The Pancha Mayas or the Five Sheaths

Do you agree that there is more to you than meets the eye?  That you are more than just this flesh and bones?  We have feelings, thoughts, memories.  Our awareness of these other dimensions of reality is what makes us different from animals.  It is our unique privilege to have the ability to perceive reality beyond our senses, and by denying ourselves this privilege we violate something sacred – our right to fulfill our full potential.  The ancient Yogis have described the human anatomy in great detail, and the physical body is only a part of a much-larger whole.  They called them the Five Sheaths, or the five containers, but not in the sense that they are separate.  These five dimensions are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them, and by affecting one you are affecting all the others.

The first is the most gross – the physical body, or the Anna Maya.  It is made up of flesh and bone and is nourished by food, and in death it becomes food.  “Anam” in Sanskrit means “that which is eaten and that which eats.”  Improper diet and lack of exercise harms the physical body, and we feel bad on all other levels – we have low energy, agitated or dull mind, negative thoughts and feelings.

The second is the Prana Maya, or the energy body.  It is not as tangible as the physical body, but it is hard to deny its existence.  You can easily tell in any given moment what your energy is like – do you feel light, optimistic and happy, or tired, drained, and depressed?  Prana is what animates the flesh, without which it is just a piece of meat.  This dimension is nourished by the breath – while we breathe, we are alive!  Therefore Pranayama, or breathing, is such an important part of our Yoga practice.  For more detail on Prana Maya, read my blog The Five Winds of Prana.

The third is the Mano Maya, or the Mind.  It is our intellect and the knowledge we gain in school and through experiences, the things we choose to learn or not to learn.  Paying close attention to your experiences in a Yoga class, to alignment and postures, by being present mentally you are nourishing the mind, which can be scattered and agitated otherwise.  It is very important to practice Yoga in the right state of mind, that is with peaceful contemplation and in a non-judgmental way.  This sheath is less tangible still, but its effects manifest themselves clearly in the physical and energetic bodies – “as above, so below.”  To read more about this, go to my blog on the Mind Body Connection.

The fourth is the Vijnana Maya, or our personality.  It is made up of our beliefs, the things we hold near and dear to our heart.  It is the kind of knowledge that creates an emotional reaction in you.  Our beliefs can hold us back instead of motivating us to move forward.  This special knowledge forms your personality and feeds your philosophy of life.  By reviewing what we believe and why, through self-reflection and meditation we can heal this very subtle body.

The fifth and the most subtle of all is the Ananda Maya, or the Blissful Self.  It is the part of ourselves that is nourished by joys from internal things, by joy that comes from within and does not depend on anything the external world has to provide.  We must cultivate spiritual and emotional connections that fulfill us on this deepest level.  Even if there is something you cannot do with your physical body due to limitations, you can experience it in this body through meditation and visualization.  In your meditation, practice recollecting joy from the past, identifying it in the present, and look forward to more joy in the future, and then share it with the world, because Ananda Maya is the expansive state of joy.

So next time you practice Yoga, look beyond the obvious and the gross to nourish these many dimensions of yourself.  As your muscles stretch and strengthen, don’t forget to infuse your pose with life with relaxed, mindful breathing, paying close attention to sensations and making small inner adjustments to enhance your experience.  Allow time and space in your practice to enjoy simple pleasures, simple movements and poses – there is no need to push all the time.  This way you can actually revise some things that you believe about yourself and transform yourself into a whole new person, someone you actually proud to be, and thus be able to move forward in your spiritual development.  And no matter how oppressed, depraved, or limited one’s circumstances are, by looking past the tangible reality we are able to elevate ourselves and grow as human beings.


Anna M.