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Beyond Physical Healing: What is the subtle body?

Part 1: Koshas

I’m breaking down the basics for you.  In this special 2 part series you’ll learn what the subtle body is, what systems it includes, and how those systems interact with the physical body.  When we approach health and well-being through the Yogic & Ayurvedic lens we’re absolutely looking at and working with the subtle body system as well as the physical body.  I want you to understand what those bodies and systems are and how they work. 

In addition to learning about the systems in the subtle body, we’ll also hit some key phrases and terms and attempt to ground this knowledge into something you can really work with.  We’ll get clear on prana, maya, transcendental reality, kundalini, shakti, and more.

I bet if you’re here with me in the Yoga & Ayurveda world it isn’t a reach for you to acknowledge that a human being is a lot more than just flesh and bone.  You already understand that there’s more to you than just the physical body you can touch.  Perhaps, you even have an awareness of other more subtle aspects of yourself and how they effect you, but you’re lacking the vocabulary to describe all this.  I’m here to help!

pranayama & the 5 koshas showing subtle body

What is the Subtle Body?

Here, I’m going to walk you though what we’ll call Yoga & Ayurveda Subtle Body 101. 

At the highest level of understanding, we know that the subtle body is not the physical body.  We call the physical body the gross body, not because it’s yucky, but because it’s the most dense collection of matter, it’s tangible, its physical, it’s easy to see and connect to.  Everything outside of that is the subtle body.  The subtle body is less gross, a less dense collection of matter, and cannot be touched. 

Meaning, you can’t have surgery on your chakras in the subtle body, but you can have surgery on your heart in the physical, gross body.  There is one more body called the casual body, but it isn’t one we often work with at an intervention level, so we can leave it alone for now.  The casual body is the most subtle of all and deals with a more pure level of conciseness that carries with in impressions from one life to the next.

Where does Reincarnation Come In?

So yes, reincarnation is a big part of this worldview.  The idea being that if we continue to identify with the lower forms of ourselves as reality, then we have to keep repeating the same lessons until we learn to break that identification.  If can be over simplified as failing 3rd grade over and over and over again.  Instead, we’re invited to observe the lower parts of ourselves instead of identifying with them so we can move towards yoga, or unity consciousness, or really knowing that we are a part of a much larger whole.

You absolutely do not have to believe in reincarnation for this to be helpful.  If you acknowledge there’s more to you than just the physical body and you’d like to work wisely with those systems, this is still for you. 

a photo showing the 5 koshas

What are the Koshas?

What are these other layers of us that aren’t the physical body?  The vocal word here is Koshas.  Koshas are the 5 layers, or bodies, that every human being has.  They move from the most gross, the physical body, to the most subtle and esoteric, the bliss body.  I’m going to give you the highlight reel of information here instead of going deeply into each one.  The most important take away is in this philosophy you have 5 bodies, and all but 1 of them is subtle. 

1. Annamaya Kosha- The Physical Body, The Food Body

This is the the physical aspect of a human.  You make it with food.  We know the physical body and it’s health are incredibly important.  We know the quality of the food you use to make it has a huge affect on it’s well-being.  Ayurveda and Yoga absolutely acknowledge the importance of this body and have tons of practices and interventions for the physical self.  Diet and herbs and asana are huge players here.  Think about how powerful it is that you get to create your own body from the food you eat.  Of course, there are other factors outside your control- but you can choose if you’re creating a body from boxes and can and bags of ingredients that are far away from nature, or whole, organic, seasonal foods.  The body made from the later is probably going to function better.

2. Pranamaya Kosha- The Energetic Body

This is the first layer of the subtle body.  It’s at this level where we interact with prana, or life forces.  Pranayama, or breath control practices, can help to regulate the movement on energy at this level of the body.  This is also the level at which the chakras, nadis, and mamas exist.  We’ll come back to those a little later.  Yoga and Ayurveda work extensively on this layer of the body as well.  Every pranayama practice, chakra balancing technique, marma point massage therapy, hatha yoga class, and so much more work with this first subtle layer of the human. 

Intro to Ayurveda Course

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3. Manomaya Kosha- Mental Body

This is the subtle body where the mind exists.  The brain is a physical aspect of the body that you can do surgery on, but the mind is not.  The mind is subtle.  The mind is created by the thoughts we think and it lives here, as the third level of our subtle existence.  When we look at the overall well-being of an individual through the Ayurvedic lens, we absolutely pay attention to this subtle body.  If you’re feeding your mind violent entertainment, tons of work, or unhealthy relationships it’s going to have an affect on the physical body as well.  We know this.  People who live in a constant state of stress, fear, and anxiety will often have digestive issues even if they are eating a beautiful diet.  The mental body has an incredibly powerful effect on the physical body.  The good news is there’s are tons of practices and interventions from this world to help sooth the mind, unwind it’s kinks, and restore steadiness.  Practices like mantra, meditation, and pratyahara or sense withdrawal all help the mental plane flow with more ease.  And that’s just the short list, these sister sciences are made for creating steadiness in the mind.

4. Vijnanamaya Kosha- Wisdom, Intuition, & Awareness Body

Remember, these bodies continue to become more subtle as we move outward, so this layer is more subtle than the mental body.  This level of the body is often referred to as the intellect body, but I prefer to think of it as the discernment body.  This is the level of deep knowing.  When a person is connecting with this subtle aspect of their being they are able to make wise decisions.  It’s the opposite of a person who feels like their life is happening to them.  Connection to this subtle wisdom allows a person to be the driver of their own existence so that they are always operating from a place of action, or responding, but never reacting.  Yoga and Ayurveda awaken the subtle energies of a person and heighten their awareness so that they can access and develop this part of themselves.

5. Anandamaya Kosha- Bliss Body

Ah, the most subtle body of all!  This last and thin layer of the human is what keeps us on this side of reality.  In most humans, we aren’t even aware of this level of our being.  The idea that we could exist in a state of bliss can sound like a fairy tale.  But, it’s not!  Some of the practices that allow us to tap into this state of bliss are selfless service (seva), devotion to God (or whatever word works for you), and deep meditation on our own true nature.  We need a balanced state of well-being in the other layers of the self before access to this most subtle layer becomes available.  Yoga and Ayurveda are preparing and purifying the other koshas so that eventually this state of bliss becomes available. 

There are 5 koshas.  Koshas are the five different layers, or sheaths of a human being.  Everyone has these.  They move from most gross, the physical body, all the way to super thin and subtle, the bliss body.  Why are they considered sheaths you ask?

picture of a woman meditating

What is Transcendental Reality?

Let’s go back to that this-side-of-reality bit.  Ultimate reality, or transcendental reality, is the truest reality where we know we are connected to that larger whole.  When I say know, I do not mean cerebral knowledge of the brain and mind, but a knowing and understanding that’s experienced in higher levels of the self in higher states of consciousness. 

If we go back to the idea of reincarnation, this is what we’re trying to get to.  We’re trying to leave the 3rd grade version of ourselves that we’ve done on repeat for who knows how many times and instead move on to a higher state of being. 

If that idea is not for you, okay!  Instead, think of it as tapping into the highest level of human evolution.  A layer of knowing yourself, and understanding all creation that is far beyond the thinking mind. 

What is the Maya?

Either way, the curtain, or veil, that separates us from knowing this ultimate reality is called maya.  It’s the five sheaths, or Koshas that keep us on this side of the veil.  The more aware we become of the more subtle aspects of our own being, the thinner this curtain becomes.  Ideally, eventually, we move right through it and into a state of bliss and ultimate reality.   

So, we know that a human being is complex, and composed of fives different bodies in the Vedic Tradition.  Those bodies move from physical to esoteric and the more aware we are of all of them, the better our well-being.  We need all of these bodies to be healthy in order to ever get close to a state of bliss.

The Subtle Body Gets to The Root Cause of Disease

This gives a whole new spin to getting to the root cause of a disease.  As an Ayurvedic Yoga Therapist I’m always trying to get to the true root of a problem, or symptom and restore balance so the problem no longer exists.  In order to do this, I need to know what body I’m working with.  Sometimes, it’s just a physical problem.  Maybe someone has a knowledge gap around what foods and spices will serve them best and simple information is enough to correct the problem.   But often, there’s an emotional component to what we put in our bodies, and the mind is very involved as well.  In those cases, the more subtle layers of the body need to be addressed as well. 

Or think of it this way.  Let’s say someone comes to me for help because they can’t sleep.  While we’re talking, I find out there’s a dog in the bed.  The dog is hot.  The dog licks their face.  The dog is up and down a lot and keeps waking them up.  If this is all there is too it, If this a simply an issue of creating a physical space that is conducive to sleep, all we have to do is get the dog out of the bed.

Let’s say I keep listening.  There’s actually a pretty good reason the dog is in the bed.  This person has been super isolated during covid, their spouse recently passed away, and the only way for them to feel safe at night is to have the dog in the bed. 

If I tell this person to take the dog out of the bed, I haven’t even come close to the root of the issue.  The root is emotional, and mental, and spiritual and deep.  So many of the struggles we face are like this.  Deep, and complicated.  That’s why recognizing you’re so much more than just the physical body, and the subtle aspects of you need attention to can be so important and so powerful.    

So, we know that a human being is complex, and composed of fives different bodies in the Vedic Tradition.  Those bodies move from physical to esoteric and the more aware we are of all of them, the better our well-being.  We need all of these bodies to be healthy in order to ever get close to a state of bliss.

Part 2: Chakras, Nadis, & Marmas

In Part 2 we will continue down this thought train.  I’ll walk you through the chakra system, why it’s important, where is exists, and how we work with it.  I’ll introduce you to nadis and mamas and kundalini and shakti and hopefully make it all make good sense to you. 

This article is also an Ayurveda Podcast.