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Kriya Yoga According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Kriya Yoga - Tapas Swadhyaya Ishwara PranidhanaSutra 1 of Book Two of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Sutra 1. Austerity [tapas], self-study [swadhyaya] and resignation to Ishwara [Ishwarapranidhana] constitute Kriya Yoga.

First let us define Kriya Yoga as Patanjali means it. Because many have read Yogananda’s autobiography they assume Patanjali means the method Yogananda named “Kriya Yoga,” but this is not at all so.

The yoga methods which Yogananda taught in America were never called “Kriya Yoga” before that time, but were always referred to as “the Yoga of Shyama Charan Lahiri” or simply “pranayama.” Because the first was awkward to keep saying (or writing) and the second was too general, Yogananda realized the need to give the practice a distinctive name. Since the main effect of all pranayama is purification, he reasonably decided on Kriya Yoga.

(By the way: Since this is so, those Indian teachers who denounce Yogananda as having altered the practice, claiming that they teach “the original Kriya Yoga,” are proved by simple historical fact to be false. For if they were really in the traditional line of Indian teachers they would not call it “Kriya Yoga” at all. As my friend Durgaprasad Sahai, a disciple of Swami Keshabananda written about in Autobiography of a Yogi, told me: “I practiced that yoga for twenty-five years before I ever heard it called ‘Kriya Yoga’–in Yogananda’s autobiography.”)

What is a “Kriya”?

A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines “kriya” as: “Purificatory action, practice, exercise, or rite; movement; function; skill. Kriyas purify the body and nervous system as well as the subtle bodies to enable the yogi to reach and hold on to higher levels of consciousness and being. And Kriya Yoga as: “The Yoga of Purification: ‘Austerity (tapasya), self-study (swadhyaya), and offering of the life to God (Ishwara pranidhana) are Kriya Yoga’ (Yoga Sutras 2:1).” It is this process that Patanjali is speaking about in this and the next sutra.

Kriya Yoga consists of three elements: tapas, swadhyaya, and Ishwarapranidhana. I have written about these in The Foundations of Yoga, and will include the relevant sections later on when we are considering yama and niyama, so now brief extracts will suffice.

“Tapas literally means ‘to generate heat’ in the sense of awakening or stimulating the whole of our being to higher consciousness.…Basically, tapas is spiritual discipline that produces a perceptible result, particularly in the form of purification.…whenever tapas is spoken of it always implies the practice of yoga and the observances that facilitate yoga practice.”

“Swadhyaya means ‘self-study.’ This is usually interpreted as the study of the sacred texts which deal with the nature of the true Self (spirit) and its realization.…But it also means keeping a careful watch on the ego-based mind so as to be aware of its delusive and destructive tricks.…In swadhyaya we look at and analyze the mind in the calmness and intuition born of meditation.”

“Ishwarapranidhana–the offering of one’s life to God…is far more on every level than simple religious devotion, and much more than any kind of discipline or self-denial done in the name of spirituality. It is the giving to God of the yogi’s entire life, not just a giving of material offerings or occasional tidbits of devotion to God, however fervent or sincere.”

From a strictly yogic viewpoint we can expand on these a bit. In tapas–meditation–swadhyaya takes place when we become aware of the changes taking place in our mind or see its condition, aspects, characteristics and so forth as we meditate. Also in meditation we are merging our prana–our life energies and breath with the Vishwaprana, the Universal Life Force, and ultimately with Ishwara, their source. So meditation is also Ishwarapranidhana.

Next: What are the Kleshas? (Hint: They Are Not an Alien Life-Form)

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