Fitness Magazine

The Koshas: A Yoga Model for Healthy Aging, Part 1

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Beth

The Koshas: A Yoga Model for Healthy Aging, Part 1

Photo by Marie Lossky (@Marie.Lossky on Instagram)

I’ve written about the koshas, especially The Witness (vijnanamaya kosha), in several previous posts because I’ve been working with this model since I earned my 200-hour yoga teacher certification in 1995. So when Nina asked if I’d be interested in doing a series of posts on the koshas, I said yes!

This is the first of eight posts on the kosha model of the human being (sometimes spelled kosa) and how to use it for healthy aging, healing, and spiritual transformation. My travel companions on this journey through the koshas will be the ancient wisdom of the Tattirya Upanishad, which predates the Yoga Sutras by 1000 years, along with wisdom from contemporary yogis such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Joseph LePage, founder of the school of Integrative Yoga Therapy.The kosha model is sometimes referred to as the panca maya kosha model. To start, it helps to review the meaning of a few key words:Pañca (or Pancha): Translates as the number five. Maya: Illusion or, to be more precise, “that which has a relative reality.” It refers to part of who we are but problems arise when it is taken to be the whole of who we are and we remain blind to ultimate reality or unity consciousness.Kosha: Often translated as sheath, treasure or bud as in the bud of a flower that opens to reveal its wholeness. In this post, we’ll take an overall look at the model. The subsequent posts will explore each kosha in more detail and suggest yogic techniques or practices to work with each level. The Kosha ModelThe kosha model come to us from the Taittirya Upanishad. It is a multi-dimensional description of the human being at all levels: physical, energetic, psychological, intuitive wisdom, and spiritual, with the foundational focus starting with the spiritual rather then physical. B.K.S. Iyengar describes the kosha model this way:“Yoga identifies five of these different levels or sheaths of being (kosas), which must be completely integrated and in harmony with each other in order for us to achieve wholeness.
The kosas are like the layers of an onion or the Russian dolls where one is nested within the other.” — B.K.S. Iyengar, from
Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom 
We describe and often work with the koshas separately but ultimately they are one interrelated system that make up the whole human being. A few years ago I was giving a workshop on yoga therapy for high blood pressure and was discussing kosha by kosha the imbalances that may be seen in an individual with high blood pressure. I tend to start with the annamaya kosha (physical body) because that’s the level most people connect with easily. One audience member shared that she had been taught by her teacher to start with anandamaya kosha (Bliss, or spiritual, body) since in terms of yoga philosophy and ayurveda, dis-ease and imbalance begins on the energetic level, a completely accurate statement which I acknowledged in my answer and then pointed out that actually it does not matter which kosha we start with for two reasons: 

  1. The koshas are all interrelated and working with one ultimately means that we are working with all of them at the same time.
  2. We work with the kosha that feels most accessible to the person or class or to ourselves on any given day or situation.
We can work with the kosha model in two ways. First, as a way to recognize and ‘feel’ the reality of these levels within ourselves and study them as multi-level aspects of our being to understand who we are and how we function in the world of matter. We can also view the kosha model as a guidepost on the path of awareness and healing, leading to the ultimate goal of freedom from the illusion of our five-sense material world relative reality. Joseph LePage explains it this way:“The koshas are an integrated framework for developing awareness of all aspects of our lives. As we become conscious, a process of spiritual transformation results, opening us to ever deeper realms of meaning, openness and freedom.”— Joseph LePage, from “Ten Steps to Freedom,” Integrative Yoga Therapy, 1998

When I first learned about the koshas from Joseph, the model was just words on a page. It literally took nine months for those words on a page to become internalized and embodied. Nine months, the human gestation period from conception to birth—kind of ironic and synchronistic when you think about it. During that nine-month period, I was working on gaining 800 additional hours of yoga training. The process of reading, writing, and putting the model into practice slowly moved the words from the page to a living breathing experience.
It was fairly easy to embody the physical level (annamaya kosha) as I have a pretty good sense of my body as it moves through space and the messages it sends me (it’s time to rest, don’t eat that, pay attention to the sensation in your hamstrings, etc.) The energy part of the breath/energy body (pranamaya kosha) was more difficult. I spent time focusing awareness on the palms of my hands as that area of the body seems sensitive to energy movements. The first time I felt my palms tingle, it was strong, like an electric current. I‘d never felt that before or, rather, I’d never noticed that before. The phrase "energy flows where attention goes" sums up that experience for me pretty well. 
Vijnanamaya kosha (The Witness) also took a bit of time. What helped most was the practice of body scanning. There are many ways to do this. The one I practice takes the awareness through the koshas one by one and ends with a deep blissful rest. Another way I learned to experience this elusive state was by connecting it to the sense of contentment and joy I felt while walking in the woods, dancing, or hanging upside down in my yoga swing.
The koshas are:
Physical Level (Annamaya Kosha). This is the level that we experience through all of our senses including sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. 

Breath-Energy Level (Pranamaya Kosha). Breath is the vehicle for the entry of oxygen and life energy, or prana, into the body. Mental-Emotional Level (Manomaya Kosha). Mental awareness is based on what we perceive through our thoughts and emotions in two ways: 1) Through analyzing and organizing our knowledge and experiences and 2) By intuition, hunch, inner voices, images, instant knowing, and fantasy.Wisdom-Witness Level (Vijnyanamaya Kosha). The Witness is the lamp that illuminates all aspects of ourselves (persona and shadow) for integration and acceptance. When we are able to witness our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without judgment, we are better able to cultivate and deepen our understanding of the sources that gave rise to our habits, patterns, and core beliefs and then consciously choose to make (or not make) changes. Bliss Level (Anandamaya Kosha). This is unity consciousness, or Self-awareness. that recognizes that the flow our life whether positive or difficult is a relative reality. It is often described as a direct experience of the universal energy or connectedness that we can tap into through consistent practice and embodying the real meaning of “maya.” The following quote from the Tattirya Upanishad illustrates this point:“The Self in man and in the sun are one.Those who understand this see through the worldAnd go beyond the various sheaths of beingTo realize the unity of life.” —The Upanishads, a translation by Eknath Easwaran, page 256

Many of us began our yoga journey with an asana-based yoga class. Somewhere along the line we realized that yoga is broader and deeper than a physical practice. In the same way, we may begin to work with the koshas one by one to understand who we are and how we function in the world of matter. As we internalize and embody them, we may well come to the understanding that the koshas can serve as guideposts on the path of awareness and healing that leads to the ultimate goal of freedom from illusion.
The next post will focus on annamaya kosha, the physical body, looking at it both from the perspective of the yoga model of being as well as from the perspective how we can work with the physical body to further healthy aging and healing. 
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