A quick internet search told me that there are now a dozen yoga studios within a short drive of my childhood home. When I started practicing, there were none. So, for several years, I learned from root texts, such as the Upanishads and Yoga Sutras, while waiting to one day meet a real, live yoga teacher. The long wait gave me ample time to wrestle with the cryptic, coded aphorisms and sutras, and to wonder about the maze of lineages I read about.
All these years later, I myself am a Senior Teacher in the Kriya yoga lineage of ISHTA yoga. In this article I will outline what Kriya yoga is, its history and recent teachers, as well as what a typical Kriya yoga practice is like should you feel drawn to its benefits.
What Is Kriya Yoga?
Kriya yoga is first identified as a systematic approach in "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali." In that same text, Patanjali gives a detailed account of Raja yoga, sometimes also called Ashtanga yoga. (From Sanskrit, ashtanga here means "eight-limbed," not to be confused with the Ashtanga yoga developed by Pattabhi Jois.)
The first pada, or section, of sutras is written for those who already have control of their minds. For the rest of us, there’s the second pada, which describes the yoga of action: Kriya yoga. For those who are still within the throes of the gunas, being pulled away from balance (sattva) by passions (rajas) and dullness (tamas), Kriya yoga is a way to cultivate steadiness.
(If this includes you, try these 4 Methods to Mastering Your 'Monkey Mind'.)
The sheaths of our physical bodies, our minds and our consciousness are essential parts of a whole, and each can access the others through prana (life force energy). Kriya yoga is a unified system for practicing with body, mind and consciousness simultaneously.
Brief History of Kriya Yoga
The teachings of Kriya yoga are said to have come from Lord Krishna. Kriya yoga arrived in the West in the early 20th century through Paramahansa Yogananda. He was initiated into Kriya yoga by his guru, Sri Yukteswar Giri, who learned it from Lahiri Mahasaya, who was taught by the great Himalayan saint, Mahavatar Babaji.
The Three Components of a Kriya Yoga Practice
A Kriya yoga practice might look familiar on the outside, likely beginning with Sun Salutations or something similar, continuing with standing and then seated and reclined asanas, followed by pranayama and meditation.
These familiar motions generally include visualization of the movement of energy and mantras, as well as the conscious examination of one’s own thoughts, feelings and responses.
In sutra II.1, Patanjali says that the path of action consists of tapas, svadhyaya and Ishvara pranidhana. There are various ways of approaching the development of tapas, svadhyaya and Ishvara pranidhana, but on a practical level, they have in common the control of energy and breath.
From Sanskrit, tapas literally means "heat." In this context, it means both the physical heat generated by asana practice, but also the energetic heat of transformation. Through tapas, we are able to burn through old habits, tendencies and karma, emerging as purified versions of ourselves with improved focus, and clean and clear nadis, the pathways through which prana flows in our systems.
Doing Sun Salutations all day without attention builds plenty of heat in the body, but it doesn’t build tapas. To build tapas requires intense, focused attention through control of the senses. Generating such attention requires self-discipline. Self-discipline is another common translation of tapas. We must apply our will toward that which we desire, repeatedly, until we do so continually.
Svadhyaya is the study of the self, which generally has two components: the recitation of mantras and the study of scriptures. Though the recitation of mantras can become fairly elaborate, the principal mantra of Kriya yoga is the most holy one: Om. By repetition of the sacred syllable, Om, the practitioner comes to understand the structure of the universe, and thereby his/her own self.
The sacred syllable of Om teaches the aspirant about the cyclical emergence, existence and dissolution of the phenomenological world, a world which arises from and returns to the Divine. Through mantra practice, it is possible to sever attachment to that which is transitory and illusory and begin to taste the Divine.
This might sound ridiculous if you’ve never done it. I suggest you not take my word for it, and instead learn the Om mantra meditation from a qualified teacher and decide for yourself.
Finally, the third component of Kriya, Ishvara pranidhana, is the surrender of attachment to the fruit of action and devotion to the Lord. With Ishvara pranidhana, every action becomes an offering to Lord Ishvara. It is difficult to develop the "ego-less-ness" required for the practice of discernment; for knowing what is real and what is not.
For most of us, it is easier to consciously give away our identification with our bodies and our actions than it is to intellectually convince ourselves that we are not our bodies: and that attachment to the fruit of action is what creates karmic bonds. The act of turning every thought and action into an offering is Ishvara pranidhana.
(More on the philosophy of karma in The Truth About Karma and How to Handle It.)
Kriya yoga is a powerful, effective and expedient method of practice for those who take to it. The goal — liberation — is the same as other forms of yoga. In the end, though, the best yoga for you is the one you will actually look forward to practicing.
(Continue reading in Kriyas and Kundalini: What Beginners Need to Know About These Ancient Yoga Techniques.)