The Tristana Method is often described as the distinguishing characteristic of Ashtanga Yoga. It is comprised of three parts: breath, posture, and gaze. These tenets were first introduced to western yoga practitioners by the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri. K Pattabhi Jois. Jois said that breath, posture and gaze are the concrete tools a practitioner should use to effectively perform their daily asana practice. Instead of feeling lost and overwhelmed by the journey of yoga, a student should use the tristana method as a road map for the practice. Following this map transforms the asana practice into a moving meditation, thereby helping practitioners achieve the equanimous, one-pointed mind that is the promise of yoga.
In Ashtanga yoga, how a practitioner breathes during practice is arguably the most important piece of their asana. In his book Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois wrote that, “Regulating the breathing stabilizes the mind and makes it firm.” He goes on to say that Hatha yoga (the category under which nearly every style of yoga, including ashtanga, falls) is the method for “directing the stabilized mind toward the Inner Self.” Therefore, without the breath to stabilize the mind, there can be no yoga. More practically speaking, how we breathe, particularly during challenging physical activity, has a direct effect on every system in our body. The nervous system in particular is heavily affected by how we breathe. Deep, steady breathing has the ability to tame the flight or fight response of our nervous system brought on by fear, the perception of harm, physical or mental stress, or the combination of these that we often experience during asana practice. By remaining focused on the steadiness of our breath, we begin to control the systems in the body that may otherwise be out of our grasp and reek havoc in our practice and in our lives in general. Since we know from yoga sutra I.2 that yoga is defined as the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”, it is easy to understand why breath control is a central focus yoga.
The method of breathing used during asana practice in Ashtanga Yoga is often referred to as Ujjayi breathing. While the correct method of breathing is based on Ujjaya Pranayama, the actual breathing technique used during practice is simply called “deep breathing with sound.” The mouth remains gently closed, and both the inhalations and exhalations are done through the nose. The pace of inhalations and exhalations are controlled by gently closing and opening the vocal cords to restrict the flow of air in and out. This restriction is what creates the sound of the breath as the air rubs the back of the throat and sinuses. Deep breathing with sound has a soothing effect on our nervous system, helping us to stay calm and focused during the physical, mental, and emotional stress often brought upon by challenging asana.
Posture, or asana, is the second pillar of the Tristana Method. Yoga Sutra 1.35 explains that another way to attain the one-pointed mind is to focus our attention on the subtle sensations within the body. Asana is an ideal vehicle for doing so. Focusing your attention on the bandhas, the contraction on the pelvic floor and drawing in of the low belly, is a wonderful way to tune inward into the subtle sensations Patanjali describes. During practice, a million thoughts can race through our mind. Remembering to bring the focus back to the holding of the bandhas gives the mind and body a straightforward yet challenging job to perform, keeping it busy so it won’t seek out stimulation elsewhere.
There are of course very practical reasons for engaging the bandhas – better control of the body, to build strength, to protect vulnerable muscles, etc, but it also serves to give our minds a point of focus and keep us moving through the practice as though it were a meditation and not simply a workout routine. There are other subtle sensations within the body that are worthy of our attention during asana practice. Skeletal alignment, body positioning, muscle contraction and relaxation are all subtle sensations of which we should be aware while we are practicing, not only because they draw our attention to the inner experience, but also because it will help our bodies stay ideally positioned and avoid injury.
The third pillar of the Tristana Method is drishti, or gaze. Humans are a highly visual species. We rely primarily on sight to gather information about the world around us, and we are easily stimulated and distracted by the sights we see. In asana practice, it is therefore useful to have a definitive point at which to direct our gaze. Each posture in the ashtanga yoga system has a specific drishti. There are 9 drishtis: upward, nose, naval, thumb, fingers, toes, third eye, left, or right. The gazing point of each posture depends on the position of the body and the intended direction of energy. As with each of the pillars of the tristana method, there are both practical reasons to focus our gaze, and spiritual ones. In the case of drishti, a practical reason to gaze at one point instead of letting our eyes bounce around the room is to help us perform the asana safely and effectively. A single gazing point helps us balance in standing poses, move more deeply into twisting postures, and keeps our body moving with proper alignment. It also makes sense to focus on single point to help us concentrate on the task at hand. If our eyes are checking out everything around us, we are not as focused as we could be.
The root of the word drishti has deeper meaning than to simply see something. As Kino MacGregor writes in her book The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, “More than casual sight, the root word implies that the act of seeing includes the light of spiritual understanding.” So, the drishti becomes more than a tool for balance or alignment, but also a method for accessing the spiritual element of the practice. Additionally, maintaining a focal point during asana practice teaches us to rely less on the stimulation of the visible world around us. It strengthens our ability to withstand the enticing sensory world and instead focus on the spiritual, inner world. The more we practice fixing our gaze at a single point despite the distractions all around us, the more focused and steady our minds will become.
The common theme among the three elements of the Tristana Method is to move the practitioner’s focus away from the external and towards the internal experience. Each one offers a unique approach to experiencing the true spiritual power of the practice. Taken individually, they can help a student move deeper into the experience of the subtle body, but when practiced together, they serve as a fool proof method to help the student navigate the otherwise overwhelming world of asana practice. The Tristana Method, when practiced regularly over a long period of time, will guide the practitioner through the experience of the inner true self and take them further along the path of yoga.