At the heart of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is an aphorism that outlines a profound and practical approach to yoga. It is the first aphorism of sadhana pada, the chapter on practice: tapah svadhyaya isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah. This is a description of the path of kriya yoga and it lists three components to that path. Kriya comes from the verbal root kr which means “to do.” So kriya yoga is the yoga of action. The three listed components are tapas, svadhyaya and Isvara pranidhana.
The first component, tapas is typically translated as asceticism, austerity, or discipline. It comes from the verbal root tap which means “to burn.” So traditionally it relates to practices that are renunciatory and/or purifying. The second element, svadhyaya literally means “self-study”, and traditionally includes study or chanting of sacred texts or mantras. Isvara means God, and pranidhana is devotion, surrender, or offering. So the third element, Isvara pranidhana is surrender or offering to God.
How do these three work together in our yoga practice? Tapas is created when we turn inward: when we listen to our breath, close our eyes, and/or take our awareness away from the surface and into the depths. Svadhyaya is when we observe our selves, what is going on in a particular moment, paying attention and being mindful. And Isvara pranidhana is the action we take to align ourselves with Consciousness.
We are creating tapas in our yoga asana practice when we allow our focus to move internally to the breath and listen to our ujjayi breathing. Svadhyaya occurs when we listen to and observe our bodies, both physical and subtle. Isvara pranidhana is when we choose actions that bring us into alignment to allow a clearer flow of energy, and also when we dedicate our practice to something greater than ourselves.
And ultimately, kriya yoga is a description of how our practice overall, and particularly the practice of meditation, works. When we practice, particularly when we meditate, we begin the inward turn of tapas. It is a temporary renunciation of our surface world to explore the deeper parts of ourselves. As we meditate, we study our Self, svadhyaya. We glimpse our essence, and we begin to see and work with what blocks access to the deepest part of ourselves. We begin to see our habitual patterns. Then we have the choice to align our consciousness with the greater Consciousness. This is Isvara Pranidhana.
I invite you to observe how these three are, or are not, working in your own practice of yoga. Perhaps you tend to favor one over the other. Through practicing all three components of kriya yoga we can make contact with our more essential self, start breaking the patterns that block that access, and align ourselves with our higher Self. This is the practice of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.
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