The Kosas; Framing Our Knowledge and Experience

Something about autumn on the coast stimulates us to action of the ant-kind. You remember that fable about the ant and the cricket? Ant busied herself to stash food and prepare her nest for winter and cricket continued to sing her summer song until the icy blasts ended her chorus.

  Seasonal transitions seem to call us to a deeper place within which we can examine our own stores of health and wisdom for the darker times ahead. I want to know the places of cached experience and knowledge. But where exactly does one look?

  To answer that question, I go to the old teachings. Yogic philosophy is really very commonsensical. That is one of its many attractions. For common sense, as Dorothy Parker observed, isn’t as common as we might think.

  The kosas, a Sanskrit word for sheaths, are layers of our being. It is a metaphor. We are not onions to be peeled away in layers. Yet the image holds because we can visualize ourselves from outside to inside, each layer a capacity for self awareness, the ultimate fruit of yoga.

  The outermost kosa or sheath is the annamaya kosa or physical sheath. When we ask ourselves what food choices we can make for optimal health we are supporting that aspect or layer of ourselves. We might also ask what sorts of injuries or accidents we have had which have impacted the annamaya kosa. In our culture, much time is spent addressing the way the body looks. In fact, much of our consciousness is trapped at this layer.

  The next sheath is the pranamaya kosa or subtle energy body. Meditation tones this layer. To move stuck energy, we can practice pranayama which is the breath work in yoga. When we notice the feelings or body sensations that certain thoughts evoke, we are tuning into the pranamaya kosa. If we find ourselves in a trance-like state, we may be attuned to that aspect of self (or we might just be lulled out). If asked, we might not know what we were thinking in that state because it is not attuned to thoughts so much as the vital energy and power of expansion and healing.

  The manomaya kosa is the mental sheath. Mantra can charge this layer with purpose and prevent blind acceptance of thoughts, emotions and uninvited images that bubble to the surface of consciousness. Our samskaras or deep-grooved conditioning which is really the mental structures, beliefs and opinions can be challenged at this level.

  The vijnamaya kosa is the wisdom sheath. Our witness, or the wise teacher within which is always present, observes our thoughts as they rise and fall; and the insights provided by our wise self, in an intuitive fashion, reflect our deepest knowing.

  The anandamaya kosa is the bliss sheath. When we are in touch with that layer of our being, we know the fundamental goodness of life and the essential truth that life is a gift worth living to the fullest.

  We might be in touch with several sheaths in an instant. Yoga practice  evokes the fullest expression of all sheaths since we work with the body to penetrate to our deepest selves. And the movement through our layers is at once from outside to inside and then to outside once more.

  It is not a mechanical movement. It is energetic and dynamic and we are all of the sheaths, all at once, whether we know it or not.

  The beauty of yoga is that we can realize our own sure and certain truth.


Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.