If you’re anything like me, then your personal yoga practice has naturally found its way to the spiritual practice that yoga has to offer.

And let me tell you from experience: that is where the real magic happens.

But jumping from a basic asana practice, where you move through each yoga posture for physical benefits, to a spiritual practice as outlined by the kriya yoga tradition can be a little confusing.

So I wanted to break this tradition down for you so that you can give it a try right now. If you don’t like it, then no harm done. And I want to expand the definition of kriya yoga for you so you understand that a kriya yoga practice is not necessarily just about spiritual awakening, but about showing up in your daily life as a more expressed, fully authentic version of yourself. In this post we’ll explore:

  • Kriya Yoga according to Paramahansa Yogananda and the Bhagavad Gita
  • Kriya Yoga according to Ayurveda
  • Kriya Yoga for the modern world (according to me!)

Get ready for some major shifts in your life. Let’s dig in.

What is the meaning of Kriya Yoga?

Kriya yoga is often referred to as the “Yoga of Action” or “Yoga of Awareness.” It is an ancient meditation technique that uses pranayama (breathwork), mantra (chanting) and mudras (spiritual hand gestures) to rapidly accelerate your spiritual growth and human evolution. The ultimate goal when you practice kriya yoga is to awaken your life force to achieve spiritual awakening or enlightenment (aka Samadhi).

Although an ancient technique practiced in India for centuries, kriya yoga was not introduced to the west until the 1920s by Paramahansa Yogananda. The practice gained worldwide attention when mentioned later in his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, where he defined kriya yoga as “union with the infinite through a certain action or rite.”

definition of kriya yoga

In his book, Yogananda says that kriya yoga is the most effective practice in yoga for personal evolution by increasing access to subtle energy (prana) and channeling it in more direct ways. However, it was only intended to be taught on an individual basis to students who had received proper kriya initiations by an established guru through an unbroken link (or, basically, a kriya yogi master).

For this reason, you are not likely to find many books with kriya practice teachings. However, as interest in kriya yoga continues to grow, there are more and more resources and teachers available online to learn with.

The traditional kriya technique often includes a combination of

With this daily practice (sadhana, in Sanskrit), the yogi disciple can achieve inner peace and oneness with cosmic consciousness (in traditional yogi terms, “god”).

Where Did The Kriya Technique Come From?

This ancient technique has been around for thousands of years and is referenced in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra text as well as mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna, though in description only and not by name.

So the idea of kriya yoga technique has been around longer than Hatha or Vinyasa yoga.

It was originally designed as a comprehensive spiritual path with step-by-step instructions on how to use the yoga practice as spiritual development and to get closer to the divine.

Paramahansa Yogananda

In fact, according to yogis like Paramhansa Yogananda, this ancient technique was known and practiced even by Jesus Christ and St. Paul. Any disciple of God, they say, had a daily practice of kriya meditation that was paired either with a certain breathing technique, a mantra, a yoga posture (asana), or all of the above.

In this way, the kriya yoga tradition served as a comprehensive spiritual path to help you focus your energy on your relationship with a higher power.

The word “yoga’, is a Sanskrit word that can be defined as “union”. Beyond asana – which is only 1 limb of the 8 limbed path – yoga is the reconnecting or reuniting with the infinite, divine or universal consciousness. It is, essentially, the realization of our inherent wholeness.

While traditional yogis would dedicate their entire lives to the 8 limbed path, most of us in the 21st century prefer to create a daily practice that is based on kriya yoga tradition (more on that in a minute).

In addition to the 8 limbed path of Ashtanga or Raja yoga, there are other effective systems of yoga to help us achieve universal consciousness. Many of these practices like hatha, vinyasa, or restorative work with the energy of the subtle body indirectly, whereas the practice of kriya yoga is much more direct.

What Are the 6 Kriyas According to Ayurveda?

The 6 kriyas are cleansing techniques called Shat Kriyas. This is “kriya yoga” as defined in the ayurvedic tradition. The practice of Shat Kriyas cleanses the internal organs allowing balanced pranic flow (life force energy) along your central channel, between Ida and Pingala nadis (major energy centers). This balance allows you to attain physical and mental purification and balance both within your practice and your life.

breath of fire

The 6 Shat Kriyas are:

  1. Kapalabhati: “Kapala” is sanskrit for “skull” and “bhati” is sanskrit for “shine”, hence Kapalabhati is the skull shining breath. This pranayama or breathing technique purifies the frontal region of the brain and cleanses the respiratory system and nasal passage.
  2. Trataka: Trataka the exercise of fixing the gaze steadily on an object without blinking. The practice of Trataka activates the tear glands, purifying the visual system. It is said to improve eyesight as well as promote enhanced concentration.
  3. Neti: Neti is a technique to purify the nostrils. There are four types of neti purification where different mediums (water, milk, ghee or a waxed thread) are used to cleanse and clear the nasal passage. Cleansing the nostrils helps to prevent irregular breathing and other nasal ailments.
  4. Dhouti: Dhouti kiryas are meant for cleansing the intestine. There are three types of Dhouti kriyas, all which are helpful to relieve gastric issues, acidity and asthma.
  5. Nauli: Naul kriya purifies and strengthens all the vital internal organs. Agnisara kriya and Uddiyana bandha are preparatory practices for the three Nauli kriyas. These kriyas help to relieve constipation and activate the function of the liver, spleen and other organs.
  6. Vasti: Vasti kriya is the practice of cleansing the rectum and is essentially a yogic enema to clean the colon.

Many of these cleansing techniques are very powerful and should be practiced under the instruction of an experienced teacher.

Shat Kriyas are also used in the science of Ayurveda to balance the three doshas.

Curious about Ayurveda and your doshic constitution? Check out What is the Ayurvedic Diet to learn more about the principles of Ayurveda, the doshas and to take a dosha quiz.

Kriya Yoga In The Modern World

If all these cleansing practices aren’t up your ally, don’t worry. Personally, I don’t find these or Yogananda’s approach to kriya yoga that practical. When I want to define kriya yoga I look to Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. Specifically sutra 2.1.

tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah

Traditional, literal translation:  The Yoga of Action consists of austerity, self-study and surrender to God.

My modern translation: Yoga in action is self‐awareness, transformation, and surrender.

Here is my take on each of the three words that make up “kriya yoga.”

TAPAS – traditionally defined as “heat” or “focused effort.” I define it as “the heat of your burning desire to evolve.” Persistence or determination. Your choice to transform your habitual tendencies probably by cultivating the opposite of what you normal do. This isn’t easy, you have to have self discipline and a willingness to act in the world in new and different ways that scare you.

SVADHYAYA – self study or self realization. I like to think of svadhyaya as “nourishing self awareness.” How do you take care of yourself and how in touch are you with your desires. If you aren’t aware of how you feel or what you need you will never be happy.

ISHVARA PRANIDHANA – surrender to a higher power. More specifically the ability to let it go, surrender to what is. Relinquish control of all the people and circumstances you can’t control anyway. This is probably the hardest thing to do. As humans you are hardwired to try and control everything, but in reality you can’t control hardly anything.

My path of kriya yoga is embodying those three principles. This is the magic combo for your life. My Yoga for Self Mastery course is all about how to embody these three skills specifically and how you can act out each of these in the world as a modern human.

yoga for self mastery

So What REALLY Is Kriya Yoga?

Really, you can choose which path and interpretation of kriya yoga you want.

You can look at it through the paradigm more derived from the Gita and Yogananda: a system of breath mastery and meditation techniques to accelerate spiritual development and channel up your spine to transcend the body.

Through the lens of Ayurveda, as “cleansing practices.”

OR, you can look through the paradigm I prefer; which is interpreting Patanjali’s definition of Kriya Yoga as how to live our yoga in the real world. “Yoga in action” as opposed to “yoga in a monastery” or “on a sticky mat.” Real world yoga with three super juicy principles (tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana) to guide us.

In case you’re still confused, here are some frequently asked questions from my own students about kriya yoga.

Is Kriya Yoga Dangerous?

Good question! Any practice can be dangerous without proper knowledge and preparation. Many kriyas include mudras (hand gestures or configurations of the body) and may require knowledge of the bandhas (energy locks). Many kriyas are built upon more advanced practices, so learning the proper techniques often requires personal instruction.

Furthermore, kriya yoga is a powerful practice that allows practitioners to work with energy directly. Some kriyas require great preparation before practicing as well as grounding and integration after. This is why it is so important to find an experienced teacher to guide you if you are new to this ancient yogic practice.

If you are a yoga teacher interested in teaching kriya or any style of yoga, I always recommend to the students in my online yoga teacher training programs to embody its practice before teaching it.

Is Kriya Yoga the same as Kundalini?

Although both kriya and kundalini are referred to as the “Yoga of Awareness,” they differ from each other in their purpose.

As mentioned earlier, kriya yoga is a term first introduced by Paramahansa Yogananda and represents a style of yoga advocated by him.

Kriya yoga aims at the attainment of spiritual growth. Through pranayama techniques to regulate the breath, kriya yoga allows practitioners to accelerate spiritual growth.

Kundalini yoga is a more physical and mental practice that aims to purify the body and mind as a means to achieve a state of spiritual absorption through a specific set of postures. My Kundalini Demystified course can give you all the details you’ve been wanting on kundalini yoga.

Finding an experienced teacher online or in-person is your best bet to learning Kriya Yoga techniques safely.

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