How does Yoga Therapy Work? Using the Tools of Yoga to Reunite with our Truest Self
According to Yoga Philosophy, we are not just our physical body or our mind, we are multidimensional beings made up of five distinct layers or koshas. The sanskrit word “kosha” translates to “sheath.” Starting from outermost layer and moving towards the core, the five koshas proceed with greater and greater degrees of subtlety and power. While each layer is permeable, all are encased within the outermost layer of our being, the anamaya or physical body.
Within the Yoga tradition, there are an array of tools and techniques designed to support our health and healing. Yoga Therapy offers a broad range of healing benefits because it draws from these tools and integrates them holistically on the level of our whole being. When a particular symptom manifests, a Yoga Therapist asks, “In what ways is the symptom manifesting?” “How is it showing up in the physical body?” “How is it showing up in the physiological system?” “How is it showing up in the mind?” The ways in which the symptom is being expressed determines what types of tools and techniques within the yoga tradition will be used to support healing.
Central to our understanding of who we are, how illness or “dis-ease” manifests and the tools necessary for healing is the Pancha Maya Model. Using this ancient framework, we can identify how an imbalance may be manifesting on each layer of being. While each layer is permeable (for example, what affects the body will inevitably affect the mind), the root cause of any imbalance can often be traced to a specific layer of being. This awareness provides valuable insight into identifying the most appropriate tool necessary for restoring balance and well-being.
Pssssst. If you are new to the Pancha Maya Model or are curious about refreshing your awareness, you may be interested in reading Getting to Know You: Understanding our 5 Layers of Being through the Pancha Maya Model before further reading.
Understanding our Layers through the Pancha Maya Model
Anamaya Kosha - The physical body
The outermost layer of who we are is referred to as our anamaya kosha, or physical body. This the most tangible aspect of ourselves, making up what we can see, feel and touch.
Throughout our lives, we accumulate tension or “habit energy” in our physical bodies through experiences like repetitive activity, postural misalignments and emotional holding patterns. The cumulative effect of this habit energy creates an imbalance within the anamaya kosha, showing up as pain or tension within the musculoskeletal system. Examples include lower back pain, stiff shoulders or spinal disc degeneration.
Within the Yoga tradition, asanas or “physical postures” are the main tool used to specifically target the anamaya kosha. From a Yoga Therapy perspective, each asana can be modified in a way to create a specific therapeutic effect designed to either rest and relax, release accumulated tension, restore range of motion within the joints or strengthen the surrounding muscles.
Balance within the physical sheath translates as experiencing bodily ease, being less prone to accidents and more intuitively aligned with which foods and activities that nourish the body.
Pranamaya Kosha - The energy body
The pranamaya kosha, or vital energy body, interpenetrates the physical body and expands much broader. Contemporary research today reveals how electromagnetic fields have been measured to extend several feet away from the body (with the largest field emanating from the Heart, the anandamaya kosha). As the vital life force energy that makes up the underlying network within the human body, any imbalance within the pranamaya kosha will manifest in the physiological system. Examples include hormonal imbalances, abnormal blood pressure, digestive difficulties, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disturbances.
While we receive prana many ways, such as direct contact with the sun or soil or whole, living food that we eat, the yoga tradition places much emphasis on the breath. Pranayama or “conscious breath regulation” is the main tool used to work on the level of the pranamaya kosha, used to increase and facilitate the flow of prana in the body and balance the flow of life force to all the physical systems. As sound is a manifestation of breath, chanting is another powerful tool used to work specifically on this level of being.
One who is in a state of balance within the energy sheath will experience a sense of ease within their physiological systems, consistent energy throughout the day, inner vitality and connection with nature and the world around them.
Manamaya kosha - Mental-emotional body
The manamaya kosha makes up the mental-emotional body, encompassing all thought, image, perception and emotion. This is the mental faculty with which we absorb, process and interpret input from our life (presented through the senses of the physical body). While the most superficial layers of the manamaya contain our most basic conscious awareness, the deeper layers contain powerful mental structures formed by beliefs, opinions and assumptions we have absorbed from our family, environment and culture. Referred to in sanskrit as “samskaras,” these mental grooves colour our perception of ourself and the world around us.
We accumulate habit energy on this layer through limiting thought patterns. When you examine the contents of the manomaya closely, you can often see these patterns which take the form of repetitive thoughts like, “This is how things should be” or “I’m not good enough.” Over time, the cumulative effect of these thought patterns creates an imbalance in the mind that leads to experiences often labeled as “anxiety” and “depression” and keep us bound to specific behavioural patterns such as addiction.
Receiving knowledge through philosophy or articles like these which inspire self-reflection or “svādhyāya” are the main methods of working directly with the manomaya level. Other secondary tools that may be helpful are the use of mantra (“man” = mind and “tra = transformation).
One who is in a state of balance within the mental sheath will experience ease in faculties like logic, reason and memory. Balance also indicates the freedom to the note the effect of certain thoughts and step out of trancelike states that arise when you blindly accept certain thoughts and emotions.
Because these thought patterns are often so deeply engrained, they are often beyond the level of consciousness. As Albert Einstein stated, “we can’t solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it.” Thus, bringing these patterns to light often involves a shift in consciousness into the more subtler layer of being, the vignanamaya kosha, in order to come in contact with them.
Vijnanamaya kosha - wisdom body
The vignanamaya kosha makes up our higher mind or “Buddhi,” a deeper and subtler level of being that goes beyond the automatic, reflexive functioning of the intellect. It is at this level of our being that we experience the capacity to discern and discriminate.
Any imbalance on this level will manifest as weak willpower, lack of strong personal ethics or a block in creative expression. Cumulatively, this will manifest in the feeling of not being in control of life; someone who is constantly reacting to circumstances rather than making a decision and responding proactively.
Meditation or (“Mindfulness” within the Buddhist tradition) is the main tool used to access the vignanamaya kosha. Other applicable tools may include Yoga Nidra, Dream Inquiry or Bhāvana (visualization).
Operating from our vignanamaya is often referred to as being connected to our inner “Witness” or “Observer,” giving us the capacity to notice a thought without identifying with it, opening up the space necessary for accurately discerning truth from illusion. This shift in consciousness allows us to be in tune with our natural intuition, innate conscience and will, leading us to higher and higher levels of truth, integration and insight.
anandamaya kosha - bliss body
This is the fifth, final and most subtle layer of our being . The sanskrit word for “ananda” means “bliss,” not in a sense of emotions, such as happiness or pleasure, but an expanded, unbounded experience of reality. This most subtle layer of our being flows from a greater Divine energy, often referred to as “Atman” or “God” or simply “an awareness of an energy that exists that is far greater than our physical form.”
Connection to our anandamaya kosha offers us a visceral knowing that Love is the deepest reality there is. Its subtle presence is felt as an instinctive sense that life is worth living and that our true nature is Joyful, free and interconnected with all living beings.
Yoga as a Process: Becoming more like You
Throughout our lives, we accumulate habit energy primarily on our three outermost layers of being. Our innermost layer remains pure and untouched. In other words, you are already complete, you are already pure, you are already whole. Instead of working with the anadamaya layer directly, the focus remains on removing the conditioning from the outermost layers that may be clouding our connection to our innate essence.
Using the tools of yoga, such as asana, pranayama, philosophy, meditation, chanting, visualization, etc. one can begin the process of identifying and releasing habit energy that exists on these outermost layers. As habitual patterns are released and balance is restored, one naturally experiences a greater sense of authenticity: the physical body moves with ease and grace, digestion and hormones balance, sleep is improved, mind is clear, emotions are balanced and creativity and intuition is awakened. The very essence of who you are can now shine through unobstructed.
In other words, you start to become more like You.
In this way, the whole process of Yoga can be described as a practice of getting in touch with your true Nature and letting it flow out of you unimpeded.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”