My friendship with Nihal Raheja always centered around our mutual love for yoga — but our practices and paths were dramatically different.
I compare my eclectic yoga practice and teachings to the Grateful Dead, which famously never played the same songs for any of their thousands of concerts.
Nihal, who I met while living in Chennai, India, was initiated in the very specific methods of Kriya Yoga.
It seemed like everyone in that Southern Indian city had a spiritual practice. Vivekananda’s house was right in town.
Sadhguru’s famous Isha Foundation ashram was a bus ride away.
Personally, I happily woke up before the sun to make the daily 6 a.m. class at the Sivananda ashram near my apartment there.
Yet despite seeping in the sights and spiritual traditions of India, I didn’t know what set Kriya Yoga apart until I met Nihal.
“As all life-altering things are, you don’t realize it’s a life-altering thing until your life has been altered by it,” he told me.
“That’s what this initiation was. It flung open a closed door in my head, and I was suddenly overcome with inspiration for my life. It was as though I was given a user’s manual for this body and mind, which until then I was using by trial and error.”
For those who are initiated into Kriya Yoga — students must receive the methods directly by a guru or a teacher — this practice is focused on the realization of the highest goal of yoga: union with God.
To achieve this, Kriya Yoga devotees combine pranayama, a few asanas, chanting, and meditation in a powerful, daily practice.
History of Kriya Yoga
While I didn’t know much about Kriya Yoga, I did remember Paramahansa Yogananda mentioning it in his fascinating Autobiography of a Yogi.
Later, I learned it was this historically important teacher who brought the practice to the world after having it passed down from a long line of influential gurus including Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar.
The roots of Kriya Yoga are wrapped around what Patanjali shared about Raja Yoga in the seminal Yoga Sutras. Simply put, Yogananda distilled those teachings into clear and practical techniques to help seekers like my friend Nihal on their spiritual quests.
Some connect these methods to the Bhagavad Gita, another must-read for yogis.
Interestingly, Kriya Yoga is also found in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples St. John and St. Paul. Still, for years the practice was hidden in secrecy. Yogananda’s work and the teachers who followed helped Kriya Yoga remain popular throughout the world today.
My friend, it seems, is in good company. Nihal became initiated after one of his friends engaged him in a conversation about cosmic consciousness.
Soon, his friend — who also happened to be his employer — signed him up for the course and even gave him a few days off to complete it.
“And that was that,” he said, laughing.
Step-by-Step: The Kriya Yoga Practice
The word “Kriya” has the Sanskrit root of “kri,” which means to do, to act, and react.
So, the practice of Kriya Yoga means to find union with God through certain actions or rites. For practitioners, this daily work include bodily discipline, mental control, and meditation.
Nihal shared the basics of his daily Kriya Yoga practice with me. It takes him about 30 to 45 minutes to complete the following steps.
Step 1: Invocation
This short chant, known as a sloka in Sanskrit, is a song of praise designed to connect the practitioner to their guru and to God.
Step 2: Asanas
While this is often the heart of my daily practice, asanas make up a very short part of the Kriya Yoga discipline.
There are just three to complete: butterfly pose, rock-the-baby, and simple cat/cow stretches.
This follows Patanjali’s teachings, which state that asanas are simply physical movement to get the body comfortable for extended meditation.
Step 3: Bhuta Sduhi
The first of two pranayama elements of the Kriya, bhuta shuddhi is basically alternative nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana.
This is an internal cleansing practice that is also used by Tantric yogis.
Step 4: Chant AUM
The practitioner must sit in a comfortable position like padmasana with hands on the legs in yoga mudra.
One must chant each of the three parts (A, U, and M) in equal length, feeling the vibration in the stomach, solar plexus, and tip of the nose.
Repeat 21 times.
Step 5: Vipreetha Shwasana
The second pranayama practice, this is a fast, fluttering breath completed with the same seated posture as the last two steps.
The yogi will work to control the breath within the diaphragm, while focusing on the third eye.
The goal is to have two breaths for every second for three to four minutes.
Step 6: Maha Banda
If you’re familiar with the bandhas, you may think maha bandha is a typo — but it’s not.
The maha bandha term refers to the act of engaging all three energy locks (the mula, uddiyana, and the jalandhara) at the same time. The focus here is collecting all the energy that formed in the body during the practice.
The practitioner concentrates on the engagement held with a full inhale followed by a concentration with the full exhale.
Step 7: Sit in Stillness
After all this is complete, the next step is to sit in stillness for two minutes while watching your breath.
This may be compared to the final relaxation, or savasana, of a more westernized practice. Integration is the key.
Step 8: Closing Invocation
The daily practice ends as it began, with a sloka of thanks.
The Benefits of Kriya Yoga
As a modern man, Nihal admits that he doesn’t complete this practice daily. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen the benefits.
“The results of the practice are so varied,” he said. “Sitting silently for 15 minutes a day is amazing just by itself. But I’ve also found that yoga creates a very welcoming and calm mental environment. This allows for a lot of fluidity in life."
His practice, perhaps in part because it’s more mental than physical, has led him to further his spiritual studies. He noticed that the less he expects and seeks results or any kind of goal, the more he discovers.
He credits Kriya Yoga for helping him recognize his own stumbling blocks and — most importantly — his abilities to overcome them.
In other words, Kriya Yoga helps him get closer to his highest self.
“Life does not suddenly become amazing and problem-free,” he said. “But one’s association to their problems does change. And that perspective change is the most beneficial part.”