Yoga philosophy teaches that the individual spirit or atman operates through five bodies or sheaths called the pancha kosha. This concept, explained in the Taittiriya Upanishad, gives you a map to understand your true self.
You are a multi-layered being, from your physical body to your subtle bliss body. The physical, tangible body is only your external self, like your outer peel. Stripping away this layer exposes a slightly more subtle layer, the pranic body. One more layer inward is the mental body, then the intellectual body, and finally the bliss body. The innermost core is the self, or the atman.
Each sheath can be transcended through yogic practices. As you work through the sheaths, you stop identifying yourself with these layers, be the body, mind, or intellect, and you begin to recognize that your true and real self is beyond these five layers.
Understanding the layers of one’s being is key to obtaining happiness and success in life. If you fail to recognize your true self, you will forever live at a surface level, slave to your desires and an illusory understanding of the world.
The fives sheaths are as follows, from the outmost to the innermost layer.
Translated as the food sheath, the annamaya kosha is the outermost layer of the body. It is that which is tangible and visible. And just like everything else in nature, it’s composed of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space.
The annamaya kosha is made up of digested and transformed food which is why it translates to the food sheath. Upon death, it will also return to food for other plants and animals.
This is the most gross of the five sheaths. Any pleasures experienced at this level lack longevity and are the most fleeting. In yogic terms, this sheath can be transcended through asana.
The pranamaya kosha is translated as the vital sheath. It’s finer than the food sheath and not visible to the average eye. The human being expresses itself through this layer and its grosser counterpart, annamaya kosha. It’s the breath, and the life that the breath brings.
The pranamaya kosha that separates life from death. Prana gives life, while lack of prana indicates death. Hence, this kosha is intimately related to the annamaya kosha. Once prana leaves the body, the annamaya kosha will disintegrate.
This sheath is composed of the five pranas (prana, udana, vyana, samana, and apana) as well as the five organs of action. These karmendriyas are the mouth, hands, feet, rectum and genitals.
The pranamaya kosha is nourished by fresh and nourishing food, sunlight, and the breath. Yogis can transcend this sheath through the practice of pranayama.
The next layer in is the manomaya kosha: the mental sheath. It’s not only the mind but the subconscious and the five organs of knowledge. These jnana indriyas are the sense organs themselves: the eyes, nose, ears, tongue, and skin. It is through the sense organs that the mind receives information. It’s also through these sense organs that desires arise.
The manomaya kosha includes thoughts, emotions, feelings, imagination, memories, and the subconscious mind. An ungoverned mind can lead to destructive choices, negative emotions, and poor choices in terms of wellbeing. It can be strengthened by adhering to the yamas, niyamas, and through karma yoga or selfless service.
Yet even more subtle than the mental sheath is the intellectual sheath: the vijnanamaya kosha. It’s also known as the knowledge sheath or wisdom sheath.
It is this sheath which separates man from animal. While both may have memory, thoughts, feelings and emotions, only man is able to discern between what’s right and wrong, and what’s real and unreal.
Along with the intellect, the vijnanamaya kosha includes the ego. It has a sense of self and identity; a certain I-am-ness. This kosha can be strengthened through jnana yoga or the path of knowledge. Studying scriptures and spiritual texts, meditation, and asking the question who am I develop a proper understanding of the self.
The anandamaya kosha is the final inner sheath. It is the most subtle of all layers of the personality. Contained in this layer are the vasanas: latent tendencies and desires in the personality. It carries the soul’s many experiences throughout its rebirths.
While this sheath gives a sense of connectedness to the divine, one still endures the cycles of rebirth until this sheath is transcended. That transcendence is samadhi, or self-realization. And alas, beyond all five sheaths, is the atma or self. You are most connected to this sheath through the anandamaya kosha, yet it is beyond all five koshas.
The pancha kosha philosophy helps you to understand who you are. With this knowledge, you can transcend the grosser layers of your being, tuning into the subtle aspects of your personality, refining your behavior, and ultimately gaining knowledge of your true self.
Vishnu-Devananda, Swami. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.