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What is kriya yoga?

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

On the first day of my yoga teacher trainings, we always start with a question:

What is yoga?

I’m sure most yoga schools start with the same discussion, and for good reason! But the discussion I didn’t think to have was:

What kind of yoga will we be learning during this program?

I am embarrassed to say that we didn’t really discuss it until this past fall (when I was leading my third teacher training!). And I only thought to discuss it because a student asked, “Abby, what kind of yoga are we learning to teach? A friend asked me and I didn’t know what to say!”

When she asked me, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t defined it! I would always say something like, “There are many forms of yoga, and many ways to practice,” but I had never really defined the kind of yoga I teach… So, allow me to do so, now:

I teach yoga that is grounded in body and sensory awareness, self-inquiry, and deep trust. In yogic terms: Kriya yoga.

Kriya yoga is a practice comprised of the last three Niyamas: tapas, svadhyaya, and ishvarapranidhana.

Tapas relates to the physical practice - not just yoga asana, but ways of caring for our bodies, in general. It relates to how we move, how we eat, even to our hygiene. Tapas literally means “to burn,” and is a practice meant to liberate the body from past karma. It can be intense, even extreme, but at its core, it is an act of care. In other words, it should not cause unnecessary suffering.

Svadhyaya is the practice of self-inquiry. It is the act of questioning our thoughts, our patterns and habits - our samskara. This can come in the form of freewriting or journaling, quiet contemplation or meditation, even conversations with others. Svadhyaya is any practice that invites us into conversation with ourselves, and reminds us that how we are now is not how we always have to be.

Ishvarapranidhana is the practice of surrendering to something greater than ourselves. This is often the most difficult of the three. It is a reminder that, no matter how disciplined we are, no matter how hard we try, we do not have full control over our lives. Ishvara is the concept of God or Brahma or the divine ruler - but if this is hard to digest for your western brain, you can also conceptualize it as your truest Self, or knowledge in its purest form. Pranidhana is the act of devotion or surrender. So to practice Ishvarapranidhana, we must let go of results, trusting that our best efforts are good enough.

For me, these three aspects of yoga - physical health, self-inquiry, and surrendering to a universal, divine source - show up everywhere. They show up when I get hungry and ask myself what I want to eat. They show up when I get annoyed and ask myself what is really annoying me. They show up when something interrupts my perfectly laid plans and I have to ask myself: Do I fight it tooth and nail, or do I allow and adjust?

There is no hierarchy or specific order in practicing these things. And they are most effective when practiced together, which brings us to kriya yoga: the practice of yoga that emphasizes tapas, svadhyaya, and ishvarapranidhana.

In my teacher trainings, we do exactly that:

We learn to pay attention to our bodies, and the information they give us. We do this through learning the intention behind many common yoga postures, and how to adapt them to our own unique bodies and needs. We also do this through simple breathing exercises, sensory awareness, and touch work.

We learn to pay attention to our thoughts, and to not confuse them for “the truth.” We do this through meditation, journaling, small and large group discussions. We also read the Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and talk about the concepts of God, Highest Self, Oneness, and Connection. We try to understand our place in the world, the universe, through first understanding ourselves.

And, perhaps most difficult of all, we are reminded that, even when we put forth our best efforts, there is no guarantee that things will turn out the way we had envisioned. The path is long and winding, and we cannot cling too tightly to our expectations.

If you are ready to dive deeper into yourself through meditation, movement, and somatic awareness, I would love to have you join me this fall for my next 200-hr Immersion and YTT. Whether you hope to teach yoga one day, or simply to deepen your relationship with the practice, this program offers you a place to begin, to evolve, and to begin again.

Join me next Thursday for:

200-hr Immersion & YTT:

Thursday, June 15


at The Breathe Building

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