My Experiments with Ashtanga Yoga Part Five by Matt Ryan
Where’s your head at ?
‘Samastitihiii’ Guruji would bellow from the depths of his soul at the start of class, this mountainous sound reverberating around the shala in Mysore and into our hearts and minds. Just remembering being witness to this instruction from the Ashtanga Yoga Guru makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. For me Guruji’s whole personality & teachings are embodied in this simple Sanskrit phrase.
The word samastitihi just means same or equal (sama) standing (stitihi) but it goes much deeper than standing up straight on your mat. I can remember going to my first couple of yoga classes and the teacher regularly castigating me for not having my feet perfectly (big toes and heels touching) together. At the time I thought he was just being a little bit anal retentive and boy oh boy I so wanted to tell him to take the bug out of his ass and leave me alone. But thankfully I never did and it was only when I started teaching yoga myself did I truly understand exactly what he meant. These days when I’m teaching I can be far, far more tetchy than my first teacher ever was with me when I see regular offenders with their feet apart. (So beware if you ever come to my class – I’ll be on your feet.)
When teaching a ‘led’ class the samastitihi instruction is used plenty of times, it’s usually the first thing an Ashtanga teacher would announce –even before the opening chant. And as mentioned above the meaning goes way deeper than the physical.
Once the body is in samastitihi we can then move into the realms of the mind by allowing both the inhale and exhale to express the instruction. The resonance of the inhale becoming equal to the exhale, even permitting for the pauses at the ends of the breath to do the same. When a student first comes into the class room their minds can be jumping around buzzing with thoughts about what they’ve been up to that day or what to have for dinner after class and if there’s nothing in place to for them to help drop these ‘fluctuations of the mind’ their practice becomes unfocussed from the word go. Once the body and breath are equal, all is good we are ready for practice.
At the end of each sun salutation and also at the finish of each standing posture the student returns to samastitihi, making sure each time that the feet are together and the breath is equal. Sometimes in class I like to make a comparison between the cosmic mudra (the positioning of the hands) in zazen (the Zen form of meditation) and samastitihi. When sitting zazen the student places the left hand in the right hand and allows for the tips of the thumbs to touch to make an oval shape – see photo.
If the thumbs ever become separate from each other it’s a good indication that the mind has drifted off into dreamland territory. Similarly if a student ever steps back to samastitihi with their feet apart to me it’s a sign that their focus has drifted off somewhere else.
I remember reading about a Zen monk asking his teacher what the essence of the (zazen) practice was. ‘Attention’ came the terse reply from the teacher. Again the student asks the same question expecting perhaps a slightly more informed answer, this time the teacher ferociously repeats the same word three times ‘ATTENTION ATTENTION ATTENTION’!
I.M.H.O. (yep I’m down with the social media acronyms kids) samastitihi is the yoga version of attention. The whole practice can be contained within its simplicity: the asanas are the physical expression, the breath the mind counterpart. Samastitihi is attention to a steady body, a steady breath, a steady gaze. Once we get these 3 working in union with each other we can hope for a steadier mind. A steady mind means an open mind and if you want me to get really cosmic (man) , the mind and body are mirrors for each other , so an open mind is an open heart.
Read Matt’s other Experiments with Ashtanga Yoga