Technique is Everything
Now’s a good time to explore the big three: three elements of Ashtanga yoga that are most important, more potent than the opening invocation or any of the poses—easily attainable or bat-shit impossible—in the Primary Series. In Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, Gregor Maehle describes them as “the string that holds the beads [of poses] together to great a garland of yoga postures… For the beginner it is essential to learn these three fundamental techniques at the outset. Once they are mastered, the practice will happen almost effortlessly.”
So what are they, these three keys to the kingdom? The big three are the breath, the drishti, and the bandhas.
The breath used in this system is often labeled Ujjaiyi pranayama, which means victorious breath. Technically, the breath isn’t Ujjaiyi, but is “breath with sound.”* It’s a subtle difference. Both Ujjaiyi and breath with sound require a slight constriction of the throat. It stretches your breath and makes it long, like you’re drinking it in through a straw. Ujjaiyi involves observing a pause at the top of the inhale and/or the bottom of the exhale, called rhekaka and kumbhaka, respectively.
During your Ashtanga practice, you don’t necessarily observe these pauses, but your breath flows continuously. Additionally, during your physical practice, the emphasis of inhale and exhale is in the ribcage. With every inhale, your ribcage broadens in all directions, stretching your body from the inside, and every exhale, your abdominals act as a bellows, lifting your diaphragm and expelling your breath helping to detoxify your system. It makes for really deep, warming, powerful breath.
If you’ve ever heard a yoga teacher compare your breath to Darth Vader, the sound of the sea when you hold a shell to your ear, or the hiss of a radiator, you know she’s talking about Ujjaiyi. What’s lovely about this breath is that it can have a calming effect on the mind during your practice. It becomes the sound you tune into and the quiet softness of the breath helps to quiet your mind. My teacher says that your mind is like a lake, and the more still your lake, the better able you are to perceive reality. Calm lake, one moon; busy lake, a thousand moons.
The drishti (say “DRISH-tee”) is a prescribed gazing point that every pose in the Ashtanga system has. Every time you’re in a pose, there is one spot at which your eyes should rest lightly. The drishti are, depending on the pose:
- toward the nose
- toward the center of the forehead, or your third eye
- toward the navel
- toward the hand
- toward the toes
- toward the side
- toward the thumb
I like the presence of the word “toward”; we don’t have to have our eyes glued to our thumbs or navels, we can just take our gaze toward them, in that direction. As long as the gaze is steady at a fixed point, whether my eyes are on my thumb or navel isn’t really the point, at least not in my practice. The point of drishti is to have your gaze focused, not casting about the room.
Having said that, your gaze shouldn’t be focused on the squawking television or on the vibrating iPhone. We use the drishti in order to cultivate dharana, or concentration (if you’re counting, that’s limb #6). These points help to bring your senses inward (sensory withdrawal is pratyahara, limb #5) so that the world around you doesn’t distract from what you’re doing. Your mind gets practice focusing here, and is better able to focus on the job or with your family.
The bandhas (say “BAHN-dah”) are perhaps the most subtle element at work in the physical practice. They’re easy to describe, a bit harder to experience—at least when you’re practicing—and even harder to master. I can’t speak as any kind of expert, but everybody who knows says that when you get it, you get it, and walls begin to fall down in your physical practice.
Bandha is a Sanskrit word that means “lock” or “seal” and it describes a muscular contraction that seals in prana, or energy, the life force that lives with and moves through all of us. There are three that get used chiefly in Ashtanga: mula bandha, uddhiyana bandha and jalandara bandha.
Mula bandha, also known as “root lock”, is an internal engagement of your perineum, the muscle between your genitals and anus. The shorthand for engaging mula bandha is to tighten your anus, or engage the muscles you use to stop peeing. Mula bandha engages your pubococcygeus muscle, a sling of muscles on the floor of your pelvis.
Uddhiyana bandha means “Upward flying lock”, and to do it, you engage your lower abdomen. Uddhiyana bandha works in tandem with mula bandha and they’re both an important part of practicing Ashtanga. Here’s a great article on mula bandha and how you can use it in your practice. The last bandha is jalandara, at the throat, that you engage in certain poses without trying, and can stimulate your thyroid gland. This is a really compelling articulation of all three bandhas and how they work together.
So in this new tradition, I spend a lot more time and effort considering how these three elements are a part of my physical practice. I’d love to hear from other yogis with more experience on any of these three, and how they work in your own practice!
*This is according to Sharath Jois, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois and the current top of the Ashtanga yoga instruction pyramid in the world.