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Kriyas, a Description of Charismatic Movement

April 23, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

Several members of the Jhana Support Group have been reporting an "energy" that causes them to shake, shiver or quake.  The popular term for spontaneous movements that occur during meditation and prayer, such as these, is kriya.  Kriya is a Sanskrit term that literally means "to move."  I believe the term refers to a belief in the various Yoga traditions that the kundalini is in motion when the shaking and quaking is occurring.  These spontaneous movements typically manifest as spontaneous shaking or jerking of a limb typically during a deep contemplative experience, such as during prayer or meditation.

Over the Christmas holidays I did a bit of research on this topic to try and resolve an apparent differential use of the term 'kriya,' as it is used in Pali references, verses the popular use of the term.  The term 'kriya' does not seem to appear anywhere in the Pali canon.  I have the Digha Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya and the Samyutta Nikaya, and the 5th century commentary, the Visuddhimagga. The term 'kriya' simply does not occur even once in the glossaries of any of those books. I have read all of the Visuddhimagga and the Digha Nikaya, and the Majjhima Nikaya, and I do not find the word 'kriya' occurring or even a discussion of the phenomena of spontaneous shaking, quaking or twitching as a manifestation of absorption (jhana nimitta).  I also looked through my library and found not one use of the term in any of my books on the Yogas, Hinduism or Buddhism, so I took to the web.

================== KRIYA ==================

The Buddhist Dictionary

Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines,


      kiriya (or kriya)-citta

'functional consciousness' or 'karmically inoperative  consciousness', is a name for such states of consciousness  as are neither karmically wholesome (kusala), nor unwholesome  (akusala), nor karma-results (vipáka); that is, they function  independently of karma.

Thus are also called all those worldly mental states in the  Arahat which are accompanied by 2 or 3 noble roots  (greedlessness, hatelessness, undeludedness), being in the  Arahat karmically neutral and corresponding to the karmically  wholesome states of a non-Arahat (s. Tab. 1-8 and 73-89), as  well as the rootless mirth-producing (hasituppáda) mind- consciousness-element of the Arahat (Tab. 72); further, that  mind-element (mano-dhátu) which performs the function of  advertence (ávajjana) to the sense object (Tab. 70), and that mind-consciousness-element (manovińńána-dhátu) which performs the functions of deciding (votthapana) and advertence to the mental object (Tab. 71).

The last-named 2 elements, of course, occur in all beings.

Together with karma-resultant consciousness (vipáka) it belongs to the group of 'karmically neutral consciousness' (avyákata).


Kriyasakti (Sanskrit) [from kriya action + sakti power] The power of action; mystically the power of active thought or spiritual will power,

University of Cologne

IITS - Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies

Cappeller Sanskrit English Dictionary


Meaning f. action, performance, occupation, labour, pains; activity, verb; work, esp. religious work, sacrifice, ceremony, worship; argument, document, bond, contract.


It seems the consensus on these various translations of the word 'kriya' relate to action that is free of karma or unwholesomeness.  In common usage the term however refers to spontaneous movements.  If an action is spontaneous, and therefore free of volition, then one could say it is a karma-free action, or an action free of consequences, because it is free of volition. 

The symptoms of spontaneous shaking and quaking can of course be caused by a number of reasons including an impure lifestyle that involves the consumption of intoxicants, such as drugs and alcohol.  They can also be symptomatic of buried or submerged emotions, such as anger or fear, or by repressed sexual desire, as well as by obsessive sexual appetites.  It is these obsessions and compulsions that tend to "leak out" when the mind approaches a calm state, such as is acquired through meditation and prayer.

In the context that I have heard the term used in my earlier days as a yogi, was as a spiritual practice, known as Kriya Yoga, which is practiced by the members of the Self Realization Fellowship.  Kriya Yoga is derived from the concept of the movement of the kundalini, and it was articulated by Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteshwar, and popularized in the West by Yogananda through the Self Realization Fellowship.

Kriya Yoga, as I understand it, basically incorporates mudras (hand gestures), pranayama (breathing exercises), sitting postures and tantra (visualization) in a contemplative practice to bring about a kundalini experience.

The history of spontaneous shaking and quaking in a religious context in English and European and Christian culture goes back to Saint Vitus, a  third-century A.D. Christian martyr who manifested a characteristic shaking and quaking when he was in spiritual communion.  Because of Saint Vitus these manifestations became called "Saint Vitus' dance." 

The neurological condition, Sydenham's chorea, which is "a nervous disorder occurring chiefly in childhood or during pregnancy, closely associated with rheumatic fever, and characterized by rapid, jerky, involuntary movements of the body, are also called Saint Vitus' dance." (American Heritage Dictionary)

In more recent history, kriyas are why the Quakers were called Quakers, because they quaked during their meditations.  And, the Shakers were called Shakers, because they shook during their practices.  It is also why a great number of Europeans prior to 1700 got burned at the stake for being witches.  In Christian culture people who manifested Kriyas, or St. Vitus' dance, were considered demon possessed, and put to the stake until 1700.  It is therefore not surprising that the Quakers and Shakers emerged in the mid-1700s, when it had become safer to be a charismatic.  They still however had to immigrate to the "New World" to practice in relative safety. 

Shaker. A member of a Christian group originating in England in 1747, practicing communal living and observing celibacy.

(American Heritage Dictionary)

Quaker n.

A member of the Society of Friends. [From QUAKE (from an early leader's admonishment to “tremble at the word of the Lord.”).] —Quakerism n. —Quakerly adv. &  adj. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Society of Friends n.

A Christian denomination, founded in the mid-17th century in England, that rejects formal sacraments, a formal creed, a priesthood, and violence; the Quakers. (American Heritage Dictionary)

The Kriya, then is an involuntary or spontaneous movements and typically manifests as twitches, jerks, flinches, spasms or shaking of the body in response to the movement of the kundalini, which is stimulated through intense spiritual practices.   And, it is typically a sudden release of energy (Shakti, kundalini, whatever). There is nothing, "pathological" about it. Kriyas are quite normal for an ecstatic contemplative (jhana yogi), as one enters into deeper states, where a release of energy can take place.

Typically kriyas will cause a hand to flinch or even the arm to fly up on its own. Most often they are nothing more than a quivering of the fingers and/or lips, but they can be as dramatic as the whole body leaping into the air, or the person falling down in an epileptic-like full-body spasm.  As one gains experience kriyas will typically diminish both in frequency and intensity.

Spontaneous movements, while in a meditative state, can also include automatic writing and speaking in tongues, in which the contemplative is taken over by another being, and he or she will then have spontaneous movements as a form of communication with the disembodied, hopefully realized, or liberated being.  Also spontaneously arising ritualized movement and dance can also fit into this domain of spontaneous movement.

In my experience there are several reasons why the contemplative experiences spontaneous movements (kriyas).  If we exclude channeling as a cause, and we just look at the apparent random jerks and jiggles that can occur to a contemplative, then we can formulate a theory for this class of automatic movements. 

When kundalini (Shakti) is active and moving in one's body, then one's energy system can become over charged, that is to have taken on more energy (Shakti, prana, chi, etc.) than one is normally used to.  Many contemplative traditions have a concept of "purification" in which the individual is "prepared" to be a "fitting vessel" for the "spirit" or "energy."  This "purification" process is to build one's energy system up to the level that it can sustain the energy that "comes down" to one when the kundalini "rises."

To be over-charged is to have "dumped" too much chi into one's nervous system (meridian system) than one can handle.  With one's nervous system over-charged, then vibrations, and shaking are likely to be experienced.  

Another manifestation of an over charged nervous system is hyper-stimulated senses.  One of the manifestations of a hyper-stimulated nervous system is an overly reactive nervous system.  For instance, let's say one is sitting in meditation with whatever group one may belong to, then someone sneezes in the middle of a long quiet sit.  That sudden sound could run through one's nervous system like a hurricane, and one might find one's body have a sudden involuntary movement in reaction to the sudden noise.

What seems to happen when one's senses are stimulated is nerve "energy" seems to be "dumped" into the nervous system.  The more any particular sense is stimulated, the more nerve "energy" is "dumped" into one's nervous system.  A loud noise will dump a lot more nerve energy into the nervous system than a quiet sound.  If one's nervous system hasn't gotten used to the "energy" increase due to kundalini, then the body can spontaneously "dump" excess "energy" through spontaneous movements.  Lets say an abrupt sound, like a sneeze, could cause one's body to react spontaneously by an arm jumping, as if on its own.

I do not believe the "goal" is to cause spontaneous movements.  Kriya is simply a manifestation of ecstatic absorption.  Gaining skillfulness in kundalini, is to develop equanimity, which is the state or condition of nonreactiveness to sense objects, then the "hurricane of nerve energy that cascades through one's body due to sudden nerve stimulation will only result in a profound release of Shakti, that could resonate in one's inner world, which could propel one into deep and profound ecstasy.

Kriyas seem to be more common among the experienced meditators, and less so with beginners.  Although some people claim that kriyas only occur among novices.  Even after a daily meditation practice of over 30 years in duration, and having sat about 50 retreats in a wide ranges of contemplative practice oriented traditions, I still have minor kriyas every day.  I see them as spontaneous releases of tension that arises due to my daily life. 

I have studied body therapies for several decades now.  And, I have found body workers who place their clients in a deeply relaxed state, such as Cranial Sacral or Reiki practitioners, etc., elicit kriyas in their clients all of the time.  Considering the contribution to this discovery from the relaxation therapists, it seems the kriyas function as a mechanism for the release of tension and trauma.  Typically Cranial Sacral and Reiki practitioners look at these jerks as releases of old trauma, such as car accidents, etc.

If it is true that the kriya is a release of tension or trauma, then it is certainly reasonable to speculate that at some point one will find oneself in a tension-free life, and thus advanced meditators may stop having kriyas.  But, even living in a forest monastery with students coming for retreats, it is reasonable to assume even advanced and realized meditation teachers may still encounter tension or stress, which then would be thankfully released through deep meditation, as I experience on a daily basis.

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

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