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I was 21 years old the first time I asked myself the question, “Who am I?” I’d just graduated from college and by sheer luck had managed to get a job writing for a well-known alternative newspaper. The job was scary; it put all my skills on the line. Even scarier was that the people I was meeting in this new grown-up world all seemed to have fully formed personae. They knew exactly who they were and what they wanted—while I didn’t have a clue. Or so it seemed.
I was in a full-blown youthful identity crisis. So one day, using my journal, I embarked on an inquiry. “Who am I really?” I wrote. “What is really true about me? What defines me? Am I my body (good hair, nice skin, crooked teeth, legs that aren’t as long as I think they ought to be)? Am I what other people think of me, my popularity and reputation? Am I my emotions, which take me all over the place? Am I my taste in music or clothes, my political opinions? Who is the real me?”
I had no idea that I was asking one of life’s big questions. What struck me was that when I looked for an answer, nothing definitive showed up. I would ask, “Who am I?” and instead of a nice reassuring answer—”I’m a really smart and attractive and serious young woman,” or “I’m a person who is destined to make major breakthroughs in consciousness,” or even “I’m a journalist”—I would feel completely blank, or I would feel splintered by the many layers that I seemed to shift in and out of. There was the “me” who felt young and agile and physically capable and strong. And then there was the part of me that got lost in the questions and thoughts constantly streaming through my mind. At times I could also sense there was a part of me that really had no opinion at all, that seemed to function as an observer, an inner camera that was watching the whole shifting show. And on good days, there was some part deep within me that was happy, really happy, about nothing at all. So, which part was really me, the “true” me? I hadn’t a clue.
Years later, when I began to read the texts of yoga philosophy, I learned that my confusion about the multiple parts of myself wasn’t so strange. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient Tantric yoga text, a human being is described as having five sheaths, or koshas, that interpenetrate each other, encasing the soul like the layers of an onion. The outermost layer is the physical sheath, which the sages called the food sheath, not only because it is made of the food we take in from the earth but also because it will ultimately become food for other creatures. Encased by the physical sheath, interpenetrating it and transcending it are the three layers of the subtle body: the pranamaya kosha, or vital energy sheath; the manomaya kosha, or mental sheath; and the vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom sheath. Deeper than these is the anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath.
According to the sages of yoga, any real answer to the questions “Who am I, really?” or “What is the meaning of my life?” involves looking into these sheaths, which are also called “bodies” or “selves.” To be fully empowered by who you are means that you must bring all of these sheaths online, as it were. And this takes practice. Although all your sheaths are “firing” at all times, most of us have easy, conscious access to only one or two. For instance, though you probably describe yourself largely in terms of a physical sheath—defining yourself as fit or thin, strong or weak, good looking or unattractive—you spend much more time in the mental sheath, caught up in thoughts and other forms of mental activity. Once you’ve learned to recognize how it feels to be “in” one of these sheaths rather than another, you not only have an expanded sense of self but you also have far more power over your choices and your reactions to events.
There are different ways that you can work with the koshas. A practice in classical jnana yoga (the yoga of understanding, also known as the “direct path”) involves deconstructing the ideas about who you are by breaking your identification with each kosha until you eventually transcend the layers and find a state of pure awareness and absolute bliss.
Though this practice can be a powerful meditation, most modern yogis aren’t seeking to transcend the body and mind—at least not as a way of life. Rather, you want to be free to live with power and love within the body and mind. If this sounds like you, then the koshas can be used as a map that leads to a consciousness of all the layers of yourself. Once you become conscious of the layers, you can see how they affect each other, and you can begin to unlock their powers and gifts.
In other words, when you know how it feels to be fully present in your physical sheath, rather than floating through life dissociated from it, you will find yourself more centered and sane, less prone to accidents, and more intuitively tuned in to which foods and activities nourish the body. When you can touch the subtle power of expansion and healing in the vital energy sheath, you can move stuck energy, release your own vitality, and connect to the energy in nature and in others. When you acknowledge your mental sheath, you can note the effect of certain thoughts and step out of the trancelike states that arise when you blindly accept thoughts and emotions. Access your wisdom sheath, and you’ll find that you have more clarity and intuition to keep your life on track. And each time you get in touch with the bliss sheath, you fall into the fundamental goodness of life.
See also: Healing Racial Trauma Through the Koshas
What you need to know about the 5 koshas
Annamaya Kosha (Physical Sheath)
Though the physical sheath, or physical body, is the most tangible aspect of ourselves, very few of us have a real sense of where our organs are or what goes on inside our bodies. When I first began practicing yoga, it was nearly impossible for me to feel my feet or the muscles in my legs unless they hurt. Instead of sensing the body from the inside, I would “think” about the physical body, simply because so much of my energy and attention was parked in my mental body. Injuries and accidents—and even eating compulsions and other addictions—often come from the tendency to move and use the body without feeling how it responds. If you have difficulty fully entering your physical body, you may feel ungrounded, spacey, and fearful. But once you learn to feel your body, to sense it from within, you will learn how to move inside a posture to protect yourself from injury. You will begin to sense what kind of food you need and how much. Your attention will become grounded. Consciously inhabiting your physical body will bring more presence and ease to your life.
How to tap into this kosha: To get into the physical body, try this exercise. Notice your feet in your shoes. Tighten and relax the muscles in your calves. Touch your face and sense the contact between the fingers and the skin. Put your hand over your chest and feel your heartbeat, or feel the contact between the hand and the flesh. Then pick an inner organ—your liver, heart, or kidneys—and try to find it with your attention. Really sink your attention into that organ. Just as you would in meditation, notice when you become distracted by thoughts. When this happens, note “thought” to yourself and come back to sensing the organ. Notice the settling and grounding effect of this practice.
Pranamaya Kosha (Vital Energy Sheath)
The next three koshas are subtle—they can’t be tangibly grasped. Nonetheless, they can be felt, and feeling them is essential for mastery of your inner world.
The pranamaya kosha, or vital energy body, interpenetrates the physical body but is much larger. When you feel energy expanding into your heart or head during meditation or asana practice, or when waves of heat ripple through your body, you are in contact with the vital energy body. Feeling energized, sleepy, dull, restless, or calm are all attributes of the vital energy body. Just as you have a physical “look,” you also have a personal energetic signature. Once you become sensitive to the energy within and around you, you will start to recognize the vibrational signature that you and others leave in a room, or even on a piece of clothing. (Remember how comforting it was the first time you wore your partner’s shirt to bed?)
You may also notice how much of your communication with the world happens on an energetic level. Consider the way you feel when you’re in a room with an angry person, the peace you can find by sitting under a shady tree, the subtle transmission of energy you get from being near a good teacher.
Meditation is intended primarily to tone the energy body, as is asana practice. We often think of these practices as toning the mental and physical bodies, respectively, but yoga and meditation are also aimed at moving stagnant energy, or prana, through the body. One way to tune in to the power within the energy body is to practice letting yourself “be breathed.” Without changing your breathing pattern, become aware of the breath flowing into and out of your body as a natural, spontaneous flow.
How to tap into this kosha: Instead of feeling “I am breathing,” feel “I’m being breathed.” Let yourself relax into this feeling. If you notice your breath tightening, just notice it, with the thought “I am being breathed.” Eventually you may begin to feel the breath as energy, and you may sense that the body is bigger than the boundaries of the skin. This is a sign that you’ve entered the vital energy body. As this happens, you may find that your posture automatically readjusts itself, that your back or hips open. These are all effects of consciously accessing the vital energy body, which is the storehouse of healing power in your system.
Manomaya Kosha (Mental Body)
The manomaya kosha—within which you think, fantasize, daydream, and practice mantra or affirmations—is the part of you that creates meaning out of the world you inhabit. But just as the physical body has layers of skin, fat, blood, and bones, so the mental body has its own layers. The most superficial layer comprises passing thoughts, images, perceptions, and emotions that bubble up in your inner world.
However, if some of the thoughts in the manomaya kosha are like bubbles in the ocean, others are like tides and have a stronger hold. The deeper levels of the manomaya kosha contain the powerful mental structures formed by the beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that you’ve absorbed from your family and culture as well as from your accumulated mental patterns. Called samskaras in Sanskrit, these deep thought grooves in the mental body cause your perceptions of yourself and your life to run in certain fixed patterns. When you examine the contents of the manomaya kosha closely, you can often see these patterns, which take the form of repetitive thoughts like “This isn’t how things should be” or “I’m not good enough.” Samskaras not only color your experience but also help shape it, which is why one of the most effective practices is to notice and question the “stories” that, without conscious prompting, run through your mind over and over again.
How to tap into this kosha: Try this basic self-inquiry, adapted from an exercise developed by the spiritual teacher Byron Katie. Look at a situation in your life that is charged in some way. Write down your thoughts about it. Then, one by one, consider each thought and ask yourself, “What would I be without this thought?” Notice how your breathing, your energy, and your mental experience shift.
Consciously replace the thought with one that feels empowering and real—such as “I am free to choose my attitudes” or “There is another way to see this.” Notice whether this new thought brings greater spaciousness to your mind.
Vijnanamaya Kosha (Wisdom or Awareness Body)
As you explore your inner world, you may begin to notice that along with your thoughts there are things that come from a deeper and subtler level of your being. This sense of inner knowing comes from the wisdom body, the layer composed of intuition and awareness. The wisdom body is also responsible for insight. If you become engrossed in a project like writing, painting, math, or even problem solving, you’re accessing the wisdom body.
A composer I know often plays random sounds until his ordinary mind (his manomaya kosha) steps back, making room for the wisdom body to “download” music that is genuinely creative and new. Another friend tells me that when he’s stymied or stuck on a personal or professional problem, he’ll formulate a question about it, then sit for meditation. At some point, as his thinking mind gets quiet, wisdom will arise. The wisdom body, at its subtlest level, is simply awareness–the objective, observing part of the self. It’s where you can stop identifying with your powerful thoughts and self-descriptions, and just witness your mind and your life.
How to tap into this kosha: Right now, notice that something in you observes that you are reading. That same observing “I” is also aware of your thoughts, your mood, the way your body feels, your energy level. It knows all this without being involved in it. As you embody awareness, notice if you are able to contain all the other levels of experience—without getting attached to their meaning or outcome.
Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss Body)
The bliss body is the most hidden part of us, yet its subtle presence is felt as the instinctive sense that life is worth living, that to be alive is good. You’re literally born to be blissful, because the bliss body is the deepest layer of your personal Self. Separated by a thread from the universal Self, your bliss body is filled with natural ecstasy, dynamism, and goodness.
Contact with the bliss body develops through practice, especially practices such as mantra, meditation, and prayer that teach the mind to let go of the thoughts that hide the bliss body. To fully enter the bliss body, however, you usually need to be in a state of deep meditation. When you are in touch with your bliss body, you know that your nature is joyful, free, and capable of every flavor of happiness from rock-out ecstasy to simple contentment. You are in the bliss body in those moments during which you recognize—viscerally rather than intellectually—that love is the deepest reality, beyond mental constructs or ideas. In fact, one of yoga’s greatest gifts is its power to awaken us to our body of bliss.
How to tap into this kosha: Ask yourself, “Where is bliss?” Ask in an open-ended way and tune in to the subtle feelings of tenderness, joy, and contentment that can show up at the most unexpected of moments. Let yourself open to the possibility that bliss is your true nature. Don’t worry if there is no immediate answer or response. The bliss body takes time to reveal itself. For many practitioners, the experience of the bliss body arises after years of dedicated practice. Yet it can come alive for you in a moment—during an evening of kirtan or a meditation on the heart, or in deep Savasana (Corpse Pose). When the bliss body does reveal itself, it can seem miraculous, like a gift, and yet completely natural. Your essence is innately blissful. But you may need to learn how to turn deep inside to recognize it.
Believe it or not, it is possible to be conscious of yourself in all these layers and levels. To be aware and present in all of the koshas is to awaken to your own life and to integrate all the parts of yourself. It then becomes natural to sense the universal Self that expresses itself as our individual, layered Self. Then we become like the greatest sages of the yoga tradition, who are awake in all their bodies and awake to that which is beyond them.
About our contributor
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and is the author of several books.