The 3 Kriyas of Patanjali | Yoga Solutions to the Problems of Life

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In his Yoga Sutras, written almost 2000 years ago in India, the great sage Maharishi Patanjali laid out a map for living a life of happiness, helpfulness, and growth of the Soul. Encountering the Sutras in my search for joy, meaning, and Soul growth in my early 20s and 30s, I spent the better part of two decades traveling through India, Indonesia, and America to hear wisdom from the lips of many great masters.

Wanting more than anything to lift my perspective and find the divine light, I sought conversations, lectures, and practices to heighten my vision for a good life, and for enlightenment. I found that Yoga offered the highest teachings, truths and scientific techniques to achieve my goals.

Fortunate for us, Patanjali had compiled the ancient teachings of yoga in a systematic way. He articulated precise ways for us to tap into the body’s authentic wisdom and know the True Self, our personal and collective Oversoul, consisting of physical, energetic, and cosmic levels of being.

If we follow these yogic guidelines, he said, we integrate our body, mind, and spirit so that we can manifest a fulfilling and meaningful life. We can train ourselves, he said, to make more intelligent choices both on and off the yoga mat.

Patanjali highlighted three main kriyas, or actions, to advance this goal. Known as Kriya Yoga, or the “yoga of action,” these three tools are tapas, or self-discipline, svadhyaya (SVAHD-yah-yah), or self-study, and Ishvara pranidhana (ISH-var-ah PRA-nah-dah-nah), or devotion to the divine.

The word kriya itself means “action,” and while specific kriyas are performed as part of an asana class, the kriyas are inner practices that assist in the quest for health, balance, mindfulness, and sacred relationship with all areas of life. By defusing the causes of sorrow before they grow into suffering, the three kriyas are tools which, together with the first two niyama, inner practices known as saucha and santosha, or purity and contentment, make up the second limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed tree of yoga. All five niyama express themselves naturally in anyone who is consistently awakening the body through asana, meditation, and other yoga practices.

As I walked through India, I learned that the five yamas and five niyama are like the ten toes on our two feet: they form essential foundations while aiming us in specific directions. But we don’t actually “practice” yamas and niyamas. We practice asana, chanting, breathwork, mantra, mudra, lucid dreaming, literary study, and the expressive arts to bring these qualities to life. They grow simultaneously, like the fingers, toes, and nose of a human being. But we can also cultivate them; our energy of visualization and attraction creates a blueprint for evolution, Higher Self-reliance, and healthy relationships.

These first two limbs of yoga, the 10 guiding principles known as the yamas and niyamas, are not commandments, although the Biblical 10 commandments are like them. They are universal truths and are found in myriad ways in many cultures. “The yamas are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred, and delusion,” says Stephen Cope, a senior Kripalu teacher and the author of The Wisdom of Yoga. “The niyamas are designed to create well-being for ourselves and others.”

The first two limbs of yoga aren’t about right and wrong in a judgmental sense. There’s no threat of hell or aspiration toward heaven, except to the extent that we create our own heaven and hell here on Earth. While restraining thought and behaviors that produce struggle and suffering, we embrace those feelings, memories, and patterns that lead to the eighth and highest limb of Yoga, Samadhi, unconditional peace and joy.

Each if the three kriyas has a specific focus that is central to its purpose of Higher Self-realization. Raising the inner heat of tapas cleanses and sustains a healthy, strong, fit body. Svadhyaya purifies the mind and fosters emotional, mental, and social harmony. Commitment to and trust in our Higher Selves, Ishwara pranidhana, illuminates the Oversoul’s journey and purpose in this lifetime. Ishvara pranidhana connects us to our Higher Self, our spirit teachers, a circle of “Spiritual Companions” who offer us inner guidance, and the immortal Oversoul.

Through regular, rhythmic practice of the three kriyas, we develop the discipline to reconnect our bodies and minds through the breath when we feel ungrounded, upset, or off-center. The more we practice, the easier it is to feel our bodies as the embodiment of the True Self, an informed presence echoing through our physical and subtle realities. The more we connect, the more the sense of truth, courage, and aliveness quickens inside and around us.

“The joy that comes with Kriya is greater than the joys of all pleasurable physical sensations put together,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda in Man’s Eternal Quest. He points to the conversation between the god-like Krisna and the warrior Arjuna in the Mahabarata to support his claim: “Unattracted to the sensory world, the yogi experiences the ever-new joy inherent in the Self. Engaged in divine union of the soul with Spirit, he attains bliss indestructible.” (Bhagavad Gita V:21).

As the kriyas open doorways to samadhi, the highest state of union with the divine, the eyes, breath, and heart become quiet. “Another world comes into view,” writes Yogananda. “Breath, sound, and movement of the eyes belong to this world,” but the yogi who has control of the breath may enter the subtle worlds of astral and causal experience to commune with saints, spirit guides, and ancestors in the field of cosmic consciousness.

The intention behind the kriyas is also expressed in the words of the American theologian, Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, in his famous serenity prayer: “Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other.”

Tapas is what we can change: we can apply discipline to modify our physical conditions, the body and environs. Svadhyaya gives us the self-awareness and wisdom needed to know the difference between what we can and what we can’t change. Ishvara pranidhana advises us to recover union with our Oversoul’s intelligence and make wise decisions in the face of life’s great mysteries and immutable laws.

TAPAS

Often translated as “discipline” or “burning,” tapas literally means “heat.” By generating heat during a breathwork or asana practice, we burn away the old residue of tension, toxic biochemistry, and toxic thinking. It’s similar to the process of pasteurization—a self-purification that burns away contaminants and blockages that cause imbalances in the physical body.

Tapas, raising the inner heat, melts away layers of unconscious tension in the body, removing blockages in the bloodstream as well as the invisible energetic channels known as nadis, or meridians. When we cultivate spiritual heat through breathwork, dancing, intense conscious exercise, martial arts, and other bodymind disciplines, we keep the body fit and become aware that our natural state is inner peace and our true nature is divine. By raising the arms, activating the bandhas, or energy locks, and standing on one leg, on the shoulders, or on the head, we burn away poisons, calories, and karma. By expelling waste, we make room for and strengthen of the soul of the body. We heat the alchemical vessel in the flesh and transform the metaphoric lead of physical toxins into the gold of higher consciousness.

Concentrated meditation also purifies the mirror of the mind by expelling toxic thoughts and is tapas. The energy generated by sacrificing beloved foods to support health and the environment is tapas. Running 20 miles a week to reach a personal goal that gives you meaning is tapas.

For many, tapas is the practice of the yamas and niyamas, committing to the ethics and daily lifestyle choices of yoga. Asana and pranayama, the third and fourth limbs on the tree of yoga, also raise the wisdom fire.

The similarity in all these activities is that they cause change, and any change can uncover the mind’s inertia, thus energizing resistance; our attempts to make progress in becoming better human beings invites us to confront and overcome this resistance. Countering the patterns of belief and thought rising in this struggle, we inevitably create friction, as it requires a certain degree of oppositional force, which will likely result in discomfort. It is the heat of this resistance – and our overcoming the resistance, even countering the resistance to the resistance — that gives tapas its special power to transform us.

Imagine you want to start a fire to keep warm in the forest. With only wood shavings, wadded paper, and strips of cardboard, you do all you can to ignite your tinder nest. You give gratitude for the sun, find a magnifying glass, a mirror, or reading glasses and angle them to focus the sun’s warmth to produce a spark. The aiming of the sun’s light and heat through the glass on the object of attention activates the spark.

The heat of tapas ignites the match that lights the flame of the divine movement inside of us. In yoga, the attention, the focus of our inner light, is key to transformation. It, burns away toxins and tension, and amplifies the currents of prana in the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. As more life force flows through us, we shine more light from the True Self, the Oversoul.

Over the years, we may have built up more waste than we realize. Doing a daily practice of Breath of Fire – breathing in and out, deeply and rapidly — burns rubbish to ash, liberates more prana, and calms the mind, a necessary prelude to the study of the True Self. Through the deep exhalations of Kapalabhati (Skull Shining), we oxygenate the brain, heart, and other organs and improve concentration while stoking the wisdom fires for transformation.

Sun Salutations, high-energy vinyasa yoga sequences are also excellent ways to physically “heat” ourselves daily, letting the outer sun and inner sun gently cleanse us of negativity. There are many ways to stoke the wisdom fires of transformation.

Breathing deeply and rhythmically in aerobics, running, dancing, swimming, and especially singing and chanting, are also tapas when done with focus and one-pointed attention. Making art, ceremony, and doing your chosen skill well are also forms of tapas, if they are ritual actions of cleansing and awareness for transformation that prepares us for the next kriya, svadhyaya, self-study and study of sacred scriptures.

While still on the mat, as we move into meditation, or go forth into our daily lives, with the light of clear attention, yoga reveals and changes us in remarkable ways.

SVADHYAYA

While kriya yoga contains three distinct actions—tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana (reverence or devotion)—they are not necessarily sequential or hierarchical. Each action contains the other two: Self-discipline, or tapas, for example, is a platform for a study of the self: How do we approach our practice? Do we resist certain movements? Are we aware of our “felt senses?

Yoga speaks in the language of the body, and so at the start of a practice, a ritual, or a conversation, before doing everything really – even before turning on your car’s ignition and driving to work — we can pause and connect to our “felt senses.” How do we feel in this very instant? Taking six seconds to relax and breath into the heart, and slowly breathing out, can change our entire outlook. It centers us. Taking another six seconds to check into how our sensory body feels activates svadhyaya. From there, we use our self-awareness to study how things work.

Is there a buoyancy in the chest and steady eyes because things feel right? Or are there butterflies in the belly and distracted attention? If we missed breakfast, got a sudden scare, or worried as we drove to work, the blood sugar may plummet, causing a rapid release of epinephrine and glucagon, followed by a slower release of cortisol. We could feel nervous about everything, not because we fear something, but because the sympathetic nervous system is activated by the chemical imbalance, preparing us for flight or flight. Studying how we got to where we are not is svadhyaya.

Yet svadhyaya is much more. Svadhyaya creates one of the main differences between yoga and other forms of exercise. While exercise alone may stretch and tone your body – and that alone is a healthy endeavor – it will not necessarily give you any insight about your physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing. If you pay exquisite attention to the sensory changes in body, breath, and mood while you’re moving through asanas, learning how nature moves, that is yoga. That is svadhyaya.

Translated from the Sanskrit, however, svadhyaya literally means to recite, repeat, or rehearse to oneself. Vyasa, a fifth-century commentator on the Yoga Sutra, wrote that svadhyaya involves the “repetition of a sacred Mantra, the sacred syllable Om, or study of scriptures relating to Moksha, or freedom from bondage.”

Recitation of mantras gives the mind a steady beat and focus to clear the thought stream of extraneous and unskillful meandering, not unlike a shamanic drum or binaural beat, but it also produces a positive, pure vibration of audible intention that penetrates the core of our being. When you depress yourself, for instance, the mind feels weak, filled with nonsense and negativity, but when you repeat the sound of Om, the vibration of the universe, silently or out loud, that syllable displaces distressed thinking and attunes us to our Higher Self.

Patanjali emphasized the seed-mantra Om because it is a sonic symbol of the creative power of the universe, Vyasa says. Om tunes us into the source of life, revealing the supreme Soul or Oversoul. “The aim of svadhyaya,” writes Rolf Sovik in Understanding Yourself, “is to bring the experience of that immense Consciousness, the Self, to awareness.” The author capitalizes Self and Consciousness here because they are so very different from ordinary consciousness and self-identity, too often dimmed by the shadow of conditioned beliefs.

Another way to invoke svadhyaya is through the study and recitation of sacred scriptures like the Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Vedas of India. The Bible, Koran, or the creation chant of Hawaii, the Kumulipo, also enhance understanding of the Higher Self. The goal here isn’t to make a mountain of intellectual stones or cultural artifacts to climb, but to draw on myths and stories as mirrors for self-reflection.

For Westerners, we may find writings far removed from India to engage svadhyaya, Sovik points us to Shakespeare’s enchanting lines in Sonnet 53:

“What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since everyone hath, everyone, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.

“What is your substance?” That is the central question of svadhyaya. Shakespeare refers to us as “strange shadows” with shades that barely reveal the light dwelling within us.

Like traditional shaman and healers, ancient yogis believed that our “substance” is centered not in one but three bodies: physical, astral, and causal. In these three dimensions, we have all we need to maintain an intrinsic equilibrium that produces health and happiness. This equilibrium is available to everyone through an authentic practice of yoga with its integration of body, breath, and mind.

A beloved yogic metaphor that conveys the nature of the True Self is the ocean with its countless waves. Each wave travels across the surface of the sea, like a human being on the journey of life. In this physical realm, individuals are distinguished by location in space, shape, color, and actions.

But each wave rises from the sea itself. Waves and the sea are two sides of the fully functioning human being. A wave is never other than the ocean. Though it has its individual identity when manifesting on the ocean’s surface, the wave is one with the whole. We are not separate from creation.

The premise of svadhyaya is similar. Like the waves of the sea, we move as separate bodies in the physical realm, but our awareness is never separate from the infinite sea of consciousness from which we arise.

In Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he paints a picture of our humanness that extolls the streams of aliveness flowing through us when we are in our natural state, full of love and presence. The beloved poet describes the fully embodied human in “Song of Myself,” which describes not just svadhyaya, but all three kriyas.

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.”

At this point, then, the yogi, the poet, anyone who makes the effort, is ready for the next step, Ishwara pranidhana, reverence for and surrender to a power greater than ourselves, the Source, the Higher Self, spirit teachers and helpers who gently guide and attend to our needs and desires.

Dissolving old knots of tension in the body through tapas, we witness how tension is created and dissolved through the actions of sensation, emotion (energy-motion: e-motion) feeling, and thought. svadhyaya. Surrendering unnecessary resistance, letting go of outworn concepts, and being our authentic selves lead to a foundation of flexible strength.

ISHVARA PRANIDHANA

In the very first chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali spells out his famous definition of yoga: “Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ” – Yoga is the restraint of the extraneous fluctuations of the mind. Of course, calming the mind is easier to think about, than to do. The mind seems to have a mind of its own!

When the shift happens, though, we start to view the nature of the self, the world, and our evolution in an entirely new way. The third kriya recommended by Patanajali, Iśhvara pranidhana, invites us beyond the mental realm of thought and the cause-and-effect relationships of classical physics into the spiritual dimension of the Oversoul, in yoga known as Ishwara, the divine teacher or personal Oversoul who sees all things as they are.

Perfect, omniscient, the source of our life that supports us through our journey through the material world, and where we will return, Ishvara is not subject to the influence of avidya, false thinking. Ishvara, our inner spirit guide, has always known the truth and meaning of our experience. When asked, Ishvara gently but wisely tutors us in the lessons we must learn to acquire skill, wisdom, and peace.

In this kriya, Patanjali invites us to make a conscious shift to reliance on this wise advisor, a council of beings or “spiritual elders” that greet us in the Spirit World.

At this level of reality, notions stemming from limited false self are dissolved. We can choose to let go of the small mind and let the Big Mind shine through. In this bigger picture of reality, voluntarily surrendering — pranidhana— to the Higher Self, Ishwara, your Guardian Angel, God, or Aumakua, this higher source, is the most natural thing in the world. Surrender in this context means empowerment: we surrender to our full essence, the power of our immortal Soul.

The old aggregate of received and unexamined ideas stands aside and our true light bends its ray upon us, illuminating everything. When we align ourselves with this power greater than ourselves, letting ourselves be embraced by loving arms from the higher dimension of the world, we more easily release bad habits, and in the words of yoga master T. K. V. Desikachar, we “see what others do not yet see.” (Heart of Yoga, p. 123)

To many modern Westerners, surrender as a virtue may seem unappealing. We tend to experience surrender to a higher source as not only the last strand in an unraveling problem but the last stand, a kind of Alamo in our spiritual life. Our inability to solve problems from the level where we are creating our problems becomes clear. Nothing is solved by fighting, we have to stop the pattern of resisting. We are each waves in a ocean of love. What is there to resist? Our most loving source?

Instead of being an emergency response to pain, we make daily, rhythmic meditations that connect us to the Spirit World.
Says dance pioneer Shiva Rae, “Patanjali refers to this inner presence of Ishvara as our foremost teacher (I.26). Through intimate listening to this voice within us, we begin to have a relationship with inner guidance in all aspects of our life.”

Our most important teachers, our parents, our caretakers, our ancestors, they have guided us, showing us when we are moving in the right direction of life or wandering off the path. The best lessons opened new vistas and taught us to nurture the inner teacher, the small, still voice within. “As my attunement to this inner sense of direction grows,” Shiva says, “it increasingly guides my thoughts, speech, and actions.” (Yoga Journal, Aug. 2007)
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To practice Ishvara pranidhana, we must first start with our own intimate connection to the universe. In yoga, this is referred to as your Ishta-Devata, the Oversoul that brought you here, your inner being. The yogic concept of Ishta-Devata recognizes that we are all different, and we have our own, personal relationship with and taste for the Divine, rooted in our experience of peace, balance, and coherence.

Centering in the felt sense of equanimity and clarity serves as a powerful means of deeper connection with the spirit world and its many transformative treasures.

In this cosmic dimension, the causal intentions come into view. Personal deities and sacred relationships arise. They are unique to us. Traditionally, many sadhus (monks) in India have revered the deity/god Shiva in his role as the archetypal yogi. Other Indians revere Vishnu, especially in his incarnations as Rama or Krishna, godly poets and divine teachers.

Just as there are a panorama of male gods and heros, the feminie manifestations of divinity are just as ancient in many ways, more primal, as the female embodies creation by giving birth. Saraswati gives us musicality, wisdom, and art. Mahalakshmi offers prosperity and power. Kali and Durga dissolve. Leela, the goddess of play, wakes us up with dance and levity.

Sri T. Krishnamacharya, probably the most influential figure in the spread of yoga to the West, advocated that Western yoga practitioners use their own language, imagery, and names of the sacred to deepen their connection to Ishvara. If your Ishta-Devata appears as Mary Magdalene, Moses, or Maui, or the Egyptian lioness goddess of healing, Sekhmet, then that is your truth.

In the higher altitudes of this yogic understanding, the ancient dreaming of shaman and ancient lightworkers comes into view. The dreaming of the spiritual senses comes to us in endless forms, but one quality is the same for us all: the spirit inside us, the Higher Self, is always devoted to helping and guiding us. When we listen to our intuition, inspiration, dreams and visions, we hear the guidance of this Oversoul. “Grace pours down upon him like a torrential rain,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar, of the yogi who practices this kriya.

We wake up with a sense of respect for the day, our lives, this breath, for the guidance inside our heart which has brought us this far. There’s everything to be gained from spending a moment in the morning lighting a candle, enjoying the subtle sensations of the breath, the smell of incense, the bird symphony outside the window.

Sounding our devotion to another good day of life, honoring the voice within, chanting a favorite prayer or mantra, we spread the unifying vibration of Om for peace in all of creation. We give thanks to those who have loved and brought teachings to us, those who have bandaged us up when we were broken, and who inspired us when we needed to take that next step. Sending and receiving love in a world on the mend, this is how we make each day useful, good, and happy.

While we may be grateful to many, take a moment to offer appreciation to your inner teacher, the Ishwara residing in your own heart flame, we set the tone for our day. We ask to remain in dynamic connection with this Higher Self through the day, and for the rest of your life.

“Invite your Higher Self to come into your life as an active participant,” says the anthropologist Hank Wesselman, echoing what has been taught in dozens of cultures he has studied. “This is your spirit teacher. It has always been your spirit teacher and it will always be your spirit teacher, and it’s the one who loves you unconditionally, always has and always will.”

That state of unconditional loving liberates the mind enough to let the higher vibrations of consciousness flow through and renew. This shift from worry or the negativity bias to a larger, more appreciative and loving perspective gives us space to invite spirit helpers who can answer questions we may have. We could ask, for instance, “What are parts of this situation I need to see from a spiritual perspective?”, or “How can I navigate the political realities and stressful events in today’s global societies?” Or, “How can I help my daughter forgive her father?”

In the awakened state of yoga, we might be given a feeling, image, or symbol. We might meet an animal power like Hanuman, the monkey god, or Ganesha, the elephant-headed protector, just as our predecessors, the early yogis, did. And our experience now is fresh, retrieving and sparking new relationships for these unprecendented times.

Ishvara pranidhana is thus a potent method for dissolving the endless agitations of the mind and waking up in the world of spirit, the ancient dreaming. It is both a means and goal of the ultimate yogic quest, the unified state of yoga: samadhi. It shifts us away from the obsession with that old Italian aria – “me me me me me” — that causes so much of the mind’s distraction and separation from our Source.

In conscious contact with our Source, there are infinite opportunities to deeply transform our lives and bring more light to the world.

SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEMS OF LIFE

The solution to the problems of life, said Patanjali, is to calm the fluctuations of the mind first. Then we engage our bodies as temples of prana, the divine, and thirdly, we respect others as temples of the divine as well. With tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana, these three kriyas dissolve problems and obstruction by melting tension and stress while restoring the love and empowerment of the Higher Self.

The kriyas are powerful tools that act as a preventative medicine for ourselves personally, and for our world. They set up the conditions for transformation and communication at the highest levels of consciousness. With humility, reverence, and discipline, we are restoring health and wholesomeness to our beautiful planet through wise action, epitomized in the three kriyas.

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