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Your health is like an onion: understanding the koshas

your health is like an onion

Have you ever tried to define what health is? We all want to stay healthy, and be able to maintain our independence and freedom, but often we only think about health as the absence of illness. And it’s possible to have a chronic condition such as arthritis, and still consider oneself in good health.

All of us have ideas about what good health looks like and feels like. But we may not think about it analytically. In the information age that we live in we’re under a constant barrage of health-oriented marketing: from prescription drugs, to the natural-miracle du jour, to the latest diet or the latest aesthetic trends like teeth-whitening or botox. All of the information, research and claims can leave us more confused than ever about what health actually is. In our attempts to become healthier sometimes we end up putting ourselves through ordeals that aren’t so helpful, like trying to attend a fitness class that’s beyond our capability and ending up with a torn rotator cuff. 

In yoga the model of what good health looks like is sophisticated and intriguing, even though it dates back to a collection of writings called the Upanishads ( 800BCE to 500BCE approximately). The yogis conceived of human thriving being the result of the interplay of five different “sheaths” or layers that are interwoven, interconnected and always influencing one another. They called each of these “sheaths” a kosha.

Aware that our brains and bodies feel like distinct and independent entities they emphasized that we are subject to the illusion of having complete control when, in actuality, many of the factors that make us healthy or unhealthy are neither exclusively physical, or exclusively psychological, or even apparent to our limited brains. This will make more sense once we’ve delved into the koshas (which we’ll be doing over the course of a few blogs). For now, just imagine that your health could be thought about in terms of layers, or like an onion (if you’re a fan of Shrek). 

Today, let’s cover the first level, which is called the annamaya kosha. The annamaya kosha reflects the flesh or “food body,” and is essentially the physical body we can see and experience in the here and now. Comprised of all the food that we take in, all the liquids we drink, what we breathe in, and whatever we absorb through our skin, the food body is literally what we are made of. 

The food body has measurable and observable nutritional requirements. If we don’t get enough Vitamin C we get Rickett’s, if we don’t get enough calcium we get osteoporosis, if we don’t eat any fibre we get constipation. When we think about traditional medicine and scientific research, most of it has been concerned with what is happening at this level. 

Because this is a truly ancient way of looking at the body, the sheaths or koshas don’t always line up well with what we know about the body now. For example, the respiratory system and physiological issues like metabolism are considered to be part of a different layer. (More on that in the next post). 

Ample scientific research has demonstrated that aside from eating well, staying hydrated and getting adequate rest, the number one thing we need to keep our “food bodies” healthy is move them.

As technology has advanced over the years we’ve been gradually editing out more and more of the movement from our lives. We have remote controls, garage door openers, trunks that open and close with the touch of a switch, and now smart devices to open and close blinds, dim the lights and adjust the temperature. 

Katy Bowman, a biomechanics and human movement expert, likens movement to nutrition. Most of us don’t move nearly enough, and often when we do, it’s something “extra” that’s outside of our daily routine such as attending a yoga class once a week. And although this is laudable, she argues that it doesn’t begin to replace all of the regular daily movement we used to get just a few generations ago.

Also, for those who do move more regularly such as runners and cyclists, we’re often doing a lot of only one type of movement—meaning that we’re not exercising many joints and muscles, and over-exercising a few. She likes to compare different types of movement to vitamins. We need a wide variety from many different sources to stay in optimal condition. 

Bowman’s recommendation is to build more movement into our everyday routine as possible, so that it’s not something “extra” that we have to squeeze in. For example, can you walk to your mailbox rather than drive? Can you whip cream by hand rather than using a mixer? Can you get down on the floor to watch TV, or dispense with the remote and get up to change the channel? 

Once we shift our thinking about how and when we move, it’s easy to build more movement into our lives. Problems like poor balance often start to evaporate once we start taking more movement vitamins. So for your homework, think about ways that you could move more that don’t take you out of your daily routine. For example, can you brush your teeth while balancing on one foot? Could you do a downward dog at the sink every time you wash your hands? Could you stretch up to touch the top of the doorframe every time you enter the washroom? I’m anxious to hear your ideas. Please share them in the comments below.

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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend

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