Koshas are layers of manifest and unmanifested energy that surround our true self, or the Atman. The Koshas, or sheaths comprise of five layers which are appearances of reality. The Atman, buried deep within the Koshas, is our true self which remains unaffected by pleasure or pain. The concept of Atman is defined by Samkhya as the self, or the soul which unlike other schools’ states that each Atman is unique. Self-knowledge is said to be the key to realising the truth.
The outermost Kosha is Annamaya or the food sheath. This layer needs regular maintenance such as exercise and sustenance. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika gives us practices purifying the inner and outer body through asana and the Shat Karmas. Yoga asana if not practiced with self-knowledge can bind us further to the outside world through attachment to our body, becoming obsessed with our appearance.
Pranamaya kosha is the second layer and is both manifested in the breath and unmanifested in Prana. Prana is sub divided into the five energies of Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana and Vyana, these Pranas are responsible for the functions of the physical body. Prana is distributed around the subtle body through the Nadis, or subtle energy channels. The two main Nadis are Ida and Pingala, represent two opposite poles of energy (positive and negative) Balancing subtle energy through Pranayama practices such as Nadi Shodan will achieve this.
Manomaya Kosha is the third layer and is the mental sheath. Manas is mind and is one part of the yogic concept of mind and is where we experience thoughts feelings and emotions. The untrained mind constantly jumps from one thought to the next, being drawn by likes and dislikes. We experience the outside world through the senses, which the mind processes, but does not have the ability to discriminate. This can be extremely useful if we are in danger and need to act instinctively but can be detrimental if our choices are based on previous faulty choices. The subconscious mind, if left untrained is constantly reaching out through the senses seeking attachment. Pratyahra (sense withdrawal) is the practice of being aware of our senses and watching the thoughts and feelings that arise. With practice we are no longer instantly swept away with our thoughts and feelings.
Vijnanmaya kosha is the fourth layer and is where we can discriminate. The Manas or mind simply receives information, the Buddhi, or intellect can discriminate on its usefulness. It is here where we consider our own self and seek to understand the answers to the big philosophical questions of the meaning of life. The practice to cultivate Vijnanmaya kosha is Dharana, or the practice to hold the mind steady. The previous practices will create the ability to now train the mind towards a single point, which creates areas of clarity for self-observation.
The final layer covering the Atman is Anandamaya kosha which is described as bliss. Here we must be careful not to associate any previous ideas of what we might think of as a blissful place, this would be a subjective experience borne out of likes and dislikes. The practice to experience Anandamya kosha is Dhyana, or meditation. At this stage we are fully focused without interruption being unaware of the body or the outside world. Dhyana leads to Samadhi, but here it will be with attributes. Samadhi with attributes means we have evolved to be aware there is still subjectivity. The danger at this stage is we believe we have reached the Atman, which in itself is probably proof we are deluding our self and others.
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