Musculoskeletal Health and the Yoga Sheaths

There are many aspects of science and art involved with yoga, but the aspect I’d like to talk about the kosas.  The word kosha translates as sheath.  According to The Sutra’s of Patanjali translated by B.K.S Iynegar, the seven kosa’s are connected to western concepts of anatomy, physiology and psychology.  The table below defines the kosas and the western concepts they correspond to:

How the Yogic kosas relate to western concepts

The kosas I’m most interested in are the first four.  From my experience as a yogini (female yoga practitioner), the first four sheaths are most easily accessible to me while practicing the poses, or asanas’s, using the terminology of yoga.

The anatomical sheath is pretty easily accessible to anyone who comes to class expecting to move into poses.  From a western point of view the anatomical sheath describes body parts, legs, arms, head, neck etc.  Anatomy is a location science.  Our anatomical parts are stimulated when we stretch a body part or move our limbs because the nerves in our muscles, and tendons are activated with stretch and contraction.  When we don’t move, then we are less aware of our body parts and where they are in space.  It is exactly that situation that is present in office work, where office work particularly, is designed for whole body stillness, and overwork of the small muscles in the eyes and hands.  Ditto for metal activity, that which  is going on in our minds.  However, those actions are not related to the anatomical sheath.

Pranamaya is related to the physiological.  In western terms this sheath is more involved  once the anatomical sheath has been activated.  Pranamaya is the knowledge of the body parts in space and the awareness of the breath, organ movement and the energy movement throughout the body. In western terms terms Pranmaya is the circulatory, endocrine, and neuromusculoskeletal SYSTEMS, of the body.

Manomaya, the psychological sheath, relates to the emotions and the mind-body.  Think of manomaya as the quiet bliss of deep slow breath, the runner’s high, or the mental invigoration or alertness that comes from a practice of ….lets say backbends.

Vijnanamaya, the intellectual sheath, is  as the wisdom that comes into your mind intuitively, often with a physical practice, such as yoga, but it can be any physical practice.  The phenomena of vijnanamaya  is the intuitive understanding that can accompany physical movement.  As I’ve said many times, “I solve most of my puzzles while walking the dog,” or doing a long yoga practice.

Several things about the kosas that are important to share come to mind.  I offer them to the reader in no particular order.  First, the all the sheaths, kosas,  are  stimulated simultaneously.   Its not a hierarchal system, per se.   However, it does take some continued practice of both mind and body to attain the knowledge that comes to us through the last three kosas, anandamaya, cittamaya, and atmamaya.   That said, when moving and opening yourself to your chosen practice you can expect to feel both knowledge and wisdom in one or many of the kosas.

Second, yoga is not the only path into the kosas.  But movement is necessary to activate these paths.  Movement takes many forms, physical as well as mental.  This last sentence is a bit reductive…. although I don’t want to convey a reductive logic, but its opposite, an expansive logic as it relates to movement, whether its yoga, walking, running or something else.   Breath, the most important type of movement, in my opinion, is a path into the first four kosas and most likely all seven of them.   Many of us are physically reduced in our abilities to move physically by some type of neuromusculoskeletal disability, but we are not reduced to the wisdom that is attainable through the movement of  breath.

Breath.  It’s difficult to consider all the things I want to say about the wonder of this, the most basic of life’s movements.  When we are born, the first breath we take from the womb, initiates us into the living world.   Acknowledging our breath, at any given moment, is our entree into knowing  our current state, both  physical and emotional.  So checking in our breath, the most basic of our movements, several times per day is something I recommend to all of us as a practice.  Notice if you are breathing shallowly.  If you are, take a moment to try to extend your breath.  It only takes a moment, even less than thirty seconds.  If you are breathing deeply then I suspect you are in a balanced state, one where you have self-knowledge and acceptance.

Lastly, a word about the workplace and breath.  Many workplaces are very stimulating, and many are overstimulating.   So much excitement can lead us to breathe shallowly and this doesn’t help us stay on task, or feel very good about trying to do so.  Brains need oxygen and so do our vital organs.  So, first, notice your breath.  If you are breathing shallowly you won’t have any movement into your lower body, just shallow puffs in your upper chest.  Take a moment, really, just 60 seconds and try to extend your breath into your lower body. One way to check is to place your hands on your ribs while you breathe and notice if you can move your hands with your breath.  Once you’ve attained positive feedback with your hands at that location, move your hands lower to the area around your belly button and see if you can move the breath that low.    Second, are you sitting or standing in a way that optimizes you taking a deep breath?  Seated work is the biggest offender to attaining a neutral posture that helps a person breath deeply.  If you are slumping forward into what I call a C-posture, then your lungs organs are mechanically compressed by that slumping.   Sitting taller requires adjusting your equipment so you can  reach it easily to do your work.  Call your safety department or ask your manager to help you with this.  Many businesses have resources to help you with your ergonomic adjustments, but many of these same businesses don’t understand the link between ergonomics  and health.  The two go hand in hand.   Businesses that link the two are moving towards truly healthy workplaces.


About Beverly Burke

A mover who applies her knowledge of anatomy, physiology, medicine, biomechanics, change behavior to her work with organizations and individuals.
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