what is a yoga body?
"How do I get a yoga body?" Every so often a student asks.
My short answer: If you do yoga and you have a body, you have a yoga body.
It's an honest answer, but it's also a little cheeky. I know that's not what they mean. They want to know how to change the appearance of their physical body. You're about to get my long answer, which goes like this: Your physical body is a great place to start practice, but the really exciting transformation happens when you use yoga to dig into the deeper dimensions of yourself. According to yoga tradition, you have five bodies.
Yep you read that right. Five bodies.
This concept comes from a classic yoga text called the Taittiriya Upanishad – it's called the Panchamaya Kosha model. It’s a holistic, multi-layered way of understanding who you are that goes well beyond the physical. It's very similar to the modern, western biopsychosocial spiritual model of health. (You can learn more about that here short video or here more in-depth.
Your five bodies are called koshas or ‘sheaths’, in Sanskrit. The physical layer (made of skin, bone, muscle, organs, etc) is the outermost layer - visible to the eye and easiest to feel. Maybe that’s why we’re so focused on it. Nestled inside your physical body are your energetic body (pranayama kosha), your mental body (manomaya kosha), your wisdom body (vijnanamaya kosha) and, at your core, your bliss body (anadamaya kosha). You can picture each of these five bodies nested one inside another like a set of Russian dolls.
As a holistic path to well-being, yoga practice is designed to take you on an inward journey through all the layers of your self - body, breath, mind, heart and spirit. The final destination, a state of bliss, where you feel complete, integrated and in harmony with yourself and the world.
That's how you get a yoga body. Read on to find out how to train all five of your koshas.
Your First Body
“Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself.” -Taittiriya Upanishad
This is your physical body, called annamaya kosha in yoga-speak. For most people, the yogic path to well-being begins here with Hatha yoga, the physical practices of yoga. Your physical body is a great place to begin honing the awareness and sensitivity you’ll need to tune into the deeper, subtler layers of yourself.
Developing awareness of physical sensations is the foundation of mindfulness training. When you shine your attentional spotlight on any of the senses taking place in your body right now, you are experiencing yourself in the present moment. You use your 5 senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell) when you feel your body in contact with the ground, consciously focus your gaze (drishti) or focus on the sound of a gong in meditation. These types of awareness practices can enrich your relationship with the world around you by enhancing your sense of connection to your environment.
What you may not know is that you have more than 5 senses!
Your 6th and 7th senses are called proprioception and interoception.
Proprioception, your 6th sense, allows you to feel your body position without any visual feedback. When you’re driving and you move your foot between the brake and gas pedals without having to look at your feet, that’s the magic of proprioception at work. When you’re in Warrior II pose, your proprioceptive sense let you know whether your arms are straight out to the sides or if your shoulders are elevated/depressed – without seeing yourself in a mirror.
Ever wonder why there aren’t mirrors in a yoga studio?
It’s to start a process of turning your attention inward – to develop your ‘in’ sight so you can sense and feel yourself on the inside - rather than looking at yourself from the outside. It helps you to move beyond a concept of self that is purely physical.
As you develop your interoceptive sense, you develop an even more subtle awareness of your inner world that includes an awareness of your heartbeat, breath rate and muscle tension. Processes that are taking place in your body all the time – mostly outside of your conscious awareness. Practice teaches you to slow down, pay attention to yourself and make deep, internal, unconscious processes conscious.
The process of observing and refining your body awareness - without thinking about your physical body in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘attractive’ or ‘unattractive’ - gets you to see yourself through a lens of non-judgmental self-awareness. The more you practice seeing yourself this way, the more natural it becomes to view yourself with curiosity and objectivity rather than through a lens of criticism, judgment or social comparison. As you train your deeper levels of sensory awareness, you become more coordinated, balanced and confident – and your sense of appreciation for your body grows too.
*Importantly, working with your physical body affects the health and vitality of your other bodies: your energy, mood, thoughts, and more. Though you’ll learn about each kosha separately here, they’re not actually separate from one another. In the same way that a map draws a clear boundary between one country and another, in reality there is no line that separates countries like Canada and the U.S.A. They blur into and affect one another. The same is true for your 5 bodies.
PRACTICE: Develop your interoceptive sense with heart rhythm meditation
“Inside this is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes its shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine experience excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life.” -Taittiriya Upanishad
Your Second Body
Energetic Body (Pranamaya kosha)
When you feel energized, lethargic, calm or restless, you are feeling your energetic (pranic) body. ‘Prana’ means life force energy. It’s the energetic force that permeates the universe and creates, sustains and destroys anything that has ever existed. As it relates to your yoga practice, there’s a specialized class of breathing practices called ‘pranayamas’ that are dedicated to expanding your vital energy.
Your breath is what delivers life force energy to each of the 37.2 trillion cells in your physical body. You can live for weeks without food, days without water – but just a few minutes without breath. Without prana, your physical body breaks down.
Whatsmore, breathing practices can be used to calm the mind and the emotions. There are breathing practices that affect the quality of your energy in a variety of different ways. They can be used for calming, cooling, energizing, and balancing your energies.
Experience energy, brightness and vitality with the Breath of Joy.
“Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. It fills the two denser bodies and has the same shape. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear.” Taittiriya Upanishad
Your Third Body
Mental Body (Manomaya kosha) or ‘body made of thought processes’
This is the part of you that makes meaning out of your experiences – thoughts, images, perceptions and daydreams are all part of the realm of your mental body. Deeply rooted beliefs, opinions and assumptions also dwell here. Mental habits (called samskaras in Sanskrit) are thought patterns that form your worldview and cause your life to run in certain patterns. There are many yoga practices dedicated to helping us see our habitual thought patterns clearly and interrupting the patterns of thought that cause us to suffer and repeat mistakes. Deep-seated beliefs like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t belong’ can wreak havoc on our lives and prevent us from experiencing the sense of joy and connection we deserve.
Chanting and meditation are practices that can help to interrupt dysfunctional thought patterns, giving your mind something positive and constructive to dwell on instead. Like giving a mischievous puppy a bone to play with so it doesn’t make a mess – chewing up the furniture and dragging garbage across the floor. Give your mind a bone. To grow a peaceful mind, feed it a steady diet of calm and peaceful thoughts. Chant, meditate, set intentions. Create a harmonious living environment. Give yourself interesting intellectual challenges. Nurture fun and supportive relationships.
Try Metta Meditation to cultivate peaceful and loving thoughts.
“Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. It permeates the three denser bodies and assumes the same form. Those who establish their a wareness here free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions, and develop the self-control necessary to achieve their goals.”
Your Fourth Body
Wisdom Body (Vijnanamaya kosha)
Studying wisdom teachings and studying yourself in relation to those teachings is one of the central tenets of classical yoga practice. A yogi commits to living these principles: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, overindulging or taking more than you need. Instead you are asked to practice being content, pure, self-disciplined, studious and to devote yourself to something bigger.
After a student learns about yoga’s wisdom teachings, they are meant to practice bringing them to life. Your wisdom body grows more vital when you practice a yogic lifestyle and engage in contemplative practices and meditation.
Wisdom allows you to see yourself with clarity and objectivity. It allows you to recognize all aspects of yourself – your body, your thoughts and your behaviours - without judgment. It allows you to step outside of your thoughts, your pre-conceived ideas and just witness your mind and your life. You need this level of awareness because it allows you to recognize your patterns and consciously choose to make changes. Wisdom illuminates the path to health and well-being and shows you whether you’re moving in the right direction. Your wisdom body is the objective, observing part of your self, also known as witness consciousness.
Here’s a beautiful explanation of how to tap into witness consciousness brought to you by headspace.
“Hidden inside it is yet a subtler body, composed of pure joy. It pervades the other bodies and shares the same shape. It is experienced as happiness, delight, and bliss.” -Taittiriya Upanishad
Your Fifth Body
Bliss Body (Anandamaya kosha)
Your bliss body is at the core of you – hidden beneath the other more superficial layers – perhaps harder to sense – but just as much part of who you are. Whenever you tap into feelings of deep peace, contentment, an ‘okay-ness’ with everything - you’re tuned into your bliss body.
Mantra, meditation and prayer are helpful practices for quieting thoughts that block access to your blissful core. While it could take years of dedicated practice for your bliss body to reveal itself, bliss can also show up unexpectedly at any time – while staring into a sky full of stars, during an evening of chanting, in deep Savasana or relaxing after a really great dinner.
Enlightenment, the final stage of yoga, is described as a state of blissful absorption in the one-ness of everything. The sound ‘Om’ represents the sound of everything in the universe vibrating together as one. When you chant ‘om’ it acts like a tuning fork that brings you into harmony with everything in the universe, opening you up to bliss.
Get in touch with your Bliss Body by chanting 'OM'
One Practice for Experiencing Your Five Sheaths
Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a practice specifically designed to take you on a deep dive through all five koshic layers of being:
Yoga: A Holistic Path to Well-Being
Yoga is a holistic path to well-being that offers insight into ways of living harmoniously at every level of your being. From hatha yoga postures to breathing exercises that vitalize your life force; from meditation practices that quiet your mind to the study of spiritual teachings that inform the way you do life … A radiant, healthy ‘yoga body’, comes from dedicating yourself to practice for all five of your bodies.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions