Pancha Maya Kosha and the Intertwining Threads of the Psoas Muscle & Vagus Nerve

“As Above, so below, as Within, so without, 

as the Universe, so the Soul.” 

Hermes Trismegistus

The concept of ‘interdependence’ reflects the mutual reliance between two or more things, be it individuals or elements. The interdependent nature of the mind and body makes it a fascinating and complex subject of study. Throughout my years of immersion in this field, I have found myself constantly intrigued, yet aware of how much more there is to learn. The elusive and metaphysical nature of the mind presents a tricky challenge. How does one truly study the intangible, measure the immeasurable? Likewise, the extensive network of systems within the human body necessitates specialists to dedicate a lifetime of study to grasp the complexity of each bodily system.

But, as sentient beings, if we observe ourselves closely, be it in quiet contemplation, or in yoga practice, we don’t need to be neuroscientists or doctors of psychology to feel and begin to understand these connections between our minds, hearts and bodies that comprise our experience and shape our lives.

In Nayaswami Savitri’s exploration of the chakras, her profound insights into the mind-body connection illuminate the concept of consciousness permeating every aspect of our existence, down to the cellular level. [1] While this wisdom has long been passed down from teacher to student in the yogic tradition, the current surge in modern scientific research signifies an exciting juncture, with researchers delving deeper to substantiate the idea that consciousness thrives within every muscle, bone, organ, and indeed every cell of our body. [2] [3] [4]

As scientific knowledge advances in fields of research like psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) [5], and Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal theory [6], we gain a deeper understanding of the profound connection between our conscious mind, subconscious mind, and the body. Psychoneuroimmunology examines how psychological processes interact with the nervous and immune systems, while Polyvagal theory explains how our autonomic nervous system influences emotional regulation and social behaviour by detecting safety and threat. These fields of study provide valuable insights into how our mental and emotional states can significantly impact our physical health and well-being.

The notion that “what we think and feel today will manifest in the body tomorrow (or at some point)” has long been explored and documented by yogis and Buddhists alike. Parallel to Western science’s psychoneuroimmunology are Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism’s concept of karma, and the yogic concept of Pañcha Maya Kośa, herein referred to as ‘Pancha Maya Kosha’. Karma posits that every thought and action today will inevitably affect our lives and the lives of those around us at some point in the future. Embedded in ancient Vedic wisdom, the Pancha Maya Kosha framework unveils the understanding that within each human constitution resides not just one body, but a convergence of five. These diverse bodies, spanning the spectrum from the physical to the subtle, profoundly influence one another, collectively defining the quality of our interconnected existence.

“Everything is Connected”

many a wise philosopher

In studying ourselves and other humans, overtime, we might observe that a turbulent mind eventually lands in the body as some form of dis-ease, whilst a serene and equanimous mind may result in homeostasis [7], and wellness. 

Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington DC, surmised this connection between the brain, peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of the human body as a constant communication system sharing a common chemical language. And, as with every interdependent relationship, when one party (in this case bodily system) sends out a communication, the other parties respond accordingly. [8]

While the concept of the mind-heart-body connection may seem straightforward, the practical application of this knowledge in our day to day lives proves challenging for many. If we were to truly nurture our minds, hearts, and bodies based on this research – understanding that our mental states profoundly influence our physical well-being, and vice versa – would we make more of an effort to take greater care of both our minds and our bodies? If we were to truly comprehend the repercussions of ignoring this knowledge, could our extra efforts to take better care of both our mental and physical health help us as a society to eradicate the root cause, or at least, reduce the prevalence of ailments and dis-ease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, nervous system disorders, and chronic pain?

Back in the 1980s, Dr. John Sarno introduced the concept of Tension Myoneural Syndrome, also known as Tension Myositis Syndrome (or TMS) after years of extensive experience working with patients plagued by chronic pain. His innovative perspective shed light on the connection between repressed emotions and physical pain, highlighting how unresolved psychological issues could manifest as debilitating conditions like back pain, migraines, and fibromyalgia.

In Sarno’s view, TMS is a complex mind-body disorder where repressed emotions and unresolved trauma manifest as physical pain, often concentrated in areas like the back, neck, and shoulders. According to him, the brain generates pain as a diversion from emotional stress or buried feelings, resulting in persistent and sometimes inexplicable physical pain. He emphasised the importance of addressing these underlying emotional factors to break free from the grip of chronic pain and pave the way towards healing and relief.

In his book, ‘Healing Back Pain, The Mind-Body Connection,’ [9] Dr Sarno wrote about the physiology of TMS as beginning in the brain. He detailed how repressed emotions like anxiety and anger seem to set in motion a process of events in the autonomic nervous system, leading to reduced blood and oxygen flow to specific muscle groups, resulting in diverse symptoms such as pain, spasms, numbness, and tingling. Dr. Sarno proposed that this physical response aimed to redirect attention from unpleasant emotions, suggesting that the mind might find it easier to endure physical pain than confront buried emotional traumas. “It is as though the mind has decided that a physical pain is preferable to an emotional one.” 

His treatment plan, which aligns closely with the holistic approach of yoga therapy, involved exploring major life events, increasing movement to enhance oxygen flow, reducing daily stressors, and examining beliefs about pain. By encouraging patients to delve into their emotional traumas and attitudes towards pain, Dr. Sarno empowered them to unlock the root cause of their suffering and achieve profound healing.

Pso-as the Mind and Heart, Pso-as the Body

I deeply resonate with Dr. John Sarno’s theory, having worked with countless clients who exhibit similar findings and having experienced firsthand the symptoms he describes in relation to TMS. The consistent correlation between emotional states and the manifestation of physical symptoms has reinforced my perspective on the psychosomatic origins of chronic pain. Recognising and addressing these deeper emotional triggers has been key to managing and alleviating not only my own symptoms but also those of my clients over the years.

During times of fear, worry, and unrest, I’ve observed and documented that my back tends to go into spasms. Each episode feels all too familiar: a burning across my left shoulder blade (trapezius) and a profound pain around the lower thoracic and lumbar regions. This pain invariably accompanies some form of mental or emotional stress. Time and again, I have traced the physical root of this pain to the psoas muscle— the deep hip flexor and stabilising muscle often referred to as “the muscle of the soul.”

Among all the muscles in the body, I find the psoas the most intriguing. It’s the “sole” muscle that connects the torso to the limbs, allowing the upper and lower body to function in harmony. It acts as a profound thread, interweaving every layer of our human experience: the physical body, breath, mind, heart, and ultimately, our spirit. By nurturing the psoas, we not only care for our back and hips but also for the diaphragm, nervous system, mind, and soul. Conversely, in tending to our heart, mind, and spirit, we also care for the psoas.

By examining a diagram of the psoas major, we can see that it connects to the spine at T12 and L1-5 and extends into the femur. The diaphragm and nerve ganglia reside in close relationship, while the trapezius muscle, which inserts into the rear of T12, indirectly counterbalances the psoas. [10] [11]  This interconnectedness—particularly the relationship between the psoas, the vagus nerve, and the adrenal glands—helps us understand how stress, fear, and anxiety can create a ripple of chaos throughout the body. [12]  During a state of fight, flight, or freeze, a cascade of stress responses occur, such as the release of adrenaline and cortisol, increased heart rate, heightened muscle tension including the constriction of the diaphragm and psoas, and rapid, shallow breathing. These physiological changes prepare the body to either confront danger (fight), escape from it (flight), or remain still (freeze). These acute stress responses are essential for survival in the short term but prolonged, disrupt the body’s equilibrium or homeostasis long term. When these responses are activated frequently or for prolonged periods, they can lead to chronic stress, contributing to an array of physical and mental health issues.

Artistic impression with the psoas major highlighted in red

What Happens in Vagus, Stays in Vagus

We all know the old cliché, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Well, in the case of the vagus nerve, this term takes on a whole new level of profound insight and scientific wonder.

The vagus nerve, the tenth and longest cranial nerve, is a cornerstone of our autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary physiological functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. Extending from the brainstem through the neck and thoracic region (heart and lungs) down to the abdomen, the vagus nerve innervates key organs including the oesophagus, heart, lungs, and digestive organs. Although it doesn’t directly innervate the adrenal glands or the psoas muscle, it indirectly influences their operations by modulating the autonomic nervous system. In essence, the vagus nerve and the psoas muscle are intimately connected through their roles in stress regulation and overall well-being.

The vagus nerve is a crucial part of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), often referred to as the “rest and digest” system. This system works in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which governs the body’s fight or flight responses. While the primary role of the vagus nerve is parasympathetic, it collaborates with the SNS to enable us to adapt to various degrees of safety and threat. The vagus nerve has two distinct branches— the dorsal vagal complex (DVC) and the ventral vagal complex (VVC)—each playing vital roles in autonomic regulation. 

The DVC, considered more primitive, is linked with the freeze response and governs functions like conserving energy and gut motility during extreme stress by shutting down non-essential functions. On the other hand, the VVC, an evolutionary advancement, is involved in social engagement and calming the body post-stress. It influences heart rate, facial expressions, and vocalisations, promoting connection and safety. [13]

During acute stress, the SNS kicks into high gear, signalled by the vagus nerve, prompting the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. This primes the body for immediate action—fight, flight, or freeze—leading to tension and constriction within the psoas. Prolonged SNS activation can result in a state of hyper-vigilance, affecting various bodily functions, including heart rate and blood pressure.

Given the pathway of the vagus nerve from the brain to the gut, it’s no surprise that during stressful states and emotional turmoil, multiple systems are affected: dry throat, tensed voice, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, digestive disruption, and tightening of the psoas. 

[14] [15] [16] This continuous activation of the psoas muscle through stress responses can lead to chronic pain and dysfunction throughout the body. The repetitive tension not only reinforces physical discomfort but perpetuates a cycle of mental and emotional strain. 

Just as stress and overwhelm can overly engage the psoas, factors like chronic stress, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and insufficient sleep can negatively impact the health of the vagus nerve, reducing its tone. Reduced vagal tone refers to how efficiently the vagus nerve can regulate the PNS. When the SNS is chronically activated, suppressing vagal activity, our ability to self-regulate post-stress diminishes, contributing to a range of health issues, including heart problems, digestive disorders, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Shifting bodily responses from the SNS’s stress-induced activation to the PNS’s calming influence can improve vagal tone, breaking the cycle of mental and emotional strain that causes physical tension in the psoas. In the same way that stress can create a ripple effect of disarray throughout the body, enhancing vagal tone can create a cascade of “rest and digest” throughout. Yogic techniques like deep diaphragmatic breathing and other centring and calming practices stimulate and tone the vagus nerve, supporting the healthy functioning of psoas muscle including improved posture, core stability, and overall stress resilience. [17]

Exploring these profound internal connections and the relationship between our stressors (manomaya kosha), the breath (pranamaya kosha), and the body (annamaya kosha) can open a door of insight into improved self-regulation, paving the way to instant relief from chronic pain and stress.

So the next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, remember…

What happens in the vagus, stays in the vagus!
Pso-as the mind, Pso-as the body, and 
Pso-as the body, Pso-as the mind.

With this in mind, draw from your yogic toolkit—be it breathwork, mantra, mudra, movement, or meditation—and let the alchemy of yoga practice work its magic!


Confronting our traumas and delving into the root cause of our suffering can be a daunting task, even for the strongest among us. Cultivating a serene mind, balanced heart, and healthy body amidst the chaos of today’s world is undeniably challenging. It demands discipline, consistent practice, and a set of resilient tools to call upon when adversity strikes.

Through years of researching the mind-body connection and exploring a diverse array of mental, physical, and spiritual disciplines—from psychology to meditation, Feldenkrais to Tai Chi, various religions to yoga—I’ve discovered a great power in specific methodologies. On the top of that list is the transformative path and methodology of Aṣṭāṅga yoga. This eight-limbed approach to living has reshaped my own life as well as the lives of countless others I have worked with, consistently offering daily solace and essential tools for self-regulation.

As we engage in the practice of the eight limbs with steadfast dedication, our awareness expands, and we begin to comprehend the depths of our human condition. We come to understand that our physical body is merely an expression of the deeper layers of our psyche and spirit. This understanding deepens as we explore the Pancha Maya Kosha framework, a concept that beautifully depicts the multi-dimensional nature of the human being.

The concept of Pancha Maya Kosha originates from ancient Indian philosophy within the Vedanta tradition. In Sanskrit and Pali, “Pañca” means “five,” “Maya” means “all-pervading” and refers to “illusion” or “appearance,” and “Kośa” or “Kosha” translates to “sheath” or “layer.” Together, Pancha Maya Kosha describes the five interconnected layers that envelop our true self (the Atman). These various layers of our human experience also contribute to the perception of individuality and separation when we become overly enmeshed in any one of the first three layers. 

The five koshas or sheaths, from the most dense layer to the most subtle are:

  1. Annamaya Kosha (“Anna” or “Food” Sheath) – relates to the physical body, encompassing muscles, bones, organs—essentially our entire physiological structure. This sheath is nourished and sustained by the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the sunlight we absorb.
  2. Pranamaya Kosha (“Prana” or “Energy” Sheath) – associated with vital life force energy and the breath, the two intimately intertwined and interdependent.  It too is nourished by the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the sunlight we absorb and is significantly influenced by the Manomaya Kosha.
  3. Manomaya Kosha (“Manas” or “Mind” Sheath) – linked to the human psyche; the content of the mind, our emotional processes, and the five senses. It is the cause of all separation, of I and mine, us and them. It is said to be the inception point of all disease, which then travels to the breath body, then to the physical if left unprocessed through the breath. In contemplating this concept we can start to understand the power of breath practice in processing trauma, emotions, and mental unrest. 
  4. Vijnanamaya Kosha (“Vijñāna” or “Discerning” Sheath) – connected to the intellect, higher knowledge and our innate wisdom to discern the real from the unreal, truth from illusion. Vijñāna, a Sanskrit and Pali word is often translated as consciousness, understanding, knowledge, and intelligence [18], making Vijnanamaya Kosa the gateway to the Highest Self, or the “bliss” body. 
  5. Anandamaya Kosha (“Ananda” or “Bliss” Sheath) – the subtlest of the five koshas, represents the innermost layer of bliss and the closest expression of the most authentic Self. It is said to be a direct reflection of the Atman, the truest, eternal Self, or pure Consciousness. 

Vedanta teaches that a wise person can recognise their most authentic, true Self, the “bliss” body, through the discerning mind, even when It’s hidden by the outer layers of their physical, mental and emotional experiences. Discussed in Taittiriya Upanishad (2.1-5) [19],  which is part of the larger body of Vedic literature, the Panca Maya Kosha framework aims to guide practitioners beyond the superficial ever-changing ego self, or Ahaṁkāra, to the unchanging Eternal Self, or Atman

By exploring these various layers of our human experience — specifically the first three layers, (the physical body, the breath dimension and the psyche) that contribute to both disharmony and harmony — we can embark on a journey of holistic healing, gradually assimilating unprocessed trauma and releasing mental, emotional and spiritual blocks through progressive practice and study. Understanding how our mental barriers impact our physical experience encourages us to explore methods that help us to address and overcome these blocks.


With the aim of bridging the gap between Eastern and Western approaches, I have developed an effective method over two decades of working as a personal trainer, coach, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist. Drawing upon ancient Vedic wisdom and combining it with modern-day insights, I call this method the Kosha Evaluation Method (KEM). Kosha evaluation delves into each of the five Koshas, with a particular focus on the first three, using a contemporary self-assessment framework based on developing the participant’s awareness. By employing this method, I have had great success in guiding clients toward gaining fresh perspectives of their experience of pain and exploring innovative paths toward holistic healing.

By integrating the time-honoured methodologies of yoga and Ayurveda with modern scientific research, the Kosha Evaluation Method enables yoga therapists to create Holistic, Individualised, Measurable, Achievable, and Practical (HIMAP) personalised programs. These programs are tailored to each client’s unique and evolving needs and are adapted progressively through each session. The HIMAP approach in conjunction with the KEM framework fosters longterm gains as it empowers clients to continue their practice autonomously, working towards the goal of Svatantra [20] —self-dependence and self-regulation. The customised “map,” of the HIMAP approach aims to guide clients toward their “highest” selves and optimal well-being through the transformative power of classical yoga, adapted for the contemporary practitioner.

Over the past decade of working with the KEM framework, I have compiled extensive data and testimonials from numerous clients, all of which underscore the effectiveness of this holistic approach to wellbeing.

For more information, book a free mini one-to-one Yoga therapy Zoom conversation here, or wander over to our YouTube channel for a guided meditation based on the koshas and KEM framework.


  1. “We used to think that anything to do with the mind, had to be in the head, in the brain. But now we’re coming to know that there’s a very strong mind-body connection, and we’re understating that we are somehow conscious in every part of our bodies, in every cell.” Nayaswami Savitri, Understanding the Chakras
  2. Reber, Arthur S., František Baluška, and William B. Miller, ‘The Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC)’, The Sentient Cell: The Cellular Foundations of Consciousness (Oxford, 2023; online edn, Oxford Academic, 19 Oct. 2023)
  4. Reber, Arthur S., ‘Where We Get Serious: The Cellular Basis of Consciousness’, The First Minds: Caterpillars, Karyotes, and Consciousness (New York, 2018; online edn, Oxford Academic, 24 Jan. 2019)
  5. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is an interdisciplinary field that explores the interactions between the nervous system, immune system, and psychological processes. It examines how mental states like stress, happiness, and depression can influence immune function and physical health. PNI studies the impacts of neurotransmitters, hormones, and cytokines on both the brain and immune system, showing how emotional well-being and lifestyle factors affect disease susceptibility and recovery. This holistic approach enables better understanding and development of therapeutic interventions that integrate mental and physical health.
  6. Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, explains the connection between our body and emotions. It shows how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our responses to stress and safety. Different states of the ANS, like ‘fight or flight’ or ‘rest and digest’, are linked to how we feel emotionally. The theory introduces “neuroception,” where our body detects safety or danger without us even realising it, influencing our reactions. The ventral vagal system helps us feel calm and connected with others, affecting our social interactions and emotional well-being. Therapies based on this theory use techniques like deep breathing and mindfulness to help improve both physical and emotional health. This highlights how closely our body and mind are connected.
  7. Billman GE. Homeostasis: The Underappreciated and Far Too Often Ignored Central Organizing Principle of Physiology. Front Physiol. 2020 Mar 10;11:200. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.00200. PMID: 32210840; PMCID: PMC7076167.
  9. Sarno, J. E. (1991). *Healing back pain: The mind-body connection*. Warner Books.
  10. Koch, L. (1997). *The psoas book*. Guinea Pig Publications.
  11. Staugaard-Jones, J. A. (2013). *The vital psoas muscle: Connecting physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being*. North Atlantic Books.
  12. Kenny BJ, Bordoni B. Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve 10 (Vagus Nerve) [Updated 2022 Nov 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:
  13. Porges, S. W., 2011]( The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system
  14. Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. W. W. Norton & Company.
  15. Porges, S. W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. W. W. Norton & Company.
  16. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma*. Viking. pp 90, 94, 95, 247, 292
  18. Vijñāna:ñāna
  19. Taittirīya Upanishad:
  20. Svatantra: 
Tanaya Ti en

Tanaya Ti en

When she’s not at home in Western Australia with her favourite humans, Florence the Dalmatian, and Turbo the rescue cat, Tanaya Ti’en is an accredited Yoga Therapist and Yoga Teacher, Ayurvedic Lifestyle Coach, Civil Celebrant, and founder of Mind Body Collective Australia. Her passion, work, and philosophy is centred around the mind-body connection, and the mind’s role in illness, wellness, dis-ease, and the healing process.