In my very first Ashtanga class the teacher has mentioned the pelvic floor, inward movement of the belly button, breath and gazing points. And just as everyone else I followed the instructions and tried to look at my navel, squeeze the anus sphincter, pull my lower belly in and breathe soundly. It was not easy, but pretty soon I felt that this actually helped me to work in challenging poses, bend forward and balance in weird positions.

I have read numerous books on this subject and I keep exploring these aspects of Ashtanga practice both on experiential and intellectual levels. To my amazement, I discovered that bandhas, drishti and breath’s action on the physical level is actually connected to sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Diaphragm and sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

Diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that originates from inner surface of lower 6 ribs (T7 –  T12), upper 2-3 lumbar vertebrae (L1 – L3) and inner part of xyphoid process of sternum (T6 – T9). It basically separates the upper (lungs and heart) and lower inner (stomach, intestines, liver etc.) organs, and is engaged when we breathe. Inhalation happens as the diaphragm lowers down drawing the air in, while during exhalation it returns back to its neutral position expelling the air out.

Sympathetic nervous system uses pre- and post-ganglionic neurons to transmit the signals in the body, the first ones originate from thoraco-lumbar region of the spine (T1 – L2) and further join the latter ones, which in turn spread through the entire body (go higher up and compare with the origins of the diaphragm).

Therefore, when we breathe, the diaphragm activates the vertebrae that are also connected to the SNS’s neurons and by this brings it into action. SNS in its turn is connected to homeostasis and to “flight-or-fight response”. The latter we will look at in detail in regards to Ashtanga yoga practice. The flight-or-flight response is related to release of catecholamine hormones, which are being produced in situations when animals and previously humans require fight or flee, involving intense muscular engagement. The release of these hormones is accompanied by various bodily responses, some of which I will mention here:
  • Acceleration of heart and lung action – we all know of heart pumping and loosing breath during practice;
  • Flushing – I have seen those red faces in my classes so often;
  • Slowing down of digestion – for this reason it is not recommended to eat prior to the class;
  • General effect on the sphincters – this helps us to produce the “noisy breath” and engage Mala bandha, but these are just 2 out of 50 sphincters in our body;
  • Liberation of nutrients (fat and glucose) for muscular action  - for that reason many do yoga to lose weight;
  • Shaking – you know what I am talking about, don’t you?
So my point is that in order to maintain such an intense pace of vigorous Ashtanga practice, we need to engage deep breathing so that our sympathetic nervous system activates. This will allow us to perform challenging poses, approach scary asanas and complete long and physically demanding practice.

Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), drishti and the bandhas.

PNS is a counter balancing system to sympathetic one and is responsible of “rest-and-digest” activities in the body. Its nerve fibers originate at S2 – S4 sacral spinal vertebrae and at 3rd, 7th, 9th and 10th cranial nerves (these nerves are respectively related to sight, facial muscle movements, taste, salivation & throat), which emerge directly from the brain. For that reason it is related to as “cranio-sacral” outflow in opposition to “thoraco-lumbar” outflow of sympathetic nervous system. PNS serves us to relax, calm down and lower our heart rate, which is exactly what we need to balance out the action of sympathetic nervous system.

Drishti (translates from Sanskrit as “vision”) is the way we direct our gaze in Ashtanga yoga. We have got 9 main focal points, may be it nose or hand at which we direct our sight throughout the entire practice. Not only this helps us to stay focused and not wonder around the room we are in, but also it helps activating the parasympathetic system through activating 3rd cranial nerve.

We have got three bandhas or energy locks in the body: mula, uddiyana and jalandhara. Mula (root) lock is awakened by engaging and lifting the area of the pelvic floor, which is the area between 2 sit bones, pubic and tail bone. Uddiyana (flying upward) bandha is connected to toning and slight sucking in and up the area just below the navel, which in turn allows us to stabilize the pelvis.  And finally, the jalandara is a throat lock, engaging which helps us to align and free the neck by bringing the chin and sternum towards each other. Needless to point out that the first two are related to the sacral bit of the PNS, whereas the jalandhara bandha is connected to the last 3 cranial nerves of it.

So basically, we need Tristana (bandha, drishti and breath) in order to on one hand stimulate the body for high-performance challenging practice, and on the other hand to allow ourselves to stay relaxed and calm at all times. It is essential to find that perfect balance between these two aspects and for that in each pose we need to understand how to engage certain muscles while relaxing other bits of the body. We need to learn how to persevere the practice (abhyasa) while not being attached to its fruits (vairagya). It is about learning how to have the courage to perform a scary hand stand and work with the fear without becoming obsessed with the result, without wanting it too much, without being disappointed if it does not happen. It is a beautiful eternal process, but hey, we have got a whole life time to enjoy it!


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