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Circle Yoga Shala is a center for Yoga advancement, creative emergence, and a sustainable life.

5 Koshas and 5 Elements


Copywrited material from Circle Yoga Shala's 200 TT Manual

The origins of the techniques of this teacher training program are ultimately shrouded in mystery. This means that we cannot know for sure how old they are, or exactly when they began to be employed as practices. What we do know is that early texts outlining the practice of Hatha Yoga begin to surface at about 800 – 900 C.E. We know that Yoga as a whole is much older than this, but the highly developed system of body positions and breathing techniques - - and all of the modern permutations of those techniques being taught in yoga studios around the country and all over the world today - - are themselves relatively recent developments. Without trying to flesh out the entire speculative history of Hatha Yoga’s origins, we can look closely at what the techniques assume about the world and the human being, and also the goals for which they have traditionally been employed.

There are three major assumptions that surface when we look at the system of practices that have come to us as Hatha Yoga. The first is that our experiential world has evolved from pure, unalloyed consciousness, proceeding from subtle to gross, eventually giving birth to the five elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air, and space. These elements are the building blocks out of which all things perceivable are ultimately composed. The second assumption is that the human being is a multidimensional organism that reflects this macro cosmic evolution, and any practice that seeks to liberate us from suffering must work within the confines of the elements and our multidimensional nature. The last assumption is that the practices which fall under the rubric of Hatha Yoga are ultimately performed in the spirit of the tenets and aims laid down in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, often called classical Yoga, or Raja Yoga.

Our aim is to investigate some of the foundations of these assumptions. To do this we need look to three main areas: (1) the Taittiriya Upanishad, which gives us the Pancha Kosha model, one of the oldest multidimensional maps of the human being; (2) the Samkhya philosophy and a brief overview of its cosmological orientation to the universe, giving us the five elements of nature, of which the techniques of Hatha Yoga are embodiments; and (3) we look at the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which outlines the deep transformational context in which the techniques are practiced.


The Upanishads are the first bodies of literature in which we see the early practice of Yoga unfold. The Upanishads transmuted the orthodox rituals that had been outlined in the Vedas. This had become governed by priests and the exchange of money, and internalized them under the umbrella of world renunciation and intense contemplation, or meditation. These new practices centered around the perennial distinction between the eternal and the time bound, and a shared belief that we must perforce identify with - - or ‘realize’ - - our essential identity with the eternal to be free from suffering. This process of realization is the basic thread that runs through the next three thousand years of yogic revolution. Even though the methods and traditions change, none of them ever really abandon the task of attempting to assist the practitioner in experiencing the real, and dis-identifying with the unreal.

It is in the early Upanishads that we find one of the first expressions of the human being as a multi dimensional, energetic phenomenon. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, we are presented with a model of the human being based around the five elements (2.1-9). This model is known as the Pancha Maya model, or the Pancha Kosha model.

In Sanskrit, pancha is the word for the number five, and delineates the number of divisions in the model. maya is the word for illusion, and kosha is the word for sheath. So Pancha Maya means variously the five illusions, or the five sheaths. The five sheaths represent various levels of our being, various ‘parts’ that we experience and identify as ourselves. These experiences are said to veil our true eternal nature, and must be integrated and transcended via practice. This model serves as the basis for the therapeutic application of the postures and breathing exercises that will arise in recorded form several thousand years later.

The first Kosha, or sheath, is called the Annamaya Kosha: the sheath made of food. The annamaya kosha is the gross physical body: the muscles, bones, connective tissue, organs, etc. “According to the Ancients, the physical body consists of five aspects: the head, the torso, the two arms, and the two legs...” (Kraftsow 4). This kosha corresponds to the elements earth and water.

The second Kosha is the Pranamaya Kosha. The Pranamaya Kosha is comprised of prana, or the life energy that governs the functioning and growth of organisms. The Pranamaya Kosha corresponds to our physiology, or the functioning of the human system: respiration, digestion, circulation, etc. It corresponds to the elements fire and water. Our physiology is flow itself, largely liquid based, and operates through a network of vessels and nerves that spread like flame throughout the body. Fire and liquid also co-mingle in those substances that are electrochemical in nature, or acidic, and hence corrosive in some sense. The traditional practices of Pranayama work directly at this level of our being.

The third kosha is called the Manomaya Kosha. The prefix of the term derives from manas, one of the Sanskrit words describing the mind. So Manomaya corresponds to the mind, or the mental sphere. Moreover, manas describe the part of the mind that primarily registers the impressions from our senses. Manomaya does not specifically correspond to the brain or the nervous system, but rather to their functioning, as well as to our basic experience of mental activity, including, but not limited to, emotion and thought production. Chanting is the traditional set of practices that work in this arena. The Manomaya Kosha corresponds to the elements air and space.

The fourth Kosha is called Vijnanamaya Kosha, and is translated as the wisdom sheath. Like Manomaya, Vijnanamaya does not correspond directly to a physical structure, but rather to our experience of intelligence, intuition, and insight. It is the coordinator, or the organizer of sensory input. To quote a friend and fellow teacher, the difference between Manomaya and Vijnanamaya is: “the difference between the action of simply gathering raw data, and that of interpreting or intuiting its essence.”  Meditation is the traditional practice that works to balance and investigate this arena of our being. The Vijnanamaya Kosha corresponds to the element space.

The fifth and final Kosha is called the Anandamaya Kosha. Ananda is the Sanskrit word for joy or bliss, and so the last body in the model is known as the Sheath of Bliss. The Anandamaya Kosha is the closest to our own most essential nature and is therefore the subtlest of the sheaths. Devotional practice is the traditional modality that corresponds to this arena of our being. Anandamaya Kosha corresponds most directly to the element space.


Several centuries after the Upanishadic era, the wheel of philosophical thought and investigation began to turn with increased regularity as people began to observe and examine how they were thinking. As a result, the ideas expressed in the Upanishads were refined, debated, and finally came to a condensed expression in a system called Samkhya. Samkhya means to enumerate, or to count. Samkhya is essentially a system that concerns itself with the close observation of the phenomena that arise in meditation and contemplation.

For the Samkhyans, the building blocks of every experience evolved from pure consciousness, first in subtle forms, and then proceeding to more and more gross manifestations. The Samkhyans provided us with a map of this process. For our purposes here, the major landmarks on this map are the three Gunas -- rajas, sattva and tamas, and the five elements of nature -- space, air, fire, water, and earth. The Gunas and the elements are evolutes that are gross enough for us to experience directly. Additionally, the patterns and processes they describe are directly related to the evolution and application of the techniques that we are all practicing and teaching.

The word Guna has been translated in many different ways, but it literally means strand or braid. For the Samkhyans, all of perceivable reality is composed of the interaction of the three Gunas - - Rajas, Sattva, and Tamas. Rajas is the energy of change and transformation. Sattva is the manifestation of radiance, clarity, and balance. Tamas is the energy of inertia or heaviness, the tendency for things to coalesce into one place and stay that way for a time. So, all of phenomenal reality - - from the objects that we perceive in the outer world, to the subtlest states of psychological experience - - is composed of the Gunas combining, transforming, unwinding, and combining again, in a ceaseless cycle of birth and death.

It is important to know about the Gunas for many reasons, but mainly because they demonstrate part of the evolution of the eternal/time bound theme from the Upanishad: the Gunas outline the process by which the phenomenal manifestation of form arises and passes - - they thus describe how the time bound appears and disappears. This impermanence is part of the source of our deepest frustrations in life, and part of what yoga is designed to help us see clearly, and surrender to, via practice.

The Gunas are also very broad ontological categories. We do not perceive them as individual entities. Though the stuff of our immediate experience does indeed express the general qualities of change, luminance, and inertia or fixity, it is much more specific in terms of its phenomenal manifestation. In a word, our immediate experience is composed of the five elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air, and space.

Pragmatically, the elements apply to our experience within the same general categories as the Pancha Maya model: both as objective descriptions and subjective metaphors. As objective descriptions, they trace a stage in the creation process from pure consciousness (space), to delineated form (earth), and they describe the relative movement of things in the external world: degrees of motion, fixity, and mass. Second, as subjective metaphors, they describe our innermost experiences: deep sensation patterns, and the emotional and psychological states of mind coincident with those experiences. It is understood that when a certain quality of thought or action predominates our disposition, a certain admixture of the elements is present. From this perspective we are a dance of mass (earth), feeling and flow (water), heat and subtlety (fire), thought and primordial sensation (air), and pure awareness/consciousness (space).

The five primary techniques of Hath Yoga evolved in this cosmological paradigm, and each technique corresponds to a particular element. They are first conceived of as tools to help us inquire into our immediate experience meditatively. Also, in therapeutic situations, they help us to diagnose the energetics of any given behavioral pattern, or physiological condition, and balance it with its opposite, so that we have a chance to stay sensitive enough for the challenges that lie ahead.

We need to now identify each element and its corresponding technique, along with a brief discussion of its qualities and how they relate to the practice of Hatha Yoga. The elements are presented in terms of four basic characteristics. Each of these characteristics helps us to discover how we can experience an element in relation to practice, and thus where we might focus our intent when we apply any of the techniques. The four basic characteristics are: Source, Arena, Medium, and Support. The Source of an element is that from which it seems to spring forth. The Arena of an element is the place within which it and the other elements meet and transform. The Medium is that substance or state through which we become aware of an element’s presence. The Support for an element is the structure or activity that underlies its functioning, or expression.


Space is the primary element within which the other four secondary elements (air, fire, water, earth) emerge, coalesce, and transmute. Its source is consciousness. Space is unrestricted immediacy, directness, freedom, and being. We become aware of consciousness through its medium, which is our awareness. To support our awareness of Space, we must concentrate. Space is fundamentally embodied by the technique Drushti or ‘focused attention.’

Drushti is the application of subtle restraint, in which involving the mind deeply in the activity of the present moment focuses attention. In the context of practice, the body and the sensations it provides become the meditative objects on which the mind is focused. Drushti cultivates awareness by turning the mind ‘inward’, toward the body and the complexity of actions that are the inner workings of posture, the flow of breathing, and the psychological states arising concurrently with those phenomena.

To embody space authentically, the mind must manifest its qualities in balanced proportion with the other elements. The authentic presence of balanced space is experienced as the opposite of restraint, which is a sense of freedom.


Air is the next subtlest of the elements. In practice, the source of air is felt in the throat when Ujjayi Pranayama is engaged. The arena of air is the thoracic cavity, in which we can both feel and observe the presence of expansion, filling, lightness, and mobility. The medium of air is the skin, through which we feel the movements of its presence, both internally and externally. Its support is the limbs, which are used in the posture practice to help open and stabilize the thoracic cavity, thus maximizing respiratory potential. Air is embodied in the technique of Pranayama (most frequently Ujjayi Pranayama), which is attention to the movements of the inhale, the exhale, and the still transition which separates them. The sign of air’s authentic embodiment is the opposite of movement: a grounded, steady, stillness.


Fire is transformation, purification, strength, explosiveness, intensity, abundance, and integration. The source of fire is the solar plexus, often referred to as the ‘solar knot’, which is a dense matrix of interconnecting nervous tissue that spreads out like a flame in the abdominal cavity. The arena of fire is the abdomen and the small intestine, where bile and hydrochloric acid ‘heat’ the foods we ingest, breaking them down into their constituent parts so they can be integrated into the whole. Its medium is the Nadis, which are the metaphorical, subtle conductors of energy in the body. The support for fire is in the throat. Ujjayi Pranayama is the regulatory mechanism in the throat that harmonizes the degree of our efforts and the amount of oxygen they need to be sustained.

Fire is embodied through the techniques of Mula and Uddiyana bandha. Engaging the bandhas means integrating the body-mind within the inherent spiral dynamic that is the guiding blueprint for our make-up. That is, the basic energies of upward, rising, expansion, and downward, rooting, contraction, are opposed to one another, clarified, harmonized, and used as the template on which the actions of the practice are founded.

The authentic embodiment of fire, which arises through the practice of subtle awareness and action, results in the opposite of subtlety itself, which is an overt radiance. This radiance is the palpable presence of an energetic charge that originates from the core’s depths. It gives the body a characteristic “luminous potency ... that is far more striking than extreme movement.”


Water is feeling, softness, fluidity, and power. It is taking the line of least resistance, exchanging, adaptability, and continuity. Evolution has dictated that humans manifest as bipedal creatures that walk up - right. The quality of our movements is determined by the quality of our connection to the earth. Thus, the source of water is the sole of the foot. Its medium is the bones, structures rigid enough to convey the potential power of locomotion. Depending on the particular movements we desire, the bones require different geometric relationships. Joints allow for such various configurations, and they are thus the support for water. The arena of water, or we might say the fulcrum of graceful, deliberate, movement, is the pelvis.

Water is embodied and cultivated through the technique of Vinyasa, wherein we synchronize the body’s movements exactly with the breath. Water is nourished through gentle, persistent, repetition. Embodying water, or practicing Vinyasa, accomplishes several key things: It grants us a direct experience of the primordial unity of body, mind and intention; it slows down the habitually fast pace of daily existence and encourages softness openness and sensitivity; it allows us to establish postures more fully and deeply; it brings awareness to our current capacity, and thus develops reverence for the present moment; it conserves energy and adds a fluid continuity to the entire practice, eliminating jerkiness, harshness, reducing stress; and it is internalizing.

The authentic embodiment of water results from the utilization of delicacy. When it is established, it manifests as the apparent opposite of delicacy, which is power.


Earth is the final necessary ingredient in the process of ‘condensation’ which manifests the world as we know it. Without it the other elemental forces become unstable and destructive. Without earth, fire burns out of control -- earth is therefore insulation. Without earth, air simply dissipates -- earth provides air with focus. Without earth, water ‘bleeds’, or scatters -- earth provides the structure within which water is channeled, so that it can fulfill its primary function of power. The fundamental expression of earth is thus form.

The arena of earth is the spine, the densest, most cohesive structure in the core of the body. It houses the spinal cord, and forms a kind of ‘trunk’ upon which the physiological body -- the organs, including the brain, heart, and lungs -- are arranged. The integrity of the spine is thus crucial to our organism, both in terms of structure and function. The support for earth is the pelvis, that which lies at the base of the spine. If the pelvis is deranged in any way, either through injury or chronic muscular imbalance, the spine begins to lose both its natural mobility and strength.

Earth qualities are stability, cohesion, firmness, grounding, doing, and maintaining. Its source is our foundation: those parts of the body that touch the floor. Earth is embodied in the technique of asana, and its cultivation is the practice of alignment. The essence of alignment is the utilization of opposing actions. Godfrey uses the example of an earthen dike to illustrate this point. He says “in order to create a dike, earth must be pressed in from both sides. If we press in from only one side, there is collapse.” The practice of alignment follows the same principle. We position the body’s parts in an affinity which is relative to its current capacity, and then activate muscular pressure in a sequence of spiraling forces, which work to “seal” that affinity in a state of dynamic integrity.

The authentic embodiment of earth, cultivated through the sensitive application of muscular effort, blended throughout the body-mind, is experienced as emptiness (Samapatti). The experience of the body as emptiness is an experience of it in its primordial oneness -- form as kinetic flow.

Having been presented with a brief overview of the Pancha Maya model, and the five elements of nature and their corresponding techniques, we can clearly see that the transformational science of Hatha Yoga evolved to work within our basic existential situation: we are multidimensional beings in a universe where the impermanence of the things we perceive is a law that holds sway from the beginning to the end of our lives. Within the Pancha Maya, the elemental techniques are tools to help us recognize the situation as it is, and inquire into the possibility of finding balance and stability within it.

At this point we stand on the edge of a precipice: we are armed with an experientially verifiable model of ourselves and the universe, and also a set of perhaps the most powerful transformative tools ever devised, which we can apply in accordance with that model. None of this, however, ensures that we will not generate suffering for ourselves. None of this ensures that our actions will lead to the peace that all sentient beings desire. We need a guide; something that will orient our efforts toward revealing and unraveling the deep seated conditioned patterns that govern each and every one of us, so that unconscious forces do not drive our application of technique. That guide is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

Copyright material, Matthew and Holly Krepps, Circle Yoga Shala