What Is Kriya?

Maitreya at Disket Monastery, Ladakh, India

If you’ve delved deeply enough into yoga you have probably come across the Sanskrit word ‘kriya.’ Perhaps you’ve even practiced some kriyas in a Yogi Bhajan Kundalini Yoga class, or you’ve seen seated yogis in the park with their arms in the air doing some kind of strange breathing technique but didn’t know what it was. In this post, I’ll attempt to demystify kriya a bit.

The Sanskrit root ‘kri’ means ‘action’ or ‘effort.’ And ‘ya’ is the Atman or soul. So its literal translation is some sort of action or effort involving your transcendental Self.

In yoga, ‘kriya’ has at least two meanings, depending on the yoga tradition. Patanjali defined kriya yoga broadly in his Yoga Sutras in the first sutra of the second pada (chapter) to be the three practices of tapaha (the purifying heat of effort and self-discipline), svādhyāya (self-study), and Īśvara praṇidhāna (surrender). Although those are three of my favorite yogic practices, I will focus on the second definition of kriya in this post. In a subsequent post, I’ll explore the meaning and benefits of tapaha, svādhyāya, and Īśvara praṇidhāna.

If you’ve ever read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, you know that he relied heavily on kriya in his personal practice, and the practices he taught around the world. (Autobiography is the book that inspired so many pop culture icons, from George Harrison to Steve Jobs.) Yogananda defined kriya as “union (yoga) with the Infinite through a certain action or rite.” However, he doesn’t say much about the specific practices in the book because the tradition in his lineage was to only teach kriya on an individual basis to students who had been properly initiated. We will see why this is below. (You can be initiated into the kriya that Yogananda taught through the Self-Realization Fellowship, an organization that Yogananda started in 1920 to help spread his teachings in the United States.)

An artist’s rendering of Bābājī

Kriya is an ancient technique. For example, kriya is said to be part of the yoga Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. But it was lost for centuries until the 19th century, when it was brought down from the Himalayan mountains by a mysterious yogi named Mahāvatār Bābājī. There are some great stories and myths surrounding Bābājī, including his being immortal, and an incarnation of Shiva. But the important thing is that he taught the techniques to Lahiri Mahasaya, who taught them to Sri Yukteswar Giri, who then taught them to Paramahansa Yogananda. Kriya is an integral part of Sattva Yoga, the style of yoga that I practice and teach, a style that is within the Yogananda lineage.

In Autobiography, Yogananda says that kriya is the most effective practice in yoga for personal evolution, transcending limitations, the expansion of consciousness, and self-realization. But how does it do this? In short, kriya works by increasing access to subtle energy and then channeling that energy in different ways.

First, kriya tunes and prepares the body for increased levels of kundalini energy. It then frees up and channels that energy. Normally, one’s energy flows outward, where it is not used efficiently — so much of it is wasted. Kriya helps to channel our life energy more efficiently, back into the energy channels of the body to be used for increasing awareness, expansion, and self-realization.

Me practicing a kriya in Central Park, New York City

There are breath kriyas, which are similar to pranayama. And there are mantra kriyas, which focus on a specific mantra or set of mantras to achieve a desired energetic effect. Many kriyas include one or more mudras (configurations of the body). Some kriyas require use of or knowledge of the bandhas (body locks). You can see why these techniques require personal instruction. They are built upon other advanced yoga practices and techniques.

Furthermore, kundalini is powerful, which is why, in the Sattva practice, we teach many of these kriya techniques within a wider system of yoga that includes asana, pranayama, jñāna, and other subtle practices, to ensure that practitioners’ nervous systems and consciousness are prepared for receiving them. Some kriyas require great preparation and then subsequent grounding and integration. This is why kriya was traditionally taught within the guru-to-student relationship. And this is why you won’t find many books offering instruction in kriya.

Kriyas have many benefits. Kriyas have physiological benefits and psychological benefits. Kriyas can be energizing, calming, or transcendent. One can more easily control the fluctuations of the mind through controlling one’s energy, one’s life force. In addition, through these kriya practices, this evolutionary action, we can burn through past karma in a way that frees us from the chain of karma. Kriya helps us shift our awareness so that we think thoughts instead of thoughts thinking us, arriving at a state in which we take spontaneous right action. In other words, the state created through kriya is a dharmic or purposeful life, rather than a life ruled by past karma.

As you can see, kriya is a powerful yogic practice, but one that receives little attention in most western yoga classes. Fortunately, we are starting to see greater interest in kriya. Many yoga students are evolving in their practice to a point where they want to move beyond asana. I’m excited to help bring kriya and its many benefits to a wider audience.

[Cross-posted from my yoga website.]