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In the Yoga Sutra, the great sage Patanjali outlined one of the most significant systems of yoga—ashtanga yoga, or the eight-limbed path (not to be confused with Ashtanga Yoga, the style that was popularized by Pattabhi Jois). This was the earliest attempt to formulate a step-by-step approach to self-realization. But what often gets overlooked is a second system Patanjali mentioned, called Kriya Yoga.
What Is Kriya Yoga?
Kriya Yoga—which aims to neutralize the causes of sorrow that are rooted in self-ignorance and lead you to self-realization—consists of three exercises:
- Tapas, or self-discipline
- Svadhyaya (SVAHD-yah-yah), or self-study
- Ishvara pranidhana (ISH-var-ah PRA-nah-dah-nah) or devotion to the “Lord”
How Do You Practice It?
These actions have been variously interpreted, but for our purposes each has a specific focus:
- Tapas: the physical body
- Svadhyaya: the mind
- Ishvara pranidhana: the Self
It’s important to note that there’s no separation between the three—each is a particular expression of an eternally indivisible Whole.
Typically translated as “discipline,” tapas literally means “heat.”
On a physical level, you can generate heat by practicing asana and Pranayama; Sun Salutations, for example, are an excellent way to physically “heat” yourself, as is the traditional breathing practice of Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath). You might compare this process to pasteurization—a kind of self-purification in which you burn up the imbalances and blockages your body has accumulated over the years. This liberates prana (life force) and clears and calms your mind, a necessary prelude to svadhyaya.
Of course, the true heat of transformation is stoked not only by effort, but by attention as well—by doing, but also by being. So, remember, once you’ve
finished with your formal practice, the real fun of life practice begins. Asana and pranayama serve as microcosms of living and breathing your yoga. They teach us to do and to be and so ultimately purify and empower our every-day existence.
Remember that while Kriya Yoga contains three distinct actions—tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana (devotion)—they are not hierarchical. Each action contains the other two: Self-discipline, for example, not only prepares us for self-study but is also a means for self-study.
Svadhyaya literally means “to recite, repeat, or rehearse to oneself.” The question is: Recite or repeat or rehearse what? According to Vyasa, a fifth-century commentator on the Yoga Sutra, svadhyaya involves the “repetition of a sacred Mantra, the sacred syllable Om, or study of scriptures relating to Moksha, or freedom from bondage.”
Svadhyaya thus has two aspects. The first is the recitation of mantras. Patanjali placed particular emphasis on the seed-mantra Om, which is the symbol of the higher Self or Lord. By reciting this sound, we can “tune in to” its source and, as Vyasa says, reveal the supreme soul.
The second aspect of svadhyaya is the study of sacred scriptures. Which ones? Patanjali was surely thinking of his own compilation of verses in the Yoga Sutra, but maybe also books like the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas. The goal here wasn’t to pile up intellectual lumber, but to use the material as a mirror for intense self-study. Nowadays we have access to many books and schools of thought, both Eastern and Western, ancient and modern, so our possibilities for this second aspect of svadhyaya are endless.
Sound it Out
You might think that the best way to recite a mantra is as loudly as possible, so all the deities in the universe will hear you. But the most effective way to recite is as quietly as possible.
Try this at the start of your next Pranayama or meditation session: Inhale, and then, as you exhale, whisper a long, slow Om. Repeat for 10 to 15 breaths, feeling the sound reverberate in your skull and spread through your body.
Devotion, or surrender, to the “Lord”
Read Shiva Rea’s explanation of the practice in The Practice of Surrender.