The Five Koshas: Mapping out the Inner Journey of Self-Realisation

A/C | Words by Sarah Picton, student of Stewart Gilchrist at ELSY

– Written May 2020 as part of ELSY 200hr YTT course 2019-2020 | Image by Ryan Abbott

When we choose to embark on the spiritual journey that is Yoga, we embark on a multi-tiered adventure inwards, from the “physical to the subtle to the divine” (Iyengar, Light on Life). This is a journey of transformation; a journey which unites “body, mind and soul” (Iyengar); a yogic journey that sees us opening a “set of interrelated [layers]” (Mark Stephens) of the self to allow the light of the Soul shine brightly in everything we do. These layers, or sheaths, are called “koshas” and make up – “define” – the three tiers (bodies; “sharira”) of the body (Stephens); namely the transient, physical or gross body (sthula sharira), subtle body (sukshma sharira), and causal (karana sharira).

And what of these layers? 

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, and imagine your eight-year-old self playing pass-the-parcel – unwrapping each layer until the gift is revealed. A shiny marble! Now imagine the wrapping paper – each layer – is translucent. You would be able to notice – perhaps more so each time you play – that the azure, violet and white golden light of that Cat’s Eye marble is penetrating though each layer; catching your heart and mind’s attention with every glance you give.

Now, imagine this marble is your soul! This practice – this observation of the Soul in everything – is what the koshas give to your practice! 

We begin to realise – to witness! – how the soul exists in all that we do! Our constant practice – off the mat; from outer most layer – is conducted with total cohesion; an artistic expression, a harmonious coming together of body, mind and soul. 

mark stephens teaching yoga
Source material: Mark Stephens: “Teaching Yoga”

It is not just the final destination, the goal; but the journey too! Mark Stephens offers us the visual image of a tapestry; the koshas present an internal treasure map – a way to see the spiritual journey of Yoga from the inside (Mark Stephens, “Teaching Yoga”). 

The koshas illuminate our understanding by shining light on the heart, the DNA, the very nature of Yoga: Integration; coming together; to unite. BKS Iyengar eloquently expresses the comment on integration – while giving gravitas to the importance of the Koshas to the practice of yoga – when writing, in “Light on Life”:

“The aim is to integrate the various sheaths so that the inner divinity shines out as through clear glass.” 

BKS Iyengar – “Light on Life”

Other analogies and visual symbolisms for the koshas – mentioned in Iyengar’s “Light on Life”, and perhaps more palatable than my amber-tinted nostalgia – include Russian Doll figurines, layers of an onion, and envelopes (the latter noted by Stewart Gilchrist during his workshop on Annamayakosha).

Whichever visual works for you, the cohesive point to stress is “Yoga identifies five koshas – sheaths of being – which must be completely integrated and in harmony with one another in order to achieve wholeness.”

BKS Iyengar – “Light on Life”

Thus we must look at the koshas not in isolation, but as an integrated Whole. Each layer is a journey in its own right. 

The spiritual quest inwards begins at the outermost layer, the food/physical sheath (annamayakosha) connected to the physical body – this body; full of trillions of cells, and made up mostly of water* (*a beautiful homage to the analogy of the Wave; the organic ebbing and flowing that is Life, that is Yoga.) Next, is the subtle (sukshma) tier/body including “the energy body [pranamayakosha], where breath and emotions reside”; the mental body [manamayakosha] where thoughts and obsessions can be mastered; and the intellectual body [vijnanamayakosha] where intellect and wisdom can be found”; to, lastly, the causal body (karana) including the “Divine/Bliss body” [anandamayakosha], where “the Universal soul can be glimpsed.” (BKS Iyengar, Light on Life). 

Source material: BKS Iyengar – “Light on Life”

The journey is one of grit and grace; it is challenging and demands discipline and patience. A few other essentials for the trip can help for those spiritual seekers; think of these as “yogic vitamins” (BKS Iyengar), comprising of “faith, memory, courage, absorption, and uninterrupted awareness of attention” (BKS Iyengar, “The Tree of Yoga”.) Stock up on these Vitamins, because, dear friends, “Freedom awaits” (Iyengar). And not when you reach the goal. When you see the goal is the practice. Everything is connected! 

This is the real treasure: realising this freedom – peace; God – is in you already! The Koshas weave a fabric of unity into our hearts and minds; and once we embark on our own journey, the connections between each layer start to reveal. 

Each layer, each sheath, acts as a connection point, bringing together the three tiers of the body; pranamayakosha – the energy sheath – via prana, our vital life force, connects the physical to the subtle. Nurturing our physical layer – our annamayakosha – is essential to our practice; and impacts, and is impacted by, the pranamayakosha. A personal reflection: [twelve] months ago my diet consisted largely of meat, and dairy and I was smoking daily. 

BKS Iyengar Tree of Yoga
Source material: BKS Iyengar – “The Tree of Yoga”

My daily spiritual practice, my sadhana, includes the daily work on ahimsa, and thus reducing the harm to my body; to the planet and to animals. When meat, dairy and particularly smoking was removed in January this year, 2020, the impact felt was near immediate: I could breathe fuller, my skin smiled with the sun, and the Ashtanga Vinyasa (Vinyasa Krama) practice – beyond the mat too – become more fluid, more organic, and less restrained. 

Interactions off the mat, the way we transition off the mat – this is yoga, this is Vinyasa Krama! And by bringing harm into each special movement was having a cascading impact in my life – from physical, to subtle, to soul. Addictions – including social media and TV – bring such impact. The focus of my sadhana is to reduce and eventually stop all social media; as the feeling is almost tangible – my spirit feels drained when the mind is drained! Body feels exhausted even though I haven’t moved! 

This exercise of learning about the koshas has brought to the surface Mother Nature, and its innate bond in my spiritual journey. When I step outside, in the presence of nature, my soul feels refreshed. When I close my eyes, sit still, and slow my breath, my mind is calmed. The link between mind and breath, breath and nature, nature and soul is integral. 

Removing what is harmful by embracing Mother Nature is ever-more evident in practice. Nature is the tonic for my soul along this journey of self-realisation: “through Prakriti we know ourselves”.

Source material: BKS Iyengar’s “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

In BKS Iyengar’s “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”; Chapter 2, Sutra 2.23, we read: “sva svamisaktyoh svarupopalabdhi hetuh samyogah,” which translates “the conjunction of the seer with the seen is for The Seer [the Soul, Purusa] to discover his own true nature.” Iyengar adds: “The powers of the Purusa and Prakriti are intended for Self-Realisation.” (Sutra 11.23, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)

BKS Iyengar – “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”

The above Sutra (11.23) underlines the koshas’ relevance to a yoga practice and its teachings: In essence, by witnessing, and becoming an activist for our own self realisation – traversing the layers of Self to discover our True Nature – and by observing the embedded connection between each layer, each kosha, we see our Soul lives in every action, every moment, every vinyasa.

We “see” the world through our Soul! This way we live an integrated life. This way we live Yoga. 

Key sources:
BKS Iyengar “Tree of Yoga”
BKS Iyengar “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
BKS Iyengar “Light on Life”
Mark Stephens “Teaching Yoga”
Stewart Gilchrist – Workshop on Annamaya Kosha 

Featured image taken by Ryan Abbott

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