Is there a concept in yoga that parallels the Western concept of the psyche?
Yes. The concept of the psyche is very close to the concept of the bhokta. This is the individual soul, which identifies itself with the mind, senses, and body and is thus affected by the experiences that the body and mind undergo. According to yoga, or more specifically to Vedanta, the word “Atman” refers to the soul in its pristine state. Pure existence, consciousness, and bliss are intrinsic to the Atman. It is perfect and eternal. However, due to its false identification with the body, senses, and mind, this eternal perfection is veiled; it assumes an individual identity and thus feels as though it is separate from the Universal Self. Such individuated consciousness is called jiva. When it loses sight of its own perfection, the jiva begins to believe that the experiences occurring in the body, senses, and mind are occurring in it. When that happens, it becomes involved in pleasant and unpleasant experiences and is known as the bhokta, the enjoyer. The bhokta is the lower self as opposed to the higher Self, the Atman, which knows itself as uninvolved, pure, and perfect. In Western terms, the psyche is parallel to the lower self, whereas the soul is parallel to the higher Self.
Is it the psyche or the soul that is caught in the cycle of birth and death?
The psyche. As the scriptures clearly state, “The mind is the cause of both bondage and liberation.” The fragment of consciousness that is trapped in the body, senses, and mind—the psyche—is like the fragment of the atmosphere trapped in a tiny bottle. Until this fragment of individuated consciousness re-experiences its unity with the all-pervading, omniscient consciousness, it undergoes the pain of isolation and loneliness, which it is constantly striving to overcome so that it can again experience the boundless joy that it once knew.
Although it is constantly searching for the source of this joy, it is searching in the wrong place. Using the body, senses, and mind, this wisp of consciousness tries to find completion in the external world. It undergoes the constant flux of union and separation in relationships with people or objects and in doing so accumulates attachments and aversions. Thus it journeys through life, pushed and pulled by attachment and aversion, allowing itself to remain involved in worldly relationships, looking for its completion there.
Spiritual training is simply a means of reminding the jiva of its oneness with infinite consciousness, which pervades and permeates the entire manifest world.
At the time of death, when the body and senses are no longer available as vehicles for continuing its search and the mind alone is its locus, the poor jiva does not know how to manage its miserable loneliness. Helplessly, it chooses to go back to the same world of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, union and separation. According to yoga, spiritual training is simply a means of reminding the jiva of its oneness with infinite consciousness, which pervades and permeates the entire manifest world, so that it can stop this endless journey through the cycle of births and deaths.
Pure consciousness, the soul, is never in bondage and is never caught in the cycle of birth and death. It is the consciousness of the psyche that mistakenly identifies itself with the body and thus becomes the victim of birth and death. When it enters a body, it feels it is born. When the body is destroyed, it feels that it dies. At the moment of enlightenment, it recognizes its folly and is liberated.
What does yoga have to say about the astral body?
The concept of the astral body is more elaborate in the yoga tradition than it is in the West. In their efforts to study the totality of the human being, the yogis developed the concept of the five sheaths (koshas) to describe the composition of our being, layer by layer, from the grossest to the subtlest. These five layers are known as the annamaya kosha (the physical sheath), the pranamaya kosha (the energy sheath), the manomaya kosha (the mental sheath), the vijnanamaya kosha (the sheath of intellect), and the anandamaya kosha (the sheath of bliss). Except for the first sheath, that of the physical body, the other sheaths are part of the astral body.
The yogic tradition further divides the astral body into the subtle body and the causal body. The mental and intellectual sheaths are part of the subtle body, which consists of the essence of the five gross substances—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The subtle essences corresponding to these five gross substances are the principles of smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing. In addition to these five principles, the subtle body also includes the forces of the five active senses, the five cognitive senses, the mind, the ego, and the intellect. Thus, the subtle body is composed of these eighteen principles.
The pranic sheath is the connecting link between the subtle body and the physical body. It is through the pranic sheath that the physical body receives guidance and motivation from the subtle body. At the time of death, the pranic thread is broken and the physical and subtle bodies are separated. Then the subtle body can no longer use the physical body as a vehicle and must resort to the causal body to complete its unfinished business.
The causal body is made of vasanas, the subtle impressions of previous deeds. They are stored in the unconscious mind, known as chitta. The realm of chitta, in a sense, is heaven and hell. At the time of death, when the body and brain fall away, the conscious mind with all its feelings and preferences merges into the causal body, the domain of the vasanas. In the model of the five sheaths, the astral body corresponds to the anandamaya kosha, the sheath of bliss. This is the first and foremost veil. It causes the soul to lose its awareness of its vastness and creates the illusion that its existence and bliss are confined to the domain of the vasanas. The vasanas become its total wealth.
This is the origin of the psyche, the place where its sense of disconnectedness from the universal pool of consciousness begins. Depending on which kind of vasanas are stored in this domain, the psyche trapped in the subtle body experiences heavenly pleasures, hellish misery, or a combination of both. Fed up with the miserable memories stored in the chitta and driven by a longing for sensory pleasures, the psyche again searches for a suitable physical body. And so the cycle continues.