The Kosha system of yoga is one of my favorite tools to understand myself and others. Ancient yogis, through diligent and committed practice of yoga, discovered a way of understanding the human psyche as a multilayered, yet interconnected whole. The five layers, also called veils, or sheaths, are called in Sanskrit the Koshas, They represent each person as composed of various layers that move progressively from the more gross to the most subtle, and vice versa.
The one that is usually depicted as the outermost layer is called the Annamaya Kosha, or the physical body. This is composed of your skin, muscles, bones, nails, organs, fat, connective tissue, all of the physical parts of you that you can feel and see. When you say to yourself: I’m hungry, my hair is getting long, or I’m warm, you are observing your Annamaya Kosha.
The next more subtle layer, the Pranamaya Kosha, is your energetic body, composed of your breath, the nervous system, the way your body moves, and your bodily functions. When you say to yourself: I feel jittery, my heart is beating fast, or I have to go to the bathroom, you are observing your Pranamaya Kosha.
The third layer is called the Manomaya Kosha, and is the normal domain of your mental functioning throughout the day, including the thoughts that are always flowing through your mind, the experience of your senses, your memory, and your emotions. When you run through your to do list, or say to yourself: I’m sad, I feel nervous, or my thoughts are racing, you are referring to your Manomaya Kosha.
The next more subtle layer is called the Vijnanamaya Kosha, and is where your higher reasoning, intellect, and discernment reside. This is the place where. through maturation, wisdom, and self-reflection, we begin to bear witness to our automatic impulses and reactions. When you say to yourself: I understand why I tend to overreact when this happens, or, I wanted to tell a little white lie but I knew the right thing was to be completely honest, your are observing your Vijnanamaya Kosha.
The deepest layer of each of us is called the Anandamaya Kosha, our Bliss Body. Beyond all individual traits, likes, dislikes, and past conditioning, lies our whole, innocent, joyful nature. When we are totally absorbed in the moment, doing something we love where time seems to stop and we are not even aware of our thoughts, we are living in our Anandamaya Kosha.
These layers are usually depicted like the Russian dolls that stack together from smaller(most subtle) to bigger (more gross), though actually the layers are not that cut and dry. Each of the layers is related to each of the others, and you could even visualize them as moving out from the physical to the most sublime as our consciousness expands. Here are some examples of how the koshas interact:
When you eat the most nourishing foods for your body type (Annamaya), you are helping to calm your nervous system (Pranamaya).
When you experience the pause of pure delight (Anandamaya) while eating your most favorite, luscious dessert (Anamaya and Pranayama).
When you practice yoga by intentionally moving your body and breath (Pranamaya) you are helping to focus and calm your mind (Manomaya) to prepare you for meditative practices to access your higher reasoning (Vijnanamaya).
When time seems to stop and you are totally present (Anandamaya) while engaging in an activity you enjoy that requires your full attention like skiing, climbing, running, or making love (Anamaya).
When you are feeling angry and upset (Manomaya) about an interaction you just had with someone, but take the time to take a deep breath (Pranamaya), and begin to reflect (Vijnanamaya) on what it was inside you that that was triggered by the situation.