What Is The Subtle Body?

सूक्ष्म शरीर

Sukshma (subtle, non-tangible) + Sharira (body)

Subtle Body Definition

In Sanskrit, the term “subtle body” is rendered Sukshma Sharira, or sometimes Linga Sharira.

Sukshma means “subtle,” or “non-tangible.” The connotation is one of vaporous or atom-sized material.

Sharira means “body.”

The subtle body is sometimes also referred to as the astral body.

In yogic philosophy, human beings are composed of three bodies, consisting of five koshas (sheaths) in total:

1. Sthula Sarira, the physical or gross body, which contains:

  • Annamaya kosha (the food sheath).

2. Sukshma Sarira, the subtle or astral body, which contains:

  • Pranamaya kosha (the energy sheath);
  • Manomaya kosha (the mental sheath);
  • Vijanamaya kosha (the intellect sheath).

3. Karana Sarira, the causal body, which contains:

  • Anandamaya (the bliss sheath).

These bodies come into being via avidya (nescience, unawareness, ignorance of the Self), which creates jiva (the individual soul hiding from its true self).

layers of waves lapping a beach

Subtle Body Deep Dive

In yogic philosophy, human consciousness is divided into the waker, the dreamer, and the deep sleeper. The gross body is identified with the waker, the subtle body with the dreamer, and the causal body with the deep sleeper. Together, these three bodies form your being, your individuated consciousness.

The subtle body, which connects the gross (physical) and causal bodies, consists of the vital energy needed to keep the body alive and animate.

Think of it as the electricity in the bulb. The fuel in the motor.

It is sometimes described as the energetic template or blueprint of the gross body.

Consisting of the energy sheath, mental sheath and intellect sheath, it is said to be composed of 5 (although some accounts state as many as 49) subtle elements.

a stone with ripples in the sand flowing outwards

5 Subtle Elements Of The Subtle Body:

Subtle ElementExplanation
1.SravanadipanchakamTranslated as “the fivefold process of learning/understanding”.
This refers to the way your eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose perceive the world.
2. VagadipanchakamTranslated as “the fivefold supports/bridles”.

This refers to the way your five organs of action – hands, legs, genitals, anus, and speech – behave. It’s not so much about the organs themselves, but rather the energy they use to interact with the world.
3. PranapanchakamTranslated as “the fivefold vital breath/life force”. Also known as the five vayus, this refers to:

1. Prana – Governing the chest and head, regulating inhalation, inward and upward-moving air.

2. Apana – Governing the pelvic area, focused on elimination functions and the evacuation of waste, as well as exhalation.

3. Vyana – Pervading the whole body, it regulates the circulation of blood and other fluids.

4. Udana – Concentrated in the throat, it governs speech, verbal expression, growth, and metabolism.

5. Samana – Focused on the navel region, it regulates digestion, the absorption and assimilation of food, discernment of emotions, thoughts, experience, etc.
4. ManasMind. Volition and will.
5. Buddhi Intellect. Reasoning and discernment.

Sometimes the categories of “subconscious” and “ego” are included in this list of elements as well.

It’s important to understand that the subtle body does not refer to any physical manifestation, such as organs, blood, or nerves.

The lungs, for example, are sthula (gross/physical body), whereas their capacity for breathing is sukshma (subtle body).

Similarily, nerves themselves are sthula, whereas the transmission of signals through the nervous system is sukshma.

The Subtle Body in Your Life

You may be wondering how all this energy flows around your body. Is it just a prana bonanza? A free-for-all of vital life energy?

This is where your nadis come in.

Nadis, which can be translated as “pipes,” “tubes,” or “channels,” are the energetic pathways that carry prana around your subtle body. They form major intersections at each of your 7 chakras.

an ancient diagram representing the nadis through which the subtle body works

There could be as many as 72,000 nadis, but 3 of them are crucial to know about:

Sushuma – the central channel, running from the base of the spine to the top of your head.

Ida – beginning and ending on your left side, snaking around sushuma from bottom to top.

Pingala – beginning and ending on your right side, snaking around sushuma from bottom to top.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to keep these energetic pathways balanced and free-flowing.

How?

Exercises for the subtle body permeate hatha, kundalini, and Iyengar yoga among others. Some focus on the chakras, while others stimulate prana flow through your nadis.  

Check out the way mudras, bandhas, and certain pranayama techniques work to stimulate and direct prana in the subtle body.

And if you’re worried these techniques are too difficult or complex, start by looking into just one, like mula bandha for example. Pretty straightforward.

With a bit of practice you will begin to feel how exercising your subtle body is as vital as exercising your physical body.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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