The first time I asked the question “Who am I?” I was 21 years old. I’d just graduated from college, and by sheer luck, managed to get a job writing for a famous alternative newspaper. The job was scary; it put all my skills on the line. Even scarier was the fact that the people I was meeting in this new grown-up world all seemed to have fully formed personae. They knew exactly who they were and what they wanted – while I didn’t seem to have a clue. Or so it seemed.
I was in a full-blown youthful identity crisis. So one day, using my journal, I embarked on an inquiry. “Who am I really?” I wrote. “What is really true about me? What defines me? Am I my body (good hair, nice skin, crooked teeth, legs that aren’t as long as they ought to be)? Am I what other people think of me, my popularity and reputation? Am I my emotions, which take me all over the place? Am I my taste in music, my political opinions? Who is the real me?”
I had no idea that I was asking one of life’s Big Questions. What struck me was the fact that when I looked for an answer, nothing definitive showed up. I would ask the question “Who am I?” and instead of a nice reassuring answer – “I’m a really smart and attractive and serious young woman,” or “I’m a person who is destined to make major breakthroughs in consciousness,” or even, “I’m a journalist” – I would either feel completely blank or I would feel splintered by the many different layers that I seemed to shift in and out of. There was the “me” who felt young and agile and physically capable and strong. And then there was the part of me that would get lost in the questions and thoughts that were constantly streaming through my mind. At times I could also sense that there was a part of me who really had no opinion at all, who seemed to function as an observer, an inner camera who seemed to be watching the whole shifting show. And, on a really good day, that I could feel something deep within me that was happy, really happy, for no reason at all. So, which part was really me? The “true” me? I hadn’t a clue.
Years later, when I began to read the texts of yoga philosophy, I learned that my confusion about the multiple parts of my “self” wasn’t so strange after all. In the ‘Taitteriya Upanishad ‘, an ancient Tantric yoga text, a human being is described as having five ‘sheaths’ or ‘koshas’ that interpenetrate each other, encasing the soul like the layers of an onion. The outermost layer of the onion is the physical body, which the sages called the Food Sheath because not only is it made of the food we take in from the earth, but because it will ultimately become food for other creatures. Surrounding the Physical Sheath, interpenetrating it, and transcending it are the three layers of the subtle body, the Pranamaya Kosha, or Vital Energy Sheath, the Manamaya Kosha, or Mental Sheath, and the Vijnana Maya Kosha, or Wisdom Sheath. Deeper than these is the Ananda Maya Kosha, the Bliss Sheath. It was that deep layer of myself that my inquiry had managed to touch.
According to the sages of yoga, any real answer to the question “Who am I, really?” or “What is the meaning of my life?” involves looking into these sheaths, which are also called ‘bodies’ or ‘selves.’ To be fully empowered in who you are means to bring all these bodies on-line, as it were. And this takes practice, because though all of sheaths are ‘firing’ at all times, most of us only have easy, conscious access to one or two. For instance, though you certainly identify yourself largely with your physical body – defining yourself as ‘fat’ or ‘thin’, ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ ‘good looking’ or ‘unattractive’, the fact is that you probably spend much more time in the Mental Sheath, caught up in thoughts and other forms of mental activity. Once you’ve learned how to recognize how it feels to be ‘in’ one of these bodies rather than another, you not only have an expanded sense of self, you have far more power over your choices and reactions to events.
There are different ways to work with the koshas. In classical Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of Understanding, also known as the Direct Path) there is a practice that involves deconstructing all your ideas about who you are by breaking your identification with each kosha, or layer until you eventually transcend them and find a state of pure awareness and bliss.
Though this practice can be a powerful meditation, most modern yogis aren’t seeking to ‘transcend’ the body and mind – at least not as a way of life. Rather, they want to be free to live with power and love ‘within’ the body and mind. For those yogis, the map of the koshas is a tool we can use to bring consciousness to ‘all’ these layers of ourselves. The map helps you recognize how each of these layers affects the others, and ultimately to find out how to unlock the hidden power and gift in each of these layers. When you know how it feels like to be fully present in your physical body, rather than floating through life half-disassociated from it, you will find yourself more centered and sane, less prone to accidents, more intuitively tuned into which foods and activities actually nourish the body. When you can touch into the subtle power of expansion and healing in the Vital Energy Body, you can move stuck energy, release your own vitality, connect to the energy in nature and in others. When you know the feel of your own Mental Body, you can begin to note the effect of certain thoughts, and actually step out of the trance-like states that arise when we blindly identify with thoughts and emotions. Once you have learned how to access your Wisdom Body, you’ll find that you have more and more access to the clarity and intuition that can keep your life on track. And each time you touch into the Bliss Body, you are touching into the fundamental goodness of life.
Annamaya Kosha: The Physical Sheath
Though the Physical Sheath is the most obvious and apparent aspect of ourselves, very few of us actually have a real sense of where our organs are, or what actually goes on inside our own bodies. When I first began practicing yoga, it was nearly impossible for me to feel my feet or the muscles in my legs unless they actually hurt. Instead of sensing the body from inside, I tended to ‘think’ the body, simply because so much of my energy and attention was parked in the Mental Body. Most yoga injuries, not to mention accidents, eating compulsions and other physical addictions, actually come from this tendency to move and use the body without actually ‘feeling ‘ how it responds. More than that, our refusal to fully enter our physical body keeps us ungrounded, spacey, and fearful. Once you learn to feel your body, to sense it from within, you start to know how to move inside a posture to protect yourself from injury. You begin to sense what food you need, and how much. Your attention becomes grounded. There is more presence and ease in your life when you learn to consciously inhabit the physical body.
To get ‘into’ the Physical Sheath, try this exercise. Become present to your feet in your shoes. Tighten and relax the muscles in your calves. Touch your face, and sense the contact between the fingers and the skin. Put your hand over your chest, and feel the heart beat, or simply the contact between the hand and the flesh there. Then pick an inner organ – the liver, the heart, the kidneys. Try to find it with your attention. Really sink your attention into that organ. Just as you would in meditation, notice when your attention gets distracted by thinking or conceptualizing. When that happens, note to yourself ‘Thought,’ and come back to sensing the organ itself. Notice the naturally settling and grounding effect of this practice.
Pranamaya Kosha (Vital Energy Body)
The next three koshas are subtle, meaning that they can’t be tangibly grasped. Nonetheless, they can be felt, and learning to feel them is essential for mastery of our inner world.
The ‘Pranamaya Kosha’, the Vital Energy Body, interpenetrates the physical body, but is actually much larger. When you feel expanding energy in the heart or head during meditation or asana practice, or when waves of heat seem to go through the body, you are in contact with the Vital Energy body. Most of us are aware of how coordinating asana with the breath brings energy into an asana, but we often don’t realize that when we feel energized, sleepy, dull, restless, calm, vibrant, we are actually feeling our Vital Energy Body. Just as we have a physical ‘look’, we also have a personal energetic signature. Once you get sensitive to the energy within you and around you, you will start to recognize the vibrational signature that you or others leave in a room, or even on a piece of clothing. (Remember how comforting it was the first time you wore your boyfriend’s shirt to bed?)
You may also notice how much of your communication with the world is actually happening on an energetic level – from the way you ‘feel’ when you’re in the room with an angry person, to the peace you can find by sitting under a big old tree, to the subtle transmission of energy you get from being with a really good teacher.
Meditation and even asana practice – which is often classified as a practice of the physical body – are intended primarily to tone the Energy Body, as well as the Physical and Mental Bodies. Much of the purpose of asana, especially when different asanas are practiced together, is to move stagnant energy, or prana, opening and changing the flow of vital force in the body.
Exercise: One way to tune into the power within the Vital Energy Sheath is to practice letting yourself be breathed. Without changing your breathing pattern, become aware of the breath flowing into and out of your body, as a natural, spontaneous flow.
Instead of feeling “I’m breathing”, feel ‘I’m being breathed.’ Let yourself relax into this feeling. If you notice that there is a tendency to tighten or stop the breath, just notice it, with the thought “I am being breathed.” Eventually you may begin to feel the breath as energy, and even a sense of expansion in the physical body, a sense that the body is bigger than the boundaries of the skin. This is a sign that you’ve entered the Energy Body. As this happens, you may find that your posture will automatically readjust itself, that your hips or back may open. These are all effects of consciously accessing the Vital Energy Sheath, which is actually the storehouse of healing power in your system.
Manomaya Kosha (Mental Sheath)
The Manomaya Kosha – within which you think, fantasize, daydream, and practice mantra or affirmations – is the part of you that filters and makes meaning out of the world you inhabit. But just as the physical body has layers of skin, fat, blood, bones, the Mental Body has its layers. The most superficial layer is simply static – passing thoughts, images, perceptions and emotions that bubble up in our inner world.
However, if some of the thoughts in the Manomaya Kosha are like bubbles in the ocean, others are like tides. The deeper levels of the Manomaya Kosha also holds the voices of our personal and cultural programming, the powerful, mental structures formed by the beliefs, opinions and assumptions that we’ve brought in from our family and our culture as well as from our accumulated mental patterning. Called ‘samskaras’ in Sanskrit, these deep thoughts form the basic blueprint for our life experience. Samskaras are like troughs in the energy of the Mental Body, which cause our perception of ourselves and our life to run in certain fixed patterns. When we examine the contents of the Manomaya kosha closely, we often can see these patterns, which take the form of repetitive, self-sustaining thoughts like “This isn’t going to work out” or “This isn’t how things should be” or “Paying attention is too hard” or “I’m bad” or “I have to perform in order to be ok.”
The structures in the Manomaya Kosha not only color our experience, they also help to shape it, which is why one of the most effective spiritual as well as psychological practices we can do is to notice and question our own ‘stories.’
Exercise: Try this basic self-inquiry, adapted from a Byron Katie exercise:
Look at a situation which has charge for you. Write down your thoughts about it. Then, one by one, ask yourself “What would I be without this thought?” and notice how your breathing, your energy and your mental experience shift as a result. Especially notice if there is a sense of spaciousness in your mind.
Finally, consciously replace the thought with one that feels enlightening or empowering, and which you can accept as real – such as “I am free to choose my attitudes” or “There is another way to see this?” Notice whether this new thought brings greater spaciousness to your mind.
Vijanamaya Kosha (Wisdom or Awareness Body)
As you look into your inner world, you may begin to notice that along with your thoughts, there are also inner ‘knowings’ that come from a deeper and subtler level of your being. These are the ‘knowings’ of the Wisdom Body, the layer of our being that is composed of intuition and awareness. It’s through the wisdom body that we bring in true insight, game-changing recognitions, genuinely inspired art. Anyone who writes, paints, problem solves, does creative math or philosophy will recognize the Wisdom Body as the self we access when we’re functioning out of inspiration. A composer I know accesses his Wisdom Body by playing random sounds until his ordinary musical mind (his Manomaya Kosha) steps back, making room for a ‘download’ of music that he recognizes as genuinely creative and new. Another friend of mine tells me that when he’s stymied or stuck on a personal or professional problem, he’ll formulate a question about it, then sit for meditation. At some point, as his thinking mind gets quiet, wisdom will arise.
The Wisdom Body, at its subtlest level, is simply awareness, the objective observing part of the self. Here, we can dis-dentify with even the most powerful thoughts and self-descriptions, and witness the play of our mind and our life.
People who can access their Awareness Body find it much easier to do inner psychological work without over-identifying with their emotional issues. And the Awareness Body also happens to be one of the best doorways into the pure I AM, the essence of being. The trick is to learn how to be present as awareness, without making awareness an object.
Inquiry: Right now, notice how there’s something in you that observes without judgment the fact that you’re reading. That same observing I is also aware of your thoughts, your mood, the way your body feels, your energy level. It knows all this without being involved in it. So as awareness, you are able to contain and include all the other levels of experience – at the same time transcending them.
Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss Sheath)
The Bliss Body, being very subtle, is the most hidden part of us. Yet its subtle presence is felt as the instinctive sense that life is worth living, that to be alive is good. The emotional feeling of happiness or joy is possible only because of the existence of the Bliss Body. You’re literally born to be blissful, because the Bliss Body is the deepest layer of your personal self. Separated by a thread from the universal Self, the collective wholeness of Consciousness, your Bliss Body is filled with natural ecstasy, dynamism, goodness.
Contact with the Bliss Body develops through practice, especially practices like mantra meditation or Centering Prayer that teach the mind to let go of the thoughts that hide the Bliss Body, and sink more deeply into itself. To fully enter the Bliss Body, however, we usually need to be in deep meditation. When you’re in touch with your Bliss Body, you know that your nature is joyful, free, capable of every flavor of happiness from the rock-out ecstatic to the simple feeling of contentment. You’re in the Bliss Body in those moments when you recognize – viscerally rather than intellectually – that love is the deepest reality, beyond mental constructions or ideas. In fact, one of yoga’s greatest gifts is its power to awaken us to the inner body of Bliss.
Inquiry: Ask yourself now, “Where is bliss?” Ask in an open ended way, not expecting a physical answer, but opening yourself to the subtle feeling of tenderness, joy, contentment that is always present in every moment. Let yourself feel your own bliss. Realize that it may not be possible to fully access the inner bliss right at this moment; steady experience of the Anandamaya Kosha develops through practice of meditation, asana, chanting. Yet the question will often tune you into it.
Believe it or not, it is actually possible to be conscious of yourself in all these layers and levels. To be aware and present in all of the koshas is to awaken to your own life and to integrate all the parts of yourself. In that, it becomes easy and natural to sense the universal Self that expresses itself as our individual, layered self. Then, we’ve become like the greatest sages of the yoga tradition who are awake in all their bodies and awake to that which is beyond them.