According to yogic subtle anatomy, the koshas are sheaths or veils of illusion that prevent us from seeing our deeper selves.
There are five koshas in the body and, as we peel away each layer, we come closer and closer to realizing our true potential.
The koshas represent different parts of ourselves that, at first glance, may seem impossible to transcend. But they can be transcended in your journey toward enlightenment.
Each veil of illusion represents a different part of our “bodies,” and they move from the outside in—from the most gross toward the more subtle layers of our being.
According to Vedantic yogic philosophy, the body is simply the vessel for the atman, which is our truest and highest self. The five koshas cover the atman and create veils of illusion to deceive us from recognizing our true selves.
But as we skillfully peel away these five layers of illusion, we are left with atman alone. From there, we finally realize our true essence and, ultimately, merge with the Divine.
Each individual kosha represents a different layer of illusion and can be affected by various practices.
When working with the koshas, the ultimate goal is to recognize them for what they are but also to use them to your advantage so that you can be at one with the natural flow of life while also being at one with the Divine.
Annamaya kosha is often called the “gross body,” “food body,” or “physical body.” This kosha represents our most basic physical needs as this layer is the physical encasement of our souls, including all of our physical anatomy (like bones, muscles, organs, and so on).
This kosha is mortal and, therefore, subject to the rules of the physical world, including birth, growth, modification, decay, and, ultimately, death.
Annamaya kosha is affected by food, drink, and asana practice (or really any physical activity).
Obviously, we need essentials like food and water to live and these essentials feed into this kosha. So while we cannot abstain from nourishing our physical forms forever, we can recognize that hunger does not define us.
This allows us to see past this veil of illusion while also using this kosha to survive in our physical form.
Pranamaya kosha is the first non-tangible layer, often referred to as the “subtle body,” “energy body,” or “breath body.”
Prana is the life-force energy that flows through us and this layer includes all prana and subtle anatomy. The breath forms a bridge from the physical to the energy body and this kosha lies right at the border of the two.
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This subtle layer also encompasses the patterns of energy within the body such as the nadis and chakras.
The body is simply the vessel for the atman.
Practices like pranayama or breathwork affect the pranamaya kosha as well as practices that focus on energy centers within the body. Our connection to our subtle anatomy as well as the alignment of our subtle anatomy can also affect this kosha.
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Again, we clearly need to breathe in order to survive. But in order to start peeling back the veils of illusion that cloud our ability to see ourselves clearly, we need to recognize that both breath and body are both just vessels for our transcendence, not the endpoint of our journey.
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Manomaya kosha is the “mental body,” which includes our thoughts, emotions, and patterns as well as our five senses.
This more subtle layer is our means of experiencing the world around us. We enjoy pleasure and feel pain through this kosha. It is the place from which our thoughts, emotions, logic, perception, and ego arise.
The manomaya kosha can be affected by all of our experiences and memories—traumatic, enjoyable, or otherwise.
Through practices like pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), we can slowly start to peel away this veil of illusion and move into states of pure meditation as we connect deeper and deeper within.
Again, we cannot completely disconnect from our mental body while maintaining our ability to navigate the world around us. But we can recognize this layer as another veil to draw back as we descend inward toward atman.
So even though we cannot permanently withdraw from our senses in life, we can recognize that we are not what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste but we are that which experiences those senses.
Vijnanamaya kosha is the “wisdom body,” and it includes our ability to understand, reason, judge, and analyze. This is our intellect and our discerning mind—the higher layer of the mind above the clutter of sensory input.
The serious study of scripture or the serious study of one’s own mind helps to peel back this layer. Practicing deep meditation or chanting mantra helps us to awaken this kosha and simultaneously recognize it for what it is—an illusion.
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We cannot remove our ability to think with reason, but we can use our reasoning minds to reveal and understand our deeper selves. We can recognize that we are not our thoughts, but that which observes thought.
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Anandamaya kosha is the “bliss body.” This deepest layer of illusion includes our connection to pure joy, which the yogis explained as experiencing glimpses of the Divine.
Ananda means bliss and it is in this deepest layer that we experience pure bliss as we connect to that which is greater than ourselves. In this deep layer, we connect with the Divine, our eternal souls, and our own divine nature.
This kosha is the layer of our bodies closest to the intangible and immortal atman. We can access this deepest layer through devoted and dedicated spiritual practice.
As we peel away each layer, we come closer and closer to realizing our true potential.
The final limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, samadhi or enlightenment, helps us tap into anandamaya kosha and even see beyond this layer of illusion to fully realize our highest selves.
To completely peel away this layer, we must recognize that we are not the experience of bliss but that we are bliss itself.
Learn more about Patanjali's eight-limbed path to enlightenment: Uncover the Wisdom of the Yamas and Niyamas
Once we peel away all the layers of illusion found in the koshas, we are left with atman, our highest selves, our Divine nature stripped of all falsities and illusion.
Although we may feel the need to discount the body riddled with sheaths and illusions in our quest toward enlightenment, all of the koshas are important for our health and well-being.
This body—including the koshas—provides us with the vehicle for transcendence. If we learn how to recognize the koshas and apply them appropriately, we can use them as a tool to ultimately to reach enlightenment.
This body—including the koshas—provides us with the vehicle for transcendence.
The sacred text Yoga Vasistha says, “For the ignorant person, this body is the source of endless suffering, but to the wise person, this body is the source of infinite delight.”
If we learn how to appropriately utilize our koshas, we can maintain our physical and mental health and wellness while also expanding our spiritual practice as we ascend toward enlightenment.
We can skillfully navigate these layers by recognizing them for what they truly are (illusions—not reality) so that we can simultaneously accept them and transcend them throughout our spiritual awakening.
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