The meditation practice of yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, is based on the five main bodies, or koshas, as discussed in the yoga scriptures. These layers, sometimes called sheaths, include the physical, energetic, mental/emotional, higher intelligence, and bliss bodies. As described in the scripts of yoga nidra, each layer comes into prominence, one at a time, and then settles into place, leaving the practitioner undisturbed throughout the meditation.
Imagine for a moment that you and four friends are in line to meet your favorite celebrity. The celebrity greets friend A, who happily geeks out and then is content after the encounter. Next, friend B gets celebrity time and immediately has to sit down to calm their nerves after the excitement but is also content after meeting the celeb. Then the celebrity meets your two other friends, who also feel fulfilled by the meet-and-greet, and go off to process it. But the celebrity has to leave before you have a chance to meet them. This sequence of events leaves you bothered and disappointed. If the celebrity had spent time with all five of you, you would be chatting away, content and unified in a shared experience. But when you are left out, there is a discord, something not quite right.
You can think of the koshas in a similar manner: If one of them is ignored or unsatisfied, there is a lack of harmony. That's why, as a yoga nidra teacher, I make sure to give attention to each layer and experience so that the general feeling upon waking from yoga nidra is one of unity with one’s self.
Let's get to know each of the five koshas and explore how they relate to a yoga nidra practice.
1. The Physical Layer
The first layer, and perhaps the easiest to identify, is the physical layer, or annamaya kosha. Literally, the “food body,” the annamaya kosha includes all of your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments. You can experience this kosha directly. It’s your body, and you can see and feel it.
In a yoga nidra practice, this layer is attended to with a physical experience like a body scan. You may hear cues like, “Relax your head, your arms, your legs, your upper body, your lower body,” etc. The body is spoken to directly and observed. As you move on to the next layer, the physical body, in a sense, drops away from your direct awareness.
2. The Energy Layer
The second layer is the pranamaya kosha, the “energy body.” This layer can be perceived, yet is significantly subtler than the annamaya kosha. According to yogic philosophy, our prana, or energy, moves through inner channels called nadis, and it travels on the breath. Though prana is sometimes translated as “breath,” it is not the breath itself. It works with the breath, but it is more subtle than the breath.
We channel the pranamaya kosha in a yoga nidra practice by observing the breath. You may be asked to simply observe your inhalation and your exhalation, or you might do a practice like nadi shodhana (alternate-nostril breathing) without using your fingers. Something like, “Breathe into your right nostril. Pause. Exhale out through your left nostril. Pause. Breathe into your left nostril. Pause. Exhale out through your right nostril,” and so forth. The aim is that as you focus on your breath, some of the energetic restrictions in your body release. Then this layer, just like the physical layer, drops away.
3. The Mental/Emotional Layer
The third kosha is the manomaya kosha, the “mind body.” This is one of the most fascinating layers, as this is said to be where our emotions reside. When we feel that we are carried away with anger or fear (or are starstruck, like friend B in the example above), we are living in this kosha. The manomaya kosha relates to our instinctive state of mind in all situations, revealing both voluntary and involuntary communication with ourselves and others. We may try to avoid dealing with this layer by pushing it down and ignoring it, but then our emotions can skyrocket to the surface (and beyond), bringing us to a “breaking” point where we can no longer contain our emotional and/or physical reactions. That’s why this layer is addressed in yoga nidra, where we can experience emotions without being governed by them.
You may be asked to notice general sensations of heaviness or lightness, or to feel into your heart, or to recall a time when you were relaxed (and then a time when you were not). Another cool part of this exercise is that you may be able to feel that the manomaya kosha is indeed a separate layer, and that you are in fact not anxiety or happiness or anger— that those are reactions or emotions that merely occur within you.
Once you’ve addressed this layer, it, too, drops away into the background.
4. The Higher Intelligence Layer
This layer is the vijnanamaya kosha, the “wisdom body,” and it is the wiser, more intuitive sibling of manomaya kosha. Sometimes something unexpectedly insightful comes out of your mouth and you ask yourself, “Where did that come from?” That’s your vijnanamaya kosha revealing itself. Another example is your gut reaction. For instance, you don’t know why you didn’t cross the street that you cross everyday, even though you looked both ways and saw nothing. Something inside of you told you not to cross that particular day—and a moment later a car came flying down the street without warning. Choosing a different route may have saved your life! This is vijnanamaya kosha at work.
In yoga nidra, we generally work with vijnanamaya kosha through a visualization or a story. It’s you observing you. Pretty trippy, right? From a higher state of being, where you and I are not different and not separate, you might watch yourself walking through a rainforest—observing dark green leaves, with bright pink flowers that grow larger and larger until their yellow centers beam light throughout your entire body. The listening, watching, and feeling come from a deep inner state. Then this layer too drops into the background.
5. The Bliss Layer
The fifth sheath is the anandamaya kosha, or “bliss body,” and it can be described as total absorption into a blissful state. This is the subtlest of the five koshas, with only a sliver of separation between you and what is divine.
In yoga nidra, this layer is present in all of the practices for the other layers, and also in the brief silence after the journey ends and before we are brought out of the meditation. I generally allow one to five minutes of silence there, as there is much to be explored in that space—mainly just feeling one’s self completely embraced in the practice.
Upon awakening from yogic sleep, there is typically a feeling of unity between body, breath, and mind. The feeling is one of wholeness, and frequently a feeling of peace and comfort in complete silence. When these are the outcomes of the practice, it signals that all of your layers have been addressed: The celebrity has met and greeted each to its satisfaction, leaving each in a state of peace and rest.