The Sanskrit word ‘kriya’ means ‘perfected action’ or ‘something done with soul’ and is used to express a variety of meanings in yoga. Depending on the tradition, it can apply to a single asana (body position) or a strict series of such asanas. When kundalini energy flows through the body, people also sometimes find themselves spontaneously taking up certain positions, again referred to as kriyas.
As a fixed expression, ‘Kriya Yoga’ has an entirely different meaning. Although there are several different branches and traditions, all involve powerful meditational practices focussing on the relationship between breath, chakras and nadis. Also known as ‘the yoga of subtle sight, sound and sensation,’ the aim of Kriya Yoga is to attain a closer relationship with the subtle energy body, thereby extending consciousness beyond the physical realm. To discover that you are more than just a flesh-and-blood mortal can change your life forever!
Most of the better-known lineages of Kriya Yoga trace their origins back to Lahiri Mahasaya, an enlightened 19th-century Indian civil servant who received these ‘kriyas’ from the avatar Babaji. Since then, the most famous Kriya Yogis include Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi), Sivananda and Satyananda (Bihar School of Yoga). However, the history of Kriya Yoga extends much further into the past – in fact, the earliest Vedic (ancient Hindu) scriptures describe how it was first passed down from the god Shiva himself. Traditionally, Kriya Yoga has been kept secret, transmitted personally from teacher to student only after initiation. This is, in part, a tribute to the power of Kriya meditation. In contrast to Kundalini Yoga, which has become increasingly open and available in recent years, most lineages of Kriya Yoga still insist on initiation and secrecy. While this has the advantage of keeping the techniques and lineage pure, potential problems have consequently arisen in certain branches of Kriya Yoga: dogma, politics, control issues within the organisation. In short, ego.
I have received Kriya Yoga from several lineages. From personal experience I can testify to its subtle strength, in gradually allowing consciousness to expand beyond the physical plane. Many people feel nothing at first, and only over time experience the effects of subtle light, sound and sensation. Other people immediately respond. Everybody is different.
One consideration which does apply to anybody practising Kriya Yoga is the relationship between body and mind. Based on meditations focussing on visualisation and breath, this spiritual tradition almost completely ignores the physical body in its practices. But when kundalini energy does begin to flow, it inevitably flows through and impacts on both the physical body and energy body (which contain our chakras and nadis). Any tradition or set of practices aimed at stimulating inner energy therefore runs the risk of inducing kundalini syndrome if the physical body is inadequately prepared. Kundalini syndrome takes place when too much energy is flowing through an unprepared physical body, thereby leading to unpleasant physical symptoms such as: burning sensations, headaches, unexplained pains in certain parts of the body. In addition, the influx of too much energy can lead to emotional and psychological imbalance, not to mention problems in controlling the ego. Believe me, I’ve seen it firsthand, and a slow but steady stream of people come to me asking for help with such issues, both physical and emotional. There are always solutions, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Just because energy-based traditions following the Way of Light* (see below) run the risk of inducing such side-effects, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these risks aren’t worth taking. Deeper spiritual experience is something we all need to put our ego in place, as well as gain greater perspective on life! It’s also highly unlikely that you’ll suddenly wake up one day and find yourself debilitated by kundalini syndrome – especially if you remain mindful and aware, and take appropriate precautions. Energetic imbalances tend to develop slowly, over time, giving you time to respond accordingly. And if you take care of your body through exercise and diet, as well as constantly confront your ego, there’s no need to fear kundalini as so many people do. There’s no reason why inner energy shouldn’t begin to gradually open up and flow, gradually transforming your life in the process without any nasty surprises. This is why, for me, both The Art of Running and Diet & Fasting feature on so prominently on this website. For me, they are essential counterbalances to any energy-based spiritual practice, and constitute spiritual practices in their own right. Beyond the obvious physical benefits of both distance running and diet/fasting, I can’t think of better ways to confront your ego.
So long as you’re able to separate the techniques of Kriya Yoga from the dogma and politics which unfortunately dominate several of its traditions, so long as you balance the energy-based elements of this tradition with further practices designed to open up space for this energy, Kriya Yoga is a truly beautiful way to dedicate yourself to your deeper Self.
*The Way of Light: spiritual practices and traditions which focus on harnessing inner energy in order to accelerate spiritual development (Growing into Being, Ch. 5).