Ayurveda and the Koshas: Nourishing Body, Mind, Spirit, and Heart
Whether it’s through a seasonal reset or a dosha-balancing ingredient list, food is one of the most popular and powerful ways that modern audiences are introduced to and practice Ayurveda.
I’m one of many teachers I know who started off my work in this lineage through recipe development for an Ayurvedic diet. And I have to say, it’s not a bad way to live and share this beautiful, complex system of health.
Finding ways to support longevity, resolve health imbalances, and deepen our connection to nature and community are just a few of the benefits of a food-based Ayurveda practice—not to mention the fact that it’s delicious!
Even as it seeks to balance physical aspects of our being, such as the doshas, agni (digestion), malas (waste), dhatus (tissues), and srotamsi (channels), Ayurveda puts just as much emphasis on the role of the mind, emotions, and spirit—the subtle body—on our overall state of health.
Introducing the Subtle Body
Unlike specific body parts and physical organs, it can be harder to intellectually understand, or even describe, the states of the subtle body. Indeed, our modern culture struggles greatly with articulating and listening to thoughts and feelings—our own and others’— without judgment.
The intangible and mobile aspect of the subtle body make it difficult to grasp intellectually, while also making it more likely to change according to external influences, including food.
Irregular eating habits, distorted messages about food itself, and foods with low quality nutrients all affect our subtle body—through the role of various minerals and nutrients on our nervous system, as well as through our microbiome.
In all seriousness, though, the desire for satisfying chocolate treats (or any food) is not such a bad response to the overwhelm that results from confusing or conflicting messages about who we are and what we need, throughout all the layers of our being.
Recognizing some instability is at play, the system wisely seeks the opposite—stability and a sense of safety—which the sweet taste, grounding fat, and various antioxidants and minerals of chocolate certainly provide. It’s a true superfood!
Looking at it through this lens, “eating our feelings” isn’t as shameful as our culture makes it seem; it’s an intelligent, built-in survival mechanism.
If, that is, our emotions were tigers threatening to eat us. Or, if the bar of chocolate we reached for wasn’t highly processed and full of preservatives.
So if there’s no tiger to be seen—only work deadlines, heartbreaks, identity crises, traffic, and any of the other myriad reasons we feel stress—and our food sources are lacking the true nourishment they once had, how do we find the safety and grounding we need to move through the waves of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual cravings we experience each day?
The Koshas: Feeding the Five Layers of Your Being
One lens through which we might seek an answer to these questions is the framework of the koshas, which comes from the yogic text the Taittiriya Upanishad.
The word “kosha” means “sheath,” which is a helpful visualization of what the koshas are: five sheaths nested inside each other, moving from a “gross” layer on the outside to increasingly more subtle layers deeper inside.
Their existence is not linear or exclusive, though it may be easier to access certain koshas at different times or for different people depending on their practices, experiences, or state of mental, physical, and spiritual health.
While it may seem like the innermost, subtlest kosha is the “best,” or the “goal” of working with them, that’s not the case. Just like vata, pitta, and kapha are doshas we all have and need to survive, all of the koshas serve an important function and are in an interdependent relationship with one another.
The outer, gross layer offers a kind of protection for the subtler layers, while the subtle layers can motivate and inspire our beliefs and actions that manifest in the world through our gross, or physical, activities.
Since Ayurveda views the world through five elements, each kosha can also be associated with an element. In this way, finding greater well-being becomes a simple matter of balancing elemental qualities, just as we do with the doshas.
So, let’s meet the koshas.
Annamaya Kosha | The Earth Element
“Anna” means food, so this first kosha is all about the body made of food—the gross, tangible, physical body that eats and poops and sleeps.
Here is where most of our Ayurvedic teachings apply in terms of working with the doshas, dhatus, and gunas, and choosing dinacharya (daily routine) practices that support the health of all those interconnected systems.
What and how we eat directly influences the formation and health of our tissues. A healthful diet with regularly timed meals and seasonally appropriate tastes and ingredients supports a happy digestive system, and therefore produces a healthy annamaya kosha.
When the digestive fire falters, the food body gets fed with ama instead of actual nutrition, which can start off as a mild imbalance and turn into a full-blown disease.
Individually and collectively, we can all take simple steps to improve the health of our annamaya koshas. Choosing foods that are as close to their natural form as possible—with minimal processing—will mean you’re feeding your body versions of the five elements it recognizes and knows how to digest.
Collectively, there’s a disconnect between the food on our table and its original source, due to the industrialization of the food system. When we don’t see and appreciate the resources—human and natural—that went into our meals, it’s more likely we will take them for granted and, in turn, waste more food.
Cultural messages about foods being “toxic,” unhealthy images around body weight, size, and shape, and general stressors from life can cause a conflict in our digestive process—one part of us says “yes, feed me!” and another part says, “no, stay away!”
When we cultivate a loving and symbiotic relationship with our food, the annamaya kosha becomes stable and full of integrity, just like the healthy and balanced earth element.
Pranamaya Kosha | The Water Element
Right away in the second kosha, the pranamaya kosha, we move out of the realm of the gross and into the realm of the subtle.
Prana, known throughout yoga and Ayurveda as the “life force” (equivalent to qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine), is what animates the physical body from the inside. In a very literal way, breath keeps us alive—we can go without food for weeks and without water for days, but three minutes without air and we’re dead.
We can also get prana through our food during the process of digestion, as nutrition is pulled out of whatever substance we’ve ingested.
You might have noticed at some point that eating produce that’s not fresh, or food that’s been microwaved or frozen, just doesn’t taste as good or feel as satisfying as fresher produce. That’s because its prana has been diminished.
Throughout history, yogis and other spiritual masters have been known to reach a point where they don’t need to eat very much, if at all—proof that they are surviving on prana through spirit alone. (But please don’t try that at home!)
Our pranic body is sensitive, and can therefore suffer from anything that blocks the flow of breath or digestion: poor posture, shallow or fast breathing, lack of movement, or any of the issues with digestion that might affect the annamaya kosha.
Imagine the channels of prana like a plumbing system; if there’s a clog somewhere, then the water won’t flow properly throughout the whole house.
Indeed, water is the element most associated with the pranamaya kosha. While air might seem more appropriate on a literal level, the vital “life force” of our human bodies—and the body of the planet—is water.
Water flows and carries nutrients with it, and also has a slightly denser quality than air. After a session of effective pranayama, you should feel more settled and grounded, rather than spacy and light-headed—because you’re feeding yourself with prana, not just huffing and puffing.
Daily pranayama is like your multivitamin for the pranamaya kosha (10–15 minutes of nadi shodhana is a great place to start), but not just because of the air you’re getting.
Mindful breathing also calms the nervous system and helps focus the mind, releasing oxytocin, a hormone that softens and relaxes the body. In essence, conscious breathing widens the pipes through which prana can enter and flow.
Since prana is in more than air—it’s in anything that’s alive—you can also refuel by spending time in nature and through easeful movement that promotes circulation and a steady breath, such as yoga, qi gong, walking.
Emotionally, we can look to the lungs and large intestines as a good model for balancing what we take in with what we release—if we’re imbibing negativity, or holding onto hurts, that will create possible blockages or constrictions throughout the pranamaya kosha.
Manomaya Kosha | The Air Element
The next two koshas are closely aligned with the nervous system in the Western medical perspective, which is seen as divided into two parts: the lower, reptilian mind, and the higher, conscious mind. The former is associated with the manomaya kosha.
Largely out of our control, the manomaya kosha acts with a priority to keep us alive, so even if these processes seem inappropriate—like feeling a flight or fight response when we get a distressing email or text; or getting weepy over a sentimental TV commercial—they are a natural part of our mind’s attempt to interpret the world and keep us safe.
It’s interesting that this less refined mental kosha is named after the “mind”—which in our society is largely prioritized over the body. For all its amazing, life-saving capabilities, the “mind” in this context is not as smart as we would like to think.
Ayurveda even distinguishes between urges of the body versus the mind along these lines: if we suppress the urges of the body (thirst, hunger, tears, etc.), our health suffers; but if we don’t suppress the urges of the mind (fear, greed, anger, vanity), our health suffers in other ways.
This is why, in my interpretation, the manomaya kosha aligns closely with the air element.
Air moves, and moves quickly, but can be erratic, incoherent, and confused in its movements. So too are our knee-jerk reactions to the stimuli we receive through our senses, which might lack the discernment and big-picture awareness of the next kosha.
When we are surrounded by information, media, public figures, and technology that contribute to short attention spans and high-entertainment-value drama, we feed the manomaya kosha with food that encourages short-circuiting and hypersensitivity.
Likewise, poor or inadequate sleep will prevent the manomaya kosha from being replenished in the night. During quality sleep, the brain is bathed in cerebrospinal fluid, memories are properly formed and stored, and accumulated toxins are flushed away. Without space for this process, we are more likely to be groggy and prone to make mistakes during the day.
On the other hand, cultivating habits and habitually being in environments that promote sattva (purity) will ensure the manomaya kosha does its job of keeping us alive, without interfering with higher-level cognition.
Through mindfulness, we can also create personal routines and habits that align with our physical and emotional needs, helping us to cultivate a healthy relationship with those temperamental emotional urges.
Having a steady pranamaya kosha helps with this relationship, since it acts as a bridge between the body and the mind.
Vijnanamaya Kosha | The Fire Element
If the manomaya kosha is a three-year-old throwing a tantrum, the vijnanamaya kosha is their grandmother. She’s not necessarily trying to punish them or rein them in, but stands aside knowing that the child will, eventually, learn to self-regulate and respond, rather than react, to the world around them.
This higher-level discernment, or intellect, is the job of the vijnanamaya kosha and has an interesting anatomy.
In the heart resides the light of clarity and truth, and the observer or “witness” who can take in information with equanimity, interpret what’s going on, and make decisions from there—hence the connection to the transformative fire element.
Aging and life experience certainly enhances the capacity of the vijnanamaya kosha, but it’s not only dependent on time. The more that we pause and reflect inwardly on what we really need and want—residing in our heart space—the less we are tempted by distractors in the external world that drain our ability to make decisions for ourselves.
Whether it’s advertising for a new beauty product or a cultural or familial narrative that dictates what a happy future looks like, there are infinite ways we can be pulled off of our unique life path and fall out of rhythm with our heart’s music.
It’s no wonder that, if we are out of touch with our vijnanamaya kosha, we might begin to seek stabilizing comforts in the form of food or other quick-fixes to reaffirm the solidity and worth of our lives.
The wisdom of the vijnanamaya kosha might not be front and center all the time, but it tends to turn on when we have major life decisions or crises that require a change, voluntary or involuntary. Still, we can feel the effects of a healthy vijnanamaya kosha in our everyday lives.
Just like having a regular intake of certain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients slowly builds and maintains our physical resilience over time, a regular intake of heart-nourishing activities feeds the resilience of our vijnanamaya kosha.
Practicing pausing before reacting to stressful situations (as long as there isn’t a real threat) moves us out of the habit of relying first and only on the manomaya kosha and strengthens the vijnanamaya kosha.
Meditation and being in good company—people who support you and make you feel acknowledged, and whom you want to support and acknowledge, too—are also excellent sources of heart-mind food.
Anandamaya Kosha | The Space Element
According to the eight-limbed path of yoga, the goal at the end of the road is samadhi, or bliss, which is situated in the anandamaya kosha. Most of us won’t directly engage with this kosha, or perhaps only have glimpses of it in our lifetimes—and that’s fine.
After all, samadhi is described as a dissolving of the boundaries between the self and the object of meditation, and it’s hard to function in the world with totally dissolved boundaries.
Still, it’s worth taking time to acknowledge and practice accessing the state of oneness that is samadhi. Doing so in our culture is a challenge, since there is so much emphasis placed on the personal ego and individual success.
It’s a projection of one of our most fundamental human urges—self-preservation through competition; yogic texts describe this as abhinivesha, or the “fear of death,” which is one of the kleshas (negative mental patterns) that blocks our path to enlightenment.
We can see this pattern in our image-and-materialism-obsessed culture, which seems to ask, “If you don’t have a brand or a following, who are you?”
This is the essence of the space element—all possibilities are already there, contained in space with plenty of room for them to manifest and fall away when they are meant to.
When we’re busy with the day-to-day demands of survival, it’s hard to dwell in that spacious awareness. We get caught with our blinders on in the cycle of work-money-food-repeat, and simply meditating on “I’m enough” won’t satisfy those material needs.
Still, the small glimpses we get at this fundamental truth can be like a high-potency vitamin infusion, jolting us awake to the immense beauty of the world and of ourselves in it.
Spending time admiring the vast, unknowable, and awe-inspiring parts of our world—the stars, moon, sun, and clouds in the sky; the miracle of our body’s design; how food scraps are turned into compost—can make the anandamaya kosha something more embodied.
But beware of falling into other koshas that try to make sense of it all or get overly attached to the “good” feeling. This kosha is beyond our individual mind and beyond the intellect—it is more like the shared intelligence of the universe, connected by the breath and heart. Spending time trying to analyze it is usually just a waste of energy.
Working with the Koshas: Listening and Love
Unlike the concept of individual sheaths that are their namesake, the koshas are not clearly divided or discrete from one another. This makes it somewhat challenging to know which one needs tending to.
As you become more and more aware of the koshas, you may wonder, are my emotions (manomaya kosha) making me crave junk food, or is my physical body (annamaya kosha) truly hungry? Will tapping into the oneness of the universe (anandamaya kosha) give me energy, or am I simply tired because I’m thinking too much (vijnanamaya kosha)?
Only you know the answers. With practice and patience, our ability to feel and know what we need becomes more and more second nature. Or perhaps, more accurately, first nature.
In the end, we want to feed all the koshas some form of love. When digested and absorbed, this nourishment for the subtle body allows us to love ourselves, each other, and the world with more intensity and depth.
As the poet E. E. Cummings wrote, “Love is the whole and more than all.”