Yoga Philosophy You Can Use | Kriya Yoga: How Shift Happens


Patanjali’s Recipe for Transformation:


1 part Tapas (Austerity)

1 part Svadhyaya (Self Study)

1 part Ishvara Pranidhan (Surrendering to God) 

Mix ingredients on yoga mat consistently, with full effort, over a long period of time. Season liberally with ahimsa as needed. Do not be alarmed if recipe spills off yoga mat: this is a sign that you have combined ingredients skillfully. Repeat ad infinitum.

Ok, so the Yoga Sutras aren’t a cookbook, and transforming our lives through the practice of yoga isn’t as simple as following a recipe.

Or is it?

Yes and no. True, our lives are infinitely complicated, we are all different, and we can’t make sweeping generalizations about how change happens.

That said, the process of Kriya Yoga that Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutras (2.1) is a amazingly concise recipe for removing the obstacles that stand in the way of us being our best selves. And that’s what the process of transformation in yoga is really about. It’s not about making you someone you are not: it’s about uncovering all the junk, gunk, and conditioning that have warped and obscured your best, authentic, true Self.

If you’ve practiced consistently for any length of time, you know this is true.  You don’t have to do anything special, or do any particular type of yoga, but you do have to practice consistently and wholeheartedly. At some point, often surprisingly, subtle but positive changes start to occur in your life off the mat. That’s Kriya yoga in action: shift happens.

The three elements of the Kriya yoga recipe are Tapas, Svadyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. (You might recall that these are the last 3 of the 8 Niyamas).

In a nutshell, these three encourage us to: show up and do the work, continue to seek out and be open to new information, and let go of the outcome. Let’s see how this works.


Like so many yoga terms, there are a lot of ways to describe Tapas. It might be defined as heat, austerity, discipline, or just showing up and making the necessary effort to effect change.

I tend to think of Tapas as learning to endure the healthy discomfort of change. Just as we learn to stay calm and breathe in a long Warrior 2: we learn to discern the difference between healthy discomfort (thigh muscles burning or impatience) and something more destructive (sharp shooting pain). We know we have to endure some of that “healthy” discomfort to get stronger, and we learn that it’s possible to be kind to ourselves and stay calm and centered through that discomfort, which really helps. We learn to observe our resistance (“how long are we going to be in this @#$ pose???”) without getting caught up in it. And we get stronger. Eventually, shaky quads and impatience are no longer obstacles to the pose: we’ve gotten past those.

In our lives off the mat, the process is the same. Sometimes emotional discomfort is an indication that something in our life is destructive and needs to change. Or it can be a pattern we are stuck in, fueled by negative, self-defeating thoughts. Other times, it’s just what happens when we try something new and get out our comfort zone. Either way, we habitually tend to avoid things that make us uncomfortable, reaching for the first thing that alleviates our discomfort, be it alcohol, sex, or food. Tapas is learning to pay attention to the discomfort in life, learning to listen, endure and learn from it, rather than trying to avoid or medicate it away.

Tapas is NOT causing ourselves to suffer by being hard on ourselves, and it’s not wallowing in misery. It’s an act of kindness. It’s learning to stay present and connected to our own kindness even when things are difficult. There are going to be times in all of our lives when we are uncomfortable, or worse. The best we can do is to learn to use these times to learn and become better versions of ourselves.


Traditionally defined as refinement of the intellect through self-reflection and study. This can refer to learning new things in books, workshops or teachers, but also it means studying ourselves, getting honest with ourselves and being open and receptive to new information and new ways of doing things.

We’ve all struggled with a yoga pose before - you don’t get it, it doesn’t feel good, and then one day you get an amazing adjustment from a skilled teacher and you get it. You have that aha moment - but it took something or someone outside yourself to get you there, and you had to be ready to receive it.

We need the guidance of books and teachers in our study of yoga “off the mat”, but for it to be transformative, we have to be willing to apply it to ourselves. We have to be willing to change the way we think and do things, which might mean giving something up or admitting we were wrong about something. And that’s a pretty tall order, since most of us are so invested and entrenched in our habitual thought and behavior patterns. And harder than getting an adjustment in an asana, where our bodies tell us immediately that we’re on the right track.


Implies a willingness to let go of the way we view the world and open up to something different, something beyond the confines of our limited worldview. It means having to admit maybe you weren’t right in the way you viewed things before, and takes a certain amount of humility. Change is uncomfortable, and sometimes it helps to remember that feeling uncomfortable is part of making progress.

Ishvara Pranidhana:

Usually defined as surrendering the fruits of your labor to God as you understand him/her. To me, this means leading my life in service of higher principles - and not my own ego. It’s constantly reminding myself that the world doesn’t exist for my convenience (darnit!) and that principles are more important than immediate gratification. It’s about reminding myself, constantly: it’s not about me.

Teaching yoga is a great way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. As a teacher, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get caught up in making the class about YOU: you want people to like it, to like you, to come back to your class. An easy way to get out of this trap is to remind yourself: I am teaching for my students’ well being. What can I do to serve them best? That immediately gets you out of the ego trap of the wannabe rock star yogi.

Another way of thinking about Ishvara Pranidhana is that it is a practice in letting go of having to control everything, including the outcome. It’s a way of reminding ourselves that all we can really do is make an honest, nonselfish effort toward doing the right thing; that’s all we can control, and all we need to be concerned with.

Show up, do your best, stay open to new information, and when it’s all said and done, let it go. Be less concerned with getting somewhere than sticking with this basic process, and shift will happen.

Of course, for the recipe to work, it must be followed consistently, with full effort, and for a long time. This is not a quick fix. But it is a damn good recipe.

Stephanie carter

Stephanie Carter is a yoga teacher/psychologist in San Antonio, TX, and is the Director of the Esther Vexler Yoga School. She began practicing yoga and meditation over 20 years ago as a way to manage stress while working on her Ph.D. While working in the state mental hospital system, she began teaching yoga to fellow staff members and realized the potential in ...READ MORE