A couple of weeks ago, someone who has been practicing yoga with me for a number of years sent me this feedback by email. It was entirely unprompted. He had started as a complete beginner, looking for a way to counter the impact of long distance cycling when I was beginning my own teaching practice and now 4 years later, I can see he really enjoys yoga.
This is what he wrote:“I never thought I would ever get into yoga, but thanks to you it's become part of my routine now and has helped me immensely - from ending my plantar fasciitis and easing back pain and other injuries, to helping with digestion and winding down at the end of the day, it's a one stop shop for so many things!”
It’s true, yoga is a one stop shop. It offers a lot more than deep stretching and the yogic model of the koshas helps to illustrate how its potential benefits can apply to every one of us. Yoga means union. Having a regular yoga practice is a lifestyle choice and if we choose to, we can become not only physically and mentally stronger, but we gain a deeper self-awareness and wisdom, to self-regulate, accept and take better care of ourselves. Here’s why, with an explanation of the yoga koshas and how they work, to illustrate my point.
What are the yoga koshas?
I like to think of the koshas as being rather like the Russian matryoshka dolls and they equate to 5 layers of ‘being’ in every person. In the dolls, the outer layer is very elaborate and highly finished, with each doll inside becoming less intricate than the one before it. The koshas work like that but in reverse. The first layer is the outer doll, it’s the beautiful outer shell, equivalent to the basic little doll in the centre. It’s the fancy looking Instagram yogi that many people aspire to. This is the Anamaya kosha, the physical practice of yoga. It is going to a yoga class and learning the postures. Many people’s experience of yoga begins and ends here.
The second layer is the Pranamaya kosha, this is the energetic body that relates to the transformative power of our breath (prana, like qui, the life force within us all). Pranamaya kosha relates to our awareness of the healing power of efficient breathing and how our breath contributes to our individual energy. Poor breathing is related to so many diseases and a yoga practice teaches us how to breathe properly. If you would like to learn more about the power of effective breathing, read James Nestor’s book Breath, it is a revelation.
Third up is Manomaya kosha, the aspect of yoga that helps us to regulate our mind and emotions. When we talk about the calming effects of yoga to quieten the mind, this is contribution of Manomaya kosha. It is developed with a regular meditation practice.
The fourth layer is Vjinyanamaya Kosha. This is the inner the wisdom and feeling of strength and self-empowerment that comes from having a regular yoga practice. Vijnyanamaya kosha is at play when you roll out your yoga mat at home after a busy day and you know exactly what you need to ‘get out of your head and into your body’. Vjinyanamaya kosha also teaches us to listen to our bodies and to become the judge of what really is good for us. It helps us to break habitual, negative thinking patterns.
The final layer in the kosha model is Anandamaya Kosha, known as the blissful body. I think this is akin to what Maslov describes as ‘self actualisation’, in the hierarchy of needs model used in management studies. Anandamaya Kosha is the self-acceptance, deep happiness and contentment that comes with time and from having a regular yoga practice.
Yoga as union, illustrated by the koshas
Whether you are interested in yoga philosophy or not and whatever your beliefs, the koshas provide an excellent way to understand how yoga can benefit everyone. They help us to gain a deeper awareness of what ‘yoga as union’ means and how the existence and interplay of these levels contribute to achieving a healthy body and mind. In turn, this provides the foundation for a happy and successful life.
Imbalances in any of the kosha levels can lead to problems – musculoskeletal issues, lethargy, digestive problems, fatigue, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression. The list of common ailments that people can learn to manage with yoga is almost endless.
Most people who come to yoga classes focus only on the Anamaya kosha and learning the postures to stretch and improve their flexibility but as I have explained, thinking of yoga in this dimension only is just scratching the surface. As my student has realised, yoga really is a one stop shop for so many things.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the koshas. Now it’s time to roll out your yoga mat if you have one and try a short practice for yourself. Or pop along to a yoga class at my Garden Room Yoga Studio.