Five levels of our being

In my personal practice and my teaching, I find the concept of the five aspects of ourselves – the pancha koshas – a vital foundation to help me create practice plans addressing all the aspects.  Pancha is a Sanskrit word that simply means five, and kosha means sheath.   All aspects are to be nourished and supported by different practices in the "yoga toolkit" (as my teacher Swami Pragyamurti calls it).  

 Another way of putting it is that we humans are like a lamp that has five lampshades over our light. Each of the lampshades is a different colour and density. As the light shines through the lampshades, it is progressively changed in colour and nature. On the one hand, the shades provide the individualized beauty of each lamp. Yet, the lampshades also obscure the pure light.  

This mystical concept dates right back many thousands of years to the Taittiriya Upanishad.  [The word Upanishad refers to teachings received "at the feet of the teacher".]  

The Taittiriya speaks of five levels  of functioning through which we can achieve self-realization:

  •  The anna-maya-atma or the "Self (atma) made of Food" (anna = food)
  • The prana-maya-atma or "the Self made of Vital Breath (prana)
  • The mana-maya-atma or "the Self made of Mind (manas)" 
  • the Vijnana-maya-atma or "the Self made of Consciousness or intellect (vijnana)" 
  • the Ananda-maya-atma or "the Self made of Bliss (ananda)", where one attains realization

 Note that instead of the word kosha or sheath, the Upanishad speaks of atma or soul.  Maya is sometimes said to mean "made of" [anna, prana etc) whereas it is also said by much later scholars - perhaps even 1500 years later - that maya means "illusion" or even "delusion", This brings a a focus on the problems that arise when we believe the illusion that we are only the body, or only the mind, confusing one part of us with the whole.  Think about our modern preoccupation with our body shape, our physical health, or even “I think, therefore I am”.  But we can make good use of these parts of us to make progress: for example the breath is closely connected to the mind and affects emotional states.  So, too, can physical postures.  Yoga works holistically on the level of our whole being.    .

First layer or sheath – Annamaya kosha - the physical body - anna means food

We are born into the physical world, which is the outermost, solid layer.  Our body awareness is the entry point to the process of moving towards spiritual enlightenment and for many people a great introduction is via the body-based practices of hatha yoga.   But we can hold to the illusion that we are the body and that’s all we are.   Perhaps we can develop towards regarding the body as temple of the soul, to be cherished and kept as healthy as possible by  asanas, pranayama, shatkarmas (cleansing practices), a modest, balanced diet & fasting and the right amount of rest.

Second aspect – Pranamaya kosha – the energy level: the layer of our being connected with prana, life force.  Some people also call it the aura.  We are energy beings, constantly taking in and giving out energy.  As we start to practice awareness of the physical body in the asanas, we begin to feel and become aware of breath, sensations and emotions.  Pranamaya kosha is said to be the link between body and mind, and pranayama practices can help to restore balance to body and mind.   And of course we can practice this at any time of the day, not just when doing asanas.  Purified by asanas (+breath awareness), specific pranayama practices and mouna (silence).

Third aspect – Manomaya kosha – the reactive mind: manas = mind.  Often described as the “lower” or instinctive and reactive mind, it is a crucial part of our functioning.  Its job is to make sense of the world as we experience it via the five senses.  Mind is supported and  purified by asanas + breath awareness, pranayama, fasting, karma yoga,  chanting and meditation.

Fourth aspect– Vignanamaya kosha (the gn is pronounced as in the Spanish word mañana).  This layer, sometimes referred to as the intellectual sheath, has the functions of reflecting and applying wisdom and discrimination.  Purified by karma yoga, meditation, positive thinking, and self study.

Fifth aspect – Anandamaya kosha or bliss.  This innermost sheath expresses the idea that we are, in our innermost true Self, in a state of bliss at our still centre where we know all we need to know and can see things clearly.  Unfortunately it doesn't  last unless we are truly and permanently an enlightened being, but even a glimpse is deeply satisfying.

Perhaps this structure will help us include different practices in the life-support system known as Yoga, which is far, far more than asanas. You'll find more information in my most recent blog and I'm planning to link this newsletter with practice plans.



From Sound to Silence

This was the title of a 5 day meditation retreat I went on at Mandala Yoga Ashram in August 2015, led by Swami Gyan Dharma.  An ashram is described as a secluded place for retreat or spiritual practice and  Mandala Yoga Ashram is definitely that, sitting in a beautiful, remote corner of south Wales fairly near the Brecon Beacons.  It was set up in 1986 by Swami Nishchalananda so next year it'll celebrate its 4oth anniversary.  I recommend it highly as a wonderful place to experience.  See the website  You can register to receive regular bulletins and blogs, not to mention advance information about the 2016 programme.  

The programme for each day began with the sound of a hand bell waking us up at 5.30. The first class of asanas and pranayama was at 6.15 am, followed by mantra chanting and a meditation guided by Swami Gyan Dharma.  Then we had karma yoga, which for me was in housekeeping /cleaning.  As I was alone rather than in a group, it was done largely in silence and was definitely part of the practice.  Formal sessions with Swami Gyan Dharma included learning (or rather trying) the Sanskrit chants for the daily havan, the ancient Vedic fire ceremony.  Other forms of sound-making included learning and practising the Indian musical scale and OM chanting in a circle as a round (that was particularly powerful).  We also experienced seated and walking meditations, an evening satsang with questions, riotous kirtans (Swami Gyan Dharma's serious expression disguising a keen wit and a warm sense of inner joy that had us all laughing) and fantastic food. There were various periods of silence (mouna) as well as the lovely deep reflective silence after many of the practices.  Before lunch and the evening meal we chanted a mantra and ate in silence for the first 15 minutes.  Mouna began immediately after the evening session so we tended to be in bed by 9.30 pm.  I returned to Edinburgh inspired and deeply refreshed, with even more CDs to add to my collection.

On balancing the mind with yoga

I prepared these notes for  a seminar I taught for Edinburgh and Lothians Yoga Association in November 2014.  The whole of Yoga is of course about balancing the mind, with many different pathways, so I gave myself an impossible task!

Here are some extracts from the background material:

What is the mind?

How does the brain,  that 3lb mass of tissue inside our skulls, relate to the mind?  This problem has exercised philosophers (including spiritual masters of many traditions) for thousands of years. 

Cogito, ergo sum:  I am thinking, therefore I exist.  (Descartes, 1637)

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738).

Psychologists and other scientists have joined the search in the last 150 years or so.  In modern western thinking, the mind is defined more or less as consciousness - as our capacity to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, and to feel.  It can also mean a person's ability to think and reason; the intellect, or a person's attention.  BUT – over 100 years ago Sigmund Freud established that consciousness is only a small part -  the tip of the iceberg of mental processes.  Consciousness and mind are not synonymous.

In modern cognitive science the mind is identified as the reflection of the activity of the brain and nervous system, which is seen as a fantastic unimaginably complex (100 billion cells, each with tens of connections) information processing system linking us to our environment, both external and internal.  Neurotransmitters convey electrical impulses from neurone to neurone.  This is an active and ever-changing field of research.  One suggestion is that, if the brain were a book, the mind is the information contained within it.

Yoga philosophy sees the mind very differently. 

The Mandukya Upanishad – a Vedantic text dated around 1st century CE (though this is disputed by some scholars and it may have been earlier) – explores 4 levels of consciousness:

  • the waking state
  • dreaming (this includes not only night time dreaming but also daytime musings and reverie)
  • deep dreamless sleep
  • the fourth state, turiya or superconsciousness: enlightenment.

These four levels are symbolized in the Sanskrit word OM, where each of the curves represents one of the states of consciousness. 

The Buddha taught (for example in the Dhammapada) that

All things have the nature of mind.  Mind is the chief and takes the lead.  If the mind is clear, whatever you do or say will bring happiness that will follow you like your shadow.

All things have the nature of mind.  Mind is the chief and takes the lead.  If the mind is polluted, whatever you do or say leads to suffering that will follow you, as a cart trails a horse.

So no, Dr. Aaron T Beck didn't invent cognitive therapy!

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

Chapter 1, v.2

and another favourite quote - Chapter 1,  v.33

The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated .

One that resonates with me is from The Bhagavad Gita:

 “O Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, and violent.  Trying to control the mind is like trying to control the wind.”

   "It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, O Mahabaho, through regular practice and detachment.”

BG chapter 6, verses 34-35

Isn't it great to think that we can train the mind; we're not its slave!  Incidentally this resonates well with what we now know about neuroplasticity – that we can change the brain neuronal pathways by repeated practice.  These verses tell us that any practices we adopt in order to train the mind must be carried out with abhyasa: regular, systematic practice, even (or perhaps especially) when we don’t feel like it; and vairagya: detachment from our own opinions, actions and ego. 

More to follow.........................

Pranayama practices for the Autumn Equinox

I'm creating this  post from my contribution to the teaching at the Autumn Equinox retreat we had at the weekend, September 19th to 21st.  As a small group of Satyananda teachers in Scotland 5 of us (and a warmly welcomed Sivananda teacher) contributed sessions to the retreat held in the most beautiful setting, on the Isle of Skye, with views of the Black Cuillins from one side and of the Red Cuillins from the other.  We were blessed with beautiful weather and a walking meditation on Sunday was exquisite. 

My session took as its basis the links between Ayurveda, the Vedic science of healing both body and mind, and Yoga, the Vedic science of Self-realization.   Ayurveda and Yoga are considered to be sister sciences and the link between them is PRANA or life-force. So my session involved breathing and pranayama practices.   

Ayurveda is based on the five elements or tattwas, expressed in the body as the doshas.  We all have a doshic constitution at birth, and the balance changes as we grow, mature, and age.  The doshas vary not just by age, but also by time of day.

The kapha sections 6-10 am and pm are the most stable.  For better or worse, our deepest habits are established in these time periods – maybe that’s the origin of the old saying “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”.  Hopefully that applies to women too!   The morning kapha period is ideal for yoga practice, with the evening time being next best.

Pitta energy in the daytime, 10-2 am, aids our ability to focus and concentrate.  Pitta energy is needed for digestion therefore Ayurveda recommends that we take our main meal between those daytime hours.  Pitta energy between 10 pm and 2 am may be responsible for fridge-raiding munchies, so best to be asleep before this happens!

Vata dosha, the least stable, predominates between 2pm – 10 pm and 10 pm -2 am.  We may be prone to changeable moods and impulsiveness, but also are at our most creative.  And as vata governs elimination, this may be connected with night time trips to the toilet, especially as one gets older, which is dominated by vata.

The doshas also vary by season.   Autumn is the vata season - the most unstable element, subject to variability, bringing creativity, but also easily upset, perhaps being involved in impulsivity and mood swings, with anxiety as a symptom of what is sometimes called vata derangement!

The practices I taught were for calming.  The slower and more controlled the breath, the more prana we cultivate.  Find the stillness in the pause between breaths.

1. Chaturdik pranam mudra (Swami Pragyamurti’s book) – salutations (Oms x 3) to the four directions.

2. Savasana, letting the breath find its own length and rhythm

3. Relax and breathe – a vata calming practice, in savasana.  Raising and lowering arms with the breaths.

INHALE = EXHALE                                5 rounds

INHALE-HOLD-EXHALE                       5 rounds


Then pause in savasana at end, reflecting on effect of practice, aware of grounding & stabilising.

4. Sit up in vajrasana. 3 x Mukha bhastrika – crow’s beak breath, whoosh out (no breathing in, just continuous interrupted exhale until lungs empty) as bend forward, observe spontaneous suspension of breath.

5. Healing breaths: hasta mudra pranayama.  Mudras to connect with abdominal, AAH; mid-chest OOO; and upper chest breath MMM, then OM with Brahma mudra.

6. Nadi sodhana stage 1 x 3 rounds

7. Vayu mudras and chants.

Guru Poornima - 12th July 2014

Havan image

In yogic traditions, Guru Poornima is celebrated every year on the full moon day in July.  In 2014 it falls on Saturday 12th July.  This auspicious day gives us an opportunity to pay our respects and offer our heartfelt gratitude to all spiritual masters, past and present. The guru (giver of light or spiritual teacher) may be embodied in a living person or may be the principle that exists dormant in all of us – the inner guru.  

What is it we are to know about Guru Poornima? It is an opportunity for a spiritual stocktaking, a chance to renew and strengthen ourselves through coming together as a ‘sangha’ or group of people interested in rededicating ourselves to spiritual practice and inner growth.  Whether you have a guru or you don’t, whether it is inner or outer, whatever tradition, you are most welcome to come to join us in this celebration.

The programme includes a simple havan.  Havan is a time-honoured deeply symbolic practice that is used in domestic settings for particular purposes.   It utilises the power of fire (agni) to have a subtle but palpable effect on the individual, community and environment.  As the fire is lit and fed, mantras are chanted and samagri or rice grains are offered to the fire.  It is believed to develop spiritual purity and transformation as we discard old unwanted attitudes.  Yajna is also a type of fire ceremony but it tends to be for larger gatherings and to have a more universal theme. 

Havan and yajna are both rooted in ancient Vedic history, for example in the Katha Upanishad when Yama, the god of death, says to Nachiketa:

Dear Boy, that sacred fire which is the means

To heaven and is the support of all the worlds,

Actually burns deep within the hidden cave

Which is in the heart of each person.


And after the havan we have a feast!

Venue: Dechmont Memorial Community Hall

More information to follow