Kriya Yoga - A Systematic Approach To Spiritual Awakening
By Swami Nishchalananda
Kriya Yoga is a sophisticated method of harmonising and synchronising the natural energies of our being.
It channels our energy so that it flows in a creative direction without suppression.
The chakras are opened up and our physical, pranic, mental, emotional and psychic energies are brought into line so that they flow together in a powerful stream making us more sensitive to the deeper levels of our Being.
We start to vibrate and resonate like a tuning fork, leading to subtle perception previously unknown.
Though it has been practiced in secret for hundreds or even thousands of years, the exact origin of Kriya Yoga is not known.
It was developed by yogis who had tremendous insight into human nature and who, in spiritual understanding and in knowledge of the different levels of the mind, were far more advanced than we are today.
One of their greatest achievements was the development, or perhaps we can say discovery, of Kriya Yoga.
Most people are unhappy for various reasons. Even those who are reaping the promise of modern science and technology - surrounded by comforts and facilities which surpass even those of kings and queens of yore - are discontented.
Even if we have everything, something is missing. Subscribing unquestioningly to the materialistic paradigm which is the present day religion, we have neglected the most fundamental aspect of life – realisation of the Reality that underlies our life and indeed all things.
Kriya Yoga is a systematic, time-tested, and profound means to open our eyes to the wonder of existence, and indeed the wonder of our own existence. Then unhappiness will fade away like mist before the rising sun. There will still be the normal ups and downs of life, but somehow our capacity to ride these waves is enhanced. Instead of totally identifying with these waves we are more and more in contact with the Ocean.
The Sanskrit word kriya means ‘to move’. In Kriya Yoga we move mental attention along prescribed energy pathways within the body, thereby, almost effortlessly, awakening more subtle energy and Awareness.
The word kriya also means ‘practice’. Therefore, Kriya Yoga is less concerned with theory or philosophy, and more with the practical means of bringing direct and transformative experience and insight.
Regular practice helps to whittle away blockages, thereby allowing finer qualities – clarity, confidence, compassion and joy - to manifest through the personality. Automatically our perception is refined.
Kriya Yoga is a form of Kundalini Yoga – that is, it is specifically designed to awaken the Kundalini – Primal Transformative Energy.
This awakens the different chakras (energy centres) in the human framework and thereby gives us insight into how we function and what we are on a deeper level.
From Teacher to Disciple
Kriya Yoga has always been passed from teacher to disciple: by word of mouth and by direct instruction. This tradition still holds.
In this way the teacher can ensure that the disciple is ready. Before undertaking the practice of Kriya Yoga, physical, mental and emotional blockages in the student can be identified and, if necessary, cleared by other appropriate yogic practices.
Tradition and Texts
Until recently the practices of Kriya Yoga were never written down.
There are brief references to some of the practices of Kriya Yoga in the classical Hatha Yoga texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga), Gherand Samhita (Teachings of Hatha Yoga According to Yogi Gherand), Shiva Samhita (Teachings of Yoga according to Shiva) and the Goraksha Samhita (Teachings of Yoga according to Yogi Goraksha, more commonly known as Gorakhnath). However nowhere in these texts is there any clear and detailed explanation - certainly not enough to allow us to learn and practice!
In the Yoga Sutra (verses 1 and 2, chapter 2) – a classical text on Ashtanga Yoga – Kriya Yoga is mentioned but this refers collectively to the practices of tapa (austerity), swadhyaya (self-study and study of the yogic scriptures) and ishwara pranidhana (surrender to higher Intelligence) as a means of preparing the mind for more advanced practice. These three things are part of Ashtanga Yoga and have nothing directly to do with the Kriya Yoga discussed in this booklet.
Kriya Yoga is also mentioned in the Uddhava Gita where Krishna explains to Uddhava, his friend and disciple, practices which involve ritualistic worship of one’s deity using flowers, consecrated foods and incense, together with the chanting of mantras. He calls it Kriya Yoga but, though it has its own valid place, it also has nothing to do with the Kriya Yoga that we are talking about here.
A system similar to Kriya Yoga was practiced in China. A Taoist text called the Tai Chin Hua Tzang Chih (The Secret of the Golden Flower) describes a practice called shoshuten (Circulation of Light). Fundamentally, it is similar to Kriya Yoga, both being concerned with transforming energy, called prana in Yoga and ki in Taoism.
In many ways, Kriya Yoga uses the same principle as the Chinese systems of acupuncture, tai chi chuan and shiatzu, concentrating on two energy channels called the arohan (lit., ‘ascending’; channel of ascent) and awarohan (lit., ‘descending’; channel of descent) which correspond closely with the governor vessel and the conception vessel, two of the most important meridians of Chinese medicine.
Last century Swami Yogananda wrote a book called Autobiography of a Yogi in which he refers to Kriya Yoga. He learnt it from his Guru, Yukteshwara Giri, who received it from his Guru, Lahiri Mahasaya, who, in turn, had been initiated into Kriya Yoga by the almost mythical Himalayan yogi Babaji. Among others, Swami Yogananda initiated Mahatma Gandhi into Kriya Yoga and it forms an important part of the teachings of the Self-Realisation Society which he founded.
Last century, it seems that Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh was also initiated into Kriya Yoga. We don’t know by whom or when; possibly by his Guru, Swami Vishwananda, whom he is said to have met just once for twenty minutes (though some people say it was for two days). In any case, he passed it on to his disciple Swami Satyananda, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, who in turn taught it to his disciples, including myself.
The practices of Kriya Yoga were never put into writing until some thirty five years ago, when the Bihar School of Yoga published an encyclopedic textbook on the subject, entitled A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya. Written by myself under the inspiration and guidance of Swami Satyananda Saraswati, it gives full details on the background, philosophy and techniques of Kriya Yoga.
Swami Satyananda felt that Yoga practitioners world-wide could benefit from Kriya Yoga, if only they were made aware of its potential and given suitable training. Hence he broke tradition by publishing Kriya Yoga in written form – not so that people could practice from a book, but so that they could be inspired and then take Kriya Yoga training and initiation from a competent and recognised teacher.
According to the philosophies of Yoga and Tantra, all of existence is the result of the play of two cosmic principles or polarities - Shiva and Shakti. This same polarity functions on the level of each individual.
Shiva represents underlying Intelligence, Consciousness or the universal static background, whilst Shakti represents Mother Nature, or the dynamic principle behind all phenomena. To use a simple analogy, Shiva is the blank sheet and Shakti the written word. Or, taking another analogy, Shiva can be compared to the computer programmer and Shakti to the hardware and software.
Both aspects are fundamental aspects of existence. Cosmologically, Shiva is regarded as the background to creation whilst Shakti creates and activates everything both seen and unseen. For there to be life and existence, both Shiva and Shakti are needed. If Shiva exists but not Shakti then there would be potential but no expression – there would not be any creation nor any beings or events within it. If there is Shakti but no Shiva, then it would be like trying to pour milk into a non-existent pot; or like having objects but no space in which to put them; we cannot even conceive of such an absurd possibility.
This same concept exists in Samkhya philosophy as Purusha (Consciousness) and Prakriti (matter and energy). Although couched in different symbolism and terminology, this concept also exists in other traditions world-wide. In Taoism, the word Tao corresponds to Shiva, and Teh to Shakti. The ancient Egyptians worshiped Osiris and Isis, both of whom are comparable to Shiva and Shakti. In Christianity, God, the Father, corresponds to Shiva, and the Virgin Mary (or the Universal Mother), to Shakti.
The Two Poles of Our Existence
You may say, “Enough of this philosophy. As a personality, a little dot in existence, how does this concern me?” It concerns each of us because the play of Shiva and Shakti applies not only to the cosmos at large but to each and every individual. It is an esoteric truth that the macrocosm is reflected into the microcosmic form of each human being. Shiva provides the individual consciousness or soul (Sanskrit, jivatma), whilst Shakti provides the personality, comprising the physical, energetic and mental bodies.
According to Yoga, Shiva (Pure Consciousness) resides transcendent at the sahasrara chakra - symbolically depicted as the Thousand-Petalled Lotus at the crown of the head – and Shakti (primal energy) remains in quiescent state at mooladhara chakra (the Root Chakra at the base of the spine).
These are the two poles of our existence. Kriya Yoga circulates energy between these two poles. In this way, the energy of the chakras is refi ned and awakened. And, with practice, this brings about what is called the awakening of Shakti, or Kundalini. This leads us to realisation of Shiva residing at the higher pole. Kriya Yoga gives us the key to unlock Shiva’s abode so that we can realise the Spiritual aspect of our being. This profound process is metaphorically depicted as the marriage of Shiva and Shakti, the union of the Primal Masculine and Feminine Principles. The yearning of Shakti to unite with Her Spouse is symbolic of the evolutionary journey that we are all taking – some knowingly, most unknowingly – the progressive movement from total identification with our earthly nature to realisation of our Spiritual roots.
Shiva is of a different dimension from what we normally know and understand in daily life. As such, It is beyond all words and concepts. One cannot work directly on Shiva as its transcendental nature makes it inaccessible to all practices. However, Shiva can be realised through Shakti. By calming, energising and rendering our mind perfectly receptive, She gives us access to Shiva. Just one glimpse – one experiential vision of Shiva – and our understanding of life, existence and what we are, completely changes. Our eyes are opened and we realise how blind we were.
Kriya Yoga practice brings about this insight and experience by working directly on Shakti or Energy and awakening the chakras.
Concentration versus Awareness
Concentration of mind does have its place in yogic practice. However, trying to control thoughts is like trying to harness a wild bull or calm an agitated monkey – the mind tends to move incessantly from one thought to another. And the more we try to control it the more it reacts and rebels. We become frustrated and this, in itself, prevents us gliding into meditation. Concentration is easy only for those few people who have already attained some peace of mind, have few unresolved traumas, a deep and abiding relaxed attitude towards life and who have attained a high level of fulfilment in their lives. For these people, concentration comes spontaneously and they can make rapid progress on the path of Yoga.
One of the characteristic features of Kriya Yoga, unlike most Yoga practices, is that it doesn’t demand forced concentration of mind.
Kriya Yoga accepts the dispersive nature of the mind. In Kriya Yoga, awareness is emphasised rather than concentration.
This means that whilst continuing the practices of Kriya Yoga we don’t try to suppress the ever-arising stream of thoughts. We let the thoughts arise and subside but remain a witness to them. We try to make friends with the mind instead of trying to force it into a mold in which it will not fit. Eventually, as we continue the practice, the mind tends to become less scattered. Without excessive effort, the wild bull of the mind is tamed, but without becoming dull or suppressed. The mind is weaned away from its distracted state and automatically we start to flow with the dynamics of the practices.
The practice of awareness brings about a spontaneous and natural state of meditation.
The Structure of the Practice
Many of the practices of Kriya Yoga involve specific asanas (postures), pranayamas (breathing techniques), mudras (symbolic gestures and energy evoking practices) and bandhas (physio-psychological locks) that are part of Hatha Yoga. They are combined in a unique way to encourage the awakening of energy.
Specific mantras and visualisations are also integrated into the practices.
By tradition there are more than seventy different kriyas or practices. In the streamlined form of Kriya Yoga there are twenty, each practised one after the other in sequence. There is a specific interrelation between the dynamics of each kriya, each laying the ground for the following in such a way that the mind is slowly harmonised and harnessed. The mind automatically moves through pratyahara (sense withdrawal) through to dharana (spontaneous one-pointedness of mental and emotional energies) and then on to dhyana (meditation).
The unique order of the practices is important and allows Kriya Yoga to bring its full benefits. Each kriya practice is separate and yet part of a jigsaw which, when each part is in place, lays the perfect inner environment for meditation, deeper insight and realisation.
Each of us is a reflection of underlying Reality. Kriya Yoga is a method which allows the reflection to be in conscious osmosis with its roots.
It brings Awareness.
To be initiated in the practices of Kriya Yoga you will be required to have had a sound grounding in Hatha Yoga (at least three or four years of practice), including pranayama and bandha (psycho-physiological locks). You will also be expected to have some knowledge of the chakras and to have practiced meditation for a few years.
Example Kriya Practice - Shambhavi
The following practice is based on Kriya No. 12 – Shambhavi, often called Shambhavi’s Lotus.
Shiva symbolises pure Consciousness – That which is beyond time and space, beyond the realm of karma, and beyond the process of birth, life and death. Shambhavi is one of the names of Shakti, Shiva’s wife.
Shakti symbolises the capacity of Shiva to manifest as the multifarious objects of the entire manifest universe. Shambhavi also symbolises this, but on a more personal level – Shambhavi symbolises the body and mind of the spiritual seeker who is utterly devoted to Shiva, or the search for Truth. The seeker, like Shambhavi, is wedded in mind, heart and body, to Shiva, the transcendental Consciousness.
Kriya No. 12 is dedicated to Shambhavi, indicating the attitude that we should have if we are to realise the nature of both Shiva and Shakti.
In Kriya Yoga we should be humble and receptive and, above all, we should not expect anything. We should have an attitude of non-expectation.
This is fundamental if we are to go beyond concept to a deeper realisation of underlying Reality.
In English, this Kriya is called ‘Shambhavi’s Lotus’ because of the lotus which is visualised in the technique.
► Rationale / Symbolism:
According to the philosophies of Yoga, Tantra and Samkhya, the whole of nature, including the human mind and body, is made up of the three gunas (Sanskrit, guna, quality), which are sattwa (harmony, clarity and light), rajas (passion and dynamism), and tamas (ignorance, darkness and inertia).
Beyond these three gunas is the state of trigunatita (Sanskrit, tri, three; atita, beyond) – that which transcends the three gunas, i.e. pure Consciousness.
The growth of the lotus symbolises the ascent of our understanding through the three gunas to final realisation of Consciousness:
- the roots in the mud, symbolise tamas; the qualities, in the individual, of lethargy, procrastination and solidity, but also the material nature of our physical body.
- the stem in the water, symbolises rajas; dynamism, passion and emotions; the ups and downs that the individual experiences in the waters of life and from which he or she grows on all levels.
- the bud reaching up above the surface of the water into the sky, sattva; harmony, balance and clarity, which, when the flower opens, allows us to awaken to the rising sun of Pure Consciousness.
This kriya symbolises the movement through the three gunas to That which is beyond them.
The flower bud is full of potential – symbolising the enormous potential which lies within each of us but which is mostly hidden and therefore dormant.
In the practice, the flower bud is visualised as opening and closing. This symbolises that the Light which is beyond the three gunas can only be glimpsed in states of meditation. The opening of the bud symbolises these glimpses. We cannot remain in pure Consciousness because we are pulled back into ego-identification.
Padmasana (The Lotus Pose), Siddhasana (The Male Perfect Pose), or Siddha Yoni Asana (The Female Perfect Pose). Or in any comfortable sitting position
► Hand Position:
On the knees in either Gyana, Chin or Chinmaya Mudra. Chinmaya is best, since it indicates openness to blessings which are so important in any form of Yoga, including Kriya Yoga.
A lotus flower, or a water lily.
► Number of Rounds:
11 (in stage 2)
► Time Required:
A total of about 8 minutes depending on the length of respiration.
► Energy Pathway:
In the spine (known in Kriya Yoga as the awarohan, or ‘The Ascending Energy Pathway’.
Stage 1: Visualisation
Sit comfortably with the back straight.
Close your eyes...
Feel as though your body is an empty vessel – 30 seconds...
Be in touch with the space within...
Then bring your attention to where your body is touching the ground - 30 seconds...
Try to visualise a lotus (or water lily) growing in the awarohan or spine...
The roots, coloured brown, spread out in the region of the mooladhara chakra, firmly rooted in the ground of material existence, just as we are as embodied beings...
The stem of the flower grows upwards in the spine...
It is thin and green, growing through the waters of life, growing, just as we do, as we experience the ups and downs of life, the dramas and the challenges, he difficulties and the pleasures...
Try to imagine the stem rising up in the spine, reaching up towards the light, to the open sky above the water...
Eventually the stem reaches the top of the head, the surface of the water...
It culminates in a bud at the sahasrara, the Thousand Petalled Lotus at the crown of the head...
The bud reaches up into the sky above...
Try to visualise the whole lotus in its entirety – roots, stem and bud, knowing that it symbolises our growth into wisdom and realisation of our essential Being...
Beyond, and yet nourishing the bud, is the rising sun...
We know that the sun is enormous, even if it seems to be a small ball in the sky…
In the same way, our embodied being is nourished by the Light of the infinite sun of Consciousness...
Feel the light of the sun penetrating the bud at the crown of your head...
And remember – there is only One Sun (in this solar system at least)...
We are not looking at different suns…
We are not nourished by different suns…
There is but One Sun…
Which nourishes everything on this planet and in the solar system...
In the same way, Consciousness is not many…
It is One…
This Intelligence that sustains our existence and the existence of everything in the universe is not many but One...
Feel the light penetrating the lotus bud at the crown of your head...
Then move onto Stage 2...
Stage 2: Synchronising the Visualisation of the Lotus with the Breath
Breathe out deeply to start the first round...
Bring your attention to the roots at the mooladhara chakra...
Hold your breath for a few seconds...
With ujjayi pranayama (the throttled breath), breathe in and let your awareness slowly ascend the stem synchronised with inhalation...
Be aware of the breath and the stem at the same time, trying to imagine that you are travelling up the inside of the stem...
At the end of inhalation, your awareness should be at the sahasrara, the crown of the head, visualising the bud at the top of the stem...
Hold your breath fixing your attention on the bud...
Try to see the bud slowly open to show the full glory of the pink lotus flower...
Simultaneously you may glimpse the Sun across the surface of the water...
Feel Its rays penetrating the lotus flower...
The flower closes, and then begins to open again...
Try to feel as though you are experiencing the lotus from outside and from inside...
The lotus continues to open and close for as long as you can comfortably hold your breath...
Finally the lotus closes...
With ujjayi breath, breathe out, descending the stem in the spine...
Exhalation ends when you reach mooladhara chakra...
This is the end of the first round...
When you are ready start the next round...
Hold your breath for a few seconds whilst visualising the lotus roots...
With ujjayi breath, move up the stem in the spine etc...
Practise 11 complete rounds.
One round equals one respiration.
If necessary, you can breathe normally for a few seconds after each
round. This will allow you to breathe more slowly and to hold your
breath for a longer period of time at the crown.
The Path of No Belief
Kriya Yoga is a very practical system which does not demand that you subscribe to any stereotyped belief. It works on transforming energy and awakening that which is already within us in seed form. Kriya Yoga clears away obstacles, so that that which is pre-existent can shine forth. If you want to open up the hidden dimensions of your Being, then Kriya Yoga offers you a sure and time-tested system.
Written by Swami Nishchalananda - Founder of Mandala Yoga Ashram
This post presents a general introduction and background to Kriya Yoga and an example of one of the Kriyas. If you are interested in learning and practicing the whole sequence of Kriyas, we strongly advise you to do so from a bona fide teacher who has a thorough practical and theoretical knowledge of Kriya Yoga and the necessary preparations.
If you'd like to learn, explore and deepen your practice of this ancient system in an Ashram environment, we are running a 10-month training spread out over 4 residential weeks from July 2022 to May 2023, with additional support for home study and practice between retreats. >> Find out more <<
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