From Kriya Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga

Means for quieting the Fluctuations of Consciousness

in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

By Eyal Shifroni

Translation: Eleanor Schlesinger













What are the pillars of a spiritual path? What characterizes spiritual practice and what should be the attitude of the sadakha(1)? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide answers to these questions. In chapters one and two of the Sutras, Patanjali introduces different ways for quieting consciousness. It is interesting to compare the ways in the first chapter (the chapter on samadhi) with those of the second chapter (the chapter on sadhana). Chapter 1 presents the general principles of abhyasa and vairagya, while chapter 2 presents an expanding list of ways and techniques for realizing these principles.

Chapter two opens with the introduction of kriya yoga, the yoga of the three pillars (work, study and devotion). All three are required in order to progress on a spiritual path. It is interesting to analyze the three components of kriya yoga and compare them with the three main paths of yoga: karma, jnana and bhakti and with Ashtanga yoga, the yoga of eight limbs, which Patanjali presents in chapter two and at the beginning of chapter three.

This article will touch upon these topics.

The yoga sutras begin with the definition of yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of  consciousness (sutra 1.2). Patanjali defines yoga, but does not stop there. Yoga is a practical path, a disciplined practice, not merely a philosophical theory. Therefore, further down the text Patanjali offers different means to approaching the goal of yoga. The first reference Patanjali makes regarding those means is found in sutra 1.12:

Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah.

Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.

Patanjali presents a two-tiered method: abhayassa – practice and vairagya – letting go, or not craving. abhyasa is the active aspect, the effort that must be invested in order to progress. vairagya is an approach.

The definition of abhyasa is presented in Sutras 13 and 14:

Sutra 1.13. Tatra sthi-thau yatnoh ‘bhyaasa ha

Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations (2).

Sutra 1.14: Sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkara-asevito drdha-bhumih

Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.

Abhyasa and Vairagya are two sides of the same coin that complete one another: practice is essential as yoga is not purely an academic subject,  progress in yoga cannot be achieved through philosophical study of the meaning of yoga, or through speaking about yoga. A comprehensive transformation of the body, mind and consciousness is required here. Only practice: repeated performance of purifying actions on the physical and mental levels can bring about real sustainable transformation. Every complex skill requires repetitive training, you can not learn to play musical instruments, become a sports champion, succeed in juggling, etc’, without spending many hours training.

In all of the above areas training is essential, but there is no mention of vairagya, non-craving. On a spiritual path, practice alone is not enough. Practice, by its very nature involves effort, exertion of will power and discipline. All of these are very important, but without vairagya we may be caught in a loop in which our aspirations nourish the ego, and the more we strive, the further our goal will slip away. Instead of cultivating serenity, we will cultivate competitiveness and ambition. Therefore, Patanjali completes abhyasa with vairagya – letting go, non-craving, introspection.

Practice necessarily presents duality: there is a purpose or a goal – we want to transform, to get elsewhere. In other words, there is a difference between where we are now and where we want to be. We are eager to succeed, to achieve, and therefore are aimed at the future. But the state of liberation required being in the present, being with reality as it is, without wanting to change or achieve anything, without striving to be elsewhere. Vairagya or non-craving is the missing component that settles this duality. Non-craving is the ability to accept things as they are, without striving for more. To see the perfection and beauty of what is, of the present moment, without wanting to change, without aspiring to goals that belong in the future.

In Chapter 1 Patanjali defines abhyasa but does not offer any guidelines or techniques. It’s about effort, attention and perseverance – these are the characteristic of practice, but there are no details of any techniques, we do not exactly know what to do while practicing. What kind of effort is required here?

The answer is that it takes effort to stabilize the mind. Such an effort does not necessarily involve sweating. It is possible that some of us view practice as mechanically repeating the same action over and over again in order to perfect an ability. Yet, even sitting half an hour without moving requires effort. This is a different kind of effort that is both mental and physical.

Following the sutras that deal with the means, Patanjali turns (beginning with Sutra 1.17) to define different types of samadhi. Then, in sutra 1.20 he presents five “vitamins”(3) that help attain ‘high’ samadhi  (super-conscious samadhi), namely: shraddha (belief), virya (energy, diligence), smriti (memory), samadhi (meditative absorption) and prajna (spiritual insight).

Faith is required for us to embark on a journey; if we don’t believe the path can lead us to a better place, we will not embark on it. Strength is required to walk the path – determination is needed to overcome the obstacles that will undoubtedly arise on the way; you need strong will to stick to practice and persevere in it. Faith (shraddha) and strength and diligence (virya) complement one another. Faith is metaphorically attributed to the mother who supports and enables the journey, while energy and diligence are attributed to the father who provides the necessary strength.

Smriti (memory) is mentioned here in the sense of remembering, remembering to pay attention – the problem in every practice is distraction or oblivion: we decide to practice, to observe and be attentive, but forget and find ourselves repeatedly captivated by old habits. In order to get out of our habits and conditionings, we need to develop concentration and attention that will allow us to remember to be present – on the yoga mat, or in any activity we may pursue. Maintaining attention and presence without distractions (distraction is a type of forgetfulness).

A combination of faith, strength and focused observation enables deep concentration or samadhi, this is where spiritual insight stems from. We emerge from the delusion that characterizes our ongoing perception of reality. Therefore, faith summons great strength; strength, in turn, enables a powerful memory and those enable meditation through which wisdom and spiritual knowledge (prajna) is attained.

In the continuation of the chapter, Patanjali discusses the obstacles that distract the mind (1.30-31). Of course, Patanjali does not limit himself to detailing the obstacles to be expected by the practitioner and the spiritual aspirant, but suggests different ways to overcome these obstacles and clarify consciousness (chitta prasadanam). In Sutras 1.32-39 Patanjali lists eight different ways of doing so. One can marvel at the breadth of this sage and his ability to contain different ways. The different ways are briefly mentioned but we do not yet have a method, a practice that will help us, ordinary mortals who did not attain samadhi at birth, to achieve ‘citta vritti nirodha‘ – or ‘to quiet the fluctuations of consciousness’. This is the theme of chapter 2.

Chapter 2: From Kriya Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga

Chapter 2 opens with the presentation of the yoga of action, Kriya-yoga: the three pillared yoga,

Sutra 2.1: Tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah

Burning zeal in practice, self-study and study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga.

It is interesting to note the transition from the two (abhyasa and vairagya) to the three. This is the beginning of a process disassembling and detailing that will continue throughout the chapter.

What are tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara-pranidhana?

Tapas – a burning desire to Practice, the Purifying Fire

The Sanskrit root of the word tapas, tap means “cook”. Fire (agni, in Sanskrit) is needed for cooking process in order to purify and transform the food. Tapas is sometimes translated into heat, in the Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “what is tapas? Tapas is usually translated as austerity, but its meaning is better expressed as burning desire. It is a burning desire to cleanse every cell of the body and every cell of our senses, so that the senses and the body may be made permanently pure and healthy and leave no room for impurities to enter into our system”.

To change habits that we know are unwholesome or even harmful, we need strength, therefore resistance must be created. Such resistance creates friction, which in turn forges heat that purifies, strengthens and changes us – this is tapas. Tapas therefore manifests the quality necessary to adhere to abhyasa.

The great religions include various austerity practices, such as fasting or taking a vow of silence, intended to purify the body and mind, to strengthen the willpower and to create inner change. Fasting allows us to look at the habits of how we feed, and see food as something that is not self-evident. Fasting also allows us to learn what food means for us, socially and emotionally, beyond the basic need to nourish our body. It can help us understand the extent to which we rely on food for a sense of satisfaction and even to reduce boredom and entertain ourselves.

When we avoid unnecessary talk we save energy and do not emit words that might harm others or ourselves. Every spiritual path involves various forms of self-restraint and distancing oneself from the pleasure of the senses.

As noted, tapas can also mean austerity, which is a way of building character and willpower by turning away from the pleasures of the senses and the vanities of this world. But austerities are also dangerous. We may harm ourselves, harm our body or mind. St. Francis of Assisi practiced extreme austerities throughout his life. And at the end of his life he confessed to his students that he had “abused this donkey” (meaning he abused his body). The Buddha, too, after six years of extreme austerities, discovered the middle-way by observing a lauta player. He noticed that when the player stretched the strings too much, they tore, but when they were not tight enough, no sound was produced. The middle-way means that we act without being dragged towards pleasures, and without needing to satisfy every desire, but at the same time, we do not radically avoid anything that is pleasing or joyful.

Yoga practitioners need tapas every morning in order to get out of bed and unroll the mat (many say it’s the most difficult asana …). But a less obvious aspect of tapas is the honesty and truth we need to get out of a wrong practice routine or harmful practice habits. For example, certain asanas or certain forms of exercise that we are attracted to, may be harmful for our psycho-physical system. It may be easy for us to perform certain asanas, but we know that other asanas, which are more difficult for us, are really what we need for our development. In this case tapas is a change in our practice habits, a change that can be difficult. Unfortunately, hyperactive people are attracted to vigorous exercise when they actually need a soothing practice, while slow, heavy, introverted or depressed people may be attracted to quiet practice, but actually need stimulating and alerting practice. It is likely that features such as obsessiveness, achievement, laziness, fixation, etc. that characterize us, will also characterize the form of practice that we develop. Such practice will not only strengthen our tendencies, but may lead to injury and eventually illness at some level (physical, mental or spiritual).

In order to create change it is necessary, in addition to passion, to observe and study oneself. This is where the second component of kriya yoga enters.

Svadhyaya – The Reflecting Mirror

Patanjali defines the effects of svadhyaya practice in Sutra 2.44:

Svadhyayat ishtadevata samprayogah

It means “self-study towards the realization of God”.

The source of the word svadhyaya is in the verb adhi which means ‘towards’. The verb adhyaya means to ‘move towards’. sva is the reflexive pronoun that means ‘self’. The meaning of the word svadhyaya is therefore to “move toward yourself,” to “return to the original,” and so on.

Tapas prepares us for svadhyaya because it purifies us and develops willpower and determination. Svadhyaya means looking into ourselves. To deeply reflect on our actions. It means penetrating the screen of self-image and finding out what lies behind it. To discover the truth about ourselves: what are the real motives of our actions? What drives and propels us? Where do we get stuck? What are we avoiding and why?

Classically, svadhyaya is a technical term that means learning and memorizing mantras or sacred texts. The idea is that the study of sacred texts such as the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, Yoga Sutras etc. provides insights into the depth of the human condition, and thus allows us to better know ourselves.

When we practice with this quality of self-reflection or contemplation we can learn about ourselves. To learn about the mindsets and attitudes that underlie our behavior, and change our outlook and approach to life. Svadhyaya means asking ourselves questions like: Am I in the right place at the right time? Where am I now and where am I going to? What are my motivations? Do I deny myself and why? Am I avoiding difficult but unavoidable challenges and thus creating suffering? What are my priorities in life? What are my responsibilities? Observations of this kind can extract us from sinking into an automatic routine of unaware activity.

It is not always easy to deal with these questions because the truth about ourselves is not always pleasant. To attain this, one needs to develop satya a sincere and genuine approach (see below, as part of ashtanga yoga). For example, one of the causes for suffering that Patanjali mentions in chapter 2, is abhinivesha – clinging to our biological existence or our instinctive fear of death. How is the fear of death which is in the background of our consciousness manages us? Could this be the source of our addictions (for power, money, smoking, drinking, food, sex, work, etc.)?

Tapas is needed to develop strength so that we can deal with such questions, but without svadhyaya, tapas itself can become an addiction. Without reflection there will be no real progress in our lives.

One of the best ways to learn about ourselves is through our relationships with close people. It is very difficult to hide aspects of our personality from those who are close to us, such as partners, parents, children, close friends or students. If we look at how people respond to us, we can learn about ourselves and how we act. We can see all of our neuroses, all our pettiness and selfishness, but also, at the same time, we can learn about the spiritual potentials inherent in us – which is too a part of what we are.

Every action taken with attention is an opportunity for learning. The aspects of kriya yoga are interrelated. The energy required to act is tapas, but an action without reflection will lead us nowhere. It is interesting to recall Sutra I.14 in which Patanjali says that practice will take root only when it is done with attention. In other words, action and reflection must be carried out simultaneously – tapas and svadhyaya are intertwined.

Tapas and svadhyaya are also required at every moment. When there is no enthusiasm or motivation (tapas), or when there is no observation or internalization, our practice isn’t balanced. You cannot practice tapas first, and only later get to svadhyaya, because in this way, practice may become harmful. Every moment, you have to find the correct balance of motivation and reflection – this is the true meaning of tapas and svadhyaya.


Yoga Sutra 2.45: Samadhi siddhih ishvarapranidhan – Surrender to God brings perfection in samadhi

The third component of kriya-yoga is ishvara-pranidhana – devotion to God. Patanjali did not propose theology of a particular deity, but an in-depth psychological analysis of the transformative potential inherent in the opening of the mind and the heart to the divine. In the Yoga Sutras ishvara is described as an entity without suffering, as the source of all knowledge and not as the Creator as it is in the Jewish-Christian traditions. Ishvara symbolizes the divinity that lives in the hearts of each of us, regardless of our religious beliefs.

The word pranidhana, (technically translated as devotion) literally means a deep recognition of the one that sustains us and gives meaning to every levels of our lives. It is a kind of inner belief in the sense of where we place our hearts – the recognition that God exists in everyone, in everything and in every situation. It is the recognition of the wondrous mystery of all existence and deep gratitude for the very existence of our lives, for all the great abundance we were born into, for being able to live, breathe and feel. All these are not self-evident.

If tapas can be interpreted as “be determined” and svadhyaya as “be contemplative”, ishvara pranidhana means “be humble” – acknowledge your limitations. This humility means recognizing that we are limited, we can not control everything and therefore the need to relinquish, to absorb ourselves to everything life will bring us. This is contrary to the “Me and nothing else” approach that characterizes many of us, most of the time.

Ishvara-pranidhana means seeing beyond the sense of self-importance and centrality we attach to ourselves, beyond our pettines, desires and worries. It also offers the possibility of recognizing our weaknesses and limitations, allowing us to forgive our mistakes and sins. It is a deep inner belief in our ability to free ourselves from suffering and realize our aim as human beings. The ancient sages said that when this quality is planted in our hearts, all our actions are performed in dedication, we renounce the fruits of our actions without expecting any return or personal gain.

Ishvara-pranidhana is in a deep sense, our relationship to something greater beyond us, the recognition that the ego is not everything. This can be expressed in faith in God or in the recognition of noble values ​​such as generosity, love and compassion. It is the possibility of freeing oneself from the tyranny of self-importance, whether it is expressed as arrogance or pride or object vices and poor self-esteem (which can also be an expression of the ego).

Such an approach allows us to live simply and rejoice in the simple gifts of life, the beauty of nature, and appreciation and respect for our fellow human beings. If we establish this spirit as the foundation of our practice, then we may enter the stream that will lead us to the river that will bring us back to the ocean from which we all came.

In a lecture B.K.S. Iyengar delivered in Gurupurnima (4),  he referred to kriya yoga as:

Tapas is meant to conquer ahmakara (ego) and svadhyaya is meant to conquer avidya (ignorance). A tapas without svadhyaya is fruitless and aimless. Tapas has to be done intensively with full inspiration, and svadhyaya has to be done with full attention. Attention balances inspiration. Over-inspiration is harmful. Tapas without svadhyaya inflates the ego, whereas svadhyaya (self-study) imparts the knowledge to understand the real ‘I’ – the soul within you… The sadhaka moves from the wisdom towards isvara pranidhana. He surrenders his I-ness to the supreme Universal Soul.

Tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana open new horizon to lead you towards vairagya (renunciation). Vairagya does not come by wearing saffron robes. Vairagya is a quality. Vairagya is to surrender the ego… Tapas is meant to conquer the tamoguna, svadhyaya to conquer rajoguna, and ishvara pranidhana to conquer the sattvaguna.”

Kriya-Yoga vs. the Three Paths (margas) of Yoga

The three traditional paths of yoga (yoga marga): karma, jnana, and bhakti are known as the paths to reach the goal of yoga, which is a union with the spiritual essence within us.

Karma yoga is a yoga of action, of selfless service, action which is not for profit. It is forgetting the ego by dedicating every action to the benefit of others.

Jnana yoga is the yoga of spiritual study and investigation. A study aimed at answering the fundamental question: “Who am I?”. The sages say that finding an answer to this question reveals deep wisdom about the nature of our existence.

Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion. The bhakti  (the devoted one) forgets himself and his individual needs by merging with the sublime, with the Absolute Existence. The force that drives this merging is universal love.

The similarity between kriya yoga and the three paths is clear. B.K.S. Iyengar writes in his book The Tree of Yoga (5):

Tapas “is karma yoga, the yoga of action, because the burning desire to keep each and every part clean requires us to act.” Svadhyaya “is known as jnana-yoga, the yoga of spiritual discernment. Finally, Ishvara-pranidhana is bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion.”

Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga yoga

As noted, later in chapter 2, Patanjali introduces the yoga of eight-limbs, Ashtanga yoga. In Sutra 2.29 he lists the eight limbs:

Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana dhyana, samadhi, ashtau angani

The eight main limbs of Yoga are yama (basic ethical rules), niyama (additional ethical rules), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (managing Prana through breathing), pratyahara (detachment of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (contemplation and meditation) and samadhi (the highest meditative absorption state).

We will not delve here on an explanation of the eight limbs of yoga, but let us note that the three components of kriya yoga are found within the second limb of Ashtanga yoga, namely, niyama. Sutra 2.33 lists these components as follows:

Shaucha santosha tapah svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana niyamah.

(The five components) of niyama are shaucha – purity, cleanliness of mind, speech and body; santoṣa contentment; tapas, austerity, self-discipline; svādhyāya: study of self, self-reflection; iśvara praṇidhāna: attunement to the supreme consciousness.

You can see that the last three components of niyama are identical to kriya yoga.

Ashtanga yoga is an overall framework that contains the more familiar aspects of yoga, namely asana and pranayama, as well as the deeper, inner fruits of yoga: dhyana and samadhi. But on that topic, some other time.

Final Words

The lives of human being are made up of: work, study and love – these three elements become yoga, when our work is performed as a service or offering; our study is done for the sake of internal inquiry and our love opens our hearts to all living beings without considering gain or loss.

When our work turns into selfless service, our study is done for the purpose of liberation and our love becomes unconditional, then the Yogi in us is born!

There is a saying: “Yoga helps cure what can be cured, bear what can’t be cured and distinguish between the two”.

Curing what is curable is done through tapas, bearing what is incurable – means to surrender, or Isvara-pranidhana, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two is acquired through svadhyaya.


(1)  A person who sticks to a spiritual path.

(2) English translation are from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar

(3) The use of  vitamins as a metaphor is used by B.K.S. Iyengar

(4) Published in Astadala Yagamala Vol. 3, p. 232-233

(5) The Tree of Yoga, p. 50-51

References used in this article:

  • The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, Shambhala Classics
  • Guru – Beacon of Light and Wisdom, in: Astadala Yagamala, Vol. 3, B.K.S. Iyengar, Allied Publishers, 2002
  • Kriya Yoga: Transformation through Practice – A Western Perspective, G. Kraftsow; in Iyengar, The Yoga master, Ed. K. Busia, Shambhala, 2007


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