Yoga philosophy addresses much more than the practice of yoga poses and the eight limbs of yoga. It also describes us as individuals, what we are made of. Historically, classical yoga tells us we are made of five sheaths or layers known as the koshas. While the descriptions may not match western science and physiology, they can be useful in thinking about how yoga penetrates deep within, moving us closer to our inner self.
The outermost layer of each of us is our physical body, called the annamaya kosha. It is the most tangible part of us, the skin, muscle mass, bones and organ systems. When first starting the practice of yoga, it is this outer layer, the physical part of ourselves that becomes the focus of our actions. While yoga directly contributes to the health of the annamaya kosha, we know it also affects us in more subtle ways.
We learn in yoga that pranayama is regulation of the breath and that prana is also thought of as our life force. The pranamaya kosha is our energy body, which provides our vitality. It is the same concept as chi in Chinese philosophy. We nourish the pranamaya kosha with pranayama, though it is closely tied to our physical body and asana practice.
The third sheath or layer is the mental body. This is known as manomaya kosha, the part of us, our mind, where most of our daily thoughts and actions occur. It is the part of us that “turns off” during sleep. We help to balance and restore the manomaya kosha through the meditative and absorptive aspects of yoga.
Though much of the world regards the mind and intellect as a single entity, in yoga they are separate. While the intellectual body interacts with the mental body, it is thought of as a distinct layer, the vijnanamaya kosha. The intellectual body includes our consciousness along with our willpower and ability to discern. A nourished and strong intellectual body is wise; a weak one has a hard time making sound judgements and decisions. We help to feed this part of ourselves through study of the various aspects of yoga.
The most subtle and difficult layer to reach is the anandamaya kosha. This is our divine body, our true self that we experience as spiritual bliss. It is the same as samadhi, the eighth and final limb of yoga, sometimes called enlightenment. All of yoga leads us on a path to the anandamaya kosha. While most of us cannot readily access this part of ourselves, the glimpses we get and benefits we receive along the way, make all steps along the path worthwhile.
Those who find themselves in a regular yoga practice know it does more than strengthening the body and calming the mind. The other qualities that yoga creates in us can be hard to discern and describe. Thinking through the five sheaths, the koshas, that comprise each of us is one way to deepen that understanding.