Episode 52: Yoga Beyond The Physical Body
This week, I wanted to highlight the many areas of yoga that no one talks about. The idea of experiencing contentment and bliss, which for many of us can seem like a far fetched dream.
In the this episode, you can listen to the full podcast, or continue reading to develop your understanding of the five koshas, or layers of our being, from the densest to the subtlest elements of our existence and how these can be tapped into through practicing yoga.
I often see people start yoga focusing on the physical benefits, such as increased flexibility, reduced aches and pains, improved bone health, along with creating the opportunity to slow down the mind and feel calmer. Yoga is a much needed antidote to todays busy modern world, where we are often physically and even more so, mentally, juggling many things.
However, when we expand our perspective we can use yoga as a tool to help achieve a deep inner contentment, of coming back home to who we truly are, without all the self-doubt, judgements and the need to be striving for something else. We can simply breathe and be.
Whilst it’s true we are physical beings here on earth, we are also so much more than that. You are a multidimensional creature.
One way to expand our view of the human experience is to understand the five koshas, or layers of consciousness. From the densest to the subtlest elements of existence. “yoga” translates to “yoke” or “union,” you may approach your yoga practice with a desire to experience the wholeness of who you are; that is, to experience all five koshas. I’ve mentioned these five layers before in relation to yoga nidra, in podcast episode #19 The Best Kept Secret to Deep Relaxation.
We can think of these 5 layers as the layers of an onion that can get peeled back. Or I think it’s more fun to think of them as Russian dolls. Where the inner doll is the inner layer of bliss.
So, lets take a look at the 5 koshas, or 5 dolls if you like, which can be journeyed through on the yoga mat in a yoga class, including my yoga flow and relaxing wind down yoga classes.
Starting from the outermost, densest layer, moving inward, the five layers are:
1. Annamaya kosha—Physical Layer: The first layer of our being consists of the physical body (or “food”). It includes the bones, muscles, fat, connective tissue, organs, and skin. It is something we can see, touch and/or feel. Typically at the start of one of my yoga classes, we take a moment to connect with the physical body here on the mat, this might be by feeling the parts of the body that connect with the mat underneath, it can be by bringing awareness to the spine and releasing the shoulders up back and down.
It would be difficult to go straight to savasana, the relaxation pose at the beginning of a class and immediately drop into a state of bliss, which is why this always comes at the end! As the class progresses the physical body (annanamaya kosha) is gradually moving and opening out, by stretching and stretching, initially stiffness and potential heaviness is eased then the body begins to open up and feel lighter and movement feels more natural.
As we move the body we become more aware of how the body functions and the inter-relationship of the bones and muscles throughout the body. Yoga poses therefore helps maintain the balance of the annamaya kosha and can leave you with a sense of feeling physically grounded. In relation to the 5 elements of Ayurveda or if you are familiar with the chakras, annamaya kosha is strongly connected to the earth element, the most dense element.
2. Pranamaya kosha—Energetic Layer: The second kosha layer consists of subtle body energy, elements that cannot be seen with the naked eye. During yoga, soon after becoming aware of your physical body, you bring attention to your breath (the pranamaya kosha), The breath helps subtle energy known in yoga as prana move throughout the body. After all, the breath is the essence of life, it helps support circulation and nourish the cells and creates a sense fluidity and flow.
Breath and prana are moving energy throughout the entire system and when there is a blockage in this flow, we aren’t functioning optimally and our health can be impacted. If you’ve heard of the terms Chi or Ki these are the same life-force energy. In yoga we practice pranayama, our breath control or awareness of breath. I always focus on linking movement with the breath throughout my classes, consciously moving in and out of each pose, as the whole movement is the experience it’s not just about the end final pose or end goal.
We always open up the body on the inhale and contract of relax on the exhale, it helps us the find that natural rhythm and flow, linking the body and mind together. On a deeper level we can control the breath through various pranayama or breathing practices, and the ones I most commonly share in classes are alternate nostril breathing and deep belly breathing. Both of these practices help us to tune into the parasympathetic nervous system or the rest and digest mode, helping to move away from the underlying fight or flight stress response many of us knowingly or unknowingly spend our day in.
Alternate nostril breathing is a great one to help balance the subtle energy channels in the body, helping to balance our life force energy. Other pranayama practices such as fire breath, which I sometimes do in winter classes to boost our internal flame, can have the opposite effect and be stimulating and can help to expel and shift stagnant energy. If you are new to pranayama I always suggest starting with a guided practice with a yoga teacher to develop your understanding and safety. Working with the breath and is a wonderful way to connect with your pranamaya kosha, allowing fluidity and life force to flow through the body. This sheath is strongly connected to the water element, So I like to think of the energy flowing like rivers.
3. Manomaya kosha—Mental/Emotional Layer: Thoughts and emotions make up the third kosha layer of our being. During a yoga class you can notice that focusing on your body and breath helps to calm the mind and move through stuck emotions; this is the manomaya kosha. It was this aspect that really got me hooked on yoga, as I realised yoga could totally change my ability to process my emotions and step off the mat feeling in a much better place. If we actually look at the word emotion, if we put a dash after the e, it spells e-motion, signifying the emotions are energy in motion.
Delving a bit deeper the mind layer, or perhaps third Russian doll, is responsible for how we perceive the world around us and our thoughts, emotions, and fantasies are part of the manomaya kosha. The deeper layers include our beliefs, opinions, and values which are learned or inherited from societal norms, culture, and heritage and it was fascinating to really get a grasp of the different social norms, and therefore the variety of perspectives available to us, when I lived in Japan.
In yogic and Ayurvedic science we also have our own thought 'patterns' or mental grooves, referred to as samskaras in Sanskrit), which are typically fixed and cycling on repeat until we become aware of them. It is from this awareness that we can begin to change our outlook and experience of life. Balancing poses are really great to get an insight into our own thoughts, judgments, and emotions and to gain an insight into how you may respond to scenarios in daily life and balances, such as tree pose are always included in my regular yoga classes.
Imagine balancing on one leg and falling out of the balance, what might go through your mind - is it harsh comments or do you approach it with playfulness and compassion? I always like to remind people that if they fall out, they can get back in. Through being curious of the narrative of our own minds we can begin to adjust as we become more aware of this third layer of our being. This later is strongly connected to the fire element, helping us to transform our perception and the actions we choose to take.
Often people are only aware of these first three layers, but there are two more koshas.
4. Vijnanamaya kosha—Intuitive/Wisdom Layer: The fourth layer is comprised of intuition, our inner knowing and wisdom and our inner intellect. In the Vijnanamaya kosha lies the ability to connect to higher knowing, to follow intuitive impulses, and see the bigger picture beyond logic. However, I feel in todays world we often operate and make decisions using facts and less encouraged to use our own intuition, would you agree?
Often, the mind can be so overcrowded with thought, that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. As the yoga class develops and the physical, energy and mental layers become more intune, we can begin to enter a more peaceful state and in this greater stillness and quiet we can begin to hear the whispers of our true nature. In this space created we can gain greater access to our innate awareness and wisdom (vijnanamaya kosha).
During a typical yoga class with me we will enjoy some seated forward folds, these are wonderful poses to surrender in and I often guide people to close their eyes or lower their gaze towards the floor to help let go of external distractions and bring your focus inwards as we pause for a few breaths. Towards the end of a class, it’s common for me to invite people to make as little effort as possible, so that they can begin to let go in the body and therefore the mind whilst finding the space to simply be. In this pause we may begin to observe our thoughts which will naturally arise and we can begin to let them fade with an inner knowing and trust that all is well.
If you were to practice meditation, it’s a great opportunity to practice slowing down the flow of our thoughts and create a space to hear your own inner wisdom. This is there, whether you believe it right now or not. By intuitively coming back home to yourself, you can experience a clearer vision and insight,
which may lead to being more motivated through life as you begin to feel you are on the right purposeful path for you. This layer is strongly connected to the air element. Air is subtle and naturally fills space just like your inner knowing and intellect can shine through when we create space for it to.
5. Finally, the fifth and deepest layer—Anandamaya kosha; the Bliss Layer: This layer of our being is recognised as deep inner peace, love, and joy that has no opposite. It is blissful; free from our thoughts, emotions, energy, and body, and yet at the same time they are all connected not separate.
When we are whole in ourselves, it’s easier to experience a sense of presence and oneness among all beings. This level of bliss can be challenging to access when our conscious or thinking mind can often rule the show masking the peace and joy that is already within. Similarly, if we imagine the blue sky is bliss, when it is filled with clouds we lose sight of the peaceful blue sky that is still there. The blissful self reminds us and give us hope that our experience of life can still be good, even when things are difficult, because under all the layers and illusions are true nature is after all bliss.
It can take a lifetime of practice to cultivate this sense of bliss for any length of time. We may experience moments of it when we are laying down in relaxation at the end of a yoga class, when all the other layers have been tended to and you may have a sense of peace and contentment in the present moment. The inner most Russian doll is simply being here in the present moment. At the end of a yoga practice, I suggest that you to gradually emerge rather than rush onto the next things and take a moment to pause and notice how you feel, notice the difference. This sheath is strongly connected to the Ether or Space element. The most subtlest of them all, expansive and freeing.
Yoga is just one way that we can practice accessing these five layers of our being. We can also look after them and cultivate our understanding through various lifestyle choices and practices. With regular practice, you will find that you are able to drop into moments of bliss with more ease, trust me!
I would love to know, which layer stood out most to you, and which layer could you possibly give some more attention to?
Thank you for reading, I hope you have enjoyed this weeks episode as much as I have. If you would like to listen to the podcast, you can find it here.