The Five Levels of Yoga Practice



My yoga teacher often jokes about what he calls the “reductionism of yoga in America.”  Basically, he says that in India, yoga is a system of complete physical, mental and spiritual health.  When yoga was brought to America, however, practitioners latched on to asana, or the physical postures of yoga.  Then as time went on, they focused on the stretching aspects of asana, instead of the full energetic, stretching, balancing, and strengthening effects.  Then, he continues, with the common focus on form, it became about locking the knees and focusing on the hamstrings.  So, he jokes, yoga in America has been reduced to stretching your hamstrings.

Like most jokes, this is likely an oversimplification.  But he has a very valid point.  Look at any article on yoga and you will see people performing postures, as if those postures were the only component of yoga.  In reality, yoga is comprised of many tools, only one of which is asana.

The Pancamaya Model describes the full breadth of yoga practices and how they can impact every level of the human system.  The model progresses from the most gross, or tangible level, to the most subtle, or intangible one.  Work on one level may show up in another, but the tool associated with that level is the one most likely to have direct impact on that level.

The Pancamaya Model

Anamaya:  This level comprises the “food” body, or the muscles, bones, ligaments, etc. of our bodies.  Not surprisingly, the yoga tool we use to impact this level is asana.  So when I teach my yoga for healthy backs class, for example, we primarily focus on yoga movements that can help heal the students’ structural issues.

Pranamaya:  This level comprises the “Energy” body.  It includes physiological systems, such as the respiratory system, as well as the energy of emotions.  The tool most targeted for this level is pranayama or breath work.  That’s why I use the breath practice “Tracy’s sleeping pill” personally and with my clients who have insomnia.  Although asana can help, breath is the more powerful and targeted tool for these issues.

Manomaya:  This level is the level of intellect.  This may be a stretch for some Westerners, but the tool used to increase intellect in the traditional teachings is sound, or chant.  In the West we tend to use reading and lecture. When these models were developed, there were no printing presses, so knowledge was passed down in orally from generation to generation.   In India, however, they still use chant to help improve cognitive function in many populations, including the aging and children with learning issues.

Vijnanamaya: This is the level of personality, or character.   The yoga tool we use to impact character is meditation. I personally believe all meditation techniques are valid, and I will share some simple techniques with you in later blog articles.  But in this lineage we also do self exploratory mediations that help us learn more about ourselves and how we react to the things that happen to and around us.  Meditation is a key part of my yoga classes for anxiety and depression.

Anandamaya:  This is the level of joy or spirit.  It is impacted via ritual.  I have a hard time describing ritual, except that it is a combination of other practices done in a symbolic way.  We use ritual in the West as well.  Think, for example, of weddings, graduations, etc.  At Whole Life I personally use ritual to mark the beginning and end of every class by ringing chimes and saying namaste.  I do this to help connect to my students in a symbolic way.

So, the next time someone asks you about yoga, remember that the postures that come to mind are really only the tip of the iceberg.   This wonderful tradition offers so much more!


Tracy Weber

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4 thoughts on “The Five Levels of Yoga Practice

  1. Kristina Westbrook

    Have you considered having a class that incorporates all five in one class or as a drop in class? Having a bit of each in a regular yoga class instead of specific focus of on only one or two would be a great offering.

  2. melanie

    Thanks for writing this Tracy – this model has been a powerful reference tool for me over the years in attempting to understand the elements of yoga and yoga as a whole.

    Any practice does include all five layers – but the physical and energitic are the easiest to touch into. However, the layers are co-emergent – they cannot really be separated. And, as I have heard you say many times – this is a model of our life experience – but I’ve found it a very powerful model.

    The practice of Yoga Nidra can combine all 5 levels – depending on the focus of the teaching and the sensitivity of the student.

  3. tracywe

    Hi Kristine and Melanie, and thanks for your comments! I sort of agree with both of you. As Melanie states, we do have an impact on all 5 levels of the human system in most yoga classes. However, we don’t always use all 5 TOOLS in most classes. I call classes that incorporate movement, pranayama, meditation and ritual my “full meal deal” practices.

    I most often teach them when asana is clearly not the most effective tool. Sound is a tricky one, as people often don’t like it, so I only use it with students who already generally like and trust me. 😉 I do use it when I teach prenatal, because it is so useful in labor. My Thanksgiving and New Year’s classes always incorporate all, except sound. My Movement and Meditation class, as well as my classes for anxiety and depression use all. Except sound. My teacher trainings use all.

    So, perhaps this is a good time for me to explore a non therapeutic series that would incorporate all of the levels of practice? The asana portion would likely have to be short (45 minutes or less of a 90 minute class.) Is there any interest in this? It sure would be fun to teach! Blog readers, let me know if this would interest you!

  4. Pingback: Karma Yoga—the Yoga of Service—and a Special Class on Sunday, June 2nd | Tracy Weber – Whole Life Blog

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