One reason is that it is the eight limbs in motion. When you look at specific elements, in particular the tristhana method, you begin to understand that Ashtanga is the 8-limbed path manifested in the physical world as a ladder toward samadhi, or enlightenment.
Ashtanga vinyasa as we know it today was codified by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the small Indian city of Mysore. This royal city was once the capital of India and is now known as the hub of Ashtanga vinyasa worldwide. He learned directly from his teacher, the esteemed father of modern postural yoga as we practice it now, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Now, Ashtanga is taught by many teachers around the globe. Sometimes there are slight variations in the technique, but one thing remains the same: the embodiment of the tristhana.
The tristhana is made of three specific elements that are incorporated into every posture of every Ashtanga series (there are six series, each one becoming progressively more difficult.)
Tri means three in Sanskrit and sthana means place. In particular, they are actions that are taken in specific areas that provide control over the body and mind. While they are three separate elements, they are performed together as one action.
Independently, the three elements are known as:
These main entities help to purify the physical body, irrigate the nadis (energetic body), stimulate the nervous system and steady the mind.
Additionally, the series of postures laid out by Ashtanga vinyasa also follow this same concept (the primary series cleanses the body, the second series focuses on the nadis and nervous system, the third series for the mind, and so on.)
Thus, the tristhana is integral not only just for the poses themselves but also for the aspect of vinyasa—the systematic linking of movement with the breath.
When you begin to dive deeper into this, you can link each element of the tristhana method to a specific limb of yoga, beginning after asana itself.
1. Ujjayi Breath
The next limb is pranayama, which is activated through the use of ujjayi breath, or the victorious breath. Ujjayi breath is an audible sound as well as a heating breath for the body.
Pranayama means the control and expansion of life force energy, which is performed with ujjayi breath throughout the practice.
This begins the journey of moving deeper inside from the manifested, physical world of the body to the internal, unmanifested state of being.
This then brings us to the fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara. This limb of yoga refers to withdrawing the mind away from the five senses. The filtering of the senses through the citta (consciousness) is the source of much attachment and suffering.
In order to “starve” the citta, it must be given “alternative food”, which is one translation for pratyahara. This comes in the form of the bandhas or energy locks.
Although the bandhas are not used to 100% capacity during every posture, they are still subtly engaged in order to redirect pranic energy through the central channel of the spine (sushumna nadi.)
Mula bandha, the root lock, is of utmost importance, because it turns apana, the downward current of energy, in the opposite direction—upward. This is performed by a gentle lifting and squeezing action of the pelvic floor upward.
The redirection of energy upward is further emphasized by the abdominal cavity gently sucked back and up. This is the navel lock, uddiyana bandha, activated to a smaller degree. This also helps massage and lift all of the abdominal organs as well as protects the spine.
Finally, jalandhara bandha, the throat lock, is activated by gently drawing the chin back toward the throat so the neck is completely aligned with the rest of the spine. While not a full chin lock, it is important to prevent poor posture and misalignments in the neck and shoulder area.
The final piece of the tristhana puzzle is the use of drishti, or gaze point, which is linked to the 6th limb of yoga, dharana also known as concentration. Within Ashtanga vinyasa, there are 9 key drishti:
- Nasagra (nose)
- Ajna (eyebrow center)
- Nabi chakra (navel)
- Hastagrahe (hands)
- Padayoragre (toes)
- Antara (up)
- Parsva (right or left)
The most common drishti employed during Ashtanga practice are the nose and eyebrow center, followed by the navel center. They are used exclusively in the surya namaskar, or Sun Salutation, practice which emphasizes extension and flexion of the body.
The navel center is essentially an extension of the nose point in downward dog. It is said that if you follow these gazing points, your body will align naturally over time to the posture because it influences your spinal position. When you control the eyes, all of your senses will follow.
The purpose of the tristhana method is to still and quiet the mind toward a single point which eventually leads to meditation (dhyana) and samadhi (concentration).
The eyes align the spine, the bandhas hold your energy and the breath controls. It teaches us to use the breath to control the spine and the spine to control the mind. This further helps us understand our true nature.
Read: The 9 Drishti of Yoga
In the end, the Ashtanga vinyasa system is an energetic circuit comprised of asana, pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana so that the final two stages of yoga can arise, dhyana and samadhi.
Thank you to my teacher Kushal Ram N for his guidance in helping me understand these concepts.
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