Note: This is part 1 of 7. For the full series on the 5 koshas click here.

Introduction to the 5 Koshas

The soul transcends all form. It is changeless, timeless, pure Awareness, free from all bodily restrictions. But the cloaks it wraps itself in are timebound and subject to change. 

At the end of each lifetime, the soul slips out of its physical body and steps into the afterlife wearing the lighter subtle and causal garments. It brings with it the stains — aka samskaras or psychic impressions — acquired during its time on the physical plane. 

Adding detail to this model, the Taittirya Upanishpad, along with some later yogic texts, identifies two more layers of soul encasements, bringing the total to five. It refers to these five bodies as koshas, meaning “sheaths”.

The Five Koshas Nesting Dolls
An often-used, good visual for this are Russian nesting dolls, that when opened, reveal another doll inside, and another, and another…
Onion Layers - Five Koshas
Or, you could imagine them as layers of an onion, that when peeled back reveal a finer aspect of your existence. 
The Five Koshas - Fields of Energy
A less tangible, but more accurate way of viewing the koshas are as interpenetrating fields of conscious energy.

Whatever way you choose to see them, once the last doll is opened, the last layer of onion peeled back, or the last field crossed through, the no-thing-ness of Spirit is revealed. In this way, for the purpose of Self-realization, the koshas can be viewed as gates or doorways into the dimensions of your being. To know your true Self you must pass through the koshas, swing open the last door, and step off into Naked Reality.  

The 5 koshas:

You’ve no doubt noticed that the Sanskrit for each kosha ends in maya. Maya means illusion. Each, in the end, is illusory. 

The koshas are real in the sense of being made of Prana, the vibratory power of Awareness. But they are illusory because they have no independent, permanent existence. 

Suffering arises when you identify with the koshas, when you take yourself to be them, when you believe that you are a separate, isolated, material being. This identification with the koshas causes attachment to them. And attachment to anything impermanent inevitably leads to suffering. 

The way out of suffering is to wake up from the dream of being a body. The first step out of the dream is to realize you are in the dream. The dream of bodily existence unfolds like a dream within a dream, within a dream, within a dream… 

As you progress on the spiritual path, you wake up from the belief that you are a physical body — only to believe the subtler form beneath it is the “real” you. Continuing on the journey, you shine the light of awareness on each level and layer of your existence until you see through them all.  

In Rudra Meditation you progress through at least some of these layers each time you sit — if only for fractions of a second in the beginning.  

Settling into a comfortable, stable posture, you bring awareness away from externals and into the physical body, Annamaya Kosha. 

Then through the technique of pranayama, you become aware of the life-force and direct it inward to Pranamaya Kosha. 

By affirming your wish to grow and your willingness to surrender, using mantra, and by watching thoughts come and go, you bring awareness to the mind which resides in Manomaya Kosha. 

As prana and mind are stilled, the higher intellect emerges within Vijyanamaya Kosha, reflecting the inner light of the Self. 

As the veil becomes thinner, and your attention more absorbed, the last shimmering layer of life particles —  Anandamaya Kosha —  is felt as ecstatic bliss. 

Knowing even this to be a bodily experience, you fling open the last gate and enter the Infinite.  

From the perspective of infinite Awareness you realize that you were never imprisoned within the koshas. This is because there was never a you to be held captive. There was only Awareness Itself. And you are That. 

In the next post we’ll take a closer look at the 5th soul covering, annamaya kosha