Yoga clearly says that we are not just the physical body but has four more progressively subtler layers of existence. These five layers or sheaths correspond to successive stages of consciousness which in turn represents the existential levels in the awareness of an Individual. From the grossest physical body, the yoga practitioner goes on refining his perception to experience the further layers of his existence and finally transcend the five-layered existence to experience the Truth.
According to yoga an individual can experience five dimensions of existence, which is known as Panch kosha or five layers of existence. These kosha or layers are: Annamaya kosha (food sheath), Pranamaya kosha (vital sheath), Manomaya kosha (mental sheath), Vijnanamaya kosha (knowledge sheath) and Anandamaya kosha (bliss sheath).
The word ‘anna’ means food or matter. Thus Annamaya kosha refers to the gross level of existence and represents the physical body. This is referred as food sheath due to its dependence on food. Annamaya kosha is the grossest of the five kosha. To fine tune, balance and master the physical sheath we practice shatkarma, asana and regulate our diet.
Pranamaya kosha is made up of ‘prana’ which means; life energy or vital force. It refers to the energy field of an individual. Prana flows through subtle channels called nadi. It is the awareness of being alive. To fine tune, balance, energize and master the vital sheath we practice pranayama in yoga.
The third sheath is the Manomaya kosha, the sheath of the mind. This is the aspect of one’s personality wherein the mind carries on its different functions such as perception, thinking, feeling, memory and egoism. Under yoga to strengthen, calm and expand the mind or the manomaya kosha level of consciousness we practice dharana (focus) and dhyana (defocus or meditation).
It is the fourth layer of our existence. It is the sheath of intelligence. The conscience within us that continuously guides to do a thing or not to do a thing is the vijnanamaya kosha. When this sheath is awakened one can see the underlying reality behind outer appearances. Through the path of Jnana yoga one can sharpen the vijnanamaya kosha.
Ananda or bliss is the basic stuff of the universe from which everything has been created. This is the causal or transcendental body. Anandamaya kosha is the bliss layer of our existence. This is the most subtle aspect of our existence which is devoid of any form of thinking. It is a state of total silence – a state of complete harmony. Through Karma yoga or action in relaxation one can touch the dimension of inner bliss.
Thus, Anandamaya kosha is the final and subtlest among the five layers of existence. In the journey towards the ultimate, the yoga practitioner crosses these koshas or layers of existence one by one. Getting relieved from the bondages and constrictions of each kosha finally culminates into Self-Realization.