Discover the deeper meaning behind the Vedic philosophy of Panca Kosa and how to include this ancient yogic philosophy in a modern yoga class.
The Panca Kosa Model teaches us that surrounding our True Self are five ‘sheaths’, which need to be explored and peeled away on our yogic journey to liberation. While it could be easy to dismiss this idea as antiquated, yoga teacher Mark Bonington explores why it’s more relevant than ever.
What is The Panca Kosa?
Panca Kosa can be an odd yogic philosophy to encounter. The concept that we have five “spiritual sheaths” caused, I remember, a mixed series of reactions during my own yoga teacher training – ranging from interest to outright dismissal.
It’s a fair response to feel that this theory doesn’t apply or is too ‘out-there’ — not all of us will connect with all aspects of the practice, especially those drawn up from the annals of history, where time and translation have potentially blunted our understanding. And in the extensive pantheon of yoga theories which have been handed down through the ages, Pancha Kosha is definitely one which leans into the more esoteric.
That said, at its heart, Panca Kosa is the Vedantic belief that we are made up of 5 layers (or sheaths) of being, ranging from the gross to the extremely subtle.
They include our body, along with levels of the mind and our personal energies. The five elements are balanced within each layer, and changes to one layer will affect the others – such as when we are relaxed in deep sleep or immersed in meditation
As we peel away each layer, we are left with our ‘Atman’, or our true self; that bit of our personal energy which floats in the universe, unique to us and yet part of the universal consciousness (‘Brahman’).
The Panca Kosa Model
- Our physical body: Annamaya Kosa
- Our energetic body: Pranamaya Kosa
- Our mental body: Manomaya Kosa
- Our wisdom body: Vijnanamaya Kosa
- Our bliss body: Anandamaya Kosa
Relating to Panca Kosa
It’s easy to see why the concept of Panca Kosa can be dismissed as simply an antiquated piece of spirituality, or hardly relevant to a modern Vinyasa Flow class in the high-intensity environment of a London gym.
But let’s look deeper. At its heart, Panca Kosa is about taking away the labels which we and others have placed around ourselves, in order to find the deeper truths about our being beneath. And in the modern world, aren’t we more obsessed than ever with our labels?
We define ourselves through our job titles; through our carefully-filtered Instagram selfies; by who we or what we know, or where we come from. Our labels start from our earliest memories, when we are given a name and a set of inherent stereotypes tied to our gender. But what happens when we start to strip all of those away?
Introducing Panca Kosa to your students…
Meditation is a great place to begin exploring this philosophy. It can be a fertile space to introduce the concepts behind Panca Kosa into a yoga or mindfulness practice, whether for ourself or for others, without the idea feeling intimidating or incomprehensible.
As someone who loves to teach more powerful yoga classes, I sometimes introduce aspects of it into the limited time we have in Savasana, often as part of a body scan, or at the start of class when I ask the students to set an intention and dedicate the energy of their practices to someone or something beyond themselves. But in a more restorative or Yoga Nidra class, the theory behind Pance Kosa would certainly have a greater scope to flourish as the students are typically given longer to go into themselves and embrace yoga’s more meditative aspects.
Essentially, I ask the students to begin removing how they define themselves using their pre-defined labels, utilising one or more of the following:
“Who are you beyond your job title? Let it go.”
“Who are you beyond your relationships? Let them go.”
“Who are you beyond your body? Let it go.”
“Who are you beyond your mind? Let it go.”
“Who are you beyond your emotions? Let them go.”
“Who are you beyond your gender? Let it go.”
“Who are you beyond your name? Let it go.”
This can be a frightening concept to embrace at first — you’re essentially asking someone to start removing everything they’ve used to illustrate themselves since birth. But the hope is that it will start students on a journey towards their own emancipation and liberation — which at the kernel is what the journey of yoga is all about, regardless of the shapes we can bend our body into.
In this sense, I believe that Panca Kosa is the perfect spiritual element for the modern world and for modern yoga.
Panca Kosa teaches what we are (finally) in the West allowing ourselves to do — looking beyond concepts such as job title or gender to explore who we are, or to give ourselves an external sense of worth. Panca Kosa walks hand in hand with a variety of personal wellness concepts, including mindfulness, embracing gender fluidity, self-empowerment and self-love.
I rarely refer to Panca Kosa or the Sanskrit names of the sheathes within the context of a lesson, both for reasons of time and not wishing students to feel confused.
Instead, I break it down into what I see as the key universal message of the philosophy — that we are simply more than society has named us, and have an inherent universal value beyond how we quantify it in the modern world; whether we choose to do that by counting income, clocking number of sexual partners, or chasing Instagram likes.
Introducing Panca Kosa in this way has garnered positive reactions from students both privately and in public classes.
For teachers introducing this philosophy into their sessions, have a think and get creative.
“The idea may be ancient, but how we personalise and apply it will always be new!”
Article Written By Mark Bonington
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