by Mona Keddy
Many years ago, a girlfriend and I went on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. One evening at dinner, someone asked why we did yoga. I answered spontaneously something like “to better be the person I truly am.” I didn’t realize it at the time but this off-the-cuff response held an essential truth of yoga.
The yoga tradition says that our essential self is fully present inside us at all times. At our fall yoga retreat at Centre Tara this year, Bill Mahony described this essence as a “sparkling of consciousness that is the nature of expansive joy.”
However, often our knowledge of our essential nature gets covered up, our connection to it blocked. We have to work our way back to it. One model for this process of rediscovery is the koshas, which were outlined thousands of years ago in the Upanishads. This model suggests that there are layers to our being that move out from our effervescent essence to our physical form. These layers or sheaths, called koshas, are often described as Russian stacking dolls. The larger doll opens to reveal an ever-smaller one until we arrive at the smallest version possible. Like the dolls, the koshas move from the biggest, or more accurately, the densest to the least dense (smallest) and as such provide a map that guides us back to our innermost nature. While this analogy of the stacking dolls is helpful, these layers overlap, are with us at all times, and we have moments each day when we may connect to various layers of our being.
The outer most and densest layer to our being is our body, the annamaya kosha. It is what we get out of bed in the morning, feed breakfast and take on walks. It is the most tangible sheath and as such provides the entry point for the inward journey.The second layer, the pranamaya kosha, is our physiology and our breath. This layer is tangible (we can tell when we are breathing) but not as much so as our physical form. Progressing inward, the next kosha, the manomaya kosha, is our rational, decisive mind with its wayward thoughts, sensory responses and feelings. We know this exits and yet we cannot touch it. Beyond that, we move into the subtler realm of wisdom, the vijnanamaya kosha. This is the quiet voice that moves us in ways that we cannot always explain rationally. Finally, the innermost layer is the anandamaya kosha or bliss body. It is what we contact when we experience moments of pure contentment and of expansive joy. In this moments, there can be a feeling of wholeness and of communion with the world around us. Our work in yoga then is this voyage through the various layers of our being to touch our innermost and unchanging essence that is expansive joy.