The whole purpose of Yoga is to learn who we are, because if we know who we are, then we will be able to live more fulfilling lives, be able to solve the problems that we have, and maybe, who knows, be content.

The Pancha Maya Kosha model is one way of examining ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of who we are. Pancha means five. Maya means "dimensions" or "layers". Koshas means "container." The ancient Yogic view of the human being is that there is more than just the physical body, there are five altogether that comprise the entirety of our existence. All of these layers are inter-connected and "bleed" into each other, when something happens in one layer, it affects all the others.

A side note: the word "Kosha" is not entirely correct here. It means "container", literally, and is used to describe the way internal organs are separated from the rest of the body by a "sack", or "kosha". An Ayurvedic guru started using this word to explain to Westerners something that was alien to them, using a concept that we Westerners relate to easier. The Western model, he noticed, wants to separate, divide, and study each part individually, and in doing so often loses sight of the whole.

The way this theory is presented to the Western audience is also meant to appeal to our scientifically inclined minds. It is often taught that the physical body comes first, and from it arises the animation of breath, the cognitive abilities of the mind, the complexities of the emotions, and maybe the soul - its presence or absence is not even discussed in the scientific terms, because it is something that cannot be measured, touched, or perceived by any technological means we mere mortals possess.

The models that we use in the West are insufficient to fully understand who we are, and that is part of the reason why we experience so much unhappiness as human beings on this planet.

If the Western model was a good one, we would not be paying two and half times more than people in other countries are paying for health costs every year. We wouldn't pay 75 percent of our health dollars to treat chronic, preventable diseases. We would have better health outcomes if our thinking models were different, and that's where the Yogic model may be helpful to us, it certainly is the model I use in Yoga Therapy.

The way Yoga looks at the whole concept is the exact reverse. This view comes from the Vedas, an ancient thinking structure that sees the human being as a microcosm: everything that exists in an individual can be found in the cosmos. So, let me pose to you a different paradigm - what if the "Soul" came first, and the physical structure built itself around it? How does that idea strike you? Let's explore a different way of looking at ourselves.

The Pancha Mayas are the Five Dimensions of a human being, and remember, these layers are not discreet, they inter-penetrate each other and they reflect each other (the physical body reflects the mental and emotional body, for example). And even though these are not entirely separate dimensions, there is a sense of higherarchy in them and offers us a causal explanation of human existence. And the cause, the drive of human existence is a need to experience (through forms and actions), so that we could learn certain things.

The first layer is Ananda Maya - the "Bliss body". It is the most subtle part of us, it has no thoughts or feelings, it is just a state of Bliss that is beyond all form. It is interesting that the ancient Yogis saw our existence as inherently joyful - a rather optimistic view! They saw the meaning of our lives as simply abiding in that Bliss.

From that energy of Ananda the next dimension is formed - Vijnana Maya. It is a "wisdom body" - the witnessing consciousness. Awareness of what is happening without judgement.There may be a bit of judgement coming in, I suppose, but mostly as in "is this real?" For the most part it is simply a state of mindfulness.

From the mindful dimension of us springs fourth the judgement about what we observe - the Mano Maya, or the "mental body". Here we may also see a bit of the emotional body that comes next, but it is the layer we spend most of our time in, our thoughts, judgements, cravings and aversions. We become our thoughts if we are not careful.

From the mental body comes the "emotional body", Prana Maya - the emotions, the feelings, the energy that our thoughts generate. It is our thoughts that shape how we feel, don't you agree? Then, from that Pranic body finally comes the physical body - the Ana Maya, or "the body of food", the flesh and bone that we are. There is no doubt anymore that our feelings create a physical sensation in the body, and those sensations shape our physical structure - a hunched posture, or a military posture are all physical expressions of a mental and emotional state. A person with a denser energetic body would have a denser flesh, a lighter spirit would have a light body. So, you see, the Yogis perceived it "as above, so below."

You may notice that this is quite inverted from the way we see the Self in the West. In the West we usually think of ourselves as physical bodies first, and then the mind is the phenomenon of the brain, and then the Spirit may or may not exist. The Pancha Maya Model gives us a way of exploring problems we have from a new angle. As a Yoga therapist, I ask myself, where are we going to find the most profound healing? It may not necessarily come from a pill. There is a reason why Yoga has such an effect on every dimension of the human being - because it affects every dimension.

That is why meditation and mindfulness are so profoundly healing - there is no pill that can affect those layers (a hallucinogenic, maybe, but that is not really sustainable or practical, is it?). So, if we have a greater understanding of the cause and effect, if we stop looking at our problems from a purely mechanical point of view, as if we are some kind of machine with parts that can be fixed by replacing a hip, a heart, or whatever, then maybe we can find healing (not always a cure, but nonetheless, a sense of wholeness).

I think we can all agree that a human being is more complicated than a machine, and we need to start acknowledging that things may be more subtle, more nuanced, than our Western model has allowed us to think so far. And maybe then we can have better health and happiness.

In the next series of blog entries I will address each layer with some reflection on the physio-pscyche implications, and ways to find a better balance in each of these areas that a source of strength, joy, and fulfillment. Stay tuned!


Anna M.