When we think of practicing yoga most of us think of our physical practice of yoga asanas as an exercise for your physical body, but have you considered that you may also be able to practice and exercise your subtle body? Or casual body?
According to the yoga tradition, every one of us has five bodies, each made of increasingly finer grades of energy. If we intend to live a fully balanced, healthy life, it tells us, all our bodies need to be kept in good condition.
The five progressively subtler bodies that compose our personality are described in a yoga classic called the Taittiriya Upanishad: (Look for our course on the Upanishads coming soon!)
Our First Body
Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. We need to take care of this body carefully, since it is the only body we have throughout this life, and it is very sensitive.
Inside this is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes it's shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine, experience excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life. Many will also see this as the etherial body, and it is also the only one you will have in this lifetime. What happens to it will be represented in the physical body.
Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. It fills the two denser bodies and has the same shape. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear. We are able to experience this body with a strong meditation practice.
Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. It permeates the three denser bodies and assumes the same form. Those who establish their awareness here, free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions, and develop the self-control necessary to achieve their goals.
Hidden inside it is yet a subtler body, composed of pure joy. It pervades the other bodies and shares the same shape. It is experienced as happiness, delight, and bliss.
These five bodies are called koshas, or “sheaths,” in Sanskrit, because each fits in the next like a sword in a scabbard. Only the densest is made of matter as we know it; the other four are energy states invisible to the physical eye, though we can easily sense their presence inside us when we pay close attention. Since the inner bodies are the source of our well-being during life and are the vehicles we travel in after death, India’s ancient yogis developed specific exercises to strengthen and tone each one in turn.
Your Physical Body is called Annamaya Kosha in Yoga. I won't spend time on this one since it is the one body we are aware of, but understand that it is a representation of all the other bodies.
Our Second Body
Yoga makes you aware of a second body, the organizing field that holds your material body together. This is the life energy that governs your biological processes, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood. It’s called chi in Chinese medicine and prana in yoga. The ancient Egyptians called it the ka.
Energy work such as Reiki and Acupuncture effect this body, not your physical one, since again your physical body is a representation of all the rest. To heal the physical body you must heal the others.
This energy body is called the prana-maya kosha in yoga. When it ceases to function your physical body can no longer operate. Your heart and lungs stop working and your cells begin to disintegrate.Your physical body can not exist without it.
Pranayama is how we care for it. (Look for a class coming soon in pranayama!).
Our Third Body
The third sheath or mental body is the apparatus responsible for our sensory and motor activities and our day-to-day awareness when we’re functioning “on automatic.” It processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively. When we move through life passively, reacting to our environment rather than actively shaping it, our awareness is focused here. Many people, and most animals, routinely operate at this level. It is our instinctual state of being.
This body is called manomaya kosha - This governs our mental state and our entire nervous system, including the brain.
You get a clear sense of what the mental body is when you observe a patient in a coma. Their second sheath is still operating so their heart continues to pump and their lungs expand and contract. But the person has no awareness of the external world and no ability to take action because the activity of the mental body has shut down. The pranamaya kohsa operates from the moment of our first breath to our last, but the manomaya kosha shuts down temporarily on a daily basis, regenerating itself during the state of deep sleep.
Mantra Meditations are how we take care of this kosha! As well as staying away from too much stimuli, negative particularly like watching violent movies and video games.
Also a daily practice of sense deprivation, pratyahara is very helpful!
Our Fourth Body
Subtler still is the vijnanamaya kosha It’s often translated as “intellect,” but the real meaning is broader, encompassing all the functions of the higher mind, including conscience and will. It may be easier to understand the distinction between the third sheath or mental body and the fourth sheath or intellectual body by taking a look at those in whom the vijnanamaya kosha is underdeveloped.
One such type is someone who doesn’t seem to be in control of their life, who is constantly reacting to circumstances rather than making a decision and responding proactively. This kind of person has a hard time making up their mind, thinking for themselves, or being creative. They have very little willpower and is continually the victim of their own poor judgment.
The study of the Yamas and Niyamas is the cure for this Kosha !(we currently have a course on these!) Jnana yoga also works with this kosha. This is the path of the intellect in which you are advised to study spiritual truths, contemplate them deeply, and finally incorporate them into the very core of your personality.
Our Fifth Body
In most humans, the fifth sheath is totally underdeveloped. This is the anandamaya kosha, the subtlemost body which is experienced as ananda (spiritual bliss). Generally only saints, sages, and genuine mystics have done the inner work necessary to make ananda a living part of their daily experience, and most people are hardly even aware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves.
The anandamaya kosha is extremely important in yoga because it’s the final and thinnest veil standing between our ordinary awareness and our higher Self. Many individuals who’ve had near-death experiences have reported experiencing a brilliant white light radiating all-embracing wisdom and unconditional love. This is the experience of the anandamaya kosha. Saints and mystics purify their minds so that they can have this experience throughout life, not just for a fleeting moment at death.
We can awaken our bliss sheath through three practices. The first is seva, selfless service. This opens our heart to our innate unity with other beings. The second is bhakti yoga, devotion to God. This opens our heart to our unity with the all-pervading Divine Being. The third is samadhi, intensely focused meditation, which opens our heart to our own divine being.
Sometimes after reading about these subtle bodies more questions and confusion arise, that is why we have and will continue to offer courses and classes and to help you make sense of all of your bodies, so that you may find true peace and health in this life.