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The Essentials of Kripalu Yoga

The practical, open approach is designed to develop self-responsibility, self-regulation, and self-awareness.

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In 20 years of teaching Kripalu Yoga, one thing I’ve heard time and again from students is how much they appreciate that the approach isn’t just about the postures. The poses—along with the pranayama and meditations—are just tools of inquiry to help them know themselves better; live happier, more compassionate lives; and take their learnings out into the world. Kripalu’s practical, open approach is designed to help practitioners develop self-responsibility, self-regulation, and self-awareness.

Approaching your practice with an emphasis on inquiry and on developing witness consciousness—the ability to be present and curious about what’s happening in each moment—helps you develop self-compassion. After all, kripalu means “compassion,” and one of the best ways to develop this quality for others is to first practice having it for yourself.

People often step onto the mat with certain desires and expectations. But whether a practice goes the way you want it to or not, it is an opportunity for you—a chance to tune into your individual expression, your empowerment in the world around you, and your own inner truth.

See also: Cooking Mindfully at Kripalu

The makings of a classic Kripalu class

A standard Kripalu class offers subtle depth and dimension in poses. It also incorporates safety and embodied learning. This smorgasbord approach gives teachers and students a wide range of postures, pranayama practices, and meditations that they can work with simultaneously, rather than separately. A typical Kripalu session has the following components:

1. Opening centering

This is an opportunity to tune into your body, breath, and thoughts. The teacher might name a theme and invite you to set an intention for your practice. Observing your feelings during this opening helps you clarify your intention.

2. Breathwork

Pranayama helps warm your body from the inside out. It also creates a heightened sensitivity to energy and physical sensations, and helps you observe your thoughts and emotions. You might practice Dirga Pranayama (Three-Part Breath) to ground you, Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) to boost your energy and deepen your focus, or Anuloma Viloma (Alternate-Nostril Breathing) to cultivate patience and calm.

See also: 5 Pranayama Techniques With the Power to Transform Your Practice—And Your Life

3. Warm-up movements

Easy, gentle movements are the on-ramp to Kripalu practice. They warm muscles, move fluids, and help you feel, sense, and build presence in your body. As you flow through these postures, ask yourself what is happening in your body, with your breath, and in your mind.

4. Posture sequence

Teachers select poses that support the session’s theme. You’ll flow through some postures—which move energy through your body and calm mental chatter—and pause and sustain others to build strength and stamina while observing your mental, physical, and emotional patterns.

Teachers share alignment cues but offer ample room for you to have your own experience and accommodate injuries, medical conditions, and preferences. You are encouraged and empowered to make adjustments that serve you best—whether that’s working with an alternative posture or pausing for a few breaths.

Kripalu teachers also cultivate mindfulness by asking open-ended questions. For example, you might be invited to notice the quality of energy in your legs in a pose, or to observe places in your body where you are holding tension. Then, the teacher might follow up with, “What can you do to soften it?” Considering the answer helps deepen your relationship with your body.

5. Relaxation

Savasana is essential, so you’ll spend 3–20 minutes in a final resting pose.

6. Meditation

The length of the meditation depends on the length of the class. But even a minute of a seated meditation in a state of witness consciousness is a powerful way to receive wisdom from the practice.

See also: Everything You Need to Know About Meditation Posture

7. Closing centering

Here, you briefly acknowledge the practice, tune back into your intention, and prepare to take the energy and learning of the practice out into the world. This way, you’re not just doing yoga, you’re living yoga.

The uniqueness of Kripalu Yoga is that postures, pranayama, and meditation are all happening simultaneously, not separately. —Swami Kripalu

Tips for teachers

1. Keep cues simple. Use language that keeps practitioners’ attention on their own inner experience. Don’t be so detailed in your cueing that it becomes hard for the student to name their own experience. Nor should cues be so vague as to leave the student unmoored.

2. Hold space for student experiences. Yoga offers the rare opportunity to devote time to be present with oneself. Guide a class in a way that holds the space and sets the tone for students to be fully focused on themselves and their experience.

3. Slow down the sequence. Modern classes tend to be compressed into shorter and shorter periods of time, which can easily result in rushed sequencing and cueing. For a more generously spaced practice, focus on quality, not quantity, of poses. Try this model (we call it ESRIT) when practicing or teaching:

  • Enter the pose.
  • Sustain it for a time that feels appropriate for your class.
  • Release the pose.
  • Integrate the effects of the pose by taking a pause.
  • Transition mindfully to the next posture.

4. Accept the challenge. The Kripalu approach to “riding the wave” encourages us to commune with the challenges we face, whether in a yoga asana or in life. When confronted with a difficult pose or situation, try breathing to receive the fullness of the experience. Intentionally relax your mind and body. Watch emotions and sensations come and go. Allow whatever is true to be true.

—Sadia Bruce, Kripalu faculty member, writer, documentarian, and therapeutic movement specialist.

See also: Explore the various types of yoga