How to Take Your Yoga Practice to the Next Level

By Tom Hess

Advancing in a yoga practice means the student must travel deeply within. In the Taittiriya Upanishad is a description of the five kosas, or layers of awareness, to see the real self within. These kosas provide a vision, or a set of plans, for self-awareness. They are the anamaya kosa, or physical layer; the pranamaya kosa, or the organic/energetic layer; the manomaya kosa, or the mental layer; the vijnanamaya kosa, or the discriminating layer; and then the anandamaya kosa, or the blissful layer. The goal is to balance these five layers in one’s personal practice.

When we start our practice, it is a physical practice working on the fundamentals of the asanas (physical postures); this layer is called the anamaya kosa. This is the first level of practice, the physical layer of our being. This layer is associated with the earth element and is the foundation of a mature yoga practice. The student gains stability here. This stability must come from focused attention and this begins the mind/body connection. The fire of the physical practice cleans and prepares our bodies for the upcoming energy increase that is the benefit of a longtime yoga practice. And as the practice matures, more advanced postures are attainable. These advanced postures then complement the next layer.

After the physical comes the organic or energetic layer; this layer is called the pranamaya kosa. The pranamaya kosa brings vitality to the practitioner. This is the stage at which the benefits of the physical practice affect the energy of the body. The practitioner begins to understand the importance of breath when practicing pranayama (breath control) and asana. The practitioner begins to understand the movement of prana, or energy, and is grateful for the asana practice that has prepared his or her body. The yogi observes the relationship between a stable body, calm breath, and focused mind. This observation allows the student to begin to see the depths of the yoga practice and adds encouragement.

The next layer of practice is the mental layer; this layer is called the manomaya kosa. The manomaya kosa brings clarity to the mind. Here the mind is trained to focus on a particular part of the body or breath or any seed of concentration. Oftentimes the point of concentration is within the body during the asana, thus unifying and bringing the physical layer and the mental layer together. The breath also can be a point of concentration, bringing a unity between the energetic layer and the mental layer. This single-pointed stability of mind is the goal of the practice of yoga. This focus improves with practice and is a prerequisite for the discriminating mind.

The discriminating mind, or vijanamaya kosa, is the layer of understanding and wisdom. The vijanamaya kosa is enhanced by the clarity of mind brought by the mental layer. The two work together to bring unity and balance to the physical, energetic, and mental layers. It is the part of us that makes decisions with experience, intelligence, and intuition. One sees the right path and is sure of that path. This ability to make the right choice improves as the mind becomes more experienced, intelligent, and clear. The decisions improve when the yogi listens to that voice within that gives him clear guidance. This level of practice is coming into touch with your inner wisdom.

The deepest layer of the yoga practice is coming into contact with the bliss body, or anandamaya kosa. The anandamaya kosa is an integration of these five layers, leading to a feeling of bliss and unity. This wholeness is elusive because this layer comes only when a balance has been achieved among the first four layers. It requires stability, vitality, clarity, and wisdom, each in equal portions. This search for balance is the essence of the yoga practice.

As yoga practitioners, we begin to see the possibilities for transformation when we study the vast subject of yoga through the lens of these five kosas. This blueprint for study and observation gives us confidence when we start and faith in the future, because the yoga practitioners who have come before us and still live among us have given us a documented path of practice. It makes the journey easier. Great respect and thanks must be given to the wise men and women who have delved deeply into themselves and come out to show us the way and given us a map.

This path of introspection and exploration is the subject of BKS Iyengar’s Book, Light on Life, in which he goes into his view of these kosas and their place in the yoga practice in general.



Light on Life by BKS Iyengar

Taittiriya Upanishad, any translation


Tom Hess is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher and co-owner of The Yoga Center of Chico.