Ashtanga Blog

What are the main characteristics of Ashtanga Yoga

Tristhana, the inner mechanism that makes Ashtanga so special and different from other yoga styles.

Tania practicing Eka Pada Sirsasana pose in Mysore, India

In most people’s minds, the main thing that differentiates Ashtanga Yoga from other yoga styles is the fixed sequence and the 6 series it comprises. We know that Ashtanga is a “strict” style that requires a lot of discipline. No changes should be made on the sequence nor are we supposed to skip poses or mix and match like in other styles.

But the beating heart of Ashtanga Yoga is in its inner mechanism that is called Tristhana. And this is what makes Ashtanga a Method rather than just another style.

Tristhana is a Sanskrit word meaning 3 places. Those are the 3 places that we need to focus on when practicing Ashtanga Yoga. They allow the practice to become light, calm, meditative and give to it its essence that cannot be found anywhere else.

The three places are: Asana, Breath and Drishti.


Asanas are all the static poses that we perform and hold for a certain number of breaths. According to the Yoga Sutras (YS 2.46), asanas should be steady and comfortable. This state of steadiness and comfort is achieved through correct breathing but also a regular practice over a long period of time.

Asanas in Ashtanga Yoga embody the static element of the practice as they are all held for 5 breaths or more. This is a main difference from other styles of Yoga such as Vinyasa Flow where there is no static element and the whole practice is a movement.

But the Ashtanga practice is not only static. A distinction should be made between “asana sthiti” (state of the asana) and “vinyasa” (transition). Vinyasa embodies the dynamic part, a movement coordinated with the breath. To enter and exit each asana, we perform certain movements with the prescribed inhale or exhale.

One movement, one breath.

Ashtanga Yoga combines static and dynamic, ease and effort, relaxation and activation, grounding and flowing. Through this combination and a very specific way of breathing, the Ashtanga practice calms the mind but also energises the body and stimulates the nervous system.


All the above would be of no meaning if it wouldn’t be for the breath. This is the most crucial element when it comes to Ashtanga Yoga. The quality of the breath can change not only the practice but the life of the practitioner.

In Ashtanga Yoga we breathe through the nose only. The breath is diaphragmatic, meaning that it doesn’t make the belly swell like most people’s natural way of breathing. Instead, it makes the diaphragm expand.

While breathing, a very particular sound is produced through the glottis, the part of the larynx consisting of the vocal cords and the opening between them. By slightly contracting the glottis, a sound is produced that can be compared to the sound of the waves.

This sound is often called Ujjayi. It should not be confused with Ujjayi pranayama, a breathing technique with long retentions which is very different from the breathing we use in asana practice. In Mysore nowadays it is not called Ujjayi anymore but “free breathing with sound”. Free means the absence of retention.

Another component of Ashtanga Yoga that goes hand in hand with the breath is the bandhas. Bandhas are energetic locks in the body which can be engaged to direct the energy flow to specific areas through the breath.

The main bandhas are mula bandha (pelvic floor), uddiyana bandha (lower part of the abdomen up to the diaphragm) and jalandhara bandha (throat).  Bandhas can only be engaged through diaphragmatic breathing. The idea is to keep the lower belly in through mula and uddiyana bandha, guiding the energy upwards towards the diaphragm and sealing it there through use of jalandhara bandha. In this way the energy does not escape either backwards or upwards.

This way of breathing increases the energy and the heat in the body, protects the spine from injuries and renders the practice meditative by directing the attention inwards.

All the above should be performed in a subtle and moderate way. Extreme engagement of bandhas should be avoided during asana practice. The belly should remain soft and we should have a sense of engagement and ease, not contraction. Too much bandha is as detrimental as too little. It can lead to exhaustion and a sense of constriction in the movement.


Drishti in Sanskrit means gaze. For every asana there is a prescribed gaze, the point where we should look at. There are 9 drishtis: (thumb, eyebrows, tip of the nose, tips of hands, sides, upwards, navel and tips of the feet).

Resting the gaze at a steady point brings clarity and calm in the mind, enhancing the meditative aspect of the practice and allowing us to turn our attention inwards.

Softening the outside corners of the eyes can have a calming affect. The reason is that the nerves of that area belong to the parasympathetic nervous system which rules rest, relaxation and repair.

But drishti has also physical benefits. It determines the position of the spine and especially the cervical part of it. Drishti contributes to each asana’s goal by giving direction and even preventing wrong movements.

Finally, in order to follow the prescribed drishti the neck needs to move in different directions. Neck mobilisation is crucial in an era where most people’s eyes are constantly fixed on screens and their necks and shoulders slouched.

Drishtis should not be taken literally. For example, you don’t really need to see your navel in downward dog or cross your eyes to see the tip of your nose. Drishti is more about direction, not exactitude.

An inner mechanism leading to transformation

Tristhana embodies the union between body and mind through the breath.

The three elements of Tristhana combined together make Ashtanga Yoga the unique practice that it is. They function as an impediment to distraction, since the attention needs to be turned inwards. The more internal things we give our mind to focus on, the less it is likely to wander. This is why Ashtanga Yoga is a moving meditation.

This practice can transform not only our bodies but our mind, the way we think and respond to external stimuli. The time we spend on the mat listening only to the sound of our breath, wisely directing our energy and combining lightness and strength in our movement can become a catalyst of change.

According to the Yoga Sutra 2.48, by the practice of asana one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites.  

Preferences, aversions, likes and dislikes, opinions and ideologies matter less and less once we are connected to our true nature.

Ashtanga Yoga teaches us to cherish what is within and be less dependent on external things. Life becomes not so much about what we want but who we are and how we feel.

And this is the path to true freedom.