Yoga therapy works holistically, not on just the physical body, but rather on all levels of our being. These levels are referred to as the Five Koshas.
Yoga offers such a broad range of healing benefits, because it works holistically on the level of our whole being, not just the physical body. According to yoga philosophy, we are not just our physical body or mind, we are holistic, multi-dimensional beings made up by many different, interactive levels.
In the yoga framework, these levels are referred to as the five sheaths of our being, or the Five Koshas. To understand the Five Koshas and the role they play in yoga therapy, it's easiest to think of the Koshas as a series of Russian dolls, each embedded within the others. Starting from the outermost layer and moving towards the core, the Five Koshas proceed from outer to inner in greater and greater levels of subtlety:
Annamayakosha-The Physical body. This sheath represents the physical body, the 'regular' gross expression of our body that we can see, touch and feel. The Sanskrit word Anna means food, and the word maya means appearance. This is the sheath of food, nourished by and created by our daily intake of food. The Annamayakosha is our physical body, the most familiar aspect of our being. As we practice yoga asanas, the physical body is the starting point of our experience.
Pranamayakosha-The Energy body. According to yoga therapy traditions, this is the second layer of our being. Prana means energy, but not energy in the usual Western meaning of the word. Rather, prana is the life-force, the vital energy which flows through and enlivens all our physical systems. The breath is the most physical expression of prana, and prana is closely related to the breath. Breath awareness and breathing practices, called pranayama, increase and facilitate the flow of prana in the body and balance the flow of the life force to all the physical systems.
Manamayakosha-The Mental-Emotional body. Manas means mind, and the Manamayakosha is the layer of our being expressed as mind, emotions, and feelings. These are the mental faculties with which we absorb, process, and interpret input from our life (presented through the senses of the physical body). It is like a supervisor in a factory, which unfortunately often mistakenly takes on the role as manager.
Vijnanamayakosha-The Wisdom body. The fourth Kosha is considered part of the subtle body. Vijnana means knowing, and this sheath represents the higher mind, the faculty of wisdom, which lies underneath the processing, thinking, reactive mind. This is the level of our being, that has the higher wisdom to guide us through life and lead us to higher and higher levels of truth and integration. It represents the reflective aspects of our consciousness, which allow us to experience a deeper insight into ourselves and the world around us.
Anandamayakosha-The Bliss body. This is the fifth and final sheath of our being. Ananda means bliss, not bliss in the sense of emotions, such as happiness or pleasure, but an expanded, unbounded experience of reality. The ancients viewed the experience of the Bliss body as an experience of the deepest level of our being, an unbounded, blissful state of peace, joy, and love.
The Koshas are viewed as different, beautiful manifestations of our essential universal nature. According to yoga philosophy, this is known as Atman-the unbounded, universal Oneness of all that exists.
In practice, how do the different levels of our being interact? Take the example of depression. When we are depressed, we cannot help but slouch, rounding our shoulders and dropping our head forward Our breath becomes shallow and more restrained. In this way, our psychological mood, associated with our mental-emotional body (manamayakosha), affects our physical body (annamayakosha), as well as our breath and energy body (pranamayakosha).
In a yoga therapy practice, we begin to bring greater integration to the physical body with yoga asanas and to the breath body with yogic breathing or pranayama. As the flow of vital energy is freed up in the physical body and breath body, this in turn creates greater vitality and integration in our mental-emotional body. This is why many people find that practicing yoga for depression often improves their mood and well-being considerably over time.
Of course, such deep-level changes don't happen overnight. Over the long term, however, yoga therapy can create permanent healing, because it helps bring greater integration to the deeper levels of our being, leading to increased balance, wisdom, and spiritual enrichment in all areas of life.