The Koshas

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Yoga says that there are five dimensions known as koshas or sheaths. Experience and understanding of the koshas helps us know the depth of the human mind and, ultimately, dhyana, meditation.

Annamaya kosha

The first dimension is the material body, annamaya kosha. Anna means 'food', 'manifest matter', maya means 'full of'. There is no greater miracle than the human body. Although, scientifically, we look at the physical body as different systems which control the bodily functions, yoga says that these functions are nothing but manifestations of the interaction between energy and consciousness. As we begin to experience the inner bodies, energy and consciousness manifest in a subtler form. So annamaya kosha is a dimension of existence in which we experience matter which is a combination of energy and consciousness.

Pranamaya kosha

The next layer of experience is pranamaya kosha, movement of the pranic force directing our physical and mental activities. This movement happens through nadis or channels, conductors of energy which are controlled by the six chakras. Mooladhara chakra controls the elimination of accumulated toxins from the body and mind. In the physical process, what we eat is eventually excreted, but while it is inside the body we derive nourishment and energy from it. In the same way there is also a process of elimination in the mind. However, we do not understand this process. We tend to accumulate experiences in the form of the five kleshas, whether it is ignorance to begin with or the fear of death to end with. We do not eliminate them from the mind, but retain them in the form of experiences. Human consciousness revolves around those memories and experiences because of another factor which is the ego.

We have to learn how to eliminate things from the mind and retain tranquility and calmness. This can happen when we begin to work with our pranamaya kosha. To help in the understanding of inner release, we have to work with swadhisthana chakra, which represents the inner mind, the unconscious, the storehouse of experiences and memories. When memories plus experiences are stored in the inner mind, they are known as samskaras or impressions. Samskaras can be eliminated or transformed when we learn how to work with our pranamaya kosha at the level of swadhisthana chakra.

Dynamism of mind, aggression in our personality, whether physical, mental or emotional, is controlled by manipura chakra. When we work with manipura chakra, we transform the energies which are manifesting there at present to eventually experience the sattwic sate of being. Anahata chakra controls the manifestation and projection of feelings and emotions. It deals with the qualities of attraction and repulsion in our nature. Vishuddhi chakra, behind the throat, is a centre through which we learn how to interact in the world efficiently, effectively and creatively. When we work with vishuddhi chakra, we change our outlook, our vision of life, and there is enhanced creativity, positivity and optimism coming out as improved communication.

The sixth chakra is ajna, the doorway between the manifest energy and consciousness and the unmanifest transcendental energy and consciousness. It allows us to move from the manifest dimension to the unmanifest aspects of our personality. All six chakras are dealt with when we are trying to manage pranamaya kosha.

Manomaya kosha

After pranamaya kosha, we come to manomaya kosha, the dimension of mental awareness. This mental dimension is composed of two qualities, manas and buddhi. Manas is the rational, linear, sequential, thoughtful mind. Buddhi is the quality of discrimination which comes after knowledge, after the removal or the absence of ignorance. The practices of pratyahara aim at realizing and discovering the nature of our manomaya kosha.

Harmony of manomaya kosha has to be attained by also balancing pranamaya kosha. We cannot say that manomaya is different to pranamaya, and pranamaya is different to annamaya; they are experiences and conditions of life which cannot be separated from each other. However, for our understanding and to define the sequence of our practice, yogis have defined the functions of annamaya, pranamaya and manomaya koshas separately.

Vijnanamaya kosha

From here we come to vijnanamaya kosha. Jnana means 'wisdom', 'knowledge'; the prefix vi is a confirmation of the intensity of knowledge which is derived not only from the experiences and memories which we have gained in this lifetime, but also in past lives. There is a storehouse of knowledge in every one of us, but we are not educated to experience that inner wisdom.

Vijnanamaya kosha has the aspects of chitta and ahamkara associated with it. Chitta means the ability to know, to become the observer of what is actually happening, to be able to live a reality and not speculate or fantasize about it. Ahamkara is the ego aspect, in the real not the gross sense, knowledge of 'I', becoming aware of the identity of the self. This understanding comes when we work with vijnanamaya kosha.

Once we have worked with and understood the identity of 'I', the identity of the self which is manifest in the world in the third dimension and which experiences the pleasures and comforts, pains and sufferings of life, we move into the experience of anandamaya kosha, the dimension of bliss, happiness, wholeness, contentment.

Yogic management of the koshas

According to yoga these are the five dimensions of existence into which all the other experiences fall, which may be physical or emotional, which may be in the realm of energy or the mind. In order to deal with each kosha, yoga has presented different techniques. To harmonize and experience optimum health in the different energies and functions of the physical body, yoga says practise asana, pranayama and the shatkarmas which can help to purify and detoxify the body. To deal with pranamaya kosha, yoga says practise the techniques of pranavidya, chakra shuddhi, kriya and kundalini, which will help to channel the flow of energy throughout the system, to stimulate and awaken the prana.

To manage the activities and balance the agitations of manomaya kosha, yoga says practise pratyahara, dharana, mantra, yantra and mandala meditations. To experience the power and force of vijnanamaya kosha, practise dhyana, laya yoga and nada yoga. To experience the state of anandamaya kosha strive to attain the experience of samadhi, to awaken kundalini. It is around these concepts of managing different dimensions of human experience and existence that the entire system of yoga evolved.

Disconnecting the outer and inner mind

There comes a time when we need to disassociate our mind, attention and awareness from the things that continually bombard us. Most of us are tamasic and rajasic by nature; we have not yet experienced the sattwic state. Sattwa is not simple living or simple thinking; it is the awareness of the true nature of the self. The distorted nature of the self is seen and experienced under the influence of rajas and tamas. We are sitting here attempting to understand the sattwic nature and to go beyond the conditionings of rajas and tamas. The entire life experience is classified into tamas and rajas, and only samadhi, only the awakening of kundalini, only the understanding of absolute human potential, is the state of sattwa.

In order to come to the sattwic state, there has to be some form of disconnection, disassociation from the world in which we live. When we go to sleep at night, we disconnect from the outer world and connect with the inner mind. That is not enough. To experience the pure mind there also has to be a disconnection from the inner mind. 'Inner mind' in our vocabulary simply represents an activity which is not conscious at present. If I say, “Connect with your mind”, you will become aware of your thoughts, your emotions, of the different qualities which manifest within the mind. If we go deeper, we may also become aware of samskaras and karmas and say, “This is our inner mind.”

Experiencing the pure mind

What we are looking at here is the gross inner mind which functions in the third dimension, which is subject to the laws of time and space, which creates its own identity by looking at different forms, ideas and names. These are the areas of the inner mind on which our mind projects itself. Yoga says that there is another mind – the pure mind. This pure mind is experienced with the attainment of the anandamaya state, through samadhi and the awakening of kundalini. Samadhi and kundalini represent a state of being in which the normal life events do not alter or affect our behaviour, emotions or thoughts, and yet there is harmony in everything that we do. There is no effect from tamas and rajas, but only the experience of sattwa. This is the aim of human life.

One has to move from the gross to the transcendental, from the impure, distorted, coloured impressions to the experience of continuity of consciousness. The process is very simple, provided we do not deviate from it. In pratyahara we observe the various experiences of the mind; and this is the first step in understanding the pure mind.