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have you heard of the 5 koshas? the body “sheaths”

Koshas…not doshas.  Doshas you are likely familiar with;  they are the three auyrvedic mind-body types— pitta, kapha and vatta. Koshas are the coverings that, according to vedantic teachings, lead us to the true self. Have you heard of them?  

Kosha means sheath. In both yoga and Ayurveda the body is described in sheaths or layers, from the outside in. Both of these systems take us on a journey from gross to subtle. Using tools from yoga and Ayurveda we slowly wake up to the more subtle aspects of ourselves and the world around us.

Many people, myself included, start yoga with a very basic understanding of the body and very little awareness of the more subtle aspects of ourselves. Maybe even a way of thinking about the world that is simplistic like “what you can see is what exists”. But we now know that the naked eye can’t see all, and that everything much us is actually material vibrating with energy. Isn’t the current pandemic and virus a perfect example of something we cannot see but is very real?

The systems of yoga and Ayurveda understood very early on that we are not just bodies, but that we are made up of sheaths of energy that take us to deeper levels of understanding ourselves. The more we practice, the more we experience these sheaths which lead us to our center and an experience of inner joy and bliss.

The first sheath is called the anamaya kosha, or food body. This is our physical body made up of the food we eat. This is the most obvious layer that we are all aware of. We may come to yoga looking for something that specifically helps the body, like stretching, strengthening, injury healing or a workout. But there is much, much.

The second sheath is the pranamaya kosha, or the energy body. Beneath the physical body is a network of prana or energy, flowing through us and regulating all the internal systems. For some this may be quite obvious and tangible and for others not at first. Just think about how your energy varies from day to day. Some days you might feel really energetic and ready to take on anything, and other days you might feel like your energy reserves are really low. Many of the tools of yoga like breathing practices —pranayama— help us directly experience the energy sheath and this more subtle aspect of ourselves.

Even the poses (asanas) which seem like they were designed to help the physical body were actually meant to support the energy body. They are meant to help energy flow unobstructed within us. Next time you do a practice, pay attention not so much to your body before and after, but to how your energy changes before and after.

The third sheath is called the manomaya kosha, or mind body. More specifically the lower mind. We all know we have a mind and we think, but how aware are you of what you are thinking throughout the day? The thinking mind is active all day long with very little awareness on our part of what it’s doing and whether what it’s thinking is true or even positive. And this lower mind is driving so much of our habits, choices, beliefs and behaviors. The yogis recognized this was just one layer of the mind and that once we get underneath it, there is a different and more elevated aspect of the mind.

The fourth kosha is the vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom body. This is the higher mind or intuitive mind. This mind was totally foreign to me in the early years of my practice. I was perpetually in thinking mode and really struggled with meditation when I started yoga. It was too subtle for me and it would take years of the physical and breathing practices before I could get still enough and quiet enough to access this sheath. But once you do, you start to make decisions based on access to this sheath rather than just the manomaya kosha. You begin to trust yourself more fully and start realizing no one else has the answers for you, that you have deep wisdom within yourself.

Finally, you reach the anandamaya kosha, the bliss body. There is a layer of bliss within each and every one of us. It is the most subtle and it is there all the time. Even in times of great challenge and difficulty, it is there and we can access it. It often takes years of practice and in particular more extended and consistent breathing and meditation practices. We have to get under the top layers and quiet body and mind enough to experience it.

When we do experience it more consistently and regularly, we notice that we are a little more steady, strong and faithful during difficult times, a little less ruled by life’s ups and downs;  we are aware that this layer of bliss and joy exists within us no matter what is happening in the world around us and that we can access it. This is so important: it means we are seeking deep satisfaction from within rather than something outside of ourselves.

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Nikki Estrada has been in the yoga scene for more than twenty years. She leads workshops, teacher training and immersions nationwide. Nikki began her formal training in India, focusing on Ashtanga. She is currently a senior yoga teacher and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nikki's Vinyasa-based classes are a synthesis of her years of yogic and Ayurveda study and personal experience, with an emphasis on spirituality, intelligent alignment, meditation, and living life more joyfully. Find Nikki at www.nikkiestradayoga.com. and use code NikkiGift for a free month of online yoga.
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