The Meaning of Tristana
Tristana translates to three places. The term was first coined by Pattabhi Jois to describe the techniques involved in his method of Ashtanga yoga. To which end, as opposed to the structure of the sequences or the jumping-vinyasa as definitive of this practice, the foundation of Ashtanga yoga is actually defined and based on the use of this very particular and subtle development of an inner technique.
The technique is variously elaborated; often breath, bandha and drishti. Pattabhi Jois refers to it as posture, bandha, drishti. This is an important difference to mention, for it illustrates how, for Jois, the posture of the body inherently takes in breath as part of it. Indeed, without the diaphragmatic awareness involved in breath, the posture cannot be fully developed.
Origins of Tristana
Indeed, its’ not simply Pattabhi Jois’ innovation. Rather, although his terminology may be new, what he is referring to has its precedent, albeit under different names, in the early tantric texts beginning in the 12th Century with the dattatreya yoga shastra. Here we find mention of ‘maha mudra, maha Veda, maha bandha’, principles that very much resemble Jois’ tristana.
Differences to note are that, in tantric hatha yoga, where our modern practices draw their inspiration, we simply find static postures only. Moreover, only a few of them.
Second, the breath is pranayama, not the kind of yoga-breathing we are now more familiar. Instead, this, much lighter style of breathing came much later (starting probably with Shri Yogendra at the beginning of the twentieth century).
Perhaps this kind of step-down is in line with the difference in Pattabhi Jois’ technique most generally. That is, he appears to be teaching pretty much the same method as we find in traditional texts, the main point of difference being that the original tantric method was aiming at generating a kind of strength of energy flowing in the system to the degree that the original operating system would be blown-up in the aim of freedom.
Use of bandha
On the other hand, the tristana as we know it involves bandha to ‘dam’ the system and breath to increase the energy running through it (along with drishti) in exactly the same way that hatha yoga has always instructed; but, in a fundamentally more moderate way in line with the fact that Pattabhi Jois always called his method householder yoga. The focus being that yoga increases ones’ ability to engage and interact with life, as opposed to, essentially, ending it.
Along these lines, consideration of the tristana also feeds into Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois’ pragamatisation of Patanjalis’ Yoga Sutras as they looked to aligning their method with the ideas in this text. For, here, we find the idea of placing attention on a limited range of focus, especially with the method of drishti in order to, not only increase the energy flowing in the body, but, in reigning in the mind, increase our mental awareness also.
Three become one
To this end, essentially, the three techniques of tristana are fundamentally one. For example, right posture is for the sake of breath, but impossible also, without bandha and drishti. Indeed, all of these elements are impossible as well as irrelevant without referring back to all of the other elements and using them all together. Hence, bandha is for the sake of breath, but impossible without correct breath. Drishti is for the sake of concentration, but, also for the sake of using this awareness in order to develop bandha, breath and posture. Indeed, the interrelations are numerous and the techniques are not really possible to talk of in isolation.
To conclude then, as we started, a most comprehensive understanding of the method of Ashtanga yoga is related to the grasping and development of the esoteric, inner method and not the set sequences, nor the specificities of the vinyasa count. Then, the degree of engagement involved in tristana has changed, but not the essential method as the basis of the hatha yoga that makes up ashtanga. This is to say, ashtanga as we know it, is simply a preference for a particular style of pursuing the ancient method – which, therein, should be the real focus of what we are doing.