When I was a little girl I received a Russian Stacking doll in my Christmas stocking. In my imagination, they were a big family going on many adventures together. I loved un-stacking and re-stacking each doll within the other. In the ancient Vedic texts that provide the philosophical foundation for yoga practice, one text called the Taittirīya Upanishad expands on the 5 layers of human nature. These 5 layers remind me of the Russian stacking dolls. Each layer is an aspect of our human consciousness and is illustrated by the image below.
The study of human nature is called Ontology, and the Upanishads take us into deep waters when it comes to understanding who we are. According to the text, the 5 layers encase our essence, or in the Hindu tradition, the Atman. In the Christian tradition, we would call this the soul, which Richard Rohr refers to as "our basic and unchangeable identity in God" (Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self). Imageo Deo is at the heart of the Christian understanding of human nature. Human beings are Image Bearers reflecting God's Divine image in the world. I believe that each layer of the koshas has elements of God's image and is sacred. I also believe that each layer can be explored through Yoga Therapy toward healing and transformation to more clearly reflect God's Divine image in the world. Here is a description of each layer.
The Annamaya kosha represents everything about us in relationship to our physical bodies. We connect and nourish with this part of ourselves through daily physical activities of walking, exercise, sleep, eating and in yoga, our asana (posture) practice. Giving attention to our bodies through Yoga Therapy can help us take care of and heal our bodies from injury, chronic pain and disease. This kosha represents our material presence in the world. For it is in and through our bodies that we relate to others in the world.
The Pranamaya kosha represents our energy, Prana or life-force. We can see this layer as revealing the deeper aspects of our bodies: our breath, digestion, organs, nervous system and movement of the internal fluids. In Aryuveda medicine energy relating to these parts of our bodies flow along channels called the nadis and chakras. In Western medicine and culture, we tend to be skeptical of this layer. But truthfully, our entire body is involved in metabolic processes all the time, every moment of the day. We are literally energy producers and metabolize-rs. Energetically, when we are depleted, it disrupts this layer, increasing the likelihood disease and auto-immune disorders. Yoga therapy recognizes the importance of attending to our physiological energy and can help replenish this layer through pranayama (breath-work), asana, movement, mindfulness and diet.
The Manomaya kosha represents mental thought or the mind. In the West, this layer most closely corresponds with the field of P
sychology. More than our mental faculties, Manomaya also includes our emotions and nervous system. It is the connector between the first two koshas -- the body and breath -- and the last two koshas -- the wisdom and bliss. It involves the functions of the mind that relate to every day living and our individual interpretation of life. This kosha expresses itself through conscious and unconscious mental, emotional and nervous system patterns which can be volatile, becoming over or under stimulated. Yoga therapy focuses on the body and primarily aims to address imbalances in the nervous system: making conscious the connections between the social/fight/flight/freeze/collapse states of the nervous system and the emotional and mental patterns.
The fourth layer of the koshas is the Vijnanamaya kosha -- the Wisdom layer. This layer encompasses our intuition and intellect and is often referred to as The Inner Witness. While the Manomaya kosha is constantly entangled in thoughts, feelings and perceptions, the Vijnanamaya Kosha is that self awareness, the ability to be objective with ourselves, so we can make choices about who we are and how we want to relate to the world. The contemplative practices of silence, solitude and meditation help us get in touch with this layer. Yoga therapeutic practices first help you get directly in touch with your body, then help balance your nervous system and is coupled with dialogue and self inquiry to help you discover this deeper layer -- your inner wisdom, intuition, knowledge which can lead to greater congruence and truth in your life.
The fifth layer, the Anandamaya kosha, is the bliss or awareness layer. Ananda means "bliss". When this layer arises to our consciousness, we are most at peace and able to see the reflection of the Divine within us. We don't often experience the Anandamaya kosha in our daily lives. Day to day, we are primarily experiencing life through the first four koshas. But when we do experience Anandamaya kosha, it is like coming home to our truest selves, where we experience peace and connection, not only with ourselves, but with others and all of the creation. This is one of the beautiful gifts of practicing yoga. Yoga means union. Sometimes our deepest pains, doubts and questions are spiritual. Yoga therapy is a container to explore all parts of ourselves, that which we are conscious of and that which we yet have to become conscious of. This is the process of "waking up" to our greater potential and fullness of life.