Tristana, The Three Foundations of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Tristana is the foundation– the supporting pillars – of the practice of ashtanga yoga, and as such, it is the tool to help cultivate the ultimate presence of mind, focus, and stability.
It is with these tools that we transform our asana (physical) practice from a simple body exercise into a total mind-body transformation, from a huffing and puffing workout into a graceful flow. These three essential foundations help unite the good actions of body and mind, using dharana (concentration) to allow the practice to become a meditative one.
Tristana Consists of Three Elements:
Ujjayi Breath, The Bandhas, and the Drsti (drishti)
The three foundations are important and powerful on their own, and even more so when they work synergistically. When we focus on breath while having a steady gaze and use our energy locks (or power centers), we gain far more benefit in our practice. The sum of the three functioning together – Tristana practice – equates more than each one of them apart.
Ujjayi Breath – Ocean Breath
One of the most important aspects tristana and of yoga in general is breathing. The fundamental technique of yogic breathing is ujjayi breath, or “victorious” breath. It is the foundation for many other pranayama techniques, as well as an important practice on its own.
Benefits of Ujjayi Breath
It slows down and lengthens the breath. By filling up the lungs entirely, ujjayi increases lung capacity and helps increase the supply of breath and oxygen in the muscles to help with the movements we do in yoga. It is a point of concentration or focus for the mind that aids us in the practice of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and keeps the mind steady and calm, especially when poses get challenging.
Practice of Ujjayi Breathing
Ujjayi breathing is done by drawing the breath in and out through the nose while slightly constricting the opening of the throat where air passes through the glottis. Though the air does enter and exit through the nose, most of the awareness and sensation is at the throat. That is why sometimes ujjayi is known as throat breathing. It is the friction of air through the glottis (in the throat) that produces an ocean wave-like sound. This sound is known as ajapa mantra, the unspoken mantra.
Practice ujjayi breath first in a comfortable seated position. Try to equalize the inhalations and exhalations. Once you have mastered ujjayi breath while seated, you can start to use it in your asana practice by synchronizing your movement with the breath. During the transitions of asana practice, work on regulating the breath to match the movement, keeping the breath flowing calmly and with ease. Strenuous breathing may mean that you need to back off, either with the physical body or with the attitude of the mind.
Off your yoga mat, ujjayi breath can be practiced anywhere at any time. It is an excellent way to relax, calm the mind, focus, and alleviate insomnia.
Bandhas – Power Centers
The bandhas are a corner stone of all physical yoga practice (asana) and as such a proud member of tristana.
This post offers a video tutorial about bandhas.
The Benefits of Bandha Practice
Bandha means to bind or to lock. Though it may seem a bit counterintuitive, as we create these locks, we are actually activating the flow of energy in the body, moving prana from the base of the spine seat into the 72,000 nadis (energy channels) of the body. You can think of bandhas as energy centers – as activation centers – so as we create these locks, we are activating energy throughout the body, while locking it from escaping the body.
The bandhas are key in asana practice. Beyond the energy flow in the body, which of course helps the energy of the pose, the bandhas also help create support for the spine and lower back during transitions, creating the “lightness” and graceful appearance of some of the more challenging poses, such as arm balances or the jump-through.
The Three Main Bandhas
Mulabandha – Root Lock
The root bandha sits at the root of the spine. Lifting the pelvic floor helps activate it. You can imagine it as lifting a diamond-shaped hammock between the anus and genitals and stretching it as well between the two sitting bones. It is a similar action to that of doing kegel exercises.
Try to slow down the flow of urine while using the toilet without using your abs, gluteus or leg muscles; you are probably using the correct muscles. Another way to find mulabandha is to try and pull the pubic bone back towards the tailbone, and the tailbone forward towards the pubic bone. As they try and reach for each other, they activate mulabandha.
Mulabandha is not easy to find and keep, but when we learn to activate it, it is powerful far beyond its physicality, as it is located at the root of the energy source– where the coiled serpent sleeps (the kundalini power) – waiting to be awakened. Mulabandha helps with the stability of the poses and serves as a strong foundation for all movement in the body. It evokes uddiyanabandha (see below) to action and stimulates energy to rise.
Uddiyanabandha – Flying Up Bandha
Uddiyanabandha sits about two fingers’ width below the navel. It is activated by lifting the belly in and up. The lifting is done in a gentle way, thus you should still be able to breathe fully. The traverse abdominal muscles (inner abdominal muscles) will be activated. Another way to feel uddiyanabandha is to breathe deeply into the space between the shoulder blades. this will automatically help activate a light uddiyanabandha.
Uddiyanabandha is engaged during asana practice to help support the lower back and strengthen the core. It also helps lengthen the lower back, so that there is more space between the vertebrae, especially L4 and L5. This in turn helps support the whole torso so it can stay steady, thus protecting the lower back. This is important in all poses, but it is especially noticed in standing balancing poses as well as arm balances and inversions. Uddiyanabandha continues the flow of energy rising up towards the heart energy center.
Note: There should be a feeling of space even as it is engaged, without tightness. This is different than the uddiyanabandha kriya that is done by lifting the belly all the way in and up in a complete exhalation and holding for a few moments. We do not practice uddiyanabandha kriya during the flow of asana practice, instead we engage about a quarter of the way.
Jalandharabandha – Throat Lock
Lengthen the neck and then as if you are trying to hold a tennis ball under your chin, tuck the chin in towards the space between the collarbones, and then re lengthen it. Your chin will still be down, but no need to keep the head all the way down.
Jalandharabandha helps create length in the neck and stimulate energy in the throat and the chest. Jalandarabandha stimulates blood circulation in the entire body, it helps lower your blood pressure and helps calm the mind.
Doing mulabandha and uddiyanabandha together brings apana vayu (one of the pranas) towards the agni (fire of the third chakra). This reverses the flow bringing it up instead of down and helps bring toxins from below to agni – the fire – burning and eliminating the toxins.
Drsti – Yogic Gaze or Point of Focus
The yogi gaze – our drsti – is the third and very important part of Tristana. It is the direction we look at and the focus we maintain as we keep awareness on what we are seeing. Drsti is pronounced as Drishti.
The practice of drsti, or yogic gaze, is used to help us practice both focus and stability; it leads us to the concentration needed to keep us balanced and helps control the tendency to wander around following our senses. Drsti is a perfect aid in the practice of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), and it initiates the practice of dharana (concentration).
There are nine drsti points, and each pose has its own prescribed drsti. Some of the drsti points not only help with focus, but actually help us go deeper into the pose, such as in twists when we take our gaze far to the side we are twisting towards. Other times the gaze helps us stay grounded, or in the case of supine twists, when taking the gaze in the direction opposite of the legs, drsti helps to ground the opposite shoulder and thus aids in getting a fuller twist in the entire back. It is not as crucial that you keep your gaze at a specific prescribed point as it is to keep it very steady and aware, aware of what you are looking at.
There are Nine Classical Drsti Points in Ashtanga Yoga
Nose tip, center of ida and pingala nadis as in uttanasana and prasarita padottanasana. This is the drsti that is used most often. It is more about looking in the direction of the nose than actually at the exact tip of the nose. Otherwise you would become cross-eyed.
Ajna chakra (Third eye), as in ardha uttanasana and urdhva mukha svanasana. Looking slightly up and centered, helps us maintain a deeper focus and cultivate a stronger spiritual practice.
Navel or belly, as in adho mukha svanasana (Downward facing dog). Though I mostly instruct to look at the knees or toes, the naval gaze helps activate uddiyanabandha.
Hands, as in trikonasana. Looking towards your hand helps open further the chest.
Toes, such as in parsvottonasana. Extending our gaze towards the toes, helps lengthen the spine.
Far left or right as in marichyasana C and D. Not only do you get to stretch your neck, you also get to deepen the twist.
Angusta Ma Dyai
Thumbs as in urdhva hastasana. We can also follow the hands as we shift between poses to help maintain the focus and steadiness.
Up as in utkatasana. Taking the gaze up helps extend the spine and open the heart. Make sure not to compress in the neck while taking the gaze up.
Tristana is a power combo tool to elevate your practice to a new level. It will help you step into a practice that is graceful, at ease and on the road to a satvic and blissful existence. Practice it diligently and you may find that it will stick with you off the mat as well. Enjoy!