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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Pranayama, Kriya and the Acceleration of Awakening

Mar 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Diane Eaton
This is the third of a three-part series featuring pranayama, a variety of specialized breathing practices that spiritual masters and yogis have practiced for millennia. Today, millions of people around the world practice them to improve mental and physical health, reduce stress, increase awareness and facilitate self-realization. Part 1 of the series explores the origins of pranayama and breathwork and how they are used in modern times. Part 2 shares insights from Atlanta-area teachers about several popular pranayama techniques and describes several of the most popular ones in use today. Read both at—Ed

The practice of pranayama—yogic practices involving conscious control of the breath and movement of one’s life force energy—has become more commonplace in yoga studios and in people’s homes over the last couple of decades, garnering popularity for its ability to reduce anxiety and depression, impart a sense of calm and focus, increase energy, and heighten one’s sense of aliveness.

One of the earliest written references to pranayama comes from the writings of the Indian sage Patanjali more than 5,000 years ago. In his Yoga Sutras, he outlines the “eight limbs of yoga”—the essential attitudes and foundational practices that offer those seeking spiritual awakening a path to self-realization. Pranayama is listed as the fourth of the eight limbs; the first two describe moral and behavioral best practices, and the third refers to asanas, or yogic postures. Thus, the first four limbs help to establish a personal lifestyle and environment conducive to spiritual awakening. The next three limbs refer to practices that are progressively more quiet, inward-focused and present, facilitating entry to samadhi, the eighth limb—the realization of oneness with the divine.

Over the centuries—and again more recently—certain spiritual traditions and organizations have developed practices known as kriya.  Kriyas are designed to purify the mind and body, accelerate spiritual progress and empower people to access those more rarified forms of meditation and higher states of consciousness. Such practices might include any combination of postures, breathing practices, meditation, chanting and, most typically, a personal, spiritual transmission. 

Natural Awakenings spoke with representatives from three wellness and spiritual development organizations with a kriya practice playing a prominent role among their offerings. Note that while the term “kriya” has been used to refer generally to these practices since ancient times, some spiritual lineages and organizations also include the term in the name of their unique kriya practice.

Kriya Pranayama

With the help of the Kriya Pranayama, which is taught by many organizations in the Kriya Yoga tradition, one’s spiritual evolution can be fast-tracked and the awakening process streamlined, according to those who practice it. “One 30-second Kriya Pranayama full breath is equivalent to [what would otherwise take] one year of spiritual evolution,” says Swami Kaivalyananda, formerly Rev. Michael Gadway, the Director of Ministry and Education for the Center for Spiritual Awareness (CSA) in Lakemont, Georgia.

Swami Kaivalyananda

Kaivalyananda was ordained by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. CSA continues the living teachings of Yogananda, a revered, awakened spiritual teacher and author of Autobiography of a Yogi, who is credited with bringing yoga to the West in the early 20th century. Yogananda was carrying on the tradition he’d been initiated into—kriya yoga.

By practicing the Kriya Pranayama technique, “the blood is de-carbonated and recharged with oxygen,” says Kaivalyananda, “and the atoms of that extra oxygen are transmuted into the kriya pranayama current.” As a result of doing the practice, one’s kundalini—the prana stored in the lower chakras—or energy centers, is awakened, enlivened and brought up into the higher brain centers.

Yogananda’s Kriya Yoga tradition embraces the integrated yogic lifestyle described in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and holds Kriya Pranayama as its major transformation tool.

Many of those who practice kriya yoga regularly have reached higher states of consciousness. “People experience a clearness of awareness followed by a blossoming of peace,” says Kaivalyananda. “We teach what’s known as ‘the mind of the witness,’ when the left and right brain hemispheres are functioning equally. In that sweet spot, the mind gets quieter and quieter until the only thing left to perceive is the light of existence, and at that moment, you experience the truth of what you are. That ‘Aha—I Am That’ moment.”

But the tradition approaches the breath and prana in a unique way. While many interpret “pranayama” to mean “life force control,” Kaivalyananda considers it a misnomer. “Prana has an intelligence to it; it’s intelligent energy,” he says, so approaching it with force would be a mistake. “Prana is the smallest unit of energy. It doesn’t recognize being forced.” Thus, the practice creates an environment that guides the flow of prana in a certain direction—up to the higher brain centers. “When it’s allowed to, prana is always returning to the source.”

At the heart of the Kriya Yoga Pranayama method is the direct transmission of spiritual energy from teacher to student. New practitioners are first introduced to the fundamentals of yoga, and then, in a ceremony, they receive shaktipat, the transmission of spiritual force imbued with the vibrations and energies of their spiritual lineage. “It’s an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student,” says Kaivalyananda.

For that reason, he warns against trying to obtain the technique from sources in social media or online. “It’s a violation of our sacrament. Sincere spiritual seekers are going to want [the transmission] we offer.” He also emphasizes that the Kriya Yoga lineage didn’t end with Yogananda. “It is very much alive. And that’s another reason you don’t want to try and learn it online. There’s no energy in it, no life in it there.”

CSA offers online courses as well as live programs and retreats at the CSA retreat center in Lakemont, Georgia. For more information, visit

Sudarshan Kriya

The Sudarshan Kriya, aka SKY Breath Meditation, is the key teaching of the three-day Art of Living Part 1 Program offered by the Art of Living Foundation.

The word sudarshan comes from the Sanskrit su, meaning “clear,” darshan, meaning “vision,” and kriya, which refer to acts of purification. “Through the purifying act of the breath,” explains Sejal Shah, E-RYT 500, who teaches the kriya and other methods at the Art of Living’s Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina, “the vision of who we really are comes clear.”

Several decades ago, spiritual teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar felt that people were not getting the deeper experiences of meditation that are possible, so he went on a silent retreat in a remote village in India. The Sudarshan kriya came to him in meditation, and once he began teaching it, word spread briskly. Shankar founded the Art of Living Foundation in 1981, which has grown to include 40,000 teachers worldwide and has taught upwards of 500 million people to date.

The practice uses powerful primal syllables that are repeated in a variety of rhythms, with the intention of harmonizing one’s internal rhythms with those of nature. By listening to a recording of Shankar, students are given direct guidance for doing the technique. So, while it’s not literally a “transmission,” practitioners have an opportunity to connect personally with the guru. The experience also helps the student set the rhythms of the practice in their minds so they can practice it successfully at home.

Sejal Shah

According to Shah, the kriya practice cleanses at a cellular level, releasing deeply rooted stress, physical and energetic toxins, and emotions. Numerous studies report that the practice often brings about greater health, more joy and sustained high-energy levels. For many, a deeply spiritual state is reached. Says Shah, “Ultimately, the same consciousness runs through all of us, so we experience that infinite nature of our being—just like the sky.” People experience “a great blessing and grace that flows from the master—as if a burden has been lifted.”

When teaching the Sudarshan kriya, Art of Living doesn’t specifically reference Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and doesn’t necessarily consider Sudarshan kriya a pranayama practice; however, they do start with pranayama methods that are mentioned in the ancient yogic texts. And many practitioners do asanas before they begin the kriya as well. 

The Art of Living Retreat Center offers additional programs for students to deepen their practice in Boone, North Carolina, at local centers and online at

Shambhavi Mahamudra Kriya

A spiritual transmission from a teacher or guru to the student is also at the heart of the Shambhavi Mahamudra kriya, which is taught within the Isha Foundation’s 7 Steps to Transform Your Life with Sadhguru program. And while Patanjali’s “eight limbs” of yoga are woven into the teachings of the seven modules of the program, it is the kriya that catalyzes personal change.

Sadhguru founded the Isha Foundation in India in 1992 to offer a holistic approach to well-being, combining physical health, mental clarity and spiritual growth. The Foundation, along with the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences, currently has more than 200 centers around the world offering a variety of programs, including a retreat center in McMinnville, Tennessee. The 7 Steps program is the basic entry program to Sadhguru’s teachings.

Arvind Benegal

The first six steps of the 7 Steps program teach participants about the mechanics of the practice, that is, “what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” says Arvind (Benny) Benegal, an IT and cybersecurity specialist by day, who has been volunteering with the Isha Foundation for more than 15 years. “Some asanas are included as part of the preparatory steps of the kriya to allow the body to get into a state of relaxation and the mind to settle down. But they are not considered exercises; they are ways to channelize your energies, so your body, mind and emotions are aligned.”

It is the Shambhavi Mahamudra kriya, the seventh step of the program, however, that takes people “beyond the physical into a dimension that exists in every one of us, but most of us have not experienced it,” says Benegal. “The kriya is a technology for well-being. You will reap rewards you haven’t even imagined.”

While those affiliated with the Isha Foundation don’t reveal the details of the 21-minute kriya practice, they do share that students receive the technique through direct transmission from the guru or teacher. “We want to make sure it’s pure and undiluted. [Transmission] is the only uninterpreted way of communicating the essence of what you’re doing. The moment it’s interpreted or written about, it can change the context entirely,” says Benegal. The practice includes some pranayama and is designed for people to bring home and make a part of their lives—“like brushing your teeth.”

With committed, regular practice, the Shambhavi Mahamudra kriya can be life-changing. “It gives you a significant amount of freedom from all that causes you to doubt, fear, to have anxiety or depression,” says Benegal. “And it’s not by exercising mind control or willpower. You see yourself as a speck in the bigger picture. You’re conscious of everything that life is.”

The Isha Institute of Inner Sciences offers additional programs to further one’s practice and to achieve more spiritually profound meditation experiences. For more information, visit ❧
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