Last week I received some shocking news. A loved one had died rather suddenly. Instinctively, my hand went to my heart. My stomach clenched. I felt like I was going to vomit. I hadn’t been ill before I received the call, and my symptoms subsided as my grief lost its sharp edge.
Pranamaya kosha: the energetic sheath.
We have all had experiences like this. We are so overwhelmed by emotions that our bodies become physically ill. Likewise, we have all had moments where we were filled with such awe and joy that they took our breath away. We are far more than what we appear to be. Beyond dense matter, our bodies are made up of subtle energy. This energetic level of our being has its own anatomical system composed of the chakras and the koshas.
The second kosha is pranamaya kosha. Prana means life force. Maya means illusion. Kosha means sheath. We defined and discussed what the koshas are in the first post in this series on the five koshas. If you haven’t read it, you can check it out here! The koshas are not a stand-alone system. The health of one kosha impacts the health of the others.
In the Yoga Sutras, the sage and scribe Patanjali outlines a path towards moksha, or liberation, called the eight limbs of Yoga. Asana and pranayama are the third and fourth limbs, respectively. Asana refers to practicing the yoga postures we all know and love- or, conversely, are greatly challenged by! Pranayama is usually translated as “breathing practices”. Some of the most well-known pranayama techniques are Ujjayi Pranayama, Dirga Pranayama, and Nadi Shodhana. Asana and pranayama practices nourish pranamaya kosha.
Pranamaya kosha and the nervous system.
Pranamaya kosha governs our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system, or ANS, controls and regulates bodily functions that we don’t think about. It is responsible for our digestion, respiration, heart rate, and circulatory system, just to name a few. Practices like asana and pranayama bring our awareness to these functions and teach us how to consciously influence them.
When we are stressed our bodies are flooded with hormones. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes shallow, and our bodies are primed to either fight off or run from a predator. However, most of us do not come into contact with a sabretooth tiger on a day-to-day basis. We do come into contact with a plethora of events throughout our day that contribute to high levels of stress and anxiety. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between an angry bear and an angry boss.
Most of the time when SNS is activated there is nothing to run from and no one to fight off. The internet is down, we get stuck in traffic, our kid won’t return our phone call…. And yet adrenaline continues to course through our bodies. Chronically elevated levels of stress are associated with heart disease, digestive disorders, and problems sleeping, just to name a few. This is a negative response of our unconscious pranamaya kosha influencing annamaya kosha.
The good news is that we can learn to consciously work with the koshas! When we practice asana and pranayama, we are giving ourselves tools to stay present and keep things in perspective during times of stress. Asana teaches us to feel our body and notice the atmosphere we are currently in. (If you are reading this, it is probably not a desert, jungle, or tundra!) We can feel the solidity of the ground supporting our pose. Pranayama practices teach us to focus and dwell in our internal experiences. With time, patience, and practice, we learn to remain present with our experiences, even when they are unpleasant or painful.
Yoga is one path towards inner peace. This doesn’t mean that all of our problems go away, nor does it suggest that we ignore things when they go wrong. It means that we learn to abide in stillness even in the midst of turbulence. As we learn to listen to the feedback our bodies give us, we can use practices such as asana and pranayama to optimize our experience. This transforms us from the inside out. As we are healed and transformed, our presence becomes a healing and transformational balm to everyone around us.