One of the first realizations I had during my spiritual awakening is that there’s much more to life than what meets the eye. It had started with seeing synchronicities that no one else would notice, and this realization became deeper, the more I studied metaphysical subjects. A fascinating subject is the study of the different layers that sit on top of our “soul”. Namely, the gross body, the subtle body and the causal body.
While exploring these layers, not much is visible to the naked eye. Sure you can see your body, but every layer underneath that is experiential and waiting to be witnessed. Think of it like an iceberg!
Studying these different layers, specifically the subtle and causal body is a gateway into witnessing our soul underneath all the chaos and chatter of the world (and our minds).
Otherwise, we are limited to the surface of the iceberg, limited by our own limiting perception of ourselves (and as a consequence, the world). It is important to be able to witness all our layers, in order to truly experience detachment and unconditional joy.
When I had first learned about these layers, my understanding was more intellectual. But after an intense 50-hour silence retreat run by a profound spiritual teacher, I have begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be an “observer” of these layers. In this second round of editing this article, my attempt will be to introduce even more clarification and direction, based on what was taught to me.
What are the 3 different bodies?
There are five distinct layers that sit on top of our soul, masking our sense of enlightenment. Each layer resides in a type of ‘body’, or a container. We know these as:
- Gross Body (visible container);
- Subtle Body (experiential container – not to be seen but meant to be felt);
- Causal Body (existential container – the cause for our effects).
Each body stores different layers, also known as Koshas in Sanskrit. These are stacked one inside another, like a matryoshka doll!
While the Gross Body and Causal Body have one layer each, the Subtle Body which resides in between these two Bodies has the most layers (three).
We’ll talk about each body and its koshas in detail now.
Understanding the 5 Koshas; layers covering the soul
Let’s take care of a nuance real quick – the nomenclature. When you read their names at first, don’t be shaken by their complexity! Look closely and you’ll notice that each name has a repetitive part –maya kosha.
Koshas, or sheaths/layers, represent different qualities that keep getting subtler, and go deeper and deeper, until we access our soul.
Maya means illusion. Each layer is labelled an illusion, as a simple reminder that they are meant to be transcended (go beyond).
You’ll also notice some other Sanskrit words, for which I’ll do my best to translate as close to the original meaning as possible. Sometimes, the Sanskrit meaning may not have an equivalent English explanation, so please bear in mind that there may be a greater depth in their actual meaning (as is true for all words when written in their original text).
That said, here’s a diagram before we dive in, so you have a visual representation of the five layers.
#1 – Annamaya Kosha, The Food Body
Anna in Sanskrit means grain or food. This is the layer that is literally made from food (and becomes food, as my teacher says!).
It represents the most solid aspect – the physical body. This outermost layer is nested in the Gross Body container, which we can see, touch. And where all our other senses reside.
The other attributes of the annamaya kosha include digestion, organs, bones and other physicality.
So the Gross Body relates to our ability to interact with our external environment, and to participate in day-to-day life by consuming, reproducing, excreting, etc.
We tend to get consumed in this layer when we focus too much on our outer appearance. Even though they tell us not to judge a book by its cover, we might tend to judge ourselves and others by the way we look. This is just the surface of who we are – or said differently, this is actually a vessel carrying who we really are.
#2 – Pranamaya Kosha, The Life Force Body
This is where the Subtle Body container begins, a layer deeper and under the Gross Body.
Prana means life force energy, so this is the layer that talks about the ways our gross body is filled with life and how that life force moves through our body (breathing, for example). This layer comprises of the subtler aspects like:
- Chakras (energy centres),
- Energy meridians, etc.
This is typically the time skeptics start questioning what’s up, because not much remains visible. But while you can’t see your breath, you know it’s running (and definitely when it’s not, if you hold it for more than a minute).
While breathework is a great way to enhance our vitality, it’s not the end of the journey of self-discovery. Let’s go deeper, to an even more subtler realm within us.
#3 – Manomaya Kosha, The Lower Mind
Yes, there are two minds – lower and higher. And the manomaya kosha marks the conscious mind, the third layer covering the soul. The spiritual author, Michael Singer lovingly calls this layer the ‘Monkey Mind’ in his phenomenal work called The Untethered Soul and shares in great detail the ways this layer affects our life experience.
In this layer, we experience the thoughts of our conscious mind during meditation. And at the time, it drives us crazy! That’s only because we’re just learning to tap into that layer, and it’ll need a little self-control to work our way around it. The thing that helps us develop that self-control is our ability to step back and become a witness to the mind without getting sucked into the thoughts. And how do we step back? By accessing this next layer.
#4 – Vijnanamaya Kosha, The Upper Mind
We then move to the fourth layer, and the third in our subtle body container. The vijnanamaya kosha is the sheath of wisdom and inner knowledge, and that’s how it gets its name.
Aka, the subconscious mind as it pulls in profound truths, realizations and spiritual resources from the depths of the Universe!
This is the point where once we’ve reached, we can solve any problem by being intentional and not letting the conscious thoughts flow mindlessly. The vijnanamaya kosha is the answer to the new agey saying, “all the answers are within you”.
Yup, here. Those answers are within this layer. But why would you want to transcend it? Good question. Because our subconscious mind also holds all our desires. Some of which come from unfulfilled past lives, many from the ideas we gather within this lifetime about what will make us happy. We need to transcend all of that in order to be truly happy. How? We’ll get to that in the next section. But first, let’s talk about the final layer covering our soul.
#5 – Anandmaya Kosha, The Ego
It makes sense that we are not our thoughts, emotions or any of the other layers above. But underneath even all that is this beautifully complicated ego-mind, aka, the anandmaya kosha.
The ego-mind is what creates our illusion of separation, of duality. The layer is protective and primal in nature – it gives us the “identity” we have. But where does it come from?
It is formed based on our past karmic impressions, and is kind of like a blueprint of our journey, life lessons, and so on. Why would you want to free yourself of your identity though? Because it is limiting.
And as we will soon discover, the soul has no limits. In our truest sense, we are eternal and infinite beings. How do we get to that point of realization? I’m glad you asked! This next section is dedicated to exploring how you can experience and let go of each layer.
How to Transcend Each Kosha
Having laid out that foundation, here’s a list of things you can do to work on lightening your association with each layer of the subtle body.
Freeing The Annamaya Kosha
The suggestions involved in liberating oneself from the ties of the Annamaya Kosha are categorized as:
- Strengthening the physical body (being physically healthy) so that you’re not focused on your aches, pains, or diseases.
- Nurturing and serving the Gross Body like a temple so that it can be a healthy home for the remaining layers.
- Gaining self-control over the physical body by learning how to be absolutely “still”.
Let’s dig into just some of the ways we can achieve this.
#1 – Satvik eating
In Eastern culture, monks and sages emphasize on the practice of eating right in order to gain self-control over the tongue. And thus liberate that illusory ‘annamaya‘ that ties us to the physical aspect of ourselves through taste.
Satvik or morally-sound eating comprises a number of rules.
To help get you started with the practice of clean eating, take a look at these pointers:
- Eating foods that are closer to nature and can thus energize your body better versus the spike-inducing sugary foods or beverages;
- NOT mixing your food and beverage in the same meal (ideally drink water 30 minutes before or after your meal);
- Practicing Intermittent Fasting, that is limiting the duration of the day you spend eating;
- Controlling the portion sizes and eating mindfully;
- Limiting the number of times you eat per day to 2 or at the most 3 meals (which eliminates snacking for sure);
- Eating freshly cooked food (which means no preservatives or packed meals);
- Following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
I personally love this Youtber’s explanation of what satvik eating could look like in a practical sense:
Of course, depending on where you’re situated and your discernment towards your health, you would modify these dietary suggestions to suit your lifestyle.
#2 – Hatha yoga
Hatha yoga is the ancient art of mindfully practicing asanas (postures), that bring balance and strength to our physical body. Of course, the purpose of yoga isn’t just a good, lean body, but in a truer sense, “oneness with the self”. But the branch of Hatha yoga focuses on becoming present with the body through different postures and movement.
If you’re comfortable learning online, from my own personal usage, I can recommend the resources from the website called Yoga International.
And if you use this link to sign up, you’ll get a free 30-days trial along with a complimentary e-course about Yoga Therapy. It’s all on me for the first month, so go ahead and maximize your Hatha Yoga (as well as a bunch of other yogic practices).
#3 – Balancing your doshas
As per the ancient scriptures, here are three doshas, or energy types, which reflect our physiological functioning. These energy types are a combination of the five elements, namely, earth, air, water, fire and ether. When you understand the balance and imbalance of your doshas, you can manage your physiology in a way that it begins to work for you and not against you.
Briefly speaking, you could either be a –
- Pita Dosha, if you are intense, feisty, get heated up when agitated, and have a generally good sense of digestion.
- Kapha Dosha, if you are laid back, have a larger build and tend to experience great sadness when you’re not your best self.
- Vata Dosha, if you’re a multitasker, have a medium build, agile in movement and light.
You could also be a combination of two or all, so it’s important to identify your type, and eat the right foods for your body type.
To identify your dosha type, there are a bunch of online quizzes that you can take. My personal recommendation is Sahara Rose’s online test. The following Youtube video also has a quiz within it, followed by a lot of great insights into the foods that correspond to balancing each dosha type and can be used for inspiration (with discernment).
At the end of the day, remember that no test knows you better than you know yourself. SO, try to see the analysis and see what resonates most with you.
Freeing Yourself From The Pranamaya Kosha
The various ways in which you could make the effect of your pranamaya kosha lighter, is by working with the prana, or life force energy through a number of self-healing practices. Here are just three tips to get you started.
#1 – Pranayama
Working with your breath is not just something the eastern culture promotes, but something modern therapists emphasize too.
Pranayama, literally meaning control over one’s inhale and exhale, is a true art! If you’ve ever attended a guided meditation, you’ll know how difficult it is to just ‘observe your breath’.
But, with a little bit of conscious effort, we can work to achieve the following basic pointers and improve the quality of our breathing:
- In day-to-day life, always inhale and exhale at a 1:1 ratio. Only rarely will certain practices advise you to maintain a different ratio.
- Breathe deeper and slower. When that happens, you can immediately dissipate anxiety. Shallow and rapid breathing is usually what happens when you’re anxious, which fuels more of that nervous energy. Consciously slowing down your breathing helps your nervous system come back to safety (technical term: window of tolerance).
- Always breathe in and out through your nostrils, unless stated otherwise in some practice. The mouth is infamous for taking in too much air too fast, and not helping the diaphragm expand in enough time. Mouth breathing is also the cause of snoring, and other ailments, as I discovered while reading the book Breathe by James Nestor.
Doing all this, we can immediately feel how much more vitalized we are. Why? Because the prana, which rides on the air we breathe, is also going deeper and helping regulate our internal system.
#2 -Balance your Chakras
Chakras are our energy centers that govern the flow of energy in different areas of life, such as relationship with money, sex, ourselves and even God. A blocked energy centre has a direct effect on the blockages in our life, and so can an overstimulated Chakra. So, it can be very interesting and helpful to explore the subject to get to know yourself better.
This is one of the tools in this blog post that your girl offers in-house!
I love talking about the chakra system, and have an exciting workshop I conduct online for anyone that’s interested. If you want to learn chakra balancing in a fun and practical way, feel free to reach out!
Alternatively, if you’re a do-it-yourself reader, feel free to check out this series of articles on the basics of each energy centre.
Freeing The Manomaya Kosha
Being able to understand your mind, where your thoughts are constantly going and where you’re feeling stuck about something is a great way to free yourself from the hold of the manomaya kosha.
#1 – Journaling
So simple? Really? Ah, not quite, my dear friend. Although journaling is a brilliant way to introspect your thoughts, it’s important to ask yourselves the right questions, and to reflect deeper with each query.
I often use techniques like higher self journalling and inner child dialogue with my clients and the results blow our minds away, every single time! Blocks and energy are released in a way that’s so profound to witness.
Journaling is such a powerful tool into the subconscious. If only you know where to begin.
Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you hanging here! Here are 7 journaling ideas for self-healing to get you started. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter and download 30 journaling prompts for the inner child, shadow self and practicing gratitude.
#2 – Hypnotherapy
There’s so much stigma around hypnotherapy. And yet, we don’t realize that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. Nobody can take over your mind, or body. You cannot be imprisoned or ‘made to do’ something.
Which means that whenever we follow someone’s suggestion, we are volunteering to take an action that they told us to do. If we reject their suggestion, we discard the ‘hypnosis’.
Hypnotherapy is NOT scary. As a matter of fact the first and free form of hypnotherapy that you can take, is listen to a guided meditation on Youtube!
And how is hypnotherapy useful? Because while meditation does involve sitting down with our thoughts, sometimes it’s nicer to redirect those thoughts to recover specific wounds and heal them. There are two great modalities of hypnotherapy to explore which I’ve written more about:
But don’t get stuck there! Remember, we’re only halfway through our healing. After this, we have two more sheaths to transcend. And with them, we will be transcending the illusion of past, present and future.
#3 – Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)
The basic concept of NLP is to observe your limiting thoughts and replace them with better, more meaningful neuro linguistic responses, using fun and creative tools. It is proven to take away deep-rooted beliefs in minutes!
While the techniques are beyond the scope of this article, you can explore this powerful approach by reading more about it or working directly with an NLP practitioner. I use NLP in my own day-to-day life, as well as a part of my coaching, and I’d be happy to share tools and tips with you. Feel free to get in touch.
Freeing The Vijnanamaya Kosha, The Upper Mind
#1 – Meditate on the Heart Center
As the ancient scriptures, Upanishads say, the Purusha element (eternal), resides in your heart, the size of a thumb.
So the best way to get in touch with your spirit is to move beyond the mind altogether. And, as spiritual teacher Osho says, to become headless.
In other words, now that we’ve moved deeper and away from our manomaya kosha, we need to feel from our heart. Not think from the head, nor from our emotions, but from a deeper knowing that’s situated in the heart space.
The Heartfulness Meditation shared below is a beautiful way to do that. While I’ve only been a follower of this technique on and off over the last year, I’ve always experienced a shift within, every time I participate in the practice.
#2- Tap Into Your Own Wisdom
Okay, so now that you understand the essence of processing all the layers above, let’s focus on the upper mind. And how to tap into its wisdom.
At first when we sit down to meditate, it can seem like you’re unsuccessful simply because the noise from the conscious mind has become so apparent. It’s not that your mind has a lot of thoughts all of a sudden. You’ve just become aware that your mind has a lot of thoughts!
But, with persistence and perseverance, you might have sudden AHA moments every now and then. Like that’s why your friend was mad at you, or that’s why your stubborn child refuses to listen to you.
Once you start having those AHA moments, you are becoming aware of the vijnanamaya kosha.
This inner wisdom is from the intelligence of your heart space, which even science is beginning to identify as the heart brain. It’s said to be a wiser, distinct brain of the body. You can explore this interesting research by HEARTMath Institute.
Being able to sit down in the ocean of thoughts, and guiding ourselves towards a single-pointed level of concentration (called dhyana) doesn’t have to be rocket-science. It’s mostly about learning to detach from the haywire thoughts of the conscious mind, to a subtler realm of eternal knowing.
But if you are struggling, or are new to this and need some guidance, you can explore another workshop I facilitate, called Designing Your Own Meditation Practice.
#3 – Walk your truth
Okay, so you’ve been sitting down and meditating quite a bit. You even receive these insights ever so often. What now?
The more you practice inner awareness and FOLLOW those profound insights that come to you out of nowhere, the stronger they’ll become. Loosening the strength of the vijnanamaya kosha means learning how to unmask ourselves and let go of all limitations of the subtle body that are ‘defining’.
There’s an exciting saying that goes around the spiritual community.
The more authentic you are with your words and actions, the more you can make things come true in the real world. No wonder people were scared from getting cursed by sages back in the day. It might just happen, they knew!
At first, walking our truth can be counterintuitive because it goes against our conditioning. It may ask us to stop walking with the herd, to think out of the box, to even leave a job. I’ve found that ever since I quit my job in the corporate to pursue spiritual coaching and writing full-time, life’s healing and gifts have accelerated for me.
So, the suggestion here is to align yourself with what your inner wisdom wants for you, so that you’re more focused, living purposefully and closer to experiencing your infinitude.
Anandmaya Kosha, The Ego
If we’ve reached this far, the only thing needed is to shed the identification with duality and identity. I haven’t been able to “witness” the ego in a way where I can say I’ve felt liberated even briefly, but my spiritual teacher’s meditation directs us to that path. Here’s a guided meditation he’s created for us to follow along.
Tip before you practice this meditation: Your mind wants to rush itself to the next step, but try to follow his pace. It’s only when we slow down can we really create space to watch and NOT get sucked into the story.
As the story goes, during Buddha’s time on Earth spreading the word of the Ultimate Way, many monks that attained enlightenment began committing suicide. They considered life so futile once they understood that they weren’t this body, that they couldn’t bear to be with it a moment longer.
This brought a lot of grief to Buddha, because his message hadn’t been rightly absorbed. He was the embodiment of oneness within the body, and his objective was to show to the world that it was possible for them too.
For the remainder of our time here, even as we shed these layers, we must step into our higher calling and help spread the message of spiritual truth to mankind. We must do our best to be of service to the collective consciousness’ healing.
And we don’t have to wait till enlightenment to begin. We can start now, start with the experiences and knowledge we have. Making such a choice can make us a true Boddhisatva, he who puts his nirvana at hold for the greater good.
Learning about the subtle body can be a roadmap to self-healing. Take your time to gain self-control over all layers. But take it one step at a time. And eventually, as these layers become lighter, you will notice yourself automatically experiencing detachment.
I hope you can see now that working on the subtle body is our way towards enlightenment. So what are you waiting for? Enlightenment, here we come!
Vasundhra is the Founder & Writer of My Spiritual Shenanigans. After seeing 11:11 on the clock one fateful night, her life turned around. Ever since, she has been blending modern psychology and ancient spirituality, to help herself and people around the world elevate the quality of their lives.
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