As we dive into the month of March, the transition into Spring fast approaches, a season that brings with it heaps of transformational energy. Spring is symbolic of sewing new seeds and coming forth with new ideas. We see this as we watch the Earth burst with new life all around us. This time of year within our lives, we begin to shed layers, and we don't just mean our coats and long sleeves, but anything we might be hanging onto from winter to make way for our own spring rebirth and renewal. As an extra bonus... according to our fuzzy little groundhog friend, Punxsutawny Phil, Spring is coming a little early this year!
Every year, March holds the promise of the Spring Equinox – a magical day which holds both the light of day and the dark of night in equal length – and symbolizes the transition into fuller, warmer days where we begin to plant our gardens and plan for a season of fresh beginnings. In the Spring, we begin to feel a sense of rebirth – the rains pour forth to cleanse and nourish while the sun activates and infuses fresh prana (our vital life-force) into the Earth. Although the shift can be quite subtle on an energetic level, it becomes easier to recognize the more we go deeply within and notice the changes happening in our own mind-body-spirit connection.
In our yoga practice, these shifts can be felt within our own being – through the Five Koshas or “sheaths” that go beyond just the physical form of our bodies. The classical yogic text, the Taittiriya Upanishad, describes the 5 layers of being from the gross all the way to the subtle. Thinking of these layers as a guide, we start to understand the truth behind aligning mind, body and spirit from an energetic and transformational perspective. Each of these layers fit neatly into one another and can be effectively strengthened through specific meditations and exercises created by ancient yogis. As we commence to truly understanding and identifying these layers, we shift ourselves into a harmonious balance with all that is within us.
The first sheath, comprised of the physical body, is called the Annamaya Kosha. In Sanskrit, ‘maya’ means ‘made of’ and ‘anna’ translates into ‘food/physical matter’. The saying ‘you are what you eat’ seems to arise from this understanding of the first layer described in yogic texts. We can appreciate Annamaya Kosha by staying mindful of the foods we consume and creating meals that nourish our bodies with every bite. Spring is a great time to cleanse the body with plenty of water, herbs and high-quality, organic foods that are lighter and nutritious. It’s also a great time to grow our yoga practice by centering our focus on engaging the body through movement and appreciating each little part of what makes us unique.
As we move our focus from the physical nature of the body to the subtler realms, we approach the Pranamaya Kosha. This kosha is made up of the vital life-force in which we call ‘prana’. Activiation of prana sustains our lives as we know it and is often called the energy body – without it, our physical body ceases to operate. This layer is the animation of our bodies through our central biological processes like breathing and digesting. It also governs the circulation of lymph and blood, which moves energy throughout the body. In yoga, we cultivate this pranic body through techniques of breathing called ‘pranayama’. It is one of the most important aspects of our practice because by regulating breathing, we begin to transform our subtle energy in the way that best suits our needs. There are pranayama exercises that seek to calm and soothe such as nadhi shodhana (alternate-nostril breath) or breath that heats and stimulates the body such as kappalabhati (breath of fire). As we become comfortable in our physical yoga practice, we can start to become more and more aware of the flow of prana within.
Beginning to shed even more layers, we dive into the Manomaya Kosha. This layer is the activation of our five senses and made up of our thought processes. So as we move from noticing the circulation of energy in the Pranamaya Kosha, we can then begin to become aware of the stream of consciousness within our minds. This kosha is an exploration of the mind and teaches us that we can shift from living in a passive “auto-pilot” state into an active state by seeking to create and shape our environments in every single moment. In our yoga practice, mantra meditation is particularly useful for Manomaya Kosha as it seeks to untie the mental knots that often bind us.
When we break past these “knots”, we find an even deeper sheath called the Vijnanamaya Kosha. ‘Vijnana’ in Sanskrit means ‘the power of judgement or discernment’ – this kosha is the essence of our own internal wisdom. It governs our intellect and enhances our intuition. We can use our inner wisdom through the guiding principles of the yamas and niyamas in order to shape and transform our integrity and inner guide. As we begin to work with the Vijnanamaya Kosha, we are better able to make sound decisions for ourselves and learn to use our intuition to create a healthier and happier life on and off the mat.
The final transformation happens when we shift from witnessing the experience of life into fully immersing ourselves in the experience – we go from observing and doing into just ‘being’. The last layer in the five koshas is the Anandamaya Kosha, the word ‘ananda’ suggesting pure and spiritual bliss. This layer of being is described as the Self uniting with a shimmering, healing white light – different from an emotion of happiness or joy, as the bliss body encompasses all of our emotions. Imagine the experience as your consciousness drifting away towards the bright, shining Light during savasana after a particularly amazing practice. It is everything, and nothing at the same time.
Becoming aware of the five koshas in our yoga practice may just be the key that unlocks our potential for finding true Bliss. Just like Mother Earth, we share this experience of transformation and a “shedding of layers” from dormancy and hibernation in Winter to the rebirth and renewal of Spring. This season, let us all seek to align ourselves with our own deepest layers of being. Happy Spring, yogis!