By Tom Hess
According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, there are five layers, or kosas, to traverse on our yoga paths. These layers, or sheaths, provide us a path to follow and certain signposts along the way. They also describe the depth and potential of the practice of yoga.
The beginning of the journey for the yoga practitioner is the body. This is especially true in today’s world, where the public perception of yoga is all about the physical postures. That is where most people start with their idea of what yoga is, and that is perfect. The body is what we are given as our birthright, it is something we are uniquely placed to study and think about.
It is something that we all need to understand on some level to practice yoga. Yoga is about the stilling of the mind, but the body has to be stable and pain free to be able to focus the mind.
So we start with the asana as a means to cleanse and strengthen the body. If the body is in any kind of unbalanced state because of disease, injury, muscle shortness, or muscle weakness, then yoga will help bring the body back to equilibrium. When the body is in a stable, strong, and light state, then the other more inward layers are more available.
The Pranayama Kosa is the layer of energy, or prana. This is the underlying energy within the body that controls all of the organs of action, organs of perception, and all of the body’s energy needs. This prana is behind all of the functioning of the body and can be improved with the practice of yoga.
Within this layer lies the practice of pranayama, the fourth limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Pranayama is the yoga practice of breath management. When one practices breathing with a particular mind-set and with prescribed ways of breathing, then there is a refinement of the prana in the body. Another way to work with the prana in the body is through the practice of some of the asanas with a particular mind-set that would lead to a refinement of the prana.
The practice of yoga brings us to a particular realization of the existence of this energy within and gives us a way to work with it.
The next layer is the mind, the Manomaya Kosa. This is really the key, for without the focus of the mind the distractions would limit us. We have many objects of meditation for the mind; any part of the body could be used for the mind as we do in the asana and the breath is the central focal point for the mind in the practice of pranayama. The focus of the mind deepens our experience of the prana and the body.
The next layer is the discriminating mind or Vijnanamaya Kosa. This is the layer of wisdom. We all have the decision-making power within ourselves to control our thoughts and where we might put those thoughts. This layer is about making the right decisions in our lives that lead us to a deeper understanding of the spiritual path of yoga. This understanding is the intelligence that we foster in the practice of yoga that leads to a stilling of the thought waves.
The last layer is the Anandamaya Kosa. This is the layer of bliss that occurs as a result of following the eight limbs of yoga and stilling the fluctuations of the mind. This layer is the goal. The natural result of proper practice done with the right mind-set over a long period is a state of fullness or joy that exists on such a deep level that the practitioner is settled into a blissful state.
These five layers are nicely laid out in B. K. S. Iyengar’s book Light on Life.
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