This is the first installment of a series of posts that will help instruct the practice of Ashtanga - on the physical how to level and to take the practice deeper to achieve a more fulfilling practice of traditional yoga.
The first step, pose, position in the Ashtanga system is to stand in Tadasana - the Mountain Pose - and invoke Samasthitih - a feeling of equanimity, steadiness and focused attention. It is literally setting up the causes and conditions for the practice to come - stepping into the blueprint that applies to all postures to follow, and creating the conditions for an inclusive, balanced, personal practice. Tadasana and the invocation of Samasthitih provide the fundamental foundation on which to build your practice.
For many people practicing ashtanga, or yoga for that matter, the nuances of Samasthitih are easily missed. It is a step to the starting line, but if we focus on the finish line, if we dismiss the practice as a workout, the depth and foundation of the practice can be missed. It can be dismissed as a trivial posture on the way to something more vibrant like a forward fold or a deep backbend.
When we step to the top of the yoga mat and place ourselves in Tadasana, we are taking our place in the lineage of all the yogis who have done this ancient practice before us. We step to the brink of the yoga mat and we step to the brink of ourselves. We step into the format for all the poses to come - a format that is balanced, steady, and relaxed. The charter for the practice is to release the tensions of suffering - the physical, energetic, emotional and mental residue that causes suffering. The practice offers strengthening, stretching, and balancing on all those levels, however, to get there we must practice inclusively, openly and compassionately. We do that by invoking Samasthitih.
In Samasthitih, we are setting and remembering our intention to stay focused on the moment we are in right now. We are setting the intention to do our best to align the practice with our charter to be inclusive, compassionate and open to whatever the practice may enlighten, without grasping or averting. It is a promise to seek our true selves in this practice. As the practice progresses, anytime we return to Samasthitih, it is a reminder to stay focused on our intentions.
Samasthitih is the beginning of the moving meditation of Ashtanga. It invokes an anchor for our awareness in the bandhas, breath and dristi. We’ll examine this trinity another day, but suffice it to say that like a seated meditation, we return the anchors for awareness when we catch ourselves caught up in the past or the future - which are not real nor here now. Just like Tadasana being the physical blueprint found in every pose, Samasthitih belongs in every pose as well.
For beginners, or those new to the Ashtanga sequence, we can start in Tadasana by pausing and inviting Samasthitih from day one. We can set the intention to let yoga meet us on this mat, at this time, just the way we are. It is the way to begin any practice. We can learn that the foundation of any yoga practice is to be open and aware of how the practice feels - in the layer of our self/being where we are directing our attention - which in the beginning is primarily physical. It sets up a good habit and the expectation that in addition to your growth physically in the practice that you will also grow energetically, emotionally and mentally.
The Blueprint of Tadasana
Feet: Step to the top of your mat and place your feet about two fists widths apart. This will set your feet in alignment with your pelvis. (Your ischial tuberosities/sit bones are approximately that far apart.). Look at the toes and notice the space between your second and third toes - this is the center of your foot - use it to direct your feet toward the top of the mat - so there is no turn in or out of the feet (habits). Feel the four corners of the feet equally grounded. Relax the toes - they are there to help you balance and that works best when relaxed. Notice any tendencies to be heavy in the heels or toes, the outside blades of the feet or the inner arches. You will need to monitor these tendencies to bring them back into balance in all poses. This stance may seem contrary to what you have heard from other teachers. I initially learned to stand with my feet together. When I was taught this stance - I believe from Leslie Kaminoff and Sadie Nardini, it physically and intellectually made more sense for a majority of body types. Remember, yoga was initially taught to young boys as a physical education. Westerners, especially grown ups and women, have wider hips. Feet together then puts unnecessary pressure on the hip joints.
Legs: Engage the legs by lifting the kneecaps to engage the front of the thighs. This helps to propel energy from the roots of the feet up to the legs and into the pelvis.
Hips: Notice the pelvis. Set it in neutral by noticing and feeling where the hip points are directed. If directed downward, you may notice an exaggerated lumbar curve of your low back. If that's the case, lift the hip points to face forward rather than downward. If directed upward, you will notice a flat low back and the hip points pointing upward. Direct them down and forward. The neutral pelvis supports the spine in it's natural contours. Once you have found the neutral pelvis, make sure it is level and square to the top of the mat. It should feel peaceful. A peaceful pelvis will be important in all the poses to come. It will help you determine your best navigation through the "maybe buffet" of modifications to customize your practice. Now you can invoke the sturdiness of muhla bandha by drawing your front hip points toward each other. You can't actually move those bones, but the very effort of that will tone your pelvic floor invoking 'root lock,"
Sternum: To draw energy up to the chest, shoulders and head, lift your sternum. Notice how it elongates your torso and brings a gentle bracing of the abdominals. Notice how it relaxes your shoulders back and gently down. Notice how it relaxes your arms by your sides into their natural fall into gravity.
Skull: Lift the energy of the roof of your mouth toward the top of your skull. Relax your scalp and your jaw. Feel the expanse of your physical and energetic presence. It extends beyond the flesh and bones of you.
Totality: Can you feel all of you? Can you imprint this into your sense memory and seek this feeling of balance, strength and flexibility in every pose that follows? Can you now invite Samasthitih?
Anyone can practice Tadasana and Samasthitih. It meets you where you are right now. If you can't stand up, you can practice sitting or lying down.
When you give credence to Tadasana as something more than a position at the starting blocks, you are welcoming a deeper practice…you are willing to look at yourself in this practice…you are willing to show up and do the work of yoga. When you remember Samasthitih, you are remembering that yoga is more than a physical practice. It starts with the physical and works it's way deeper toward true self, peace and joy.
I hope you will bring new awareness to your practice of Tadasana and Samasthitih. I welcome your comments and questions below. Let's chat. In the coming weeks I will be adding more posts on the poses and techniques of Ashtanga yoga.