Tristhana as a Mantra
Practicing Asanas is one thing, staying focused is yet another. With the help of Tristhana, they can be brought together. Tristhana works like a Mantra that brings us back into the here and now.
By Sascha and Romana Delberg
Tristana? Oh yes – a film by Buñuel. Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, great film. But out of context. The Tristhana which is discussed here is a bit older than even Buñuel‘s melodrama.
The Sanskrit term, literally “having three dwelling places“, stands for the “three pillars of attention“. It is a the state of concentration aimed at during our Asana practice and exerted on three levels: firstly, on the level of Ujjayi breathing plus Bandhas (Mula Bandha = lock of the perineum, plus Uddiyana Bandha = lock between the navel and the pubic bone); secondly, on the level of the Drishti (gazing point); and thirdly, on the Asana we are practicing. Tristhana is a good example of the ancient intuitive Yogic knowledge. Just like Yoga is a path and a state of consciousness, Tristhana, too, designates the path and the state of concentration.
The first component of Tristhana is breathing which in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system is always in line with the sequence of movements. Every sequence is linked with an inhale or an exhale, consequently “Vinyasa“ in this context means “the sequencing of breath and movement“. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois is quoted as saying “Ashtanga practice is a breathing practice … The rest is just bending“. It’s not the normal breathing either, but Ujjayi (diaphragmatic breathing, literally “the victorious one“ because it prevails over the normal breathing patterns) which is effected by narrowing the throat passage as the air passes in and out. With the help of Ujjayi our breathing becomes longer and audible, which in turn makes it a concentration point. By focusing on breathing, we also somewhat get hold of our mind (Citta) because the two are linked. If the connection works, they move together like two fish swimming in tandem.
The Ujjayi breathing originates in the area of the larynx, the glottis and the thyroid gland. This is a region in charge of making us heard in the outside world but it is also directed inward, into our inner world. Sometimes, it sounds like the whispering of a lover, sometimes – especially in more demanding Asanas – like the groan of a fighter. On a physical plane this breathing technique generates heat and makes us sweat more, and on a psycho-mental plane we develop Tapas, a sort of mental “friction“ which helps us to discipline our mind. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois has often pointed out how important it is that we generate heat in order to purify our body as well as our mind.
In the Yogic understanding, heat – and consequently our life energy – is generated in the region above the pelvic floor and below the navel. Just like a wind stokes an existing fire, the Ujjayi breathing increases the heat in the pelvic floor. The two Bandhas involved, too, contribute to intensifying the heat by keeping it in check. This is why Ujjayi breathing and Bandhas are considered an entity in this context.
During the inhalation, the Ujjayi breathing exerts a suction effect on the inner space of the body, thereby increasing the pressure in the abdomen. Mula Bandha und Uddiyana Bandha are activated in order to counter the pressure. Moreover, they keep the center of the body stable and help straightening the spinal column.
The second component of Tristhana is the Drishti. By focusing certain gazing points – the nose, the third eye, the foot, etc. – we are prevented from just looking around thoughtlessly. It’s not staring but a soft gaze. Keeping the Drishti is a first step in the direction of Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from their objects, directing our attention to our inner self). – Finally,the third component of Tristhana is the Asana itself which, in Patanjali’s words, should be steady and comfortable.
Tristhana is the experience of unifying the three levels of concentration into one synchronized movement, into one flow, one breath. A feeling of wholeness arises from bundling these three “forces“ on the planes of the body, the nervous system, and the mind. Yogasana – the practice of Asanas – can be experienced as a “meditation in motion“. We may then glide through the series as it were one single Asana in its numerous variations. Tristana might be considered as the one unique feature which distinguishes Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga from other Yoga styles and any other physical exercice.
With Tristhana, we have a wonderful tool to bring our attention back as soon as we get distracted. One of the beautiful things about Yoga is that it trains our concentration, and it does so by requiring it. This is instantly experienced in the practice: When we shake in Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, then it’s partly because it’s difficult to keep the balance – but partly also because we are not fully focused.
There used to be panels in every IBM-office which only read “Think!“, and it is said that this motto had a tremendous motivational effect on the employees and increased their productivity. Whenever they looked at it, it reminded them why they were sitting here. – We are of course totally against brainwashing and manipulation. But we believe in the power of concentration and in being able to bring it back when we’ve lost it. Just by repeating “Asana“, “breathing/Bandha“ and “Drishti“ to ourselves like Mantras, we are brought back into the presence of our Yoga practice. It’s a reminder of „Being Here Now“, as Ram Dass put it.
Tristhana makes us realise that practicing Asanas is more than just gymnastics. We connect our body with our mind instead of uncoupling them as those do who, for instance, run on treadmills and watch TV at the same time. This may be good on a merely physical plane but it certainly doesn’t improve our body awareness.
A lack of concentration is, as we have seen, one of the difficulties encountered in our Yoga practice. Another is impatience. Here too, Tristhana can help. By focusing on the components of the Asana we are practicing right now, we make sure to dwell in it – instead of thinking of the next Asana already now! In the logic of impatience, if we were in the next Asana, we would only be thinking of the following one, and so on and so forth. This is pointless. So let’s better dwell in the Asana we are actually practicing, with no hurry.
The restlessness in us, that’s not us. It’s our mind which, like a machine, tries to control all the processes and to foretell them into the future; which, at the same time, is keen to have an eye on the situation in the Yoga room, to comment, to categorize, etc.; and which is always in search of stimulation. So then we practice Asanas and think about what our neigbour wears, what we’ll do later, and so on.
Tristhana helps us to become more aware of all these processes. By calling up its concentration points like Mantras, we are instantly reminded of what we are actually doing here, that is practicing, breathing, focusing. We are so to say “sealing“ ourselves – not to isolate us from the outside world but to fully do what we do.
A Zen master is quoted as saying, “When you walk, walk; when you run, run; above all, don’t wobble“. Prophetic words of someone who in the quiet of his monastery in the mountains foresaw one of our problems today: an unprecedented culture of distraction and entertainment. Which in turn leads to an “oblivion of being“, as another prophet, Martin Heidegger, put it.
Yoga is great in releasing us from the permanent distraction and the compulsively rattling machine which we please to call our mind. It helps us becoming focused and mindful and brings us in touch with ourselves. It will not prevent us from being distracted, from drifting away and so on – but it’s useful to know that there is always help in form of Tristana which, just like a reset button, is there to instantly bring us back into our concentration.
“When the mind is running, you bring it back. And so on and on. You are taming a monkey. Once it’s tamed, it will just listen to you“, said Shri Swami Satchidananda. It’s a life’s work.