5 Sheaths of Yoga

Five Sheaths or Koshas of Yoga*
by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
SwamiJ.com 

We humans are like a lamp that has five lampshades over our light. Each of the lampshades is a different color and density. As the light shines through the lampshades, it is progressively changed in color and nature. It is a bitter-sweet coloring. On the one hand, the shades provide the individualized beauty of each lamp. Yet, the lampshades also obscure the pure light.  
The Yoga path of Self-realization is one of progressively moving inward, through each of those lampshades, so as to experience the purity at the eternal center of consciousness, while at the same time allowing that purity to animate through our individuality. These five levels are called koshas, which literally means sheaths.
Kosha means sheath, like the lampshades covering the light, or like the series of wooden dolls pictured below. Maya means appearance, as if something appears to be one way, but is really another. Advaita Vedanta suggests that you imagine a dark night in which you think you see a man, only to find that it was an old fence post that was hard to see at first; that is maya.
Here, it means that each of the sheaths or koshas is only an appearance. In truth, all of the levels, layers, koshas, or sheaths of our reality is only appearance, or maya (while also very real in the sense of dealing with the external world), and that underneath all of those appearances, we are pure, divine, eternal consciousness, or whatever name you prefer to call it. This is one of the fundamental principles of Advaita Vedanta meditation.
While some view maya as meaning that nothing is real, and turn this into a cold-hearted intellectual practice, others view the illusion of maya as being shakti, the creative force of the universe. In this way, the maya of the koshas is experienced both as unreal and, at the same time, as the beautiful manifestations of the universal oneness.
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