Here in the west, we’re not actually that all familiar with the seven other aspects of yoga – did you know there were 8 limbs to yogic practice? Instead, what we go heavy on are “yoga abs”, $100 stretchy pants, heated rooms, “yoga butt”, and detox retreats . Which are all fine and good, but all of these are actually aspects of a single limb of yoga called “asana”. Asana is the practice of the yoga poses, the exercise portion of yoga. You may have thought this was all there was to yoga, and trust me, you wouldn’t be alone! But there are 7, 7 other limbs. Which makes Asana just 14% of the total practice.
Kriya yoga is a practice that’s light on asana and heavy on pranayama – one of the 7 other limbs of yoga to be explained below. If yoga appeals to you for the athletic benefits (increased flexibility, yoga butt), you’ll want to start with something more like Introduction To Power Yoga or Get Fit In 10 Days With Yoga . If you are on a spiritual quest wanting to “fast-track” your enlightenment, read on to find out more about the practice of Kriya Yoga.
You’ll have a better understanding of Kriya Yoga if we first outline the Eight Limbs. The first four limbs concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second four limbs which deal with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. The five yamas are:
- Ahimsa: nonviolence
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: not stealing
- Brahmacharya: sexual responsibility, or, some would read this as abstinence
- Aparigraha: noncovetousness
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, or developing your own personal meditation practices would all be examples of niyamas in practice. The five niyamas are:
- Saucha: cleanliness
- Samtosa: contentment
- Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities
- Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s selfIsvara
- pranidhana: surrender to God
Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, “life force extension,” yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment from, our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. This is not easy! In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation. Try the 1 Minute Meditation to start cultivating your concentration.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
This eighth and final stage, samadhi, is described as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the peace that passes all understanding.
Kriya yoga gets gutsy and offers the possibility for Samadhi “even within one lifetime”. This without the “austerities” practiced by some ambitious yogis and monks (look up “yogic austerities” if you want to make meditation look easy and painless). This fast-tracked Samadhi is achieved by emphasizing the relationship between breath and mind (that’s where the focus on pranayama comes in, for sure). The breath influences the mind and vice-versa. This reciprocal relationship reveals the secret of controlling the mind: “Breath control is self-control. Breath mastery is self-mastery. Breathlessness is deathlessness.”
Kriya Yoga also offers you a direct relationship with a teacher or guru, a tough find in our modern iterations of yoga! This is designed to speed the communication of the teachings.
There are specific Kriya Yoga centers and ashrams throughout the world, and they do offer classes or workshops to beginners or those curious on how to start their spiritual quest.
To explore meditation at your own pace, try A Beginner’s Guide To Mindful Meditation , What Is Yoga For Meditation, or even How To Meditate Deeply and Create A Solid Daily Practice.