The Pancha Maya Koshas Explained: Yoga’s 5 Layers of Existence
Yoga’s Five Layers of the Being! Pancha Maya Koshas!
In Sanskrit, the lyrical and poetic language of Yoga and Ayurveda the Pancha Maya Kosha is defined as follows:
Pancha is defined as – Five
Maya means- Illusion or Appearance
Kosha- Sheath, Covering or Layer
These are the five layers of our being from grossest to most subtle. They inform each other and although they are distinguished they also inseparable. I’ve been just short of obsessed with this model for years and continue to see how they manifest in my life. I’v paired each Kosha with a Yogic practice that I believe nourishes, tones and sharpens them. I hope you find the following as interesting to contemplate as I do!
The five sheaths are:
-Annamaya Kosha -Food layer
-Pranamaya Kosha -Energy layer
-Manamaya Kosha -Mental layer
-Manamaya Kosha -Wisdom layer
-Anandamaya Kosha –True Self layer
Associated with Earth element and nourished through Asana. This is the sheath that consists of food. “Anna” means food. This sheath is our physical body and is the densest of all the Koshas. It includes our bones and the tissues which make up our muscles and organs. It is the lowest vibration of our Self. Here energy, composed of the five elements, ether, air, fire, water and earth is liquefied into matter, earth being the dominant and prevailing. It is called the food layer because it is literally created by the food we eat. It is the structure that contains both prana and consciousness itself. If one gets “stuck“ in this layer, one becomes obsessed with form and overly identifies with the physical body.
Asana is the third limb on Patanjali’s eightfold path. I believe it’s one of the most effective ways to purify and nourish this outermost sheath, the Annamaya Kosha.
2) Pranamaya Kosha-
Associated with Water element and nourished through Pranayama Practice. The sheath that consists of energy. Prana means life energy. This Kosha is the vital life force that circulates through the body. It literally consists of breath and the five expressions of Prana referred to as the Prana Vayus: Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana and Vyana. These five expressions of prana control various functions within the body, and without them the whole body would be lifeless, unable to think, process or move. It is Prana that makes blood flow, carries impulses through the nerves from our bodies to our brains and back. Prana also circulates through the different sheaths and pathways of the body called the Nadis, the channels that bring Prana and life to each and every cell of our being. Prana manifests as vital, mental, psychic and spiritual energy. It is the medium that integrates both the gross and subtle, the causal and the spiritual body.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path of liberation. Much more subtle than Asana as your dealing solely with your nervous system. Through conscious breathing practice one can directly work with the Prana Vayus and manipulate energy. The practice of Pranayama is a beautiful way to tone and nourish the Pranamaya Kosha.
3) Manamaya Kosha-
Associated with the Fire element and nourished through Pratyahara. The sheath that consists of the mind. “Mana” means mind or illusion. This Kosha is made up of thoughts, feelings and emotions. This would be the sheath associated with the monkey mind that is controlled by senses, Samskara (past impressions) and Karma. It is through the Manamaya sheath that we perceive the world. Keep in mind “Mana” also means illusion. This Kosha is intimately connected to the five senses, also refers to as the Indiryas, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. The five senses are inherently in deep relationship with our likes and dislikes. In yoga terms we refer to this as “Raga” our attachments and “Dvesha” our aversions. We are constantly experiencing the pain-pleasure opposition in our lives. This deeply destabilizes us and is responsible for the fluctuation of happiness and unhappiness. Yogic philosophy distinguishes three functions of the mind: Conscious, the mind that connects the outer world to our brain. Subconscious, the mind that stores all of our experiences. Superconscious, the “real self” or Atman, the part of us that knows we are sometimes physical but always Spirit.
Pranayama and Pratyahara-
The fourth and fifth limb of the eightfold path help us to nourish the Manamaya layer and gain control of the the senses. Pranayama is the precursor to Pratyahara, which is the withdrawal of senses from the outside world and turning them back in. It’s when the seer becomes the seen. Many of us get stuck in toning this sheath as we are versed at being abducted by the untrained mind and the senses. In order to transcend this stuckness Patanjali prescribes steady and consistent practice of the fourth and fifth limb, which requires tapas, fiery purification, hence the association with the fire element.
Keep in mind the definition of Yoga and purpose of the practice. Sutra 1:2 “Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field. Then the seer rests in it’s true nature.” We need to fully embrace that yoga is a practice of mind, sometimes physical, always non-physical. This brings us nicely to the next Kosha.
4) Vijnanamaya Kosha-
Associated with the Air element and nourished through Contemplation and Meditation. The Kosha that consists of subtle knowledge or wisdom. This is the sheath responsible for intuitive knowing and higher levels of consciousness. When attuned, the layer of body, energy and mind are dissolved and knowingness rests in the higher mind. This is where we know, decide, judge and discriminate from our inherent inner wisdom or “Higher Consciousness.” Consequently the higher mind turns within, towards the soul, seeking higher truth and consulting our internal center to find it. Vijnanamaya Kosha, through the channels of the Nadis links the conscious mind, the higher mind and the universal mind.
Dharana and Dhyana-
These are the final two limbs of Patanjali’s liberation roadmap. Dharana is mental focus and Dhyana is unflappable focus, aka meditation. They are the inner disciplines that progressively help to nourish and channel our focus towards a deeper level of consciousness. They are associate with the air element as this and are clearly highly subtle practices of mind.
5) Anandamaya Kosha
This is the sheath that consists of pure joy. Ananda literally means bliss. This is our spiritual body where we are fully integrated. Here we remember our divine spark within, the eternalness of our spirit and ultimate oneness of ALL. This is a reflection of internal and external integration the ultimate aim of spiritual practice. This is the level of soul where we are in alignment with the Superconscious Self. Only when one fuses with the Higher Self does one awaken to the interconnectedness of all things. It is the highest level of vibration we can experience in a physical body. It is said that when we align the Pancha Maya Koshas, the five sheaths we will experience liberation from the duality of the physical world. This liberation is called Samadhi, it is the eighth and final limb of the Yoga Sutras and the ultimate destination.
The Anandamaya Kosha is the most subtle layer of our being and paradoxically the most grand. It is associated with Ether element. The bliss sheath is nourished by and the result of a steady meditation practice. Samadhi or liberation is the end game.
When all Panchamaya Koshas are toned and aligned we can transcend the shifting changing of the external world. This model helps us to understand the layers of self and the practices that assist in aligning us with our highest most spirited self.
The practice of Yoga is nothing short of a comprehensive road map that ancient seers have left us, carefully detailing the journey back to wholeness, back to self, and back to our source, all in service of breaking free from ALL bondage, inside and out!