Thursday, 23 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part IV Vijnana Kosha

The five koshas, introduced in the Taittirya Upanishad describe humans as having five layers of being, each overlapping the next.  The concept is useful for those with a regular yoga or spiritual practice of some kind.  The fourth layer is vijnana kosha.

Vijnana kosha corresponds to consciousness, or reason; it is the sheath of your inner wisdom, that part of you which knows, your instinctive self, it is expressed through observation or awareness.  It is the ability to stand outside yourself and watch yourself objectively without judgement; it the state in which you observe without attachment and without judgement.  It is what we are always working towards in our yoga practice, however that practice manifests itself.

It is the nature of your brain to move.  That is the job of your mind.  If it stops, my friend, then you are dead.  But what we do in yoga, indeed what we do in all mindfulness practice, is to learn how to dissociate ourselves from the never-ending cascade of thoughts that pass through our mind.  We learn to watch, not too get involved, not to judge.  And this helps us to live better.  It creates a space between what is happening in our lives and our response to it, so that when we feel rage, for example, instead of instantly fighting/shouting/attacking, we discover that we have a moment to notice the feeling of rage, to assess whether it is appropriate given the situation and to choose our response to that stimulus rather than reacting in an automatic, time-honoured way which may not be in our own, or others', best interests.

Working with vijnana kosha is akin to finding compassion for yourself, for when we can observe the story of our lives played out without attachment or judgement, we see ourselves in a kinder light; we observe that the all of the 'stuff' that happens doesn't effect the core of our being, which remains its same, steady self.  When we connect with our essential nature, then we can surf more easily the sometimes tumultuous waves of life; we don't drown in them or find ourselves constantly upturned by the vicissitudes of living.

We begin working with vijnana kosha by observing ourselves kindly while we practice; we watch and we are gentle with ourselves, we let go of expectation and give ourselves only what we need in that moment, we don't look outside ourselves for validation, instead we seek inside for the steady core of our own selves, we don't compare ourselves with other people, we come to appreciate and accept ourselves.  Try to practise from the inside out, feel your way through your asana or meditation practice; drop into your body and leave aside the constant commentary of your brain for the duration.  Don't expect this to be easy, you have spent your whole life living in your head and judging yourself and comparing yourself to other people and/or to an ideal version of yourself that you keep hidden somewhere inside you.  Start by knowing that you are enough and give yourself time to learn how to watch and feel, rather than comment and judge.  This is the work of a lifetime and you move towards it in the same way that you move towards anything worth having: patiently, persistently, hopefully.  If you practise it, you will increase your capacity for achieving it.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part III Manas Kosha

The concept of the five koshas describes the layers of our being, from the grossest physical level to our innermost, subtle core. The third layer of being is manas kosha.

Manas kosha corresponds to the mind, encompasses the nervous system and is expressed through thought patterns.  Here is an excellent example of how the koshas overlap and effect each other: if the mind is disturbed and overloaded, the body becomes stressed and the sympathetic nervous system begins its work preparing the body for fight or flight - the breath becomes short, the heart rate speeds up, the throat dries, digestion slows, the body releases glucose to the muscles.  When stressed, the body becomes tense, muscles seize up, we may find our sleeping patterns disturbed, or find it difficult to switch off; we may end up in a vicious circle of stress and disturbance. 

It is a very busy world and we often struggle under increased workloads, we commute long distances, the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier has ended up meaning that we are never left alone, that we are always available, our stressors can reach us at any time of day or night.

We were not supposed to live like this; our brains aren't built for the speed and relentlessness of the 21st century.  Our stress response was designed to fill us with hormones to make us fast and strong if we were hunting or about to be hunted (to eat lunch or be lunch) and then drain away once we were at rest again.  But for many of us, being at true rest has become a rare event, it is a skill that we have lost, it is a place we don't allow ourselves to visit very often.  Or perhaps we forgot the way.

This is the way that manas kosha effects anna kosha and prana kosha.  It is apt that prana kosha comes between anna kosha and manas kosha, as the breath is the bridge between body and mind.  Deepening and settling the breath can settle the mind, slow the heart rate and cause the parasympathetic nervous system to begin its work (digesting food efficiently, letting the body relax, counterbalancing the stress response).  By working with the other koshas we get to soothe and calm manas kosha, to bring ourselves peace of mind. 

The concept of the five koshas, the idea of five interleaved layers of being that cannot be separated out, but which are inextricably linked, helps to demonstrate that we are an organism whose physical fitness, mental health, stress levels and breathing patterns all contribute to our well-being and that we cannot have sickness, or under-performance in one without it having a knock on effect on the other levels of our being.  Peace of mind follows well-regulated breath, breath works best in a fit and supple body and vice versa; if we wish to be whole, then we must work at all levels.  It's no use being fit and strong if we suffer from insomnia, or high stress levels; it's not easy to be relaxed if our body is giving us pain.  The concept of the koshas, as old as it is, sheds light on our modern condition, reminds us that we must take care of our whole selves if we are truly to be well, gives us a road map to follow for our journey.


Monday, 20 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part II Prana Kosha

The concept of the five koshas describes the layers of our being, from the grossest physical level to our innermost, subtle core.  The second layer of being is Prana Kosha.

The five koshas are linked together like the petals of a rosebud, each one overlapping the next.  It is impossible therefore, to work on one layer of being in your yoga practice without touching other, more subtle layers.  Typically, once we have begun to work on the anna kosha level, we experience a natural move towards working at the level of prana kosha.  Prana is not breath, so much as subtle energy, but it is closely linked to the breath and working with the breath is the most obvious way in which we work at the level of prana kosha (click here for a more detailed description of prana).

When we begin practising yoga it is not unusual to find that we are disconnected from our breath; we know that need to breathe to live, but we are rarely aware of the fluctuations in our breath, how our breath changes with our moods and the circumstances in which we find ourselves and conversely, how we can alter the way we think, feel and act when we change the way we breathe.  We may already have discovered how body and breath are connected by considering the concept of anna kosha while we practice, for we cannot breathe fully if our shoulders are constricted, our respiratory muscles atrophied, or our breathing patterns unnaturally disrupted.

Prana is life-force, or energy, somewhat like Qi in Chinese medicine.  It is what we are working with in yoga every time we come to practice.  Through controlling our bodies, improving our fitness, learning how to observe our feelings and keep track of them and how to be well, we improve our energy levels and this has a positive impact on our well-being and on the way we move through life.  When we work at prana kosha level, we are learning how to become more aware of the things that conserve our energy (the things that nourish us) and the things that leach our energy (the things that drain us); by paying close attention to our breath, body and energy levels we thus learn how to care for ourselves in a more subtle, individualistic and effective way.

Working with prana kosha can bring about great changes in body, mind and spirit and thinking about our yoga practice in these terms helps us to focus our minds on what we choose to do with our energy, how our breath effects our health and well-being and what (often very simple) things we can do, in our lives and in our practice to conserve and respect our own energy levels.  Be aware of the way you use your energy, focus on your breath and be careful where you place the focus of your mind when you practice; think about what you need from your practice each time you come to your mat, rather than doing what you always do; let an awareness of your prana kosha deepen your practice and make it more effective.


The simplest way to work with prana kosha is to meditate on the rhythm of your breath.  Set aside 10 or 15 minutes to sit quietly and to bring all of your attention to your breathing.  Listen to the sound of it, feel the way it moves inside your body, savour each and every breath.  The chances are that the quality of your breath (its depth and evenness) improves as your focus on it and it is probable that the physical benefits of this are apparent to you very quickly.  When you breathe evenly and deeply, your mind settles a little, your body relaxes a little, your nervous system responds by sending messages to your body that it is safe to relax.  When you sit in quietude, you notice things about yourself that might otherwise have been hidden: you might be tired, you might be full of beans, you might be sad, you might naturally connect with the deep well of contentment that resides within us all.  Noticing these things will help you to choose wisely for yourself.

If you wish, once you have had time to concentrate on your breathing patterns, you could move on to your usual asana practice, but make your breath and not your body you focus, so that you continue to deepen your understanding of yourself and your breathing habits throughout your asana practice.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

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