five sheaths by Sally Kempton
In the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient Tantric yoga text, a human being is described as having five sheaths, or koshas, that interpenetrate each other, encasing the soul like the layers of an onion. The outermost layer is the physical sheath, which the sages called the food sheath, not only because it is made of the food we take in from the earth but also because it will ultimately become food for other creatures. Encased by the physical sheath, interpenetrating it and transcending it are the three layers of the subtle body: the pranamaya kosha, or vital energy sheath; the manomaya kosha, or mental sheath; and the vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom sheath. Deeper than these is the anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath. According to the sages of yoga, any real answer to the questions "Who am I, really?" or "What is the meaning of my life?" involves looking into these sheaths, which are also called "bodies" or "selves."
Annamaya Kosha (Physical Sheath)
Though the physical sheath, or physical body, is the most tangible aspect of ourselves, very few of us have a real sense of where our organs are or what goes on inside our bodies. When I first began practicing yoga, it was nearly impossible for me to feel my feet or the muscles in my legs unless they hurt. Instead of sensing the body from the inside, I would "think" about the physical body, simply because so much of my energy and attention was parked in my mental body. Injuries and accidents—and even eating compulsions and other addictions—often come from the tendency to move and use the body without feeling how it responds. If you have difficulty fully entering your physical body, you may feel ungrounded, spacey, and fearful. But once you learn to feel your body, to sense it from within, you will learn how to move inside a posture to protect yourself from injury. You will begin to sense what kind of food you need and how much. Your attention will become grounded. Consciously inhabiting your physical body will bring more presence and ease to your life.
Exercise To get into the physical body, try this exercise. Notice your feet in your shoes. Tighten and relax the muscles in your calves. Touch your face and sense the contact between the fingers and the skin. Put your hand over your chest and feel your heartbeat, or feel the contact between the hand and the flesh. Then pick an inner organ—your liver, heart, or kidneys—and try to find it with your attention. Really sink your attention into that organ. Just as you would in meditation, notice when you become distracted by thoughts. When this happens, note "thought" to yourself and come back to sensing the organ. Notice the settling and grounding effect of this practice.
Pranamaya Kosha (Vital Energy Sheath)
The next three koshas are subtle—they can't be tangibly grasped. Nonetheless, they can be felt, and feeling them is essential for mastery of your inner world.
The pranamaya kosha, or vital energy body, interpenetrates the physical body but is much larger. When you feel energy expanding into your heart or head during meditation or asana practice, or when waves of heat ripple through your body, you are in contact with the vital energy body. Feeling energized, sleepy, dull, restless, or calm are all attributes of the vital energy body. Just as you have a physical "look," you also have a personal energetic signature. Once you become sensitive to the energy within and around you, you will start to recognize the vibrational signature that you and others leave in a room, or even on a piece of clothing. (Remember how comforting it was the first time you wore your partner's shirt to bed?)
You may also notice how much of your communication with the world happens on an energetic level. Consider the way you feel when you're in a room with an angry person, the peace you can find by sitting under a shady tree, the subtle transmission of energy you get from being near a good teacher.
Meditation is intended primarily to tone the energy body, as is asana practice. We often think of these practices as toning the mental and physical bodies, respectively, but yoga and meditation are also aimed at moving stagnant energy, or prana, through the body. One way to tune in to the power within the energy body is to practice letting yourself "be breathed." Without changing your breathing pattern, become aware of the breath flowing into and out of your body as a natural, spontaneous flow.
Exercise Instead of feeling "I am breathing," feel "I'm being breathed." Let yourself relax into this feeling. If you notice your breath tightening, just notice it, with the thought "I am being breathed." Eventually you may begin to feel the breath as energy, and you may sense that the body is bigger than the boundaries of the skin. This is a sign that you've entered the vital energy body. As this happens, you may find that your posture automatically readjusts itself, that your back or hips open. These are all effects of consciously accessing the vital energy body, which is the storehouse of healing power in your system.
Manomaya Kosha (Mental Body)
The manomaya kosha—within which you think, fantasize, daydream, and practice mantra or affirmations—is the part of you that creates meaning out of the world you inhabit. But just as the physical body has layers of skin, fat, blood, and bones, so the mental body has its own layers. The most superficial layer comprises passing thoughts, images, perceptions, and emotions that bubble up in your inner world.
However, if some of the thoughts in the manomaya kosha are like bubbles in the ocean, others are like tides and have a stronger hold. The deeper levels of the manomaya kosha contain the powerful mental structures formed by the beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that you've absorbed from your family and culture as well as from your accumulated mental patterns. Called samskaras in Sanskrit, these deep thought grooves in the mental body cause your perceptions of yourself and your life to run in certain fixed patterns. When you examine the contents of the manomaya kosha closely, you can often see these patterns, which take the form of repetitive thoughts like "This isn't how things should be" or "I'm not good enough." Samskaras not only color your experience but also help shape it, which is why one of the most effective practices is to notice and question the "stories" that, without conscious prompting, run through your mind over and over again.
ExerciseTry this basic self-inquiry, adapted from an exercise developed by the spiritual teacher Byron Katie. Look at a situation in your life that is charged in some way. Write down your thoughts about it. Then, one by one, consider each thought and ask yourself, "What would I be without this thought?" Notice how your breathing, your energy, and your mental experience shift.
Consciously replace the thought with one that feels empowering and real—such as "I am free to choose my attitudes" or "There is another way to see this." Notice whether this new thought brings greater spaciousness to your mind.
Vijnanamaya Kosha (Wisdom or Awareness Body)
As you explore your inner world, you may begin to notice that along with your thoughts there are things that come from a deeper and subtler level of your being. This sense of inner knowing comes from the wisdom body, the layer composed of intuition and awareness. The wisdom body is also responsible for insight. If you become engrossed in a project like writing, painting, math, or even problem solving, you're accessing the wisdom body.
A composer I know often plays random sounds until his ordinary mind (his manomaya kosha) steps back, making room for the wisdom body to "download" music that is genuinely creative and new. Another friend tells me that when he's stymied or stuck on a personal or professional problem, he'll formulate a question about it, then sit for meditation. At some point, as his thinking mind gets quiet, wisdom will arise. The wisdom body, at its subtlest level, is simply awareness&mdashthe objective, observing part of the self. It's where you can stop identifying with your powerful thoughts and self-descriptions, and just witness your mind and your life.
ExerciseRight now, notice that something in you observes that you are reading. That same observing "I" is also aware of your thoughts, your mood, the way your body feels, your energy level. It knows all this without being involved in it. As you embody awareness, notice if you are able to contain all the other levels of experience—without getting attached to their meaning or outcome.
Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss Body)
The bliss body is the most hidden part of us, yet its subtle presence is felt as the instinctive sense that life is worth living, that to be alive is good. You're literally born to be blissful, because the bliss body is the deepest layer of your personal Self. Separated by a thread from the universal Self, your bliss body is filled with natural ecstasy, dynamism, and goodness.
Contact with the bliss body develops through practice, especially practices such as mantra, meditation, and prayer that teach the mind to let go of the thoughts that hide the bliss body. To fully enter the bliss body, however, you usually need to be in a state of deep meditation. When you are in touch with your bliss body, you know that your nature is joyful, free, and capable of every flavor of happiness from rock-out ecstasy to simple contentment. You are in the bliss body in those moments during which you recognize—viscerally rather than intellectually—that love is the deepest reality, beyond mental constructs or ideas. In fact, one of yoga's greatest gifts is its power to awaken us to our body of bliss.
Exercise Ask yourself, "Where is bliss?" Ask in an open-ended way and tune in to the subtle feelings of tenderness, joy, and contentment that can show up at the most unexpected of moments. Let yourself open to the possibility that bliss is your true nature. Don't worry if there is no immediate answer or response. The bliss body takes time to reveal itself. For many practitioners, the experience of the bliss body arises after years of dedicated practice. Yet it can come alive for you in a moment—during an evening of kirtan or a meditation on the heart, or in deep Savasana (Corpse Pose). When the bliss body does reveal itself, it can seem miraculous, like a gift, and yet completely natural. Your essence is innately blissful. But you may need to learn how to turn deep inside to recognize it.
Believe it or not, it is possible to be conscious of yourself in all these layers and levels. To be aware and present in all of the koshas is to awaken to your own life and to integrate all the parts of yourself. It then becomes natural to sense the universal Self that expresses itself as our individual, layered Self. Then we become like the greatest sages of the yoga tradition, who are awake in all their bodies and awake to that which is beyond them.