The Yoga Therapy Lens: Seeing Health Through the Pancamayakosha Model

The following pages are a response to the question I'm often asked: "What makes yoga therapy different from other kinds of therapy?" Yoga Therapy views the individual as far more than a physical body, or that fuzzy thing called "the mind." Seeing the individual as the composite of several interrelated parts offers additional entry points, and the complimentary multi-faceted tools of therapeutic yoga offer means for seeking healing where unilateral treatments may fall short.

Though Yoga Therapy is technically a new field in the modern context, its orientation, tools and techniques are ancient. The following pages offer a philosophical and experiential summary of the lens I use — the Pancamayakosha model — when working with clients therapeutically.

But, before we dive in, let’s do a little experiment. Think about something that makes you feel mental stress; access something manageable, rather than the greatest thing that pains you. Bring the shape of it into your mind, and let it rest there. Now, notice the feeling developing in the physical body. A tightness in the chest? Is your breath affected? Does the mind want you to stop probing that particular wound?

Next, think of something that makes you happy. Joyful, even. How is your physical body affected? What about your breathing? How has your mood changed bringing that joyful thing to mind? Is there a lightness building in the chest center and belly, the forehead, perhaps even the souls of feet?

You may notice that even these brief thought experiments produce effects in the physical emotional, and breath layers of your greater being. The yogic lens views these parts of self as connected, if not even made of the same stuff. What enters one part of self affects the others; disease promotes greater disease, while healing in one aspect of self can promote greater healing. Belief in this interconnectedness forms the foundation for my work as a yoga therapist.

Let's Break it Down

This holistic stance finds its footing in ancient teachings like the Pancamayakosha Model, rooted in the Taittiriya Upanishad. The Upanishads are a collection of some 200 texts, the earliest of which date to 6th century BCE, and contain many of the concepts central to Hinduism; Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism share many of the same tenets. The Taittiriya Upanishad is likely one of the earliest composed.

These sacred, yet wholly human teachings, present being human as multi-dimensional. Though the soul - atman - is viewed as an unchanging witness, being human manifests through five —panca — constantly changing dimensions, which exist as parts of the illusion of separateness — maya — that each human endures before consciousness.   Each of these layers — or koshas — pervades into every other, affects, and is affected by every other.

The 5 dimensions of the Pancamaya Model are:

  • Annamaya or Body
  • Pranamaya or Breath/Energy
  • Manomaya or Psycho-Emotional
  • Vijnanamaya or Wisdom
  • Anandamaya or Bliss

The Annamaya, or physical dimension, is nourished by anna, or “food.” The physical body is the most overt, and by definition, the most tangible layer through which much of the work of yoga takes place. 

The Pranamaya, or breath and energetic dimension, is nourished by prana, or “universal life force.” In this physical reality, prana is considered derived from the air we breathe. When received, as the body does with each breath, prana animates, and gives function to the Annamaya. In our yogic tradition, the greater life force prana is subdivided into 5 main categories of how breath moves: prana, apana, samana, udana, and vyana. Understanding these principles is useful when examining how energy moves — or doesn’t — in therapeutic work.

The Manomaya, or psycho-emotional dimension, is nourished by information. Manomaya governs the intangible space between sensation, and interpretation of that received sensory information. The Manomaya dimension creates perception, and is where our capacity for thought, and feeling, reside.

The Vijnanamaya dimension, is nourished by wisdom. In this dimension our habits, patterns, and attitudes are formed. Vijnanamaya is informed by experience, as well as the inner “knowing” of intuition. Vijnanamaya is connected to the development of personality, and is part of what gives each Soul its individual expression.

The Anandamaya, the subtlest layer, is nourished by joy. Anandamaya is fundamentally connected to the Soul, and is the part of our being that inherently understands interconnectedness. You are probably, in some way, drawn to seeking understanding through the Anadamayakosha, as the part of you that wants you to come into contact with your highest, best self, rests wholly there.

This is a model, a lens through which we can understand the Whole Self. These koshas, or layers of our being, are inherently interconnected. They overlap, they flow back and forth, they reinforce each other, and are reinforced by one another. Each layer can be an entry point for another. Understanding oneself through the lens of Pancamayakosha offers multiple entry points for seeking — and finding — change, healing, and growth. 

The Physical Body

The anamayakosha -- the physical body -- is the most obvious dimension within which the work of therapeutic yoga takes place. Muscles lengthen and contract. Bones articulate in joints. The body takes a shape, and then another. Sometimes, bones creak and body aches; other times, muscles feel fired up and strong, and body is able to move with grace, agility, strength and power.

The body machine has so many working parts. So much goes into its function! At this very moment, countless neurons are firing; signals are being sent to and from the brain. Information is received, interpreted, and a response is generated over and over again. 

Let’s try another experiment. 

Mentally, or even better, physically come into Tadasana, or stable mountain pose. If you’re unfamiliar, simply come to standing with feet hips distance, and arms relaxed at sides. 

Now - notice - when you stood up, what muscles did you use? What joints articulated to make coming to standing possible? 

Now that you’re in Tadasana: what does the mat feel like beneath your feet? Do you feel balanced? Or, does a part of you sway a bit, searching for balance? What happens if you spread your feet wider? What happens if you bring the big toes to touch? Try rocking back and forth from heel to ball. 

What are your shoulders doing in this pose? Pinned to ears? Could you gently, consciously, relax them? What about finger tips? Are they tensed? Are they soft?

This most overt layer is speaking to you all the time in the language of sensation. Listen.

The work, then, is to learn to compassionately listen to the Anamayakosha, rather than impose expectation and attachment — and therefore disappointment and suffering — onto the physical sheath.

When we move the physical body with gentleness, awareness, and compassion — when we treat the physical body like an ally, rather than an annoyance — we are practicing yoga.

The Breath Energetic Body

The Pranamayakosha represents a going deeper — a graying of the space between the physical, and something a bit more subtle.  This second kosha is the energetic layer of self — the universal life from which we derive life — represented in part in the physical realm by the breath. This breath-energy moves through us. We receive it, we release it. From breath, processes are stimulated across the Annamayakosha. And so, we begin to see the inherent overlap between these layers. A breath crosses over — blurs the space — between the realm of energy, and the corporeal.

Again, let’s experiment: Stand in that same simple shape: Tadasana. Let your hands rest next to your hips. Notice your breath. Is it shallow? Is it deep? What parts of the body are most overtly expanding, or contracting? What happens when you take a deep, conscious breath? How are your shoulders impacted? Does your chest, or belly move first? What else do you notice about Tadasana as you breathe?

Let’s look at the processes at work:

When you take a deep breath, the diaphragm contracts, or tightens, pulling downward. The space in your chest cavity increases, and your lungs expand, facilitated by your strong intercostal muscles between ribs, which pull your ribs upward, and outward, upon inhale. Oxygen moves through nose and mouth, through the bronchial tubes, and reaches the alveoli. Imagine air sacs, like bunches of grapes, taking in oxygen, passing the essential gas to the surrounding blood vessels (capillaries). With the assistance of a cell protein called hemoglobin, our wonderful 02 moves into the blood stream, where it replenishes and restores cells throughout the body.

At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs; as you exhale, your diaphragm expands, your intercostals contract, and C02 is pushed out the lungs, windpipe, nose and mouth, and out of he body.

The breath body is a product of the shape and health of the physical body. If the Annamayakosha is contracted, and malformed, or if the body isn’t able to adequately produce essential proteins and hormones essential to the breath process, the Pranamayakosha is negatively impacted. When the physical body is lithe, and healthful, breathing is facilitated. Many of us breath without every being conscious of how the breath process works, or moreover, how it’s working for each of us.

During our work you’ll learn the principles and techniques of specific breath practices — pranayama — used to cultivate different energetic states. We will also expand upon the energetic aspect of the Pranamayakosha. The Vayus are components of the greater life force called Prana, and represent directions, and ways by which energy moves. The Vayus are also useful constructs for understanding how energy facilitates action.

The Psycho-Emotional Body

The Manomayakosha continues to blur the space between the physical, and something more. This dimension of self contains the space for all that is psychological, and emotional. It is the realm in which thought and feeling dance. While the mind seems to exist apart from the body, it is also implicitly connected. The Manomayakosha is the composite of electro-chemical responses, and a myriad of hormones, proteins and neurotransmitters. Stimuli travel afferent pathways along the spine, reach the brain, share information that the brain then interprets as thought. Feelings produce thoughts, which produce feelings. It’s a funny, sometimes vicious, sometimes virtuous chicken and egg kind of cycle from which much of our conscious self is born.

The unconscious governs there, too. The Manomayakosha interprets information, and then guides response; whether the response is suffering inducing, or not, is dependent on the health of this psycho-emotional dimension.

Much of the yogi’s work occurs in unravelling the patterns constructed within this layer of being.

Let’s examine: You are in Tadasana, and you are taking deep, conscious breaths. How do these breaths make you feel? Do you feel enlivened? Or do you notice a kind of stuck-ness? As you let the mind rest for a moment in the “stuck,” what surfaces? Do your thoughts wander to a relationship that has soured, or a job that you can’t stand? Does your mind seem intent on commenting on the shape of your body, perhaps a heaviness, or lethargy you feel? And then, do these appraisals wander into the territory of emotion? Does the weight you feel on your thighs transform into a negative feeling about yourself? Does a feeling of weak muscle transform into an appraisal of your inadequacy?

We tread the path between thought and feeling nearly every second, and for most of our lives, without conscious intervention. From our very first experiences, the Manomayakosha has learned to interpret information a certain way, and shape its responses accordingly. Only conscious intervention — compassionate awareness — can help us begin to de-link the chain of thought-feeling-response-feeling-thought-feeling-response, and so on.

Thank goodness for Yoga.

The Wisdom Body

The wisdom body — the vijnanamayakosha — is the seat of our intuition and intellect. There is a knowing part of you that is already aware that you are not only the mind. It knows you something more than the fluctuations of emotion, something more than a sack of bones and muscle. There is a knowing part of you that is pulling you, always, toward highest and best action; whether you choose to listen is another story.

Let’s return to Tadasana: Take a moment, and see if you can bring your whole self to mind. You notice your physical body, it’s whole shape, from rooting soles of feet to rising crown of head. You notice breath moving through you, and the energy it carries on its current. You can stand in witness of your thoughts and feelings, too. With eyes closed, see if you can feel yourself holding the entirety of yourself in the palms of your hands. 

Notice the peace that seems to settle within and around you as you step into this place of compassionate witness.

Connection to this dimension is essential to cultivate, should you truly choose to walk the yogic path toward healing.

The Bliss Body

Standing in Tadasana, try for a moment to strive for nothing. Don’t even try to notice. Don’t even try to not try. Let the weight of your being slip away. Simple “be.”

Hard, isn’t it. No one ever said coming into contact with your bliss body would be easy.

And yet, you have had glimpses of Anadamayakosha, and probably even on your yoga mat: moments of full absorption in the task; moments in which nothing needs to be different; moments in which you feel whole, and complete, and have stopped striving for any sense of “something better.”

You have found it in a task that makes your heart sing: perhaps art in some form pours from you, your fingers not fast enough to paint the page. Perhaps singing, or dancing calls to you, or a strong, long run. You have felt flashes of intense joy, because there is a part of you calling you back to this place.

You know Anandamaya from early moments of childhood; if you’re a parent, you’ve seen it in your babes: moments of full, whole-hearted simple, joy-full, being.

The cool thing is: coming back to this place is, you could say, your Soul purpose.  

This is the work ahead:

Having ceased many of the needless fluctuations of the mind — tamed the Manomayakosha — you are able to readily access vijnana. You have actively cultivated your wisdom. You have looked within; you have gained in-sight. You know that the thought-feelings that arise will pass. You know that the Anamayakosha will change; your are unattached to the physical body, and yet you work toward health and wellness. You know that you can use your breath to positively affect your energy. You know that what comes to you, will go, just as you will some day. You know that you are part of something much greater, a larger ebb and flow. And it feels pretty darn good to sit at these shores and feel it all wash right over you.

And yet, this is an attempt to convey the concept of Anandamaya, but it is not Anandamaya. Anandamaya cannot be fully understood, or explicated by the mind because it is not the mind. It can not be strived for. Words are too two dimensional for its greater shape. Neither is Anandamaya is a transient feeling; Anandamaya is a state of being that, when realized, can’t leave you because it is your essence.

And even Anandamaya is only a layer which too must be pulled back to reveal your whole, unchanging state: The Soul that rests beneath it all, the unchanging-ness of your ever changing being.