From a yoga standpoint, the human body is divided into five sheaths. The grossest is the physical body, followed by the energy body, then the mental body, the wisdom body and finally the bliss body. Each of these five bodies is known as kosha which is Sanskrit for “sheath”.
Each sheath covers and encompasses a more subtle consciousness or kosha, inner awareness and energy. The entire spectrum of human nature consists of five levels and illustrates the model of human development.
The five koshas are:
- The physical body – Annamaya kosha
- The energy body – Pranamaya kosha
- The mental body – Manomaya kosha
- The wisdom body – Vijnanamaya kosha
- The bliss body – Anandamaya kosha
The koshas surround the atman – an individual’s divine spirit.
Annamaya: The physical or food sheath reminds us that or physical body becomes what we eat. The physical body is the material sheath of our existence. If we wish to progress on our yogic path it is very important to keep the body in optimal health.
The main practices which affect the physical body are the asanas. They bring us flexibility, relaxation, muscle tone, strength, balance, stress release and general fitness.
Anything which (positively or negatively) affects any of the koshas will, as a consequence, affect the other koshas. All five sheaths are thus intertwined to create one single body. This means that practices which have a beneficial effect on the other koshas will also have a positive effect on the physical body. By practising pranajamas, for instance, we will also feel progress when practising the asanas.
Pranamaya: Prana refers to the vital energy which permeates the body and all matter. It actually encompasses all our koshas and is of key importance for life on all levels. However, the pranamaya kosha is a specific energy. Yoga looks at the energy body differently from the West. Physiology teaches us that the energy in our body’s cells is produced by burning glucose which is the only available source of energy. Yogis do acknowledge the mentioned source, however assert that the body/energy/mind retrieve energy from different sources including the breath, food, water and even the energy from the cosmos. Thus, the pranamaya kosha is part of the great energy of the universe (maha prana or cosmic energy). Yogis view the energy body as an independent entity which occupies the same space as the physical body but envelops it. The energy supposedly flows through the energy system of nadis. These are not nerves but separate prana channels which are independent of the existence of physical structures. Nadis and acupuncture meridians have similarities, however, it is difficult to compare them directly. There are said to be 72 thousand nadis, however, the assessments differ and it is difficult to know who originally counted them.
The three principal nadis run along the spine, the Sushumna is the major nadi in the centre, while Ida and Pingala run on both sides of the spine. Susuhmna represents balance, the central axis, whereas Ida and Pingala refer to the “lunar” and “solar” aspect of nature, respectively.
Ida represents the mental power connected to mental activity, creativity, introversion, femininity, moon energy, blue colour, the right side of the brain, the left nostril and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Pingala represents physical activity, solar energy, extraversion, masculinity, red colour, the left side of the brain, the right nostril and the sympathetic nervous system.
Manomaya: The manomaya kosha is the mental body which takes care of an individual’s basic instinctive needs and desires. These needs include: protection from danger, supply of food, finding a partner and caring for offspring.
The mental body is composed of four parts: instinct (manas), ego (ahamkara), consciousness (chitta) and higher intellect (buddhi).
Vijnanamaya: This kosha is the wisdom body. It represents the level of higher intellect, intuition, wisdom, higher levels of knowledge and psychic abilities. Our feelings are no longer raw emotions, but developed levels of love, compassion, joy, security, achievement and mutually fulfilled relationships. By practising yoga, we increasingly access the wisdom body and develop it by working on the lower three koshas. We become more efficient, achieve good results and understand life more easily. Anandamaya: This kosha is the bliss body. It is in closest contact with the pure divine spirit – Atman. This is not just a feeling, it is an indescribable experience of peace, love and ecstasy due to the connection with the highest consciousness. Yogis who are on that level tell that this is the truth of all of us and that we are actually already on that level. That each of us is already on the highest level of consciousness, however, since we are caught on a lower level of consciousness, we are not aware of who we are. Once we transcend this state of “languor”, we will come home to our legacy.
Moving through the koshas is often compared to peeling an onion or opening a Russian babushka doll. On the path of yoga, we gradually move inward through each of the koshas which make up the human body and thus get closer to our true self.