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Eight Russian Dolls

Urban Sadhu Exploration April 2024

HYP 2.1 athāsane dṝdhe yoghī vaśī hita-mitāśanaḥ ghurūpadiṣhṭa-mārgheṇa prāṇāyāmānsamabhyaset

Meaning: Becoming established in asana, a yogi should eat a moderate and pure diet [not overeating and practicing vegetarianism] for some length of time before practicing pranayama under the instruction of a qualified guru or teacher. – Austin Sanderson 

In the modern landscape of yoga of energy healing and alternative New Age movements, we spend a lot of time talking about the seven chakras. Perhaps this is because of their rainbow colors or maybe because it is so easy to associate chakras with aspects of the personality. Very few in the yoga world spend time bringing a deeper understanding to the concept of the “subtle body” and its many “layers” before chakras can be activated.

The subtle body is a complex yogic theory that states that we, as humans in human bodies, are not solely physical nor solely spiritual, but a multiplex of both the physical and the spiritual. Each one depends on the other to reach the state of Moksha. Without the physical body and the thinking mind we are unable to have a Yoga Sadhana (spiritual practice or path) and at the same time, the Yoga Sadhana requires us to not identify with the physical body and the thinking mind. 

Some years back, I was with my guru, Yogishri Sudarshan Kannan, founder of Infinite Wings, in a workshop that focuses on the subtle body. A student asked if we were going to “activate our chakras,” and Yogishri smiled and replied, “Before we activate the chakras, we have to purify the three bodies and the five sheaths.” I had been practicing yoga for many years, and this was the first time I had ever heard any yoga teachers say, “You’re not ready to work with the chakra system yet.” Over the next six days of this intensive workshop, Yogishri spent time explaining the three Sharira (bodies) and the five Koshas (sheaths) and how to purify them. This purification would deepen our Yoga Sadhana and prepare us to activate the chakra system, which is on a much deeper level within the subtle body.

One way to start to visualizing the three  bodies and the five layers is to think of a Russian nesting dolls with eight dolls The three bodies house different koshas, Sthula Sharira houses the gross layer, the Sukshma Sharira houses the subtle layers and the Karana Sharira houses the most subtle layer.  To help understand this complex concept, it is helpful to note that the Sanskrit word “kosha” means “sheath or layer” and the word “maya” can be translated to “illusion.” All of the five koshas are illusory sheaths that are veiling the reality of our true nature of Satchitananda, or “Truth, Knowledge, and Bliss”.

The Sthula Sharira is like the first large nesting doll in a set. It is the most “outside” layer and is our gross (physical) body. It is THE most tangible aspect of a human being. Keeping the concept of the nesting dolls in mind, within the Sthula Sharira is the Annamaya Kosha, or the “food body,” which makes up our skin, bones, muscles, organs, and other tissues. The Annamaya Kosha is the second nesting doll. The Sthula Sharira and the Annamaya Kosha are purified through the actions of yoga asana (physical postures) and a diet that is based on ahimsa (non-violation). Yogic texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika suggest vegetarianism as the diet for a yogi, but in modern times, we suggest veganism as a diet that is truly based on ahimsa. It is important to point out that a vegan diet and yoga asana are the two most basic of yoga practices and are a starting point in a Yoga Sadhana. 

The third doll in the set is another body, the Sukshma Sharira. This is a body of energy that bridges the gap between the gross physical body and the spiritual body. It is not visible to the human eyes or touch, but it is experienced through thoughts and feelings. This third doll sits within the first two dolls and contains three of the five koshas within it. 

The three koshas within the Sukshma Sharira are as follows: The Pranamaya Kosha is forth doll, and this layer is made up of prana, or vital energy. It is purified through the actions of pranayama (breathwork with the intention of changing the flow of prana within the body). The next doll is the Manomaya Kosha, or the mind layer. This is where our emotions are housed. To purify this layer, we must overcome the ego and this is why Karma Yoga (selfless actions of compassion) and Bhakti Yoga (devotional yoga) are prescribed to cleanse the Manomaya Kosha of negative feelings and emotions. The fourth and final kosha in the astral body is the Vijnanamaya Kosha, or our intellect. To purify the Vijnanamaya Kosha is not about book learning, but about the inner “Self-study” of Svadhyaya during meditation, engaging in the Satsang and leaning from a Guru. While the study of the Yoga Shastras (yoga text and manuals) is an important part of yoga practice, external knowledge is not the same as internal wisdom. Purification of the Vijnanamaya Kosha is not about becoming a Sanskrit scholar. It is about awareness of the spiritual nature.

The last body in the stacked nestled dolls is the Sukshma Sharira. Sukshma Sharira houses our highest spiritual Self, the Anandamaya Kosha or “bliss sheath”. Think of the  Anandamaya Kosha like a “pure light crystal” that everything else resides outside of. This body and sheath do not need purification, in yoga philosophy the soul is not polluted, it is aways pure but is unrealized. Yoga Sadhana is the path towards the realization of – Truth, Knowledge and Bliss. 

Chakras and Kundalini Shakti are within the most subtle of the energetics of the bodies and layers. This implies that after the gross body is purified through yoga asana and an ahimsa diet and when prana is under one’s control, the ego is in check and the mind is singled focused, the seeker is now ready for exploration of the chakra system in a deeper Yoga Sadhana. 

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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