What is Kriya Yoga?
Kriya yoga is often called the Yoga of Action or “Awareness” (not to be confused with “Karma Yoga”, one of the 4 classical schools of yoga – Karma, Raja, Jnana and Bhakti. The word Karma also derives from the Sanskrit root, “kri” meaning “to do”. Karma Yoga refers to the practice of living a life of selfless action, or selfless service.)
The Sanskrit word, “Kriya”, means activity or movement – and can refer to movement in various asanas to create a specific movement of energy or circulation of blood flow through the body. For example, in Dhanurasana, one can attain the posture by lying prone and grabbing the feet with the hands, lifting the head and chest into a back bending posture – “the Archer’s Bow”. Or, one can add a movement blowing the breath out with each exhalation and beginning to rock on the pelvis forward and backwards. This action becomes a Dhanu Kriya and stimulates the nervous system as well as circulation of blood. This action benefits the spine, as well as the organs of digestion and elimination. Performing Kriyas purifies the body and nervous system as well as the subtle bodies to enable one to reach and hold on to higher levels of consciousness and being.
To the Westerner who does not know Sanskrit, these terms can become confusing. The Western mind wants to put everything into a box in order to understand it. “This is what Kriya Yoga is...” “This is what Kundalini is...” “This is what Tantra is...” “This is what the Chakras are...” Often, Westerners have very little understanding of any of these concepts, including many Yoga teachers. One must understand culture and context, as well as understanding the history of yoga and have some understanding of the different lineages.
Kriya yoga is often associated with the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda. I read one article that attributed the term “kriya yoga” as being first introduced by this great guru. However, it has been around much longer. From Wikipedia: “The origins of the present day forms of Kriya Yoga can be traced back to Lahiri Mahasaya, who reported to have received initiation into the yoga techniques from an elusive, immortal Indian yogi saint, commonly referred to as Mahavatar Babaji, who supposedly lived in the second century CE”. Paramahamsa Yogananda, is generally credited with bringing the practice to the West. Kriya yoga in this lineage includes pranayama, mantra, mudra and meditation to enhance spiritual development and oneness or communion with the Divine (Ishvara Pranidhana).
The first 2 limbs of Yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas are sometimes referred to as Kriya yoga, and according to Yogamaharishi Swami Gitananda Giri, practicing these 2 Limbs together “can in itself lead to spiritual unity, emancipation and liberation.” The Yamas include Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacarya (Control of Lifeforce/Energy), Aparigraha (Non-grasping). The Niyamas include Saucha (purity of body and mind), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Austerity or Ardent Practice), Svadhyaya (Self-Study), and Ishvara pranidhana (Surrender to “Atman”, sometimes translated as God – but this is pure energy, beyond form). (I have covered each of the Yamas and Niyamas in previous blog posts.)
It should also be noted that in Yoga Sutras, 2:1, Patanjali spoke of these last 3 Niyamas together: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana as “Kriya Yoga”.
I hope this explanation of “Kriya Yoga” inspires you towards continued learning, exploration and practice!