The Koshas: Ancient Wisdom for Holistic Health
I’ve been inspired for many years by the concept of the koshas. I personally use this as a lens for how to view my own health and wellbeing daily. I thought it would be helpful to share the roots of this model also because I use it as a practitioner with my patients. The koshas are an ancient model for health, and they are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. The earliest mention of the koshas comes from the ancient Hindu text, the Taittriva-Upanishad. This model promotes holistic healing and sustainable health. Kosha is also translated as “treasure” because all dimensions of our being are treasures waiting to be understood and unfolded. I like to use this concept to bring awareness to my clients’ bodies, which ultimately can lead to a deeper cultivation of the Self and promote great healing. Koshas remind us that healing happens on a physical level, and also includes our spiritual, intellectual, social, and psychological levels of wellbeing. Before we dive into this idea, I’d like to first explain a little but about the concept of energy in Eastern spiritual traditions.
What is energy?
In Eastern philosophy, there is much reference to “source,” or an energetic force that makes up the universe.
In some traditional Hindu thought, the belief is that “all manifest reality stems from an unseen universal force of infinite, expansiveness that is without beginning or end, a singular pulsation or unmoving center from which all action springs” (Powers, 2008). This concept can be found in other Eastern religious traditions but with different names: it’s called Brahman by the Hindus, Tao (or Dao) by the Taoists, and Sunyata by certain sects of Buddhists. This concept of an infinite force that neither begins nor ends indicates the universe has an infinite amount of energy that people have access to, if they only tap into it.
What are the koshas?
The Eastern concept of energy flow can get technical, especially in Chinese medicine. You may have heard of qi gong, which is a movement based energy cultivating technique. Qi gong is a vehicle to unleash a person’s full potential through the balance and coordination of the internal energy that all human beings have. This is done through movement, deep breathing, and meditative practices. Qi is a complicated concept to explain in Western terms because there is no equivalent. In Chinese thought, qi is neither energy nor matter, yet it’s both. It’s somewhere in between the two: matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy on the verge of becoming matter. This is what makes it so powerful.
So how does this relate to the koshas? The Chinese concept of qi also plays into the idea that the body has a field of energy that can be used for different purposes. The East Indian concept of koshas is similar in that the model presents the body as having five fields of energy that are interwoven. These energy fields are identified, and if one is off balance, the other koshas are affected as well.
Koshas are thought to be like a shield for the Self. And by the self, I do mean the capital “s” self – the holy and divine Self that resides within us all. We take on these layers when we live in our earthly bodies.
Here are the five koshas explained simply:
1.Annamaya kosha (the food sheath or the physical)
This layer of kosha is specifically the form of energy that’s composed of the physical self and derives its energy from food. When people identify primarily through this layer, they relate to their bodies through their skin, bones, flesh, and all parts of their physical structure.
2. Pranamaya kosha (the energy sheath or the energetic)
This layer of kosha is comprised of prana, which is the “life force or energy.” It accompanies the oxygen that enters your lungs as you breathe and the energy that exists to help keep the body alive.
3. Manomaya kosha (the mind sheath or the emotional)
This layer of kosha is defined by the concept of the “mind,” which is where the me, mine, and I originates. It is the kosha of the ego.
4. Vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom sheath or the thinking)
This layer of kosha is entirely different from the Manomaya kosha, as wisdom is thought to be separate from the mind. Vijnanamaya is the kosha of wisdom and will – an insentient form of knowledge that exists within all things.
5. Anandamaya kosha (bliss sheath or the spirit)
This layer of kosha is defined as the part of the energy field that exists in the “casual body.” That is, the state of consciousness one has when she/he’s asleep. This kosha can also be achieved through deep meditation and tantric practices.
Identifying one’s life balance through the koshas is a wonderful tool that I use with my clients to assist them in becoming deeply attuned to their bodies and overall health. I ask them to begin with the first kosha and end with the last to help imagine themselves as healthy. It is a reminder that the body mechanical mechanism where one part must be “fixed” when it’s not functioning optimally. The body mirrors the health of the koshas and the interconnected relationship between each one. The model of the koshas reminds us that each one of us is a vehicle for consciousness to express itself. Focusing on one’s health through the lens of the koshas can help bring deeper awareness, self-compassion, and self-love throughout the journey of life.