Koshas or Sheaths of Being: What They Mean in Yoga and Philosophy

According to the classical teachings of yoga, humans are composed of five layers called koshas. Let's see what they are and how to nourish them.
Koshas or Sheaths of Being: What They Mean in Yoga and Philosophy

Last update: 12 August, 2022

According to the teachings of the Eastern spiritual tradition and the Vedanta philosophy in particular, human beings are composed of five layers, called ‘koshas.’ As we move into each one, they become more subtle. In particular, they start at the physical level (the body), all the way down to the deepest part of the being.

To understand this better, we can imagine the five koshas as matryoshkas, Russian dolls containing smaller and smaller versions of themselves that fit perfectly into each other.

However, unlike these, the koshas are indivisible and inseparable. In fact, they’re so interwoven and permeable with each other that what affects one level has repercussions on others. Let’s take a closer look at what each one consists of and how to work on them.

The 5 koshas and their significance

The koshas were first described in the ancient yoga text Taittiriya Upanishad, believed to have been written during the 6th century BC, and provide guidelines related to spiritual liberation.

Followers of this Eastern philosophy believe that the koshas are key to improving awareness of the inner world and to developing a connection between mind, body and spirit. In addition, they argue that proper attention to each of the sheaths can awaken deeper states of consciousness on the path to self-realization. So, how can we access them? Let’s take a look.

1. Annamaya kosha (physical sheath)

This is the outermost layer and corresponds to the physical body; muscles, bones, skin, organs, etcetera. It’s the densest of the koshas and the one we’re most conscious of. It represents all our physical human needs, such as eating and drinking for survival.

It also includes all aspects of our physical body and is therefore subject to the laws of nature, including mortality. This sheath is taken care of through the methods such as proper diet, physical exercise, adequate rest and good habits in general.

The five koshas and their meaning
To nourish the annamaya kosha, it’s necessary to maintain healthy habits such as healthy eating and physical exercise.

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2. Pranamaya kosha (vital energy sheath)

Known as “the body of breath”, this is the first subtle layer and refers to the vital energy (prana) that governs our biological processes and energizes us. It’s what is known in Chinese medicine as ‘chi’ and what the ancient Egyptians called ‘ka’.

If this layer is not properly nourished and serene, then it will not be able to provide us with energy optimally. It’s therefore advisable to practice pranayama breathing exercises that allow us to feel the movement of this vital flow.

Also, to maintain the health of the vital force, it ‘s recommended to get plenty of fresh air and sunlight. In fact, yoga texts explain that the sun is the main source of prana.

3. Manomaya kosha (mental sheath)

Manomaya kosha is the “mental body,” so it includes our thoughts and emotions, as well as our five senses. That said, it’s responsible for receiving sensory stimuli and registering internal and external phenomena.

From there, we establish automatic responses and reflexes that determine our day-to-day actions. However, as the seat of our emotions, it’s the most unstable sheath of all.

For this reason, and because of its intermediate position, its agitations can disturb the first two koshas. In fact, it can even block our connection with the two higher koshas.

The health of the manomaya kosha is enhanced by meditation with mantras. Thus, it’s possible to calm and balance this sheath to release the energy “knots” tied to complex and obsessive mental thoughts.

Also, as the mental body is “fed” by the sensory impressions we offer it, it’s essential to provide it with a harmonious environment, interesting professional challenges, and fun and compassionate relationships.

4. Vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of knowledge or consciousness)

Even more subtle is the vijnanamaya kosha, which corresponds to the “wisdom body.” It encompasses all the functions of the higher mind, such as consciousness and will. Although it’s often confused with the third sheath, they refer to different things.

While the manomaya kosha refers to more basic mental processes (such as perceptions and emotions), the fourth sheath alludes to higher mental functions, such as decision-making, discernment, intellect, and self-knowledge, among others.

In fact, this is what distinguishes us from other animals, since only humans have the capacity to direct our own lives, to be free from the impulses of instinct, and to make moral decisions.

To nurture this envelope , a yogic lifestyle, contemplation, and meditation are recommended. These promote clear judgment, better intuitive perception and greater willpower.

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5. Anandamaya kosha (bliss sheath)

This is the innermost and subtlest sheath. It refers to the “body of bliss”. It allows us to connect with pure joy and experience small glimpses of the divine. In most people, it is not developed. Only saints, sages and true mystics have done the inner work necessary to make this spiritual bliss a real part of their daily experience.

The bliss that composes it is like a great light, expansive and unchanging, transcending material, rational and intuitive knowledge to connect with the most transcendental truth, where time, space and individuality do not exist.

Many people who have had near-death experiences tell of perceiving a brilliant white light that radiates an all-encompassing wisdom and unconditional love. This is the experience of anandamaya kosha.

Now, to awaken our bliss sheath, we can perform the following practices:

  • Selfless service. This opens our heart to our innate oneness with other beings.
  • Devotion to God. This opens our heart to union with the “omnipresent Divine Being”.
  • Deeply focused meditation. Associated with the connection with our own divine being.
Meditation
The experience of anandamaya kosha allows us to connect with the Divine. It’s the most difficult level to develop.

A way to know our true self

According to Vedanta philosophy, we can discover our true essence and genuinely connect with the world through the koshas. We just need to begin to become aware of each of them and nurture them as we should. For this, yoga and meditation are excellent allies.

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