A yoga therapy perspective on the human system: The panchamaya model

By Diane Finlayson

The yoga philosophy that informs the way yoga therapists view the individual comes from a text called the Taittiriya Upanishad. Its second chapter describes a way of considering the human system that incorporates five interconnected “sheaths”—the panchamaya kosha model (pancha means five).

The first is the “bread basket,” annamaya kosha. This sheath is the part of us that is sustained by food and later becomes food. The next sheath, pranamaya kosha, is the vital energy or life force of the body, said to ride on the breath. These are the two most tangible of the five sheaths. The more subtle sheaths begin with manomaya, which is the lower mind or instinctual drive, and vijnanamaya, the higher mind where the ability to discern lives. The most subtle of the five layers is anandamaya kosha. The ability to connect with a sense of Awe is the hallmark of this sheath. (Anandamaya kosha is commonly misinterpreted as “bliss” body, but the notion of bliss as a destination shortchanges the paradigm—connecting to Awe means we have the ability to connect to ALL of consciousness through this channel.)

These sheaths are intertwined and dependent on one another. Yoga therapists begin their work with an individual in the area where the client is most conscious of discomfort. In partnership, they then work to create a plan of care to empower the client to begin recovery, minimize the impact of symptoms, and ease suffering.

Allopathic medicine views the body more mechanically: If something breaks, you go get it fixed. Specialties exist for each of the systems, with physical therapy for structural issues (and medical specialists for every organ of the body), respiratory therapy for breath and energy issues, psychologists and psychiatrists for mental issues, and ministers of various types for spiritual crises.

Yoga therapy takes a more holistic view of the individual, recognizing that these layers are more like a ball of rubber bands than pages in a book that can be leafed through. As such, a yoga therapist can assist as a sort of “generalist” who can aid in discovery of disconnection and effective (re)integration of these sheaths. Creating an integrated plan of care can be complex and take a few sessions depending on an individual’s needs.

Certified yoga therapists work in conjunction with western healthcare professionals to address specific needs that may be beyond the scope of practice of yoga therapy. Although the tools of the profession (yoga postures, breathing practices, guided imagery, meditation, and lifestyle guidance through the ethics of yoga) can create an appropriate plan of care for most individuals, others have greater, or more acute, needs. When a client is in this position, a professionally trained yoga therapist will seek a referral from the appropriate healthcare professional to help them more fully address the needs of the individual in their care.   

Diane Finlayson, MA, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, is Department Chair for Yoga Therapy & Ayurveda at Maryland University of Integrative Health. Diane is also a NAMA- and AAPNA-Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner.