spending more time in nature.

Balancing Vijnanamaya Kosha would require us to regularly practice meditation so that we may develop greater awareness about our own level of awareness, and thus, greater power of discernment, a certain sense of dharma and ethics, as well as greater ability for the practice of Vichara or inner inquiry. This is the terrain of Jnana Yoga, for example.

Finally, bringing Anandamaya Kosha back to equilibrium would have us work on developing the right type of relationships and associations both with others and with the world at large, working on building up a sense of ‘devotion’ and contentment in the present, practicing varieties of devotional Yoga such as Bhakti, for example, as well as developing a sense of detachment or equanimity with respect to life’s events.

Granted, there are specific ways of sequencing when it comes to 'doing Yoga,' as well as specific sets of practices, geared at working on each of the five Koshas and thus jumpstart or deepen their balancing, but that is (unfortunately) well beyond the scope of what the Danish roll metaphor can help us cover in this entry! Still, if you're interested in learning more about it all, drop us a line or else come over to Bali and join one of our open classes.

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