movement breath stillness
Rethinking Tristhāna

Rethinking Tristhāna

Whether you practise Ashtanga or not, considering how we use certain resting places for our mind in practice is important. I recently heard a teacher refer to these as ‘anchors’ to hold you steady if a wave of mental activity arises. If you primarily focus on physical alignment of posture only, then this is a deep dive into the richest anchors for quieting the mind. When I first came to Ashtanga Yoga, I was told that at the heart of the practice are 3 dwelling places for the mind to settle – in Sanskrit the word for this trinity is tristhāna (tri = 3, sthāna = places or resting/dwelling places). 

They were explained as breath (ujjayi or free breathing with sound; these are slightly different, we will come to this), dṛṣṭi (gaze point) and bandha (energetic locks). Whilst this was my first introduction, some state them as posture, breath and gaze point, incorporating energetic locks into either breathing or posture. This second version of the trinity maps nicely onto three of the eight limbs  Āsana (posture or seat), Prāṇāyāma (extending the life force or breath) and Pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses). It also maps onto the kośa (sheaths or layers of our existence): annamaya kośa being our fleshy layer (linked to posture and postural alignment), prāṇamaya kośa being our energetic layer (linked to breath and bandha) and manomaya kośa being our mental layer (linked to sensory withdrawal, restraining and focusing the mind). Through the deepening of these we might enter meditative bliss, the antār angam (inner limbs) of concentration, meditation and deep absorption.

 Together these three dwelling places allow us to gain not just adeptness in āsana, which is rather over-revered these days, but to contain and direct the movements of our minds: 

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥


Yoga is the restraining and directing of the churnings of the mind.

— Yoga Sutras 1.2

I still hold these to be the heart of a great practice, Ashtanga or otherwise. However, contemporary neuroscience and anatomy can bring a lot to bear on how to use them wisely; suggesting that certain modes of practising them might (whether traditional or not) be unhelpful, even harmful to some.


Currently, choice and accessibility are being brought to the heart of a growing number of yoga spaces. Some rigid ideas about a singular ‘full expression’ of a pose and its correct postural alignment are easing. Some alignments are essentially for safety, but encouraging people with broader pelvises to take the feet a little wider in samasthitiḥ or suggesting someone with tight shoulders raises their arms at shoulder width rather than palms together overhead is kinder and anatomically safer. Likewise, functional movement and fascia studies are highlighting that our understanding of ‘good alignment’ needs to shift with our improved anatomy knowledge to remain relevant. 

Whilst most agree on this regarding posture, many take a more protectionist attitude to the subtler aspects of practice and teach these in extremely traditional ways, drawing primarily on medieval texts as grounds. Here are a few thoughts on how we might use contemporary knowledge to revisit tristhāna.


It is disputed whether the founder of Ashtanga ever uttered ujjayi breathing. His older direct students often remember it as  ‘free breathing with sound’, but still suggest ujjayi. His grandson Sharath Jois, refutes ujjayi and refers only to ‘free breathing’, which is the cue Pattabhi Jois uses in the old recordings. Eddie Stern, an original student, remembers it as ‘nose and throat breathing…never ujjayi’

In a fascinating discussion on the Keen on Yoga platform (referenced at the end), Eddie Stern says that singers are aware whispering is terrible for your vocal chords and throat. Strong ujjayi, when created by restriction at the glottis, uses the same whispering muscles and is therefore also potentially harmful. Of course, ujjayi is used in prāṇāyāma practice, but maybe it was not intended for a 1.5 hour practice when Jois said ‘free breathing with sound’. Even if it was, Stern suggests if you focus at the glottis then all the structures of the palate and throat become tense. Then the face becomes tense; you are not relaxed at all. He describes this as the opposite of yoga.

Stern suggests moving the awareness high in the nasal passages, up by the olfactory nerve, at the pharynx – where the breath starts moving into the throat. The sound is then made by the resonance high in the nasal cavity and the top of the throat. Gregor Maehle sends the awareness the other way down toward the pit of the throat (the kanta kupe) to avoid the same loudness and tensing. Students who have practised with me who have TMJ or grind their teeth often find ujjayi problematic. What works for you?

Whilst ujjayi is traditionally thought to be heating and intensifying. In studies on vagus nerve stimulation in yoga – the vagus nerve being a key player in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system (PNS) – there has been evidence breathing with sound can aid vagal tone, making it calming. Maybe part of the picture is how we create the sound, how long we hold it for and what we are doing as we hold it. We might notice in our own bodies whether the teeth clamp, the tongue elevates in the mouth or the skin on the face tightens when we breathe with sound? If so, surely it is worth considering subtler methods. 

I still practise with subtle sound; it helps me balance my inhale and exhale. Often, in the beginning only the exhale is audible and, where sounded, the inhale is jagged and short. Redressing this has helped me a lot. However, I have shifted the restriction higher to soften my throat and with this the sound has changed.

Also, soft breathing with sound – wherever you choose to produce the restriction – is incredibly useful for co-regulation of breathing. It can be a joy to synchronise your breath with others in a yoga class. Some do this naturally when we hug, especially if we rest with our head on a loved one’s chest or tummy; we may not realise, but we are often soothing ourselves by coregulating the systems of heart rate and breath. 

Maybe with breathing, as with posture, we are best doing what facilitates the most meditative focus and relaxed awareness.

Bandha (energetic locks) 

Mūla Bandha (root lock):

When I first came to practise, most folks agreed we should attempt to keep this lock on throughout practice. The primary discussion point was, whilst it is an energetic lock rather than a muscle, whether it was initiated by the muscles of the perineum or the anus. John Scott remains open suggesting that in the beginning we use the anus, as these sphincter muscles are often easier to feel because we use them a lot. They also connect to the pubococcygeal muscles which form part of the pelvic floor. Over time we get better at bringing awareness to the perineum and lifting there. Ultimately, the perineum is – I believe – very important. As, when we lift there, uddiyana bandha (the upward flying lock) which originates beneath the navel, is also awakened. 

However, now, with our improved understanding of the issues with hypertonic (over toned) as well as hypotonic (under toned) pelvic floors, we know that it is important to have elasticity in the tissues. This has raised an important new discussion regarding this bandha.  Just as we might need to learn to lift, we also need to relax. This calls into question whether keeping the pelvic floor or anus toned for a whole practice, as was traditionally recommended, is a good idea. This would definitely be painful and cause complications for those who are hypertonic and already suffer pelvic floor pain. 

I prefer to let the pelvic floor move with the breath unless going into a pose where I need my safety harness on. There are some intense poses (often back bends) in which we might ‘bandha up’. However, during the rest of practice, we might be better off breathing diaphragmatically (the definition of good breathing). When we inhale the diaphragm descends and presses down on the abdominal contents, therefore dilating the pelvic floor. When we exhale and clear the air out it can tone the pelvic floor a little on the tail of the exhale. On this breathing model instead of remaining contracted throughout, we could relax and contract the pelvic floor on every breath. Improving the pelvic floor’s elasticity, stimulating the vagus nerve and freeing the breath; I also experience the stabilising energetics of the root lock without hardening in this method.

Uddiyana Bandha (upward flying lock):

I was often given the cue ‘navel to spine’ to initiate this upward flying sensation, or I was told to maintain the muscular activation that clears out an exhale during subsequent inhales. In a fantastic demonstration (in the resources below) Simon Borg Olivier highlights how keeping the muscles of exhale on during an inhale prevents diaphragmatic breathing and tenses the abdomen. This means that uddiyana, when done with too much abdominal tone, can restrict the breathing and in the worst case encourage reverse breathing patterns. Over time I have chosen, unless doing uddiyana kriya in a prāṇāyāma practice, to vary how I tone my abdomen during practice to suit the posture. Drawing the lower floating ribs down or the pubic bone up use postural muscles rather than breathing muscles and these restrict the breath pattern far less and can be the key to unlocking certain poses. 

Dṛṣṭi (gaze point)

I have often found that traditional dṛṣṭi can be problematic for different body types, because where we place our gaze affects the shape of the spine. For example, if you have current neck pain and you tend to fold flat in a seated forward fold, the traditional dṛṣṭi of the feet or tips of toes might strain the neck further. Likewise, with neck and shoulder tension the dṛṣṭi of looking up can be painful. Mark Darby says he asked Pattabhi Jois where he should look in his seated forward fold and Jois said just down. So maybe Jois himself didn’t think one dṛṣṭi worked for all.

Additionally, science has proven a link between many mental health disorders (e.g. ADHD, anxiety and depression) and the inability to focus one’s eyes on a single point. It not only evidences a correlation, but suggests a causal connection between mental agitation and eye movement. 

Whilst focusing on one point is a good start, in practice our faces can sometimes seem strained. The eyes are regulated by 12 extraocular muscles that extend down into the suboccipital muscles that surround the upper cervical vertebrae. These signs of strain are akin to what we see in each other’s eyes when we feel stressed. Sometimes dṛṣṭi may be causing tension rather than relaxation, which Stern suggested is ‘the opposite of yoga’.

The extraocular nerve endings are connected to the vagus nerve. Practising eye movements like shifting from close to distant gaze can increase blood flow to the vertebral artery and stimulate the vagus nerve in the neck. This can be done in practice by now and then shifting from our tight dṛṣṭi to taking in the periphery, even the distance. 

Whilst we may need to focus tightly in some poses for balance or if we are suffering distraction, sometimes looking at the single point of the hand, navel or toe we can also become aware of the blurred periphery. This often relaxes the eyes. Relaxing the muscles in the eyes stimulates the oculocardiac reflex (OCR) which initiates a parasympathetic response to slow down the heart rate and lower blood pressure.

We can also stimulate the (OCR) with gentle pressure on the eyes, like an eye pillow or the hands, which can have a calming effect on the nervous system. Whilst, in Ashtanga, we are told traditionally not to close our eyes, John Scott would sometimes offer a blind folded practice on a moon day. I have practised primary and second series blindfolded. Since learning about the OCR, I now understand why this was a less sweaty, slower heart rate practice; subtle pressure on the eyelids throughout and relaxing the eyes would have initiated the OCR.

If you have not considered dṛṣṭi much, then you could notice how where you gaze shifts the shape of your spine and make some sensible adjustments that suit your postural tendencies. Also if you know you have a frowning, eye tensing ‘yoga face’ when practising dṛṣṭi. maybe shift your gaze between the traditional tight focus dṛṣṭi and gazing into the distance, also try maintaining the dṛṣṭi whilst taking in the blurred peripheral vision and maybe even try a blind folded practice.

More and more, I am fascinated by the ‘no size fits all’ nature of practice and how some of the subtle elements when taught rigidly, like some of the restrictive rules around posture, bring more tension into the body-mind than they remove. I recommend re-examining tristhāna to make the dwelling places for our mind more restful, even in vigorous practices.

OM shānti, shānti, shānti


Eddie Stern and Gregor Maehle on Ujjayi versus free breathing, go to around 40 minutes in to listen

Simon Borg Olivier detailing ways to use the abdominal muscles without tensing to find uddiyana bandha