The Koshas: 5 Layers of Being

Our asana practice is the beginning of a process of fine-tuning that starts with the body and grows ever more subtle though layers of our being – which perhaps we have yet to realise even exist.​ – by Tracey Uber Cook – by Linda Johnsen


Many of us are drawn to yoga through asana practice, but this is just the start of a multi-layered journey…

Just as salt dissolved in water becomes one with it, so the union of Self and Mind is called samādhi.

When the breath becomes exhausted, and mind becomes still, they merge into union called samādhi.

This equality, this oneness of the two, the living self and the absolute self, when all desires end is called samādhi.

Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā

The subtle layers 

Many yoga practitioners are drawn to the practice through the āsanas: the physical postures, of which there are thousands representing all aspects and forms of existence. There is a pose to represent everything, from a boat (Navasana), to a lion (Siṃbhasana), to an enlightened sage (Vaśiṣṭhasana). These poses and movements help to keep the body healthy, as well as unblocking energy channels so that after a yoga practice we feel strong, healthy, vibrant, and peaceful.But what actually is happening to make us feel this way? Through āsana practice, we fine-tune our awareness of the body and become more aligned and aware of what signals our bodies give us about the overall state of our health. This is the beginning of a process of fine-tuning that starts with the body, and grows ever more subtle though layers of our being—which perhaps we have yet to realise even exist.

The purpose of this article is to briefly highlight these layers of our existence, according to the ancient yogic texts of the Rāja Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali and the Upaniṣads, along with my experience and understanding of them. Your deepening awareness of these can evoke an expansion of yoga practice on all levels, and point the way to a profound Truth which resides within us all – the Self.

The eight limbs of yoga

In his Rāja Yoga Sūtras, the sage Patañjali describes the practice, or sādhana, of Rāja yoga as having eight limbs. These limbs evolve in a process of fine-tuning from the grossest levels of our understanding to the most subtle:1. Yamas, and 2. Niyamas: these are codes of conduct and qualities of Self-realisation which are to be cultivated within the life of a yoga practitioner. By cultivating these principles within our own lives, a shift in consciousness can occur which is then mirrored in our experience of the external world.

3. Āsana: typically known as the physical practice involving the body. Patañjali defines āsana as: a steady, comfortable posture.

4. Prāṇāyāma: defined by Patañjali as regulation and control of the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, creating luminosity and preparing the mind for one-pointed focus (dhāraṇā).

5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses, which results in a calm, non-stimulated mind.

6. Dhāraṇā: focusing the mind on one element or single area (concentration).

7. Dhyāna: an unbroken flow of perception between mind and object in the form of one, continuous thought (meditation).

8. Samadhi: the knower, knowing and that which is known, become one pure essence/awareness (mystical absorption)—the aim of all yogic practices.

Five Kośas (pronounced Koshas) of our existence 

We will next examine the kośas, or layers of our existence, and how these eight limbs of yoga sādhana stated in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali relate to and weave their way through them.

According to the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, there are five layers, sheaths, or kośas to our seemingly individual existence. Similar to the eight limbs of Rāja Yoga, they range from the densest part of our being (the body), to the most vast and subtle (inner joy/peace). Although presented in a linear fashion here, these layers are interconnected and each subtle layer comprises and encompasses the layers denser than it. In becoming aware of, and examining, these aspects of our being through the 8 limbs of Rāja Yoga, we can help bring our lives into balance and integration on all these levels and eventually transcend them through a deep knowing of them and rest in the Self—the loving aware presence which allows it all to be possible. These five bodies are called koshas, or “sheaths,” in Sanskrit, because each fits in the next like a sword in a scabbard. Only the densest is made of matter as we know it; the other four are energy states invisible to the physical eye, though we can easily sense their presence inside us when we pay close attention. Since the inner bodies are the source of our well-being during life and are the vehicles we travel in after death, India’s ancient yogis developed specific exercises to strengthen and tone each one in turn.

1. Annamaya-kosha (food sheath, Earth element) 

The five progressively subtler bodies that compose our personality are described in a yoga classic called the Taittiriya Upanishad: Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself.”

Annamaya-kośa consists of your physical-material body, the grossest, densest part of our existence and it is comprised of, and fuelled by, the food we eat (maya means “made of” and anna means “food” or “physical matter.”). Annamaya-kośa is usually the sheath with which we identify the most, because it is through this instrument that we sense and feel and move – it is our field of activity (kṣetra). Āsana (and prāṇāyāma) as well as a healthy diet help to keep this physical layer in optimal condition so that we can experience life through our bodies with ease, free from dis-ease.

2. Pranamaya-kosha (vital sheath, Water element) 

“Inside this is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes its shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine experience excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life.”This surrounds and penetrates the physical body as the vital energy which flows in and around the body. One familiar aspect of Pranāmaya-kośa is known as the aura and the life force which flows through the intricate system of nāḍis or meridians, of which there are approximately 72,000 in and around a human body. Pranāmaya-kośa is influenced and fuelled by the prāṇa absorbed through the breath, through food, and from the cosmic Universal life- force that surrounds and permeates us.

This second body is the organizing field that holds your material body together. This is the life energy that governs your biological processes, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood. It’s called chi in Chinese medicine and prana in yoga. The ancient Egyptians called it the ka.

Acupuncture and homeopathy don’t directly affect your physical body; they work on the vital force that activates and sustains it. Orthodox physicians in the West recognized the importance of the vital force up till the 19th century, but with the development of sulfa drugs and antibiotics, their attention shifted from the energy states underlying human biology to focus exclusively on the physical body itself.

When it ceases to function your physical body can no longer operate. Your heart and lungs stop working and your cells begin to disintegrate. In Western culture we strongly identify with our material body, yet without prana supporting and directing it, it can’t survive more than a few minutes.

Yoga devotes an entire class of practices called pranayama to replenishing the vitality of the pranamaya kosha. The practice of prāṇāyāma helps to keep this energy flowing freely, which also affects the health of the physical body.  Exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, the complete yogic breath, and alternate nostril breathing are specifically designed to enhance the proper functioning of your second sheath.

In addition, getting plenty of fresh air and sunlight is essential for maintaining the health of the vital force. Yoga texts explain that the sun is the ultimate source of prana, and it is said that some advanced yogis go for years without eating; instead they simply absorb the prana radiated by the sun. For most of us, however, fresh whole foods are a  major source of prana.

3. Manomaya-kosha (mental sheath, Fire element)
“Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. It fills the two denser bodies and has the same shape. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear.”

Even more subtle than the first two koshas, Manomaya-kośa (which means “body made of thought processes”) consists of the thinking mind and emotions and permeates the vital and food sheaths. The thoughts and emotions we experience affect the energy flow in and around us, which in turn affect our energetic and physical health. So, by becoming aware of our thoughts, judgements, and emotions as they arise and dissolve through sense-withdrawal (pratyahara) and one-pointed concentration (dhāraṇā), giving space to all of our thoughts and emotions without pushing them away and by applying this also in prāṇāyāma and āsana practice (and also in life!), we can deeply enhance the overall state of our wellbeing.

The third sheath or mental body is the apparatus responsible for our sensory and motor activities and our day-to-day awareness when we’re functioning “on automatic.” It processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively. When we move through life passively, reacting to our environment rather than actively shaping it, our awareness is focused here. Many people, and most animals, routinely operate at this level.

In the West we associate our routine mental state with the brain, but according to yoga the entire nervous system (including the brain) merely mediates the activity of the manomaya kosha, expressing the commands of this higher energy state through the physical body.

You get a clear sense of what the mental body is when you observe a patient in a coma. Their second sheath is still operating so their heart continues to pump and their lungs expand and contract. But the person has no awareness of the external world and no ability to take action because the activity of the mental body has shut down. The pranamaya kohsa operates from the moment of our first breath to our last, but the manomaya kosha shuts down temporarily on a daily basis, regenerating itself during the state of deep sleep.

The health of the manomaya kosha is tremendously enhanced through the practice of mantra meditation. This soothes and balances this inner body, and helps release “knots” of energy tied up in mental complexes and obsessive thoughts. Yogis who spend a great deal of time in meditation often have very little need for sleep, in part because their mental vehicles are functioning optimally, like a car that’s just had a tune-up.

The mental body “feeds” on the sense impressions we offer it. If we supply our third sheath with a continual stream of violent TV shows and video games, for example, it begins to crave increasingly aggressive forms of stimulation, and may become more agitated and less sensitive to the suffering of others. If we “stuff” it with too much work or too much play we may experience a form of mental “indigestion,” leaving us feeling harried or exhausted. A harmonious environment, interesting professional challenges, and fun and supportive relationships offer an ideal diet for the mind. A daily session of pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal, leading into meditation provides an excellent inner tune-up.

4. Vijnanamaya-kosha (intellect/intuitive sheath, Air element)
“Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. It permeates the three denser bodies and assumes the same form. Those who establish their awareness here free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions, and develop the self-control necessary to achieve their goals.”

Permeating the 3 denser layers (manomaya, pranāmaya, and annamaya) is the home of our inner knowing and wisdom, subtler still is the vijnanamaya kosha (vijnana means “the power of judgment or discernment”). It is this aspect of our being which knows Life intimately at the deepest level and from which we receive messages from beyond what our minds could ever understand. Within this sheath, there is still the illusion of duality, where there is a knower, the knowing, and the known. However, through the process of āsana, prāṇāyāma, dhāraṇā, and then through meditation (dhyāna), the mind becomes still and we can truly listen to the silent messages that Life speaks to us through all that exists.

The second and third sutras in the very first chapter in Patañjali’s Raja Yoga Sutras state:

1.2 Yogas chitta vritti nirodha – Yoga is the cessation of the activities and patterning of the mind.
1.3 Tada drastuh svarupe ‘vasthanam – When this happens, the perceiver rests in his/her true nature. 

It is by resting in this true nature, free from the influence of thought, emotion, and experience, that we can listen with an inner hearing that transcends what we do with our ears and hear Life’s message to us, allowing this message to align itself into our thoughts (manomaya-kośa), our energy field (pranāmaya-kośa), into our field of activity, the body (annamaya-kośa), and thus into our actions and experiences. This develops into our svadharma, our deepest purpose or calling in Life.

This Kosha often translated as “intellect,” but the real meaning is broader, encompassing all the functions of the higher mind, including conscience and will. It may be easier to understand the distinction between the third sheath or mental body and the fourth sheath or intellectual body by taking a look at those in whom the vijnanamaya kosha is underdeveloped.

One such type is someone who doesn’t seem to be in control of her life, who is constantly reacting to circumstances rather than making a decision and responding proactively. This kind of woman has a hard time making up her mind, thinking for herself, or being creative. She has very little willpower and is continually the victim of her own poor judgment.

Another example of a deficient fourth sheath is someone without strong personal ethics. He may attend religious services and speak piously about moral values, but when the opportunity arises to benefit himself at the expense of others, he doesn’t hesitate to act. His ability to discern between right and wrong is weak; conscience is a platitude rather than a living experience for him.

An activated fourth sheath is what distinguishes human beings from animals. Only humans have the ability to direct their own lives, free from the promptings of instinct, and to make moral choices. The sages considered the development of a healthy vijnanamaya kosha so important that they placed the exercises for it at the very beginning of the yoga system. These are the yamas and niyamas, commitments every yoga student is asked to make: not to harm, lie, steal, overindulge, or desire more than you actually need; instead you are asked to be content, pure, self-disciplined, studious, and devoted.

Jnana yoga also works with this kosha. This is the path of the intellect in which you are advised to study spiritual truths, contemplate them deeply, and finally incorporate them into the very core of your personality. On this path your spiritual understanding becomes the “food” with which you nourish your intellect.

As your meditation practice deepens over the months and years, your ability to connect with inner guidance is enhanced. You begin to experience the events in your life, even the painful ones, in a calm and objective manner. Your yogic lifestyle, contemplation, and meditation lead to clarity of judgment, greater intuitive insight, and increased willpower as your vijnanamaya kosha grows stronger and more balanced.

5. Anandamaya-kossa (bliss sheath, ether/space element)
“Hidden inside it is yet a subtler body, composed of pure joy. It pervades the other bodies and shares the same shape. It is experienced as happiness, delight, and bliss.”

Beyond the other 4 kośas, and yet permeating and comprising them all, is the sheath of bliss. This is the anandamaya kosha, the subtlemost body which is experienced as ananda (spiritual bliss). This is the aspect of our being which we recognise as a deep inner peace and joy, free from our thoughts, emotions, energy and body, and yet at the same time embracing them all. It is the sweetness of All Life that we feel when the mind is still, also known as sat-cit-ānanda—absolute truth-wisdom-bliss. It can be known as a super-conscious state of samādhi, the 8th limb of Raja Yoga, but even in this layer, there remains the duality between a knower of the sweetness and the sweetness itself.

In the vast majority of humans, the fifth sheath is totally underdeveloped. Generally only saints, sages, and genuine mystics have done the inner work necessary to make ananda a living part of their daily experience, and most people are hardly even aware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves.

The anandamaya kosha is extremely important in yoga because it’s the final and thinnest veil standing between our ordinary awareness and our higher Self. Many individuals who’ve had near-death experiences have reported experiencing a brilliant white light radiating all-embracing wisdom and unconditional love. This is the experience of the anandamaya kosha. Saints and mystics purify their minds so that they can have this experience throughout life, not just for a fleeting moment at death.

In the tantric tradition, spirit is often symbolized as Shiva, the transcendent Lord who is ever immersed in divine consciousness. Matter/energy is called Shakti, the Supreme Goddess whose divine body is this entire universe. It’s said that they love each other with unspeakable intensity. Their supreme love is experienced in the anandamaya kosha, where spirit and matter passionately embrace.

We can awaken our bliss sheath through three practices. The first is seva, selfless service. This opens our heart to our innate unity with other beings. The second is bhakti yoga, devotion to God. This opens our heart to our unity with the all-pervading Divine Being. The third is samadhi, intensely focused meditation, which opens our heart to our own divine being.

The kośas are intimately related to our states of awareness (waking, dream and sleep) and our three bodies (gross, subtle and causal). As we get to know and understand each kośa from the densest to the most subtle, and how each works within our own existence, we can open each Gateway and experience the path we are treading as the road to knowing and being Oneness.

Radiant Health
You are a multidimensional creature. Your awareness manifests on many different planes. Yoga introduces you to yourself and trains you to live fully and gracefully at every level of your being. From the hatha postures that strengthen and tone your physical body to the breathing exercises that balance and vitalize your life force, from the meditation practice that quiets and clears your mind to the self-study and selfless love that open up an inner world of knowledge and unity, yoga is a holistic system that develops and integrates every part of your personality. By getting to know your five bodies and the inner Self (whose awareness illumines them all), you can experience the health and fulfillment of an enlightened life.

Experiencing Your Five Sheaths
The five sheaths are not theoretical constructs. They are real parts of your being that you can actually experience. The following eight-step exercise will help you get a fuller sense of these inner dimensions of your personality.

1. Sit comfortably with your head, neck, and trunk in a straight line. Sit upright without straining. You’ll feel both alert and relaxed.

2. Close your eyes, withdrawing your awareness from the sights and sounds around you. Bring your full attention to your physical body. Be aware of your head and shoulders, chest and waist, back and abdomen, arms and legs. This is your annamaya kosha.

3. Bring your full attention to the point between your nostrils and feel yourself breathe. Gradually your breath will flow more slowly, smoothly, and quietly. Be aware of the energy pulsing through your body. It’s making your heart beat, your lungs expand and contract, the blood course through your veins, your stomach gurgle. The force orchestrating this movement—not your physical body itself—is your prana-maya kosha.

4. Shift your awareness into your brain. Pay attention to the part of your awareness that’s regulating your sensory input and motor output. This is the part of you that notices your nose is itching and orders your hand to scratch it. It notes that you’re uncomfortable sitting in one position for so long and wants you to move your legs. It generates the reflexive mental chatter that continually fires through your mind. This is your manomaya kosha.

5. Lift your awareness higher inside your skull. Sense the part of your awareness that consciously made the decision to participate in this exercise and right now is commanding you to sit still and complete it. It recognizes the value of expanding your self-awareness and compels you to get up early in the morning to do your hatha postures and meditation, even though lazing in bed might be more pleasant. This is your vijnanamaya kosha.

6. Center your awareness in your heart. Relax deeply; keep breathing smoothly and evenly. Now, taking as much time as you need, allow yourself to settle into a state of complete tranquility. Buried deep in that inner peace is a sense of purest happiness. This is not an emotional euphoria, though as you leave this state it may pour out of you as a sense of great joy and gratitude. It is a space of perfect contentment, perfect attunement, and abiding stillness. There is no sense of lack, or fear, or desire. This is your anandamaya kosha.

7. Now simply be aware of your own awareness. The pure consciousness that is having this experience lies beyond this experience. It is your true inner Self, your immortal being. Rest in your own being for as long as you can hold your attention there.

8. Return your attention to your breath. Breathe slowly, smoothly, and evenly. Open your eyes. Take a moment to relax and absorb this experience before you get up.
From Death to Birth—and Beyond

In many yoga texts you’ll find the five sheaths grouped into three. The physical body and vital force are called the sthula sharira, the “gross body.” The mental body and intellect are called the sukshma sharira, the “subtle” or “astral body.” The bliss sheath is called the karana sharira, the “causal body.” These are recognized in many different spiritual traditions. Plutarch, a Greek priest who presided at the Temple of Delphi in the first century ce, called them the soma, psyche, and nous, respectively.

The gross body disintegrates at death. The subtle body disintegrates at rebirth, allowing you to develop a new personality in your next life. The causal body reincarnates again and again, carrying your karma with it like luggage. It finally disintegrates at the time of liberation, when the higher Self disengages from the cycle of birth and death.

Oneness of the two – Living Self and Supreme Self (Om)

Beyond these 5 kośas, and still comprising and embracing them all is the Supreme Self, known also as Brahman in the study of Vedānta, and Puruṣa in the Rāja Yoga Sūtras. It is difficult to talk about this because it is a non-dual concept and ground of all experience. The mere formation of language that attempts to describe it creates a duality between description and the experience itself. Words can only point to it, as it is something which goes beyond what words can describe and yet at the same time it IS also the words being used to describe it, as well as the speaker, the listener, and the meaning behind it all!

The Self is THAT which is timeless, unchanging, and makes everything that exists possible. It holds us all, comprises us all, and IS everything, and at the same time it isn’t anything at all. It is what sees through our eyes and experiences Life through the illusion of our “personal” experience, and yet the Self that is me is the very same Self that is you.

Eckhart Tolle has a very beautiful summary of the Kena Upaniṣad which states:

“Not that which is perceived with the senses, but THAT which makes perception possible, know THIS to be the Eternal.”

The 5 kośas and the entire practice of yoga essentially serve to point the way as a dance of examining, knowing, and experiencing the densest parts of our existence into the most subtle … and eventually dissolving into the experiential knowing of Oneness … of THAT which makes the whole dance possible.

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