Cultivating tristhāna in Ashtanga Yoga
Cultivating tristhāna in Ashtanga Yoga practice involves much more than merely doing the asanas enumerated in the Primary Series. As a sequence, the primary series is the foundation of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice. It plants the seeds that will grow into the other sequences. But it’s not limited to the asana element. The seeds that we plant are also the more subtle components.
The more important seeds that should be planted and cultivated in the primary series are those related to breath, bandha, and drishti, collectively called the tristhāna. In the end, it is these elements that are at the heart of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice. I often tell groups of students that just because they are doing the asanas in the sequence that is known as the primary series does not mean that they are actually doing the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
What is the tristhāna?
Tristhāna means “three dwelling places.” The three parts of the tristhāna of Ashtanga yoga are usually understood as breath, bandha, and drishti. However, there is an integral relationship between breath and bandha, so some people interpret the tristhāna as breath/bandha, drishti, and asana. However you break it down, these aspects of tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga are objects of concentration. As we dive more deeply into the practices of breath, bandha, and drishti, we develop concentration, which is the foundation of more subtle limbs of our eight-limbed practice, like meditation.
Doing the primary series sequence while also maintaining these additional elements is what doing the practice actually means. Of course, this can also be where disagreement begins. What is the correct method of breathing? What is the correct application of bandha and drishti?
We argue and debate over these elements, but mostly I think that it’s just the mind getting the best of us, distracting us from actually having the experience of yoga. An important element to remember is that our experience of these elements will naturally change over time. People often think of the practice, an individual asana, or even one of these elements, as being “all” or “none.” They forget that they are on a path of progression and proficiency of breath, bandha, dristhi, and asana.
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Exploring the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga primary series
We could consider the asanas the ecosystem where we explore the interrelated aspects of the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga. The primary series should establish a firmness and openness of the body with the asanas themselves. The primary focus in the physical body and these asanas is actually to open the hips. If the hips aren’t open then it’s difficult to get into the spine, which is where the real work of yoga is because it contains the nervous system. Ultimately, however, the primary series should start the work of understanding tristhāna.
Primary series is quite grounding as sequences go. But with all the changes in the body that tend to come along with it, we can end up ungrounded. We can start to impress ourselves so much that our ego inflates, thinking that our physical abilities equate to spiritual evolution—and they don’t necessarily. Working mindfully on the aspects of the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga can help us stay grounded by keeping our focus on neutral objects of concentration and our present-moment experience. The side benefits of working with the asanas are that we learn discipline and stir the fires of desire to do better and explore further.
Let’s explore each component of the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga more fully, starting with the breath.
The tristhāna in Ashtanga Yoga
In terms of breathing, we are working to control our breath instead of allowing our breath to control us. It is typical to hear and see students take a short inhalation and follow with a long loud exhalation. This shows a lack of breath control. The ideal that we’re trying for is a breath that is more or less even between inhalation and exhalation. Additionally, we are intending a gentle engagement of the back of our throat and soft palate as we breathe to create a soft whispering sound.
Both of these aspects of breath control give us a place to focus our mind and have an effect on our nervous system as we get more practiced at them. The key word here is that this is an ideal to head toward. The act of trying is enough. Perfection throughout the whole practice may be unrealistic.
Breath with movement
Controlling our breath is the first step in coordinating our breath with our movement. When we’ve established an even rhythm with our breath, our next step is to practice trying to make each movement match the length of our breath. In the Ashtanga practice, each pose and transition between poses have an ideal number of breaths. This is called the “vinyasa count.” Understanding the vinyasa count is a great tool to keep us accountable to the number of breaths we take when moving into or out of postures. When we need to take too many extra breaths between postures, it usually means there is a lack of control. Although it is not “wrong,” the ideal is that we become more efficient with our coordination of breath and movement.
Breath control is one of the most difficult aspects of the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga for students to find. I think this is because it requires an additional level of discipline on top of doing the actual sequence of asanas. But without this level of discipline and control, I’m not sure that the student will come to realize the potential of the bandhas.
I covered this topic in much greater depth in other articles, like Mula Bandha, Anatomically Speaking; Uddiyana Bandha, Anatomically Speaking; and Are Bandhas A Myth? But briefly, bandhas are about directing energy, prana. At a physical level that looks like directing the breath. And initially, we explore the most gross level of directing the breath by engaging different muscles to move or contain the breath and to change the pace of our breathing. Our efforts towards engaging bandhas affect our nervous system and help us develop concentration as we place our attention on the areas we’re engaging.
The bandhas are perhaps the most misunderstood element of the practice. Students often get lost in squeezing the right thing in the right way. They forget that the bandha is an energetic component that is stimulated by the physical contraction of certain areas of our body. Again, we argue about the right way to do this and where we should squeeze. In the end, it is where we place our attention and intention that matters more. It is how the bandhas manifest themselves within the practice that is truly important.
Dristhi is the last—and I personally found to be the most difficult—piece of the tristhāna puzzle in Ashtanga yoga. Yes, drishti is defined as a gazing place, but it’s a looking place that maintains attention on that place. Looking at your toe and thinking about the emails you have to reply to isn’t dristhi. Of course, trying to do this is hard work. It forces us to continue to control our mind and consciously place it somewhere. We all know how difficult this is at times.
But, like the other elements of the tristhāna in Ashtanga yoga, working with drishti has the potential to take us deeper into the experience of yoga. When we put effort into harnessing our visual attention and placing it somewhere neutral, we begin the practice of pratyahara, often defined as “sense withdrawal.” We actively draw our attention inward rather than allow our eyes to be drawn to whatever interesting activity is happening around us.