Many of us are drawn to yoga for the physical benefits – to remedy a sore back or to increase strength but what we stay for, is often how we feel during and after class-a peacefulness, a vastness that we glimpse beyond our ordinary mind. This is why we stay year after year right? As we take our practice deeper, gently peeling the layers back like onion skins and move from the coarse to subtle, more healing occurs both on a physical, energetic and emotional level. We can begin to feel more connected with who we really are, home and whole within ourselves. Keeping in mind the word ‘health’ comes from the Old English word ‘whole’, yoga could be seen as a way to bring about balance or wholeness within ourselves.
Using the five layers or koshas as a guide can provide us a map to navigate within. A path, simple yet beautiful that helps outline the journey home. The five layers are from a tantric text called Taittiriya Upanishad which describes us as having five sheaths or currents. A bit like the soul is encased in these layers. By understanding them better allows the carving out of a path towards transcendence from often unseen restrictions and towards everyday freedom. This is a freedom that can be found within our jobs, family and within our world – it’s an access to inner freedom.
The first layer- Annamaya Kosha- The Body
Our body is comprised of the food we eat and how we move and care for it. In understanding this layer, we begin to know how to move wisely say within a yoga posture in a way that protects ourself against injury and feels good. You begin to know what type of exercise is most effective for you by feeling into it rather than thinking your way into it. Knowing when to exert yourself and when to rest. You will begin to sense the food you really need and how much of it to truly sustain yourself rather than be stuck in unexamined habits or addictions. As a result, you are likely to feel more grounded. The more you can do this, the more you will begin to feel more presence and ease in your body. The journey towards inner freedom and bliss begins with taking care of your physical body, as a chariot if you like, for the adventure of life that awaits us! As Henry Thoreau says, ‘The body is the first instrument of the soul’.
The second layer – Pranamaya Kosha – Energy
In this layer the focus moves inwards to our energetic system. Referred to as Chi in Chinese medicine or Prana in Yoga, Ka in ancient Egypt! The way we feel energetically is often supported and influenced by our breath. Often times, when we are busy, we barely notice our breath right? Yet it has such a profound impact on how we are – how we feel, digest, manage our stress and how we sleep. We can influence this layer with pranayama or breathing exercises or by breathing in a natural, healthy way. Other ways to influence our energy is to get enough fresh air and sunlight as well as time in nature, bare foot walking on sand or earth to replenish and positively influence our prana. Notice how you feel before and after these activities and try to include them into you day. Notice how it affects you. When you get an afternoon slump of energy, often we will reach for a tea or some chocolate. What if we replaced that with a brisk walk around the block and some deep breaths? What we are craving is a shift in energy…we can get it in many different ways.
You have heard those sayings right: “Your vibe attracts your tribe” and “Be such a good soul that people crave your vibe” Begin by noticing different energies of people. How is it being in a room with someone who is angry, aggressive or frightened. How is it being with someone who is calm and in a space of love? So much of our interaction with the world happens at an energetic level and we can relate to this when we for example imagine the feeling of spending time with our favourite people and how we feel afterwards, full, elated, content. Compare that with someone in our lives who always leaves us feeling drained or flat or depressed.
The third layer – Manomaya Kosha – The Mind
This layer, like that of the body with her skin, bones and blood has different feeling tones. There are the more superficial layers of our mind like passing thoughts, images, perceptions and emotions that bubble up. Reminders for example “I must hang out the washing later” or “I must remember to return so an so’s call” And there are more deeply running rivers or waves referred to in Sanskrit as samskaras that cause perceptions of ourself and hold us fixed in our life. It can also make us feel stuck. They are our stories…’I’m not good enough’, ‘this shouldn’t be happening to me’, ‘I am such an idiot’, ‘there’s not enough time’ and so on. Over time, and with insight, we are able to begin to see these limiting patterns and behaviours and begin to feel them in our body and unravel them. When we shine the light of awareness on these stories, they begin to hold us less tightly. It can be uncomfortable in the beginning and we can feel a bit nuts when we first notice the busy-ness of our mind! But if we can stay present with the intensity, and curious with what unfolds, we are ultimately left feeling less bound by ourselves. We can begin to feel more easeful through the day and can find more happiness and enjoyment in every day, ordinary moments.
The fourth layer – Vijnanamaya Kosha – Wisdom
This is the layer of wisdom, inner knowing, intuition, awareness and insight. Where you cease to identify with your powerful thoughts and descriptions and witness your mind, your life as it is. When we lean into our knowing.
This layer is perhaps easiest to explain if you imagine someone who is aligned in this layer. They are living in integrity with their wisdom and intuition. They know who they are and what they want to pursue and go after it. They begin to be more self-actualised. They know themselves and feel at home with who they are.
Having discernment and clarity are often side effects of this. Seeing clearly what you want to create and manifesting it. And having all the inner and outer revolutions that go along with that. It’s really creating integrity with how we live, on and off the mat and being the same above and below with how we move through life.
The fifth layer – Anandamaya Kosha -Bliss
While this state often takes a lifetime or two of work, and really suggests enlightenment. I like to focus on offering the chance to feel into bliss. It’s our most subtle layer and bridges us and our higher Self. Being in your heart is one way of allowing it to become a possibility over time. We were born to know this layer of us. Bliss layer, pure happiness, Buddha nature, big Self, pure awareness are all words to try to describe it. It’s wider, less coarse and more understated that we may think. We can access it though meditation, moments in savasana or spontaneous moments through the day like diving under a beautiful wave, laughing with a friend, enjoying a moment in nature…those moments when we are truly present.
To begin to cultivate this awareness of bliss ‘many moments often’ through our day and our life and to thread them together like jewels on a necklace to form a more content existence.
Begin to train the mind to seek these moments. Notice in the day when you find a nice moment and can be fully awake to it and reflect on these moments as you fall asleep. The moments where you were fully awake to the light on the wall in the early morning, your perfectly brewed beverage, the sound of laughter that you paused and listened to fully…little moments threaded together to make up a more blissful day. The more we train ourselves to spot these moments and to pause within them, the more we will be conditioned to find and enjoy them each day and find more happiness.
The five progressively subtler bodies that compose our personality, described in the yoga classic the Taittiriya Upanishad gives us guidance on ways to unbridle ourselves from where we are stuck physically, energetically, mentally and emotionally and eventually train us to be able to recognise pure bliss when it happens and be able to spend more of our time there in everyday, ordinary, extraordinary moments. What can start as a yoga class slowly and overtime can become a life practice focused on manifesting true health of wholeness.