We are all Russian dolls.
I have recently started watching the new Netflix series Russian Doll. The show is centered around 36-year-old Nadia. Nadia has a big problem. She keeps living the same day -her 36th birthday- over and over again. At the end of each “birthday” she winds up dying! However, each show, like the Russian nesting dolls, brings Nadia more and more into alignment with her truer, higher self: the self at the center of the illusions Nadia has about who and what she thinks she is.
There are many different ways to describe the quest for the true self. Abraham Maslow described it in terms of an individual and the hierarchy of needs. Joseph Campbell discussed the process of self-actualization in terms of the mythological hero’s journey. Religions all over the world have a Christ or Buddha figure who face challenges that lead them to enlightenment.
The Koshas and the quest for the True Self.
One way that yoga practitioners approach psycho-spiritual development is through the koshas. The word kosha means “sheath”. Like the chakras, the koshas are part of the pranic, or energy, body. We can’t see the koshas with our physical eyes, but we can intuitively sense them. We can imagine the koshas by visualizing Russian nesting dolls. Like the dolls, or Nadia, for that matter, our true self is at the center of several other layers, or koshas.
We often become aware of the koshas when there is an imbalance of some sort. When we experience physical, mental, or emotional distress, we can look to the koshas to find the root cause of what is ailing us. The health of one kosha affects the others. It is very important to take care of each level or layer of our being so that we can express the highest version of our self possible at any given moment.
The first kosha: annamaya kosha.
The first kosha is the annamaya kosha, or “food stuff” sheath. It is the outermost kosha and is comprised of the physical body: our bones, muscles, organs, etc. Many yogis first encounter yoga practice through the annamaya kosha. Most westerners are introduced to hatha yoga before they learn other yogic techniques such as pranayama and meditation.
Our modern yoga practice is based on the Yoga Sutras, a series of writings attributed to a sage named Patanjali. Patanjali only mentions yoga poses –asanas– once in the Yoga Sutras: “Sthira sukham asanam”, or “asana is a steady, comfortable posture.” (Yoga Sutras 2:46.)
Humans are meant to feel steady and comfortable in their bodies. When we do not, there is something wrong. If there is unresolved trauma in our mental, emotional, or spiritual bodies, eventually it will show up in annamaya kosha, the physical body. In order to heal we can work from the inside out or the outside in, but we must address our wounds on all levels of our being. For example, if we only do the psycho-spiritual work involved in overcoming a sugar addiction, but ignore the fact that we ate an entire box of cookies for dinner last night, it is spiritually bypassing. However, if we think all we have to do to overcome our sugar addiction is to quit eating cookies, like Nadia repeating her birthday over and over again, we are setting ourselves up to continue the unwanted behavior in its original form or a new manifestation until the root cause is resolved.
We are embodied beings.
Whatever we do to or with our physical body, we are doing to or with annamaya kosha. We care for annamaya kosha by getting adequate rest, spending time in natural sunlight, drinking fresh water, and eating a diet appropriate for our unique constitution. Annamaya kosha is also genetically influenced, so it is important to be as informed as possible of our family’s health and wellness history.
Fortunately, our lifestyle also affects annamaya kosha. Even if we have or are experiencing health challenges, we can always choose to do things differently. This may mean a change in diet or exercise, or it may mean a change in our attitude. Usually, it is both.
The most important lesson of the annamaya kosha is to be in our bodies. We get so caught up in our head! One of the things I notice when teaching new yoga students is the relief, enthusiasm, and sometimes frustration of the embodied experience. Students stretch muscles they didn’t even know they had! They are surprised at what their bodies can do, and sometimes frustrated by what their bodies have forgotten how to do. As we continue to practice, we discover a sense of belonging that is more than can be attributed to the studio where we practice. When we know ourselves in this world as embodied beings, we come home.
But wait! There’s more! Stay tuned. In March we’ll take a look at the second kosha: the pranamaya kosha.