In the yogic tradition, Self-realization consists of discovering and discarding false identifications with aspects or energies of human being (koshas) that make up the spectrum of being-consciousness-bliss underlying who we are and the nature of reality. Ranging from material to spiritual, the entire spectrum is considered to be variations of the same being-consciousness-bliss organizing itself at different vibrational frequencies or forms.
In a sense, yoga is really a cosmic strip-tease in which we strip down to our essence, tossing layers of identification that conceal who we really are until we reveal ourselves as we already all ready are and always all ways ever shall be, pure being-consciousness-bliss.
When we mistakenly identify with only particular aspects of who we are, we frequently confuse our partiality with the greater integrity that is right here, right now always available if we’re willing to loosen our grip on the parts that prevent us from embracing our inherent wholeness.
Although most of us only perceive the densest layers of ourselves, identifying with our physical selves, throughout the ages, shamans, mystics, sages, yogis, and others with extra-sensory perception have described, and even painstakingly mapped, the progressively more refined, luminous, subtle energy field surrounding and supporting the physical body.
Although there is currently no scientific evidence supporting their existence beyond this long history of reported experience, many people still believe these to be descriptions of actual energetic existence. Others see these as elaborate metaphors for concentrating attention on various aspects of awareness, more akin to metaphoric yantras. And of course, there are still others who believe that the koshas are purely esoteric nonsense. For my purpose here, I'm not advocating for any particular belief, but rather, describing the koshas, and leaving it to you to explore what you believe about these. With that in mind, here we go.
Within this subtler dimension of human being, each of us is comprised of multiple interpenetrating, elliptical fields or nested layers of energy emanating within, through, and around the physical body to create one integrated human energy field. Each field, sometimes called a "sheath," has its own energy and quality corresponding to various physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of human experience.
The outer concentrations of the sheaths, often called the aura, act like an energetic skin, a semi-permeable protective field that filters energy. In our natural healthy state, our auras extend about four to five feet around our entire individual physical bodies. Likewise, in unhealthy states, our auras contract or congest.
Within the innermost concentrations of the sheaths, life energy (prana) forms an intricate network of subtle channels or meridians (nadis) connecting energetic reservoirs or pressure points (marmas) along and above the surface of the skin. The nadis are like an energetic circulatory system streaming prana in, through, and out of your body, which have been described as streams of light. The marmas or points of light function like energetic tidal pools where the energy streams of your physical body and your subtle body, or what you tend to think of as your "self," converge and concentrate.
Prana also concentrates in energetic vortices or wheels (chakras), the primary seven of which are centered along the spine, extending outward from the spine beyond the front and back of the physical body. The chakras are like energetic whirlpools that funnel life energy through the aura and via the nadis to the organs of the physical body. When functioning optimally, chakras regulate the flow of energies to harmonize our personal energy field with the energy fields of our environment and sustain our greater health and well-being.
The Three Bodies (Sariras) & Five Sheaths (Koshas)
Traditionally categorized into three energy bodies known as the Gross, Subtle, and Causal, the spectrum of consciousness contains five fields or "sheaths" loosely labeled food, energy, mind, wisdom, and bliss.
Gross Body (Sthula Sarira)
Your Gross Body (gross meaning material, not icky) includes all the systems of the physical body, constitutions (Doshas), as well as the five elements of the physical body: earth, water, fire, air and space. The skeletal system corresponds to earth, the circulatory and immune systems to water, the respiratory system to air, the digestive system to fire, and the central nervous system to space.
Matter/Food (Body) Sheath (Annamaya Kosha): the visible manifestation of energy, the material body of form and flesh sustained by proper food, nutrition, exercise, rest, and relaxation, as well as fresh air and clean water. It is the body, which (and with which) we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. It is the form and appearance of our embodied existence bound by space and time subject to birth, growth, disease, old age, decay, and death. When healthy, we experience this as stability and sensuality.
Primary yogic practices: asanas and mudras
Subtle Body (Suksma Sarira)
Your Subtle Body is comprised of the innermost fields (koshas), streams of light (nadis) and energy bodies (chakras) that support our physical health and well-being. It includes the five pranas and five types of sensory impressions--the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell.
Vital/Energy (Life) Sheath (Pranayama Kosha): the immediate prana field surrounding and permeating the physical body that supports and mediates physical (body) and psychological (mind) life. It is the active energy of our will to live, our primal emotions and our instinctual desires for life. When healthy, we experience this as vitality and sensitivity—an exquisite, essential felt-sense and ecstatic motion of being alive that we can most readily access and enhance whenever we attend to the quality and flow of our breath.
Primary yogic practices: breathwork (pranayama) and sacred sounds, words, chants (mantra)
Mental/Emotional (Mind) Sheath (Manomaya Kosha): this is the conceptual stream of impressions and moods—the labels and roles that we inhabit—underlying the individual personality or the appearance of the self. It is the consciousness of separation, ownership, and agency—me, myself, and I. It is reflected in the nervous system and organs of perception. When healthy, we experience this kosha as sensibility and empathy.
Primary yogic practices: symbolic visualization (yantra), introversion, solitude and silence (pratyahara), meditative concentration (dharana)
These first three sheaths (matter, vital/prana, and mental/emotional) form the basis for the personal self or egoic consciousness. Yogic philosophy distinguishes between the small self or egoic self and the universal Self of spiritual being.
Wisdom/Knowing (Soul) Sheath (Vijnanamaya Kosha): the realm of true knowledge or wisdom and genuine discerning awareness that inspires deeper insights about who we are and the nature of reality. We experience this as clarity, integrity, and transparency. This is the entrance to the experience of unity—of being One Self.
Primary yogic practices: meditative concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana)
Causal Body (Karana Sarira)
Your Causal Body is the soul vehicle or seed body containing the karmic keys to our Self-realization
Bliss (Spirit) Sheath (Anandamaya Kosha): often called the Bliss Body, this is the threshold of the non-dual realm of unconditioned, infinite, eternal being consciousness. We experience this as pure joy or bliss, peace, and tranquility.
Primary yogic practices: meditation (dhyana)
These latter two sheaths form the basis for our universal Self, the self that knows itself to be the one in the many and the many in the one.