Integrating yoga philosophy: the Koshas

Understanding yogic philosophy is daunting! It can be difficult to convince yourself that there is more to yoga than physical poses. Yoga classes are so focused on doing the poses, that practitioners might wonder what else there is to yoga besides stretching and balancing in awkward poses.

Most people who come to a yoga class really do want the vigorous part of the practice – they want to stretch, work their muscles and get the blood flowing in their bodies. It’s the physical asana that tends to calm people and satisfy their craving for movement. In the warmth of that calm, philosophical teachings become meaningful and relevant.

The koshas are a way to explain the layers of yoga. By envisioning the self as a series of layers, yogis can start to understand their true purpose. Furthermore, understanding the koshas in harmony with other philosophical aspects of the practice gives yoga meaning beyond a physical workout.

Studying yoga reveals that the central intention of yoga is to understand and have knowledge of the self. “Knowledge” is the emphatic belief that there is only the present moment and that the self is inextricably united with the present moment and nothing more.

The quest to understand the self is as timeless as humanity itself. Modern yogis are no different from their predecessors in their search to understand who they are, what their purpose is and what it’s all for. Without a sense of clarity, the daily drudgery of activities can seem toxic, pointless and without merit. By examining the five koshas, the layers of the self, yogis can arrive at a state of bliss and understanding about who they are in relation to the world.

Annamaya kosha, Physical sheath

Awareness of physical sensations. The physical body is the most obvious part of the self. It’s the part the world sees first. Awareness of annamaya kosha brings attention to how the body reacts to external force such as exercise, accidents or substances. Reluctance to truly feel the physical body and to understand its needs can result in feeling unwell. Yoga poses draw attention to the physical body and instruct you how to treat your body to avoid injury. Awareness of what you eat and how you move will instruct you on how to take care of your body. Becoming aware of annamaya kosha teaches you how to nurture and honour your physical self. This awareness contributes to ease and a sense of peace to your life.

Exercise: Physical awareness. Think about your skin. Visualize how it protects your organs, bones and muscles. Think about your muscles. Visualize how they work together to propel your body. Visualize your organs. Heart, liver, kidney…. Envision how these organs take care of your body. How they work together. Now focus on one organ. Hold it in your attention. If other thoughts pop into your head, label them (“thought”), and bring your attention back to one organ. Notice the appreciation you feel for the physical body as a system. Understanding annamaya kosha gives you an appreciation for how your body works and how you take care of it.

Pranamaya kosha, life force sheath

Awareness of the breath. Pranamaya kosha is the breath and the life force that flows through and around the body. It’s an energy that you can feel within yourself and that can be felt by others around you. Energetic, dull, lethargic, buoyant, excited, calm…these are all descriptions that describe your energetic life force.

Exercise: Breath control. Notice how your breath flows in and out of your lungs without you consciously needing to do it. The breath is one of the only subconscious needs that can also be harnessed and controlled. Observe how you can control your breath and that you can calm yourself down or energize yourself by changing the pattern of your breath.

Manomaya kosha, mental sheath

Awareness of ideas and behaviour. Emotions and thoughts punctuate your day. Manomaya kosha is the layer of thoughts and ideas that make sense of the world around. This is a layer of feelings and emotions that arise in response to external stimuli. Noticing this layer of mental awareness is necessary; reacting to every thought is not necessary. Manomaya kosha contains thought patterns that have been created by absorbing information from family, culture and perceptions of the world. These thought patterns are worth noticing because they describe the world around you and create a running narrative. The trick is to notice the thought pattern, be non-reactive to it and realize that thought patterns can be modified.

Exercise: Self-inquiry. Write down a situation in your life that has recently changed. Write down three thoughts about it. Now, one at a time, examine each thought. Ask: “how would I feel without this thought?” Notice a change in breath and awareness of self. Now consciously replace each thought with “I have the freedom to choose my reactions,” “There are numerous ways to examine this situation.”

Vijnamaya kosha, the wisdom sheath

The ability to observe the body and mind without judgement. Vijnamaya kosha is wisdom, intuition and knowledge of self. Awareness of this layer will provide insight into who you are. It’s like finding the flow state in work or sports or art. A feeling of transcendence where purpose and intention become clear. Access to vijnamaya kosha arrives when the first three koshas (body, breath, emotions) are peeled away and you can access the intuitive self.

A yoga practice for this is to focus on the third eye (spot in between the eyebrows). This is where intuition is housed. By quietly focusing on that spot, true information about the self can be revealed. For some, access to vijnamaya kosha will be revealed through a vigorous vinyasa practice. For others, a quiet introspective pose of forward folds like supported paschimottanasana or child’s pose will provide access to intuition.

Exercise: Complete concentration. Choose an activity that you love and that challenges you. Whether it’s work, making art, playing sports, writing, reading. Give yourself time to focus wholly on the activity and continue to do it even if you feel the desire for distraction. Distractions abound – social media, chores, pets – but you have the power to ignore the distractions so you can lose yourself in the flow state of the activity. Observe how that feeling of transcendence guides you to a greater purpose.

The next time you practice yoga, recall the absorbing feeling of being in a flow state. See if you can find that transcendence in your practice. From that transcendence, patiently wait to see what your true self, your intuition, reveals to you.

Anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath

Awareness of the true self. This most hidden sheath is acutely felt through the instinct that life itself is good; that being alive is worth it. Revealing this sheath is to understand that life is its own reward. Mantra and meditation are a tool to connect with anandamaya kosha. The information that reveals itself is that love is the ultimate state of being.

These statements aren’t to mean that emotional ups and downs are not going to happen, rather that contentment and acceptance of all moods is possible.

Peeling back the layers to reveal anandamaya kosha and finding yourself in the bliss body is more of a visceral feeling than an intellectual one. It’s a subtle awareness that everything is as it should be, that love and joy are the foundation of the universe and that happiness is possible for all.

Exercise: Meditation. Practice sitting quietly, alone and without distraction. Practice acceptance of your physical body, of your breath and of your emotions. Some days it won’t work and you won’t be able to find bliss and contentment. But some days it will work. You’ll feel simultaneously grounded and buoyant and content with who you are. With practice, this awareness of bliss, of anandamaya kosha, will be increasingly easy to remember and you’ll be able to tackle life’s challenges with acceptance and compassion, and understand that the present moment is really all there is.

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