Kriya Yoga Explained: The Yoga Of Action

Kriya Yoga is one of the many yogic paths that can lead us to self-realization. Although Kriya Yoga is a very ancient practice, it was widely popularised in modern times through Paramahansa Yogananda’s book, Autobiography of a Yogi.

But, what is Kriya Yoga? Derived from the root kri, meaning ‘to do’, kriya means action or effort. Kriya Yoga, therefore, is the yoga of action and is practiced to awaken our master energy and achieve a ‘union with the infinite’.

It is often confused with Kundalini Yoga but, although similar, there are several distinct differences, including the directional movement of energy throughout the body.

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda explains how the movement of energy in the lineage’s yoga kriyas ‘revolve upward and downward, around the six spinal centers’. Dissimilarly, the goal of Kundalini Yoga is to move the energy upwards towards the crown chakra.

In this article, we will look at:

  • What Kriya Yoga Is
  • The History of Kriya Yoga
  • Why Kriya Yoga Is Important
  • The Three Fundamental Pathways
a woman practicing kriya yoga in meditation

What is kriya yoga & What Does it involve?

Kriya Yoga is an ancient lineage of yoga that combines elements of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and mudra.

The goal of these yoga kriyas is to prepare the yogi for awakening, to be free from the mental restraint of mind fluctuations, and to be in ceaseless communication with the true nature of reality.

Its practice is derived from yogas discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, mainly:

The path of unconditional love and devotion to the divine

  • Karma Yoga

Rightful action and detachment from the results of this action

  • Jnana Yoga

Attainment of knowledge of the true self

the bhagavad gita open on a table with prayer beads and a candle

The Three Pillars Of Kriya yoga

In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he sets out three pillars of Kriya Yoga:

tapah svadhyaya Isvarapranidhanani kriyayogah

The yoga of action (kriyayogah) involves the discipline to purify our actions (tapah), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender to the divine (isvarapranidhana).

YSP 2.1

1. Tapas

B.K.S Iyengar describes tapas as a ‘burning desire’ to thoroughly cleanse our body and mind so that no impurities can enter.

This is where the discipline comes in; to be so dedicated to this path that we will do things we dislike, and even accept that pain leads to our purification, because we know it supports us in our ultimate goal of self-realization.

Tapas is both the desire to practice as well as the necessary, daily discipline to practice (even when we don’t want to).

The desire or intention to practice may come more easily to us, such as those feelings that we want to be a ‘better person’, live a more peaceful life, or commit to spiritual practice. However, the discipline aspect of tapas is what defines Kriya Yoga.

This means we commit to the yoga kriyas even when life is busy, we have more important issues to attend to, we don’t feel like practicing, and the list goes on!

As we know, this is necessary to build a habit; the lack of desire is overtaken by the determination and self-discipline to achieve unity with the divine.

a woman unrolling a yoga mat

2. Svadhyaya

If you have ever taken a Yoga Teacher Training course, it’s highly likely that you were told about how important the idea of svadhyaya is!

This is self-study and, within Kriya Yoga, is practiced through mantra Japa (meditation) and the study of important yogic texts.

Over time, undertaking the practice of mantra helps yogis to take ownership of and still the mind. Mantras are sacred sounds that hold divine vibrations, hence helping us to dissolve our ego and reduce our over-identification with it.

A very common one is the seed mantra Om or Aum, the universal, primordial sound that runs through both the universe and within us. It represents the cyclical nature of our universe – a universe and everything in it that is both created out of and returned to the divine.

Repetition of this mantra can support us in connecting to our higher self and deepening our self-knowledge.

Secondly, it involves the use of yogic texts for the purpose of self-study. As we develop this self-knowledge through mantra and meditation, we can use the examination of these scriptures to add another dimension to our understanding of life.

This could be texts mentioned earlier, such as the Bhagavad Gita, or books such as the Yoga Vasistha. It doesn’t have to be older texts though, as now there are so many modern books to choose from if you wish to develop your svadhyaya practice.

the om symbol engraved on a wall

3. Isvara-pranidhana

The final component of Kriya Yoga – is surrender, giving everything up to a higher cause and trusting the outcome. This is developed through self-study and self-discipline too, through building the belief that there is something that is bigger than the self.

In Sanskrit, Isvara is understood as Lord or God, therefore Isvara-pranidhana is the surrender to God. It does not mean one particular God or deity; you could think of this more as a divine intelligence, your higher self, or the source of all life.

This part can often be misinterpreted as surrendering all of our power over to another source, but quite the opposite is true.

We are really offering ourselves to the divine in order to receive the truest, fullest expression of our power because we are aligned with something greater than ourselves.

When we stop resisting, we can open ourselves up to much more and attune to our inner sense of the divine.

a woman practicing kriya yoga outside

History of kriya yoga

Like many forms of yoga, Kriya Yoga has a rich and ancient history. It was originally kept secret for a long period and then revived during the 1800s.

Mahavatar Babaji brought the practice to his disciple, Lahiri Mahasaya, and since then it has ‘been taught in an unbroken link of spiritual succession to this day‘.

It is a Guru-Shishya (Master-Disciple) tradition, meaning that you can only learn this from a Kriya Yoga Guru. Discipleship is a hugely important aspect of this school of yoga. Here, the relationship between the yogi and Guru is the vehicle for imparting wisdom.

Guru is derived from two words: Gu, meaning darkness, and Ru, meaning the remover. Therefore, Guru literally means ‘the remover of darkness’, through imparting light or knowledge onto their disciples and being an embodiment of their lineage’s teachings.

After Lahiri Mahasaya was initiated into the techniques of Kriya Yoga, he began to spread the message to yogis throughout India, including Yogananda and Swami Shriyukteshwar.

In the early 1900s, Swami Shriyukteshwar founded the renowned Karar ashram, which is still running today. Yogananda then went on to popularize Kriya in the West, partly due to the success of his book.

As a non-sectarian practice, it belongs to the whole of humanity and is thus a great tool for the awakening of every individual.

the kriya yoga lineage of masters

Why is kriya yoga important?

Kriya Yoga is thought to have the ability to take us into deeper levels of consciousness. Yogananda states that the Kriya Yoga is the process through which ‘human blood is decarbonized and recharged with oxygen.’

“Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened. The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery.

This is India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge.”

Sri Yukteswar, quoted in Autobiography of a Yogi

Its emphasis on the breath increases our connection to the subtle body and consequently our life-force energy. Pranayama is carried out in order to re-direct and re-balance the prana within our bodies.

Specific yoga kriyas work directly with our kundalini energy and is therefore said to be a faster and more effective path than those which don’t work as directly with our master energy.

purple image representing union with universal consciousness

The Three Fundamental Pathways (Nadis)

In yogic thought, the Nadis are pathways in the body through which our prana travels. There are three main channels from which all other nadis flow from, these are: Ida nadi (left), Pingala nadi (right), and Sushumna nadi (center).

When Ida and Pingala nadis are working in harmony, the central nadi opens. Kriya Yoga uses pranyama and other practices to awaken this energy and circulate it throughout the nadis.

1. Ida Nadi

Associated with the moon and feminine energy. It carries energy with a negative magnetic charge, cooler energy that is related to processes of the mind as well as the nervous system.

2. Pingala Nadi

Associated with the sun and masculine energy. Opposite to the Ida nadi, the Pingala nadi is heating because its related to solar energy. It also carried energy with a positive magnetic charge.

It controls all essential active life processes. Together, the Ida and Pingala represent the duality of life-force energy.

3. Sushumna Nadi

The central channel and what could be considered the most important pathway. Because of its direct path along the chakras, it is considered the channel that is crucial to our spiritual evolution.

It connects the root chakra to the crown chakra and is therefore a highway for the rising of kundalini energy.

Kriya Yoga is not the only style that uses the understanding of the nadis, as it is central to most yoga schools. One of Hatha Yoga‘s goal is to balance these channels.

an illustration of the nadis in yogic philosophy

More on Kriya Yoga

Kriya Yoga leads us to realize the divine nature of that which already lies within us, giving us a continuous awareness of the endless love shone by the light of our indwelling soul.

If you would like to learn more about Kriya Yoga, you can find out more about how to receive instruction here.

Photo of author
Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves.

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