The Kriyas, along with mudras (including the bandhas) are traditionally referred to in the ancient yoga texts in connection with the practice of pranayama. The kriyas have been developed and systematised in particular in the school of hatha yoga.
Kriya or Karma is translated as ‘action’ and in this context in hatha yoga means ‘purificatory process’. They are represented by the sat-karmas or six actions of purificatory processes which are:
Dhauti – stomach wash
Basti – colon flushing/enema
Neti – Nasal douche and cleaning
Trataka – Steady gazing
Nauli – manipulation of abdominal muscles to increase peristaltis
Kapalabhati – forceful rapid breathing to ventilate and cleanse air passages.
The concept of purification is very important in Hatha Yoga. These purificatory processes are purely physical and at first glance to western practitioners of yoga may seem a little strange. However if you consider the history of Yoga, these practices seem a little less strange. Without contemporary medicines such as antibiotics anti-aemoebics and anti-parasitics, for example, physical removal of such health problems would be much more important. It would be very difficult to concentrate on Asana, pranayama or meditation if you were suffering from allergic rhinitis (improved by neti), parasite infection (basti used to remove parasites of the colon) or constipation (improved by Nauli).
Each of these processes contains many sub sections which can be classified in two ways , the first according to the mode of purification and the second according to the region of purification, for further information.
According to Dr Gharote in ‘Applied Yoga’ , ‘the kriyas are of great therapeutic value. They bring about an increased range of adaptability of the tissues forming various organs and systems as well as raising the threshold of their reactivity. Voluntary control is established on different reflexes through the kriyas. The emphasis of the kriyas is on establishing psycho-physiological balance.’
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, along with other Yogic texts consider the practice of Kriyas useful for persons suffering from excessive phlegm or fat, in order to establish humoral balance which in turn will make pranayama more comfortable.
HYP Ch 3 v 8 (Ch 2 v21) The sat karmas should be practiced to get rid of the disorders of fat and phlegm. One who enjoys a balanced condition of the three humors, need not practice them.
The above verse clearly states that the satkarmas are not for everyone, they are only required by those with unbalanced doshas.
HYP Ch 3 v 9 (Ch 2 v 22) The sat karmas are dhauti, basti, neti, trataka, nauli and kapalabhastri.
The Hatha ratnavali by Srinivasa describes eight purificatory processes including gaja-karani and cacri-karma as well as the six described above making a set of asra-karmas (asra meaning eight). Kapala-bhastri is called kapala-bhranti or mastaka-bhati.
A number of benefits are attributed to the Kriyas and like many Hatha Yoga Techniques the HYP explains that the processes and their benefits should be kept secret.
HYP Ch 3 v 10 (Ch 2 v 23) These six purificatory processes, which removes the impurities of the body, and contribute surprising results, should be kept secret, therefore eminent yogis adore them.
The benefits of the various practices are described in the HYP thus:
Dhauti karma (HYP Ch 3 v 12 (Ch 2 v 24)) removes morbidity in the nadis, cough, asthma, skin diseases and twenty varieties of phlegmatic disorders.
Basti karma (HYP Ch 3 v 15 (Ch 2 v 27)) Practice of basti removes all the disorders of the spleen and abdomen, dropsy, disease caused by the imbalance of vata, pitta and kapha humors.
Jala- basti karma (HYP Ch 3 v 16 (Ch 2 v 28)) The practice of jala basti karma streamlines the body constituents, brings poise to the internal sense organs, offers brightness, stimulates digestion and completely removes the chronic (bodily) disorders.
Neti (HYP Ch 3 v 18 (Ch 2 v 30)) The process of neti quickly cleanses the frontal sinuses, offers clear eye-sight and rids one of the hosts of diseases occurring in the region above the shoulders.
Trataka (HYP Ch 3 v 20 (Ch 2 v 32)) This techniques alleviates eye diseases and drowsiness or sloth and therefore it should be carefully guarded like a casket of gold.
The Hatharatnavali uses the synonyms trotaka or trotana for trataka. The effects of trataka are thought to be psychological rather than physical, it is a psychological cleansing process. In HYP (10 Chapters) Dr Gharote explains that ‘the subconscious and unconscious mind gets activated and thus the repressed experiences are brought to the level of consciousness. It is the most effective process for leading to concentration’.
Nauli – (HYP Ch 3 v 22 (Ch 2 v 34)) Nauli is the crown of all the kriyas of hatha, which stimulates weak digestion, streamlines gastric fire, brings a deep sense of well being and totally removes all the disorders caused by imbalance of the three humors(doshas)
In Asanas by Swami Kuvalayananda the following cultural advantages of Nauli are described: ‘it is the best exercise for preserving and promoting the health of all the abdominal viscera’
Therapeutic benefits are described as:
i. an excellent remedy against dyspepsia and constipation;
ii. can correct faulty liver, spleen, Pancreas and the kidneys;
iii. can overcome ovarian insufficiency;
iv. Can stop painful menstruation under certain circumstances.
Kapala-bhastri (HYP Ch 3 v 23 (Ch 2 v 38)) removes phlegmatic disorders
HYP Ch 3 v 26 (Ch 2 v 5)) When all the network of the impure nadis get purified then alone a yogi becomes capable of retaining prana.
In addition to the individual benefits, the kriyas are used in for more general effects, the following verse explains the efficacy of the purificatory processes to facilitate the practice of pranayama:
HYP Ch 4 v 2 (Ch 2 v 36)) Practice of pranayama brings about an easy success, after removing the impurities, such as fat and phlegm through the practice of sat karmas.
So to conclude, the purpose of Kriya is to physically purify the physical body to help purify the Nadis and the subtle body to facilitate the more advanced Yogic techniques. Traditionally the Kriyas were the first stage of Hatha Yoga, before even the practise of asana. In the West Kriyas have a diminished importance which could be due to better health standards, the western approach to health and squeamishness of practitioners to some of the more unusual Yogic techniques.
Swami Kuvalayananda, Asanas, Kaivalyadhama Institute, 1993.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, 1999.
BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga, Thorsons, 2001.
BKS Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.
Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Inner Traditions International, 1989.
Dr M.L. Gharote & Parimal Devnath, Hatha ratnavali by Srinivasa, Lonavla yoga Institute, 2002.
Dr M.L. Gharote, Applied Yoga, Lonavla Yoga Institute, 1989.
Dr M.L. Gharote & Parimal Devnath, Hathapradipika, 10 chapters, 2002.