Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part I Anna Kosha

The concept of the five koshas (panca kosa) originates in Vedanta* and is first described in the Taittirya Upanishad, from the 6th or 5th Century BC.  The word itself is formed from the root kus, which means to unfold/sheath/layer; the concept of koshas is a beautiful way of describing the layers of our being, from the grossest physical manifestation, to our innermost, subtle core.  Like the petals of a rose, the different koshas overlap each other, so that it is almost impossible to work only on one level of our being; this is why we are sometimes surprised in our yoga practice to discover that we experience emotional release when we open our hips or arch our backs, or physical ease from deepening our breath.   

This esoteric description of our physical existence both explains and deepens our experience of yoga; if yoga is the word we use for our journey inward; then the concept of the five koshas are our road map.

The five koshas are as follow:

  • Anna Kosha    The physical body, or food sheath, the level of the gross body.
  • Prana Kosha    The vital body, or breath sheath; the level of Prana, or life-force.
  • Manas Kosha    The mental body, or the sheath of the mind.
  • Vijnana Kosha    Consciousness, reason, wisdom, or the sheath of the intellect.
  • Ananda Kosha    The subtle core, the sheath of bliss and joy.

Modern life encourages us to disconnect from our bodies and live only in our thinking mind.  We eat on the move, throwing food down while we work, we sit for long hours hunched over our work stations, or squashed on trains and buses.  We neglect our physical self;  we forget to nourish it, to notice it, to respect it and to give it what it needs to be healthy. Even those who might say that they care for their bodies often push their bodies to physical limits in gyms, work to targets set by personal trainers, or by themselves, harden and strengthen their bodies without compassion; or use diets to achieve a body shape that conforms to socially perceived ideals. 

Learning how to observe our physical self, how to nourish it appropriately in each moment with food, drink, and appropriate physical exercise is exploring Anna Kosha. Through paying attention to Anna Kosha we learn to let go of physical ideals and embrace ourselves as we are; we are more able to accept our present physical limitations with humour and kindness and thereby to discover an ease in our bodies and in our asana practice.

Many of us begin our yoga practice through the door marked Asana: we come to yoga because we wish to be more flexible, or stronger, or because we are experiencing pain in our body and we hope to relieve it.  In our yoga practice we begin to explore how really is to feel the body from top to toe, and by paying attention to our bodies, we develop a more intelligent way of living with our physical self.  Over time we strengthen our body, lengthen muscles, release tight joints and relieve tension, perhaps we notice parts of the body long-neglected.  We learn how to become more aware of ourselves: how do our feet feel on the ground?  Does our posture create comfort or pain?  Where does our breath move freely and where is it restricted?  What might be the reasons for this?  As our ability to focus increases, we begin to notice how the body changes from day to day and from week to week; we start to appreciate and be grateful for this physical vessel for our spirit and to honour it as something entirely unique and worth taking care of. 

This process constitutes an exploration of Anna Kosha, bringing us a sense of reconnection with and an appreciation of our bodily selves; it helps us to work positively with our physical self, rather than fighting against it, hurting or neglecting it.  This is the only body that you will get in your lifetime; this body is a miracle of science; this body is worth looking after; when this body is comfortable, so are you.

*In Vedanta, the koshas are known as maya-koshas, maya meaning that which causes the illusory nature of the universe; yoga does not believe that the world is illusion, therefore in yoga they are referred to simply as koshas


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