by JiJi Russell
This time of year, we can find ourselves reaching beyond our own limits. Before the holiday season picks you up and sweeps you away, take some time to give yourself the gift of a little inward attention.
The philosophy that underpins yoga offers a system for taking care of the “whole” person. So often we identify with just one of our dominant traits or a particular role we play. How limiting this can be. The yoga tradition encourages us to joyfully accept our complexity.
This tradition likens each person’s nature to sheaths, or layers. Not so much a concentric layering idea as a fluid, multidimensional tapestry of interconnections that influence one another to form who we are. These sheaths, the koshas, range from tangible to subtle.
The anamaya kosha deals with the physical body. Food, exercise, and movement all affect this part of our composition. This layer is often the easiest for people to identify.
The pranamaya kosha refers to our energy body. Do you ever notice your ups and downs in energy? These shifts come about due to many factors: what you eat; how well you sleep; emotional situations. Recognizing our quality of energy is the first step toward improving it, and perhaps directing it to achieve what we need—such as clarity or health.
The manymaya kosha deals with the intellect, or how we take in and process information; how we sense the world. Our perceptions can influence the world we live in. As Steven Flowers, my teacher in Mindfulness Meditation, has said, “We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” That idea alone might give you enough to contemplate for a day or more.
The vijnamaya kosha refers to our deepest values, the stuff that forms our personality and way of making choices.
The anandamaya kosha brings us to our spiritual self, the place of our heart. When we can channel more energy and intention to this place, it is said, we can find deep joy and connection.
The koshas in practice
I offer here a brief practice for each kosha. Each can be done individually, for perhaps five minutes, or as a set. If one practice, or a particular kosha, resonates with you, it might be the one for you to focus your attention on for now. Each practice could affect all five koshas—they are so interconnected that they often overlap and intersect.
Anamaya kosha. The hatha yoga practice and many other forms of movement offer a mindful inroad into the physical body. Try this simple movement and breath exercise:
Stand with your feet wide apart, about the length of one of your legs.
Reach out into the whole sole of the foot, stretching all the way from the hip to the pinky toe.
As you inhale, raise your arms out to the sides and then up over head.
Then exhale, and lower your arms.
After about three times, let your arms remain at shoulder height, so that they are reaching outward into the space beside your body, much like your legs are. Imagine yourself in the shape of a five-pointed star as you reach upward into your head, outward into your arms and hands, and downward into your legs and feet. Breathe deeply through your nose for two to six breaths as you hold this pose. Gradually inch your feet back together, and rest.
Pranamaya kosha. Try this “equalizing breath” to calm your nervous system.
Sit with an elongated spine so that your chest and belly are “open” and not collapsed. This will offer more space for your breath to enter and fill your lungs.
Close your eyes and take a few breaths without trying to make any changes to the way you breathe. Attempt to breathe in and out through your nose whenever possible, as this stimulates the more quieting aspects of the nervous system.
Observe the number of counts or seconds it takes you to inhale and exhale.
Gradually, without straining, attempt to equalize the number you count for the inhalation and exhalation. For example, inhale as you silently count to four; exhale as you silently count to four. This focused way of breathing can help to relax the nervous system, the mind, and perhaps even muscular strain.
Manomaya kosha. One way to stimulate your intellect is by occupying the busy mind with a sound, such as a mantra. You can make up your own by selecting a word that holds important meaning to you, such as “love” or “peace.” Or, you can take an ancient Sanskrit mantra for a spin. Sanskrit is an ancient Indic language. It carries strong “vibrational” qualities that have the power to “set the mind free” from conditioned habits, according to the late mantra scholar Thomas Ashley-Farrand in his book Healing Mantras. The combination of a mantra’s literal meaning and its vibrational quality, scholars say, can affect positive, healing changes within one’s core.
The mantra “So’ham,” which is pronounced as “SO HUM,” translates as, “I am that.” The words provide an opportunity for us to look within to find our own truth. According to Ashley-Farrand, some of the ancient texts say that So Hum is the subtle sound of the breath itself. Whatever word—or mantra—you choose, sit down and take a few deep breaths as you “say” the word or words silently to yourself. Try this with a timer for five or more minutes.
Vijnamaya kosha. One way to access your deepest personal values is to ask yourself a question. Use this moment as a curious inquiry about your values and whether you are living according to them. Sometimes, even a slight incongruence in values and lifestyle can create friction, frustration, or even worse: lead to bad decisions.
Sit quietly and ask yourself, “What is my highest value?”
Next, “listen” for the responses you may “hear.” You might jot down what comes to you.
Ask the question again; wait and listen. The answer might change as you allow yourself time to ask it again honestly.
Ask one final time.
Make note of this value. Now, if you choose, you can try to align yourself with it more mindfully.
Anandaymaya kosha. Prayer can bring you inward to your most compassionate self. It can also ripple positively outward into our world. If you have a favorite prayer from your religious or spiritual tradition, take it on as a practice.
Sit and contemplate the words of your prayer or blessing (or even a poem) for five minutes.
If you would like to try something new, and fitting for the season, I offer you the Prayer for Peace from
The Oxford Book of Prayer.
Prayer for Peace
O God of many names
Lover of all nations
We pray for peace
in our hearts
in our homes
in our nations
in our world
The peace of your will
The peace of our need.
By trying to be “more of yourself” this holiday season, maybe you can avoid feelings of stress or the sense of being over-committed, and calmly face whatever challenge might come your way.