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Jnana Yoga: Layers of Consciousness (Koshas)

Updated: Jan 10


“There are three types of disease: body disease, mind disease, and

nervous system disease. When the mind is diseased, the whole body is

diseased . . . The mind is the cause of both bondage and liberation . . . So

first you must give medicine to the mind. Mind medicine: that is yoga.”

— Unknown


Have you ever asked yourself the question, “Who am I”? Let’s face it- we are more than just meat-coated skeletons with complicated emotions ruled by our monkey minds. Underneath the many intricate layers of our existence lies the truth of our being: the never-changing Self. According to ancient Vedic texts, every one of us has five sheaths, or layers, called ‘koshas’. The koshas are sheaths of consciousness that fold like layers of an onion around a central point, which contains the Self. Beginning with the physical kosha body, each higher-level kosha contains subtler energy bodies than the previous kosha. The five energetic bodies are: Annamaya kosha (sheath of matter), Pranamaya kosha (sheath of vital air), Manomaya kosha (sheath of mind), Vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of knowledge/ego/intellect), and Anandamaya kosha (sheath of bliss).


The knowledge about the koshas originated from the seers, the rishis, and the saints who studied themselves, not other people. They did not study themselves from their mind or intellect (no thinking, no reasoning), but from looking silently within, seeing the layers and aspects of our true being. In developing an understanding of the koshas, we can learn more about our true nature and deepen our connection with the Self. Through a consistent yoga practice, we can peel back the layers of our being to meet the Self and bring balance and harmony to the more subtle energies in our bodies. Starting with the outermost layer: Annamaya kosha.


1. Annamaya Kosha “Sheath of Matter”

“You are neither the body nor in the body. There is no such thing as body. You have grievously misunderstood yourself. To understand, rightly investigate”-Nisargadatta Maharaj. While the body is a wonderful temple to live in, at the end of the day, it is simply just a bag of meat and bones. The Annamaya kosha is the physical body, also referred to as the “food body”. It is the outermost sheath that contains all other sheaths. The main parts of the body that connect to the other sheaths are the brain, the spine, the nerves, the nadis (channels for subtle energy), the five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin), and the five work organs (anus, genitals, legs, hands, vocal cords). Together, the five work organs and five sense organs are called the ‘Ten Indriyas’ (the 10 senses to master as a yogi). In our body, there are 72,000 nadis, or channels for prana (channels for subtle energy). Some of these channels may be blocked or not used to their full potential and later become blocked. The entire process of spiritual growth is made possible by prana and the nadis. Clearing blockages in the nadis is work that can be done in asana practice. Of course, there is prana in our brain, where you also find the seat of the mind, but the brain is not the mind. The view in Western science is that whatever we see as mind is a result of electromagnetic and biochemical processes in the brain (i.e., mind is a by-product of matter). In contrast, the Vedic sciences see the mind as existing independently from the brain (i.e., mind precedes matter). Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, mind or matter? The brain is like a computer and our mind is the software. Our direct experience tells us that we are not the body or mind, we are consciousness.


2. Pranamaya Kosha “Sheath of Vital Air”

The sheath of vital air supplies prana (energy) to the entire system and keeps it alive. Through pranayama, the Pranamaya kosha and the Annamaya kosha work together to activate the sushumna nadi (central nadi) and bring balance to the body and mind. Prana does not just refer to breath and oxygen, but also the life-force energy that is contained by it. Everything is energy and consciousness. In deep meditation, when Prakriti (pure energy) and Purusha (pure consciousness) are together in perfect union, this Prakriti is prana; it is satchitananda (truth, being, bliss). Prana is the special carrier of this life-force energy. We are in an ocean of prana, breathing the same life energy in and out. Prana is not the air or the oxygen in the air, but rather a subtle energy present in air. The closest thing to prana that Western science has found is the “ionization of air”, which is the electrical charge that is in air. Obviously, prana is much more subtle than electrical energy. Western science also can detect an electromagnetic energy field which is a gross manifestation of the pranic body, but prana is even more subtle than that. We can experience the pranic energy body in pranayama and in certain yogas (i.e., Kashmir yoga). It is also well known that if someone loses a limb, they still perceive the limb to be intact. This is because the pranic energy body is still there.


Most of our energy can be experienced through the three gunas: rajas (activity), sattva (lightness), and tamas (inertia). When in an unmanifested state, the three gunas are in perfect harmony. When this balance becomes disturbed, the manifested universe appears. These three modes of energy are interconvertible. For example, you finished a long workday and are feeling exhausted (tamasic energy), so you decide to do some breathing techniques. In working with the breath and moving through an asana practice, you feel more energized (rajasic energy). After you finish yoga, you feel peaceful and light (sattvic energy).


The Pranamaya kosha is directly related to the Manomaya kosha in that, the more prana we have, the more our mind will start to function (hint: if you want to stop thinking, slow your breath down and hold the breath). Prana is responsible for all movement in the mind and creates all our feelings. When we start naming our feelings, that is mind. But the feelings themselves (happiness, anger, love) are created in the pranic body. When prana interacts with the elements, our mind perceives certain desires. The Pranamaya kosha flows down to the physical body and up into the mind and into all the other koshas.


Our pranic field influences other people around us. Similarly, other people’s pranic energy fields influence ours. If you want to keep your energy at a certain level of peace, it is beneficial to keep a distance from toxic or negative people (preferably, one arm length). Interestingly, some people who are sensitive to energies can detect things from a distance because of the effect of their pranic body. Also, when someone meditates in the presence of someone who is new to meditation, and that person has difficulty reaching deeper states of consciousness, the pranic fields influence each other, making deeper states of consciousness possible for the other person.


It is important to understand the relationship between the different layers of the kosha bodies because our different layers have a relationship through prana which brings the information from one place to another. Prana is what makes these layers interconnected. Prana affects the Annamaya kosha; it releases chemicals, prolonging the effects of a certain emotion. For example, when energy comes into the energy body because of some finding in the mental body, then that energy will promote the release of certain chemicals in your body which will enable whatever emotion to linger long after it leaves the mental body. When we practice pranayama, we can calm the breath, still the fluctuations of the mind, and pause the play.


3. Manomaya kosha (sheath of mind)

Manomaya kosha comes from the word ‘manas’ which means mind. Mind is a tool of consciousness. Through mind, we can perceive and process the world in front of us. Prana maintains the vitality of the Manomaya kosha (the mental body) through the chemicals prepared by the Annamaya kosha (physical body), which produces feelings (rasas) in the I-consciousness (ego).


Thinking is the main activity of mind. The layer of mind is also the layer of thought. Although thought uses words and concepts, they do not belong to mind, but to the Vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of knowledge). Mind is the one processing the words and concepts and using them to create an image of our environment. The intellect is like the hard disk (storing information), where mind is the processor of the computer (i.e., gets the information out of the hard disk). The mind takes the information and compares it with all the input that comes from the environment. The mind is the one who interprets the signals coming in through the five senses, creates an image out of these signals (shapes, colors, smells, etc.), and creates an illusion of the universe as we perceive it. In a dream, what we perceive is perceived as reality. This is the power and nature of the mind. The function of mind is for survival, for avoiding pain, and finding pleasure. For example, if it is dark out and mind sees a rope, it may perceive the rope as a snake for survival. Mind associates vague signals with concrete things, creating illusion. It creates duality of pleasure and pain to help protect us. Because this is the nature of mind, it is difficult to stop the mental fluctuations without a regular meditation practice. A daily meditation of just one hour per day will allow better control over mind. Mind is like a monkey that always wants to play, persistently active, and consistently performing its job to safeguard us. When mind makes such associations, which is the nature of mind, it is important to not identify with it. Meditation means to stop the modifications of mind. If mind is out of control, then we are never liberated; we are slaves of mind. The association with mind and its identification with thoughts is the main obstacle to higher levels of consciousness, which is the problem of the ego (Vijnanamaya kosha). “Whatever has a form is only limitations imagined in my consciousness. The World is but a show, a make-belief. The World I perceive is entirely private, a dream. Desire and fear come from seeing the World as separate from my-Self. While I see the dream as real, I'll suffer being its slave. Nothing in the dream is done by me.”- Nisargadatta Maharaj



4. Vijnanamaya Kosha “Sheath of Ego and Intellect”

This sheath is the layer of knowledge that is beyond our senses. It is the seat of buddhi (intellect) and ahamkara (I-consciousness) and travels with the Self from one subtle body to the next. The ego (I-consciousness) is not a kosha, it is inside the Vijnanamaya kosha. Ego is the one who says, “I exist as a separate individual being”. Ego is the one who identifies with the body and the personality which has been created from past and future actions (i.e., “I am a person named _____ born on ____”. The Self is not thinking or wondering- it just knows it is. The Self just feels, “I am”. This feeling of “I am” creates a reflection in mind, and mind likes to play around and make associations.


Mind detects the universe, the body, energy, and then the intellect associates this “I am” with the information coming in through the mind with the body, breath, thoughts, and with itself, and creates the idea, “I am this”. It is a natural process that happens to all of us. The main problem is to mistake that you are only this body, mind, and intellect. The ego has erroneously identified with all of these subtle bodies. We are only that which we are, all else is illusionary. The ego attaches outside itself, to our past, and our imaginary future, and so on. The ego takes over because of the identification with the other koshas (i.e., “I am old, I am fat, I am stupid”). The ego creates all the problems of the world.


There are two ways that the sheath of knowledge can be used. The first is when mind uses the words and concepts for thought, and then begins to reason and make identifications to create an image perceived as reality. The second way is through intuition- through the lens of the Self, from the witnessing consciousness. When the concepts are seen from the inside without conscious thought, that is intuition. Thought and intuition are two different ways to use the concepts of this subtle energy body. The thought process is fast; mind perceives something and immediately is provided with feedback. The process of going within and looking inside takes more time, but worthwhile. When we can look at a solid object from the Self and not limit it with words and concepts, then the understanding of this object will be very different. The Vijnanamaya kosha is where you can witness your thoughts and realize you are not your thoughts. When you can let go of your words, concepts, and ideas, then you can meet the Self- that which is beyond words and concepts. The main barrier here is the intellect (i.e., believing you’ve understood). The intellect tends to hold onto its concepts, even the ones that desperately need to be replaced. Thus, the main spiritual progress to be had is in this kosha.


When you think about it, it is quite incredible how much thought goes into our public image. The many lies we tell ourselves in the I-consciousness to uphold our image is astounding. People will tell all kinds of stories so that they feel worthy in the eyes of others. Why is it that we have this urge to confirm our importance and our existence? Why do we insist on identifying with all sorts of nonsense just to prove that we are? It is because our idea of what we are is wrong. We have wrongly identified with things that appear only to disappear. When we don’t have a strong connection with the Self, we then feel entirely insecure with these identifications, so we continuously and neurotically try to strengthen and solidify them. Yet, this fear that our illusions will burst persists. One of the basic fears that the ego has is fear of the body (i.e., fear of death and disease). Even though we are aware of the body’s impermanence, we still attach as if we are the body. It is insanity, but we all have egos. The work here is to understand that what you are is beyond words. “I am only the Self, which is universal and imagines itself to be the outer self, a person. I am not an object in Consciousness, but its source, its Witness, pure shapeless Awareness. Only the feeling ‘I am’”- Nisargadatta Maharaj.


5. Anandamaya Kosha “Sheath of Bliss”

The Anandamaya kosha, the most subtle sheath, is surrounded by all other sheaths and contains the Self; the never-changing truth. Neither mind nor prana can reach the energized consciousness of the Anandamaya kosha. The Self resides in our spiritual heart, which is “found” to the right of our physical heart. The Self is the nondual cosmic consciousness, pure bliss, undisturbed. It is the true “I” that witnesses whatever happens. It is unchanging, unborn, always bliss, and without desire. It manifests into the energy field as all of these energy bodies and then when it manifests directly, its manifestation is beautiful, peaceful, and pure bliss. When the ego gets involved, then all problems arise. All “good” things come from the Self, and all “bad” things come from the ego, and of course, the idea of “good” and “bad” are illusions.


This Self, this feeling “I am”, is the first and last illusion. Not in the feeling “I am”, and not in the feeling “I am this or that”, but in the feeling, “I am here”. The mind completely stops, our consciousness of our physical and energetic bodies is gone, but this feeling “I am here” remains. Our existence still seems to be limited somewhere. That is still illusion because the Self is cosmic consciousness. The water which is going into the pot thinks it is in the pot, but actually the pot is in the ocean; so, the water is in the ocean, and the water is the ocean. The self is the drop; cosmic consciousness is the ocean. From the point of view of the ocean, the drop is just a drop, but from the perspective of the drop, the drop is the ocean.


According to ancient texts, it is said that only a small part of cosmic consciousness is involved in the manifested universe. Apart from all the drops of cosmic consciousness, there is still an ocean of cosmic consciousness outside, which is entirely unrelated to it; completely peaceful and happy. The “I” thought, the thought “I am” is the beginning of all problems and the end of all problems. It is the beginning of all problems when it leads to “I am this”. From “I am this”, the ego is born, which is the only thing that ever gets born. Going back to the “I am” without being this or that, is the end to all problems. This brings you to the “I”, which is no longer thinking or wondering. Thinking in our society is overrated. Sure, thinking can be entertaining, it can help in practical ways, understanding concepts, but at some point, the play has to stop. When you can stop the play, you will find the solution to all your problems, which is the eternal, unchanging you- the Self. “In every body there is a dream, but the dreamer is the same, the one Self, which reflects itself in each body as "I am". All the dreams are of a common imaginary World and influence each other. Love is seeing the unity under the imaginary diversity- Nisargadatta Maharaj


Resources:

"I Am That" by Nisargadatta Maharaj

"Chakras: Energy Centers of Transformation" by Harish Johari

"The Yoga of the Nine Emotions" by Peter Marchand

Jnana Yoga: The Koshas by Peter Marchand


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