PAÑCAMAYA | The Five Layers of the Self

Article by Evelyn Einhäuser

Even though we know that human beings are complex, we are dealing with problems or imbalances in a unidimensional way. Society is used to address symptoms rather than congeries and uses one-pointed remedies to tackle them. When we have a headache we take a headache pill (no matter which headache or which cause), if we have emotional problems we seek the advice of a therapist and hope for a single solution and when our vitality is lacking we use coffee and other stimulants to feel more awake. Like that, we might have gathered an accumulation of symptoms- and an accumulation of single pointed remedies. People see a massage therapist for neck pain, take herbal pills against constipation and use painkillers for their headache.

But in the old Vedic tradition, the complexity of the human structure was taken into account and therefore the way in which problems were addressed was quite different.

A human being was seen as a holistic entity with different layers that continuously interpervade and influence each other. The Taittiriya Upanisat thus speaks of five such layers: Annamaya, our material structure that is nourished by food, Pranamaya, our energetical structure, vitality and life force, Manomaya, our mind structure, influenced by the things we have learnt, Vijnanamaya, the structure of our personality and Anandamaya, the place of our most fundamental feelings.

The Yogi-s used the image of a bird (“Kha-ga” from “Ka” meaning “Space” and “Ga” meaning “Move”) to describe these different layers with the underlying wisdom that a bird was seen as someone who can move through space unbound. It is free.

The healthier we are on all the layers of our existence, the more freely we can walk on our own path and fulfill our own potentials.

The physiological structure (Annamaya) was not perceived like we perceive our bodies today.  It was seen as a collection of the seven “dhatus” (support structures like blood and bones), “rasa” (fluids in the body), “karana-s” (faculties like our senses), “kosas” (organs), excretion methods and “bhutas” (elements). Food was seen as the most important influence on the Anna Maya. It didn’t just include the quality of the food, but also how the food was consumed, the quantity, the energy of the person who prepared the food, at what time it was eaten, the age of the consumer and his or her individual metabolism and the mood in which the food was taken. In the Vedic times, food was taken as a ritual with an accompanied feeling of gratitude. How well we can receive nourishment (especially emotionally) and what relationship we have with nourishment is often mirrored in the way that we eat. People who control their food a lot might for example also want to control the quantity of emotional nourishment that they receive.

Our energetic structure (Pranamaya) is dependent on “Prana” (vitalizing energy, what we receive), “Apana” (the energy of letting go) and “Vyana” (the energy of distribution). Our energy level depends on the interaction of these three. Too much or too little energy can be caused by a lack of Prana, a dysfunction in the Apana (when we hold on to negative impressions and cant let them go for example) or a problem of the distribution, Vyana. Or the ways in which the energy is distributed (the nadis) can be the cause of the problem. The connecting factor for the synergy of the different energies is what is known as Akasa, space. In order to receive energy, we have to create space. And we need to let go of negative energies that create constriction. Positive actions and behaviors like friendliness and compassion as well as non-judgement can also create additional inner space for more energy.

The structure of our mind (Manomaya) contains all the knowledge that you have gained. This includes the practical knowledge for your daily actions, spiritual knowledge, cultural knowledge like music, art etc. as well as knowledge of emergencies such as how to understand and treat illnesses. Our so called external minds make up the Manomaya and determine what we perceive with our senses, the way we analyze things and ultimately make the decision whether we engage in something or not. The most important factor influencing the Manomaya is our ability to listen. If we cant listen, we cant hear. If we cant hear, we cant understand or learn further. We are stuck. If we don’t learn to listen, we cannot perceive our more internal understanding. Our minds will become rigid by our identifications and lose their capacity to engage more with our internal minds that are able to experience without judgement or identification.

The structure of our personality (Vijnanamaya) drives our actions. Like the tail of a bird we all carry what is called as “Mahat”, the baggage from our past, a collection of past impressions, patterns, memory, but also seed potential and our very own essence. The Vijnana Maya is influenced by how we perceive reality (and thus ourselves) and whether we truthfully express our reality. Both are influenced by Sraddha (a strong faith in something higher) and Yoga, a connection to our Self.

The innermost structure, the Anandamaya, contains our most essential feelings. It reveals the humans innermost essence and capacity of affection and bliss. Brahma is the divine source within us, which is the reason we have feelings. The experience and later recollection of these feelings form the structure of the Anandamaya.

The Vedic tradition offered elaborate techniques like Yoga and Ayurveda that would target and work on all of these layers harmoniously. An asana was thus never meant to target a single muscle like we might sometimes find in classes today (even on the physiological level, as the structure was not perceived skeletal), it was a holistic tool for addressing physiological components, the energy, the mind, the personality and the anandamaya of a practitioner. None of the tools of Yoga, be it Pranayama, Asana or Meditation for example can therefore be seen as unidimensional, because they will affect the whole system.

These ancient practices form a holistic remedy, something that is hardly compatible with our modern day approach of simple symptom curing. Their biggest potency is revealed in it’s capacity to directly influence the Vijnanamaya and thus create deep change and transformation on a personal level.

Yoga practices can increase self-confidence and the trust in life by strengthening Sraddha. The more faith we have, the less we are bound by negative memories and impressions from our past. If we learn to trust in life, we can learn to release that obstacle which prevents most of us from stepping forward: fear. Sraddha is the antidote of fear. Where there is Sraddha, fear cannot exist.

Yoga practices also help us relink with our deep self, which can change the way that we perceive reality (and us). We can learn to perceive reality from a place that is less colored by Mahat, the experiences of the past. In that process we will also be able to express our own reality with more authenticity and faith.

This effect interpervades and influences all other layers and makes us more healthy, happy and whole.

If you look at all of these layers carefully you can also see that the Vedas gave positive advice that can help us structure our actions. First we need to create more space in our heart by engaging in positive actions and letting go of negativity. Second we need to listen more carefully so we can hear and receive wisdom that is beyond ego identifications and coloring. And when we manage to link to that true wisdom inside us we can experience what is known as our most inherent feeling: bliss.