To the Western mind, anatomy is the study of the physical structure of the body.
If we accept that this is the only way to approach anatomy we are unlikely to look any deeper. But what if the body were more than this? Yoga suggests that it is.
The system of the Koshas has existed since the era of the Upanishads. It is a model that includes the physical body, but also goes much deeper. Some interpret this model as a literal map of the body, others interpret it as a metaphor for practicing yoga ‘from the inside, out’; either way it behooves us to look more deeply into the body and the nature of the Self.
In understanding the koshas, it is useful to imagine a Babushka doll. The outermost doll contains within its belly each of the smaller dolls. The koshas are stacked similarly, one inside the next, inside the next.
The outermost kosha (kosha means layer or sheath) is our physical body – it is the flesh and bones part of us that is nourished and energized by the food that we eat. Hence, it is called annamaya kosha, literally ‘food body’. When we grab hold of an arm we are holding on to annamaya kosha, so this is the layer we first encounter in yoga. Where in space is my foot? Where does this feeling of tension come from? Where is that stretch I can feel? THus, annamaya kosha is the gateway through which we must pass to access the other koshas and through them the more subtle layers of our Being.
The next layer is pranamaya kosha (our pranic or energetic body). If we are familiar with the notion of pranayama we will be familiar with the idea that, prana or life force is carried within and throughout our body through our subtle energetic pathways (called nadis). It is also carried by our breath, so pranamaya kosha is associated with our respiratory system. For our body to remain free of dis-ease we must ensure that there are no blockages in our subtle energetic system, as these manifest, not just energetically, but physically, mentally and emotionally.
Next is manomaya kosha (our mental and emotional body). Manomaya kosha governs our cognitive life; the world of our thoughts, memories and emotions (the world of our citta vrttis). But here’s the thing, when we pay attention we notice that our thoughts don’t occur in isolation. Rather,, each thought has an emotional center of gravity, and each emotion has a particular breathing pattern (pranamaya kosha) and also a particular pattern of tension or release in our body (annamaya kosha). On the one hand the thoughts of manomaya kosha can be understood as habitual and unconscious, even irrational. On the other hand we can think of manomaya kosha as representative of our rational mind, which we can contrast with…
Vijnanamaya kosha is our intuitive or wisdom body. Vijnanamaya kosha takes us away from the type of knowing we access through the brain, towards the wisdom of the body. To be able to access this ‘knowing’ we must first be willing to entertain the possibility that there is a way of knowing that is not rational; an archetypal wisdom, an intuitiin or perhaps a spiritual truth.
Accessing this allows us to continue our journey within, to our innermost sheath; anandamaya kosha, our bliss body. This is the bright, shining light within that yoga teaches us is our true nature – the blissful, joyous experience of pure conscious awareness – a felt sense of loving connection to the matrix of life – an embodied realization that we are Purusa.
So, whether we understand this model to be a literal or metaphorical representation of our Being, it’s value to teachers and students lies in its ability to take us on a journey beyond the superficial, to the deep mysterious depths of our body, and through that into the mysterious depths of our consciousness.
Shades of Yoga is a yoga teacher training company running year-round yoga teacher training courses in Bali and Costa Rica.