Updated: Oct 16, 2019
Ancient yoga and modern interpersonal neurobiology and psychology agree – we are complex and complicated creatures with incredible potential and creativity. We have many facets and manifestations and are constantly changing and evolving. In fact – as Heraclitus states – Change is the Only Constant. Why is this? Why are we never the same from moment to moment? And yet why do we feel as though we are the same person – whether we think of ourselves as being age 5 or age 50? There is no single answer to this question; however, ancient yoga and modern psychology have some fairly compelling answers that draw upon our innate existential imperative to grow, change, evolve, and contribute to the greater good.
Ancient yogis conceived of the self as layered – composed of several aspects or components that make up the self. In Sanskrit, these layers are called koshas, which can be loosely translated as “sheaths”. We use the word koshas in our workshops because no English translation can quite capture the complexity of the concept. Each kosha has a separate and distinct function while also being completely integrated and interdependent with the others. All layers of the self are with us from birth to death – yet each takes on particular significance and reaches maturation during different stages of our lives and development. The specific meaning and expression of each kosha depends on the circumstances we face as we move through life and relationships.
Everything in nature is layered and complex. Humans are not unique in this trait...
A very brief definition of each of the five koshas follows. We will delve into these layers in much more detail across the month of September 2019 in our social media posts. We always discuss, explore, and define the koshas experientially, conceptually, and (often) clinically in all our YogaX workshops and teacher training. We apply them to day-to-day life and self-care, to teaching yoga, and to providing healthcare in the broad sense (including all the healing professions and arts).
The Physical Layer of Self: in Sanskrit – Annamaya Kosha (Food Sheath)
The physical layer of self consists of muscle, tissue, bones, blood, flesh, and more; it is the most tangible, palpable part of our existence. In science, we understand the needs and development of this layer through studying anatomy and physiology, with special emphasis on how the body is supported via the brain stem (of course, it is much more complex than that, but this is where we will leave it in this blog). The physical and energetic layers (see more about the energetic kosha below) are intimately connected and work in tandem to allow us to sense, interpret, and react to the world around us. The physical layer of self holds our most basic approach to the world, loosely defined as a tendency either to perceive and react to the world as safe, dangerous, or even threatening. This kosha is accessed in yoga through practices that cultivate awareness and mindfulness of the physical body. Through yoga – holistically practiced – we come to understand how we process our world to feel a sense of safety (neuroception) and how we respond to the world when our physical survival and well-being appear threatened versus protected. Through yoga, we cultivate proprioception, so that we can understand better where our body is in space and how we can keep it healthy and balanced. Finally, yoga practices hone our interoception of bodily states, supporting our accurate understanding of our physical needs and signals and how best to nourish our body (including with sleep, food, exercise, fresh air, self-compassion, non-violence, and much more).
Nourish your food sheath with time in nature, movement, healthy food, and more ...
The Energetic and Emotional Layer of Self: in Sanskrit – Pranamaya Kosha (Energy Sheath)
The energetic or emotional layer of self animates and moves the body (physically, emotionally, and mentally). This kosha concerns itself with breath, energy, emotion, blood flow, electrical impulses, neurochemical transmissions, and more. The energetic and physical layers jointly process incoming signals; the energetic aspect of the self, tied strongly to our limbic system, then translates sensation into feelings and actions. It interprets our experiences as having a feeling tone that is positive, negative, or neutral. This kosha holds, shapes, and expresses our emotional predilections and attachment styles. It is highly interpersonal and develops (grows and matures) through relationships, especially in early life. In yoga, we work with the energetic layer through increasing interoceptive awareness of emotional reactions, their expressions in the body, and their effects on the mind. Practices such as conscious breathing, movement for perceiving inner responses to inner and outer signals, and creating awareness of our inner valuation of experiences promote accurate self-perception. Yoga practices that support this layer of also help us develop exteroception, which promotes accurate reading of relationship cues and other signals that meet us from the world around us. Exploring whether we respond to the world with grasping and desire versus anger and hatred versus fear or ignorance (or lack of accurate understanding) is the yogic work of this layer.
Breathing practices can be inspiring and fun... A great way to get a deep breath is to laugh...
The Mental and Perceptive Layer of Self: in Sanskrit – Manamaya Kosha (Mind Sheath)
The mind layer comprises thoughts, experiences that shape us, affects and emotions arising from mental interpretations, and expressions of acquired personality. This kosha is linked to language and prefrontal cortex development. It encompasses our (emerging and always evolving) cognitive understanding of the world, including our roles within our communities and in our relationships. Through the mind we begin to gain clarity about our habitual (stimulus-response) reactions and can transform habit into conscious choice. As we progress along this layer of self, we improve our capacity to analyze cause-and-effect and to make subsequent behavioral and relational choices and changes. Yoga strategies that work with the mind kosha focus on calming , the mind through self- and interpersonal awareness, mind-based mindfulness interventions, and concentration and meditation practices for recognizing unhealthful habits and transcending them into conscious choices. Yoga for this layer of awareness deals with introspection to understand what drives our mental habits, such as getting caught up in the past (in memories), future (via constant planning), or other ways of distracting ourselves away from the present moment (e.g., day-dreaming, zoning out, over-working, and more).
Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Sutra 1.2
The Wise and Intuitive Layer of Self: in Sanskrit – Vijnanamaya Kosha (Wisdom Sheath)
The wisdom layer comprises our intuition and sense of place in community. It is the place of our innate intelligence, talents, traits, and natural inclinations (or innate temperament). To reach conscious awareness of this kosha (which many of us do not until late adulthood), we need to have achieved cortical and hemispheric integration – in other words, our brains need to have matured and become capable of holistic processing of experience. When we have achieved this level of integration we become an observer of our own reactions and responses to the world and in relationship. We begin to perceive our roles and responsibilities with more clarity, recognizing our place in the world as one that can invites joy, lovingkindness, compassion, and equanimity. We apply ethics and morality with discernment and a large lens that holds in mind complexities and contexts that might easily be missed. Yoga at this kosha invites individual and collective transformation through conscious lifestyle choices, mature emotions, commitment to a greater purpose in the service of others, and clarity about human interdependence. Meditation, concentration, and mindfulness are typical practices and begin to permeate all of our work on and off the mat.
The Blissful and Joyous Layer of Self: Sanskrit – Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss Sheath)
The bliss layer refers to the realization of deep inner, unconditional joy and awakened living. This kosha is not one we consciously work on through yoga “strategies”. It emerges as a state of flow, connection, clarity, and ease. It is our deepest and most spontaneous way of expressing who we are, of how we are embedded in a greater web of life, and of living our compassionate and loving truth. When we rest in anandamaya kosha, we are no longer separate; we have achieved union and understand deeply that there is a greater process that transcends each of us individually. We may even transform our fear of death.
Bliss is oneness with everything... the recognition of interdependence and co-arising...
A Link to Modern Science …
In psychological science, we work with very similar concepts and understand these different aspects of self from a developmental perspective. As we age, our focus shift from physical survival and preoccupation with the physical body to our emotional connection with others, to our self-definition through how we think about and perceive the world around us, to an ever increasing circle of relationships with others that challenges our wisdom and intuition to make auspicious interpersonal choices. Finally, our development culminates in the understanding that we are part of greater whole. With wisdom, we begin to realize that we are embedded in an interpersonal matrix of relationships that nurture us and through which we can care for others. When this realization becomes the primary lens through which we view the world, joy abounds. At the start of our lives, we are driven by our biological imperative for survival – bonding with and responding to others so we can survive and thrive. At the end of our lives, we are inspired by our existential imperative to leave the world a better place than when we found it – to contribute to the well-being of others and the earth. What we needed for our own physical and emotional survival when we are born, becomes what we can begin to offer to the world as we mature.
I hope this introduction of the self as seen from the perspective of yoga and human development has piqued your interest to learn more. We are excited to share more wisdom about the koshas with you in the weeks to come and in training opportunities we might share.
With deep gratitude for the incredible wisdom and life applications of ancient yoga and modern science,
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is the Director of YogaX, a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page.