If you have ever felt as if your yoga teacher were speaking another language, you were not imagining things. Besides using the classical language, Sanskrit, for pose names and when referencing key concepts, teachers often use a lot of phrases and words that may not make sense when translated literally, or at the very least, need redefining in the context of yoga.
I lead teacher trainings in the United States (where I live) and abroad and often have trainees who speak English as a second, third, or sometimes even fourth language. Whenever anyone expresses their anxiety about learning to teach in a language other than their native tongue, I explain that yoga teachers have their own dialect altogether and therefore all trainees, regardless of where they are from, are learning a new language: “yoga teacher speak.”
A term I use often that may need some breaking down is “outer body.” I personally use the term in two different contexts. One is more anatomical, like when I am referring to the side of the body: for example, a student’s outer hips or outer ankles. But I most often refer to the “outer body” in a more esoteric context: for example, when I say, “Hug your outer body in so your ‘inner body’—your ‘breath body’—can radiate out.”
When I think about it literally, or picture someone taking a yoga class for the first time, I imagine that this sentence could sound confusing or even redundant. Don’t we only have one body?
Well, according to the yoga tradition, no.
Yoga philosophy holds that we are not just one body, but instead are made up of a series of layers, or sheaths. These sheaths are called koshas, and there are five. The koshas are often connected to the Taittiriya Upanishad, though they are referenced throughout other Upanishads too. (The Upanishads are among the seminal philosophical scriptures of yoga.)
The clearest way this was ever explained to me was by yoga teacher Jeanne Heileman, who specializes in yoga philosophy and the subtle body. She explains that “The subtle body refers to the unseen energetic-field aspect of our living being.” Heileman goes on to say that our whole being can be compared to a Matryoshka doll, the Russian doll within a doll within a doll. The outer doll represents our physical body, which we can easily see with the human eye. The inner dolls represent our inner “bodies,” which are “seen” through more subtle practices. It is within the innermost doll that our soul, our higher self, is also said to dwell.
The koshas, in order from most external to most internal (and therefore subtlest), are as follows: annamaya kosha (the physical body), pranamaya kosha (the energy body), manomaya kosha (the mind body), vijnanamaya kosha (the wisdom body), and anandamaya kosha (the bliss body). It is within the anandamaya kosha that the formless, inmutable true self, atman, exists.
When I am referencing the outer body, I am referring to the annamaya kosha. We are most aware of this layer when we do asana, the physical postures of yoga. This kosha is often called the “food” body, because it comprises both what we eat and the idea that our bodies will return to the earth and become a source of food for other beings when we pass on.
Another layer we can work with in our asana practice is our pranamaya kosha, our vital life force body. This is the layer connected to our breath. For many practitioners, the aim in asana is not only to build a stronger physical body, but to strengthen the pranic body as well.
You could think of it like this: Have you ever felt pulled in a thousand different directions? Like when you commit to too many things at once? When that happens, your energy is dissipated. It’s like the water stream from your shower head. When you turn the nozzle to the setting where it comes out of every hole, the water pressure is lighter, but it’s not focused. But when you turn the nozzle to the setting where the water comes out of the same hole, the pressure is powerful and focused.
In our yoga practice, we can try to concentrate our life force energy (prana) by creating a container with our physical (outer) body. If our outer body is limp and we move without awareness and/or our breath is rapid and all over the place, our energy may feel spread out. On the other hand, if our outer body is tense and we are holding our breath, then our energy can feel trapped. But if our outer body is both steady and stable and our breath is even and smooth, we are not only being held by our muscles and bones, but also by our prana. As a result, we may find that we can hold the pose longer and our body may even feel physically lighter. This is because the pose is now also being supported by our breath.
Let’s experience this for ourselves.
Urdhva Hastasana in Tadasana
Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) with your feet together or hip width apart if that feels more stable. Lift your arms overhead and separate them as wide as your shoulders.
Softened outer body: Keep your arms overhead but stop putting any physical effort into the pose. Let your fingers, hands, and arms become limp and your arms slump. Notice that your legs become heavy and your spine may return to habitual postural patterns, like rounding or overly arching. Let your breath be shallow. Be here for a few rounds of breath. Lower your arms and pause.
Hardened outer body: Come back into the pose, but now energize your arms overhead so much as to actually overdo it. Squeeze your palms together overhead and reach vigorously through your fingertips. Observe that your shoulders may lift toward your ears and you are probably holding your breath from your effort. Be here for a few rounds of breath, as well. How does the flow of breath feel here? It probably feels stagnant or stuck. Lower your arms and pause.
Hugging your outer body in: Reach your arms overhead and separate them as wide as your shoulders. Press your feet into the floor and feel a rebound effect as the energy rises up from the ground through your legs. Lift your kneecaps to engage your quadriceps. Gently hug your lower belly in and up toward your spine. Imagine that your outer hips are in a vise, being squeezed in toward your midline. Use the energy of your legs and pelvis to reach up through your arms even more. Firm your triceps toward your ears, but at the same time also press your biceps outward, so there is space at the base of your neck and between your shoulders and ears. Soften your face but find a steady gazing point ahead of you or on the floor. Take five long breaths. Lower your arms.
What did you experience in each of these three variations? In the first one, in which you let your outer body be soft, you might have observed that your energy felt dispersed—even “leaky,” like a dripping faucet. With the second variation, in which the outer body was hardened, your breath might have felt stagnant or stuck—as if there were a clog in the pipes. In the third variation, in which you worked to keep your outer body both supple and strong, the flow of breath (prana) hopefully felt powerful, but also easeful.
The next time you come to the mat, I encourage you to see if you can sense not just your outer (physical) body, and pranic (breath) body, but your mind body (your inner thoughts), and wisdom body (your intuition and gut-sense), as well. Then over time, as your awareness becomes more and more focused, accessing your innermost body, your bliss body. Where you may witness firsthand that pure joy is not a state created by our yoga practice, but a place we return to.