There is too much evidence that Kriya practices have, like many other Yoga practices, devolved into a fashion based on superficial information. This includes practices like Neti (cleansing of the nasal passages for which you can find “instructional” videos on YouTube or accessories in Yoga shops) and Vasti (enemas) which (though thankfully not yet represented on YouTube) are sometimes offered by fashionable “Ayurvedic” clinics as periodical cleansing treatments. So I thought it may be a good idea to visit the HYP (Hatha Yoga Pradipika) where these practices are described to gain some perspective.
Before delving into the specifics of the the Kriyas (and yes, their relationship with Pranayama) it is important to establish a correct and contextual relationship with the HYP. It was written when the typical Yoga practitioner was a healthy young man living and practicing in monastic conditions. These conditions facilitate a focus and intensity of practice that most of us are not afforded. That means that we need to drastically tone down and reconsider any advice that is given in the text within the context of our own modern lives.
The HYP is made up of four chapters:
- Asana – physical practices where energy is stimulated (this is one of the most extensive description of Asana available).
- Pranayama – breathing practices where energy is regulated.
- Mudras – energy practices where energy is directed.
- Samadhi – a meditative state of integration.
Kriyas are described in the 2nd chapter – the one dedicated to Pranayama (breathing practices). Why is that? What do Pranayama and Kriya’s have in common? They are both instruments of purification, of removing impurities. They are both cleansing practices.
Why then do we need both Pranayama and Kriyas? What is the difference between them?
- Pranayama addresses the energetic body – it is engineered to achieve a natural cleansing process that occurs when energy (Prana) can flow freely. A healthy flow in the energetic body restores the physical body.
- Kriyas address the physical body directly – if you think about nasal cleansing and enemas – they are used to literally remove excess matter from the body.
The question is then when to use Pranayama and when to use Kriyas. The text offers both an implicit and explicit answer. The implicit answer is in the order in which the two are presented: Pranayama comes first. The explicit answer comes in the form of two warnings (like those found on cigarette packages) – one in the verse that precedes the description of the Kriyas and one in the verse that comes after they have been described in detail.
2.21: “If there be excess of fat or phlegm in the body, the six kinds of kriyâs (duties) should be performed first. But others, not suffering from the excess of these, should not perform them.”
2.22 – 2.36 descriptions of the six kriya practices.
2.37: “Some âchâryâs (teachers) do not advocate any other practice, being of opinion that all the impurities are dried up by the practice of Prâṇâyâma.”
Translations by Pancham Sinh
I want to address the second warning first because it holds simple and applicable advice: Anything Kriyas can do, Pranayama can do too. Any purification that can be achieved using the Kriyas can be achieved with a consistent and quality Pranayama practice. So much so that, as the text insinuates, some teachers are completely opposed to any use of Kriyas.
The first warning requires a deeper underdstanding of the metaphyics of Yoga. Specifically, the three doshas Vatta, Pitta and Kapha which can be roughly correlated with the elements of air, fire and water. The doshas work together like an engine where the elements mix and combust. As long as the engine is used and maintained properly it runs OK, but if the engine is neglected it requires more serious intervention such as taking it apart and cleaning it out thoroughly.
Asana and Pranayama are the tools needed to maintain our internal engine. Kriyas are needed when the engine has been neglected – when “there be excess of fat or phlegm”. They are a gross intervention in a system that no longer responds to more subtle interventions. But if you are generally healthy – practicing Kriyas is like having open-heart surgery to cure a common-cold – it’s an abuse of practice.
You have to have a really good reason (serious illness) to benefit from Kriya practices. Yet anyone alive and breathing can benefit from Pranayama – as it is a subtle tool of regular maintenance. BUT … Pranayama too should to be used properly otherwise it too can lead to adverse effects. In the words of the HYP:
2.16: “Correct pranayama will weaken all diseases. Improper practice of Yoga will strengthen all diseases.”
Translation by Brian Akers