03 Jun Please be upstanding for…Samastitih!
A friend and I were once joking about how easy it can be to get addicted to ‘prep – poses’. In case you are wondering what on earth a ‘prep – pose’ might be, it’s a nickname for any number of warm ups which a student might use to make a difficult asana feel easier. It’s a practice that doesn’t really work in the Astanga tradition because it keeps taking the student out of a sequence in which just about every asana could be viewed as preparation for another.
“Imagine giving prep poses for samastitih!” Said my friend. “What would that look like?”
It was both a joke and a rhetorical question. But I recently heard it being answered in a very illuminating interview with veteran Astangi David Swenson.
David has been practicing and teaching Astanga Yoga for decades. He was one of the first westerners to visit Pattabhi Jois’ original research institute in Mysore and there is not much he can’t tell you about this method. Despite the depth of his knowledge (or maybe because of it) he always manages to come across as humble and awestruck when talking about the practice. In the interview David was sharing his thoughts on what it means to be an advanced student of this method. After many decades, exploring many series, he has concluded that it is a mistake to view advancement in terms of how many complicated asanas you can do. These challenges, he asserts, are like ‘toys for a child’. Toys beguile toddlers into learning by being so absorbing. The ‘toys’ we play with on the yoga mat might not all look or feel the same but they are there to teach us the same thing.
“Advancement in an asana is not about strength, flexibility or physical prowess”, says David. “Rather it is determined by our presence, our focus and our intention. When the mind wanders, we need to be able to bring it back to the task at hand. This should be possible whether we are balancing on our forearms or standing in Samastitih”.
When did you last pay any real attention to how you do samastitih? The honest answer for most of us would be “not recently”…maybe even “never.”
Let’s spend some time with one of the most overlooked, underrated asanas in our practice. It is the very first posture we are taught and (as I’m sure you never tire of hearing me say) in Yoga the first things we learn are some of the most important.
Many people don’t even realize that Samastitih is an asana. This is partly down to a quirk in the way vinyasas are counted in our method. In other yoga traditions, standing the same way is called Tadasana (often translated as “mountain posture”, with the feet symbolizing the base and the head the summit).
Samastitih and Tadasana are actually the same asana. Calling Tadasana Samastitih in a vinyasa practice works on two levels. On a simple level, it is not uncommon for a posture which is repeated many times in a series to be referred to only by its place in the count. Two other obvious examples are the so – called upward and downward facing dog positions (known in Sanskrit as Adho Mukhasvanasana and Urdvha Mukhasvanasana).
Samastitih works on a deeper level as well because, unlike all the other vinyasas, it is not represented by a number. It’s a more like a place or a state. Remember that in our practice everything is ‘carefully placed’. Vinyasa is not just the matching of breath with movement. It is the order in which those movements take place. It is the place of each asana within each series. Every asana evolves from and returns to Samastitih. This is why it can’t be represented by a number. It’s not the first Vinyasa in any given sequence and it’s not the last. It’s something beyond those concepts.
What’s in a name?
To understand Samastitih, it helps to look at the Sanskrit. Sama means equal (it’s the root of our word ‘same’) and Stitih means standing. So we are “standing equally”. We are in a physical representation of something like equilibrium. The concept of equilibrium is highly significant in the ancient philosophy systems from which modern day yoga comes. In the school of thought known as Samkhya, all existence (Prakriti) evolves from a state of endless potential (Purusa). This state is almost impossible to describe and pretty hard to comprehend but you could describe all existence as asymmetry and the Purusa state as equilibrium. Imagine that Purusa is an endless ocean, totally flat and calm. From the surface of the ocean a wave rises. This is Prakriti. The wave swells to contain everything in existence. Eventually the wave subsides and returns to its source. The wave appears to be fleeting, impermanent and, to the untrained eye, different to the calm water. In reality they are one and the same. The existence of the wave takes nothing away from the ocean and the wave is not destroyed by returning to its source. According to Patanjali, who was profoundly influenced by Samkhya philosophy, our misidentification with the wave and not the ocean is the root cause of all suffering.
There is a shanti mantra from the Isha Upanishad that helps us to understand purusa and prakriti. Here the word Purna is used to describe wholeness, perfection and (perhaps most helpfully tor modern readers) infinity.
Pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaṃ
Pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate
Pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya
“That is infinite, this is infinite.
From that infinity came this infinity
Though this infinity came from that infinity
That infinity remains infinite”.
Interestingly, the literal translation of Samkhya is ‘numbers’ and some scholars argue that Purusa can be represented by a number. That number is zero.
If you apply the word ‘zero’ to the mantra from the Isha Upanishad it still makes total sense and of course it is in line with universal mathematics.
Regarding Samastitih as zero also explains its uncounted place amongst the vinyasas of our practice. If zero symbolizes a Purusa – like state then that works, too. Everything we do on the mat evolves from and returns to Samastitih.
Symbolism aside, how do we use Samastitih to bring us to a place of “equal standing?”
It helps to start with the feet. Traditionally they are together with the big toes gently touching each other. However this is not helpful for people who have issues with balance and in this instance, its better to place the feet slightly apart. About hip – width should do it. Some people say we are trying to find all four corners of the feet in order to stand equally. This basically means neither leaning into the heels nor onto the balls of the feet. It also means gently lifting the arches, which brings us neatly to the legs. Maintaining a lift in the arches of the feet will lift the quadriceps (the front of the thighs) without hyper -extending the knees (i.e. pushing your kneecaps back into their sockets). Continuing upwards, Samastitih gives us a really good opportunity to practice breathing with sound and adding the energetic lifts or locks which help to enhance the elusive Bandhas (you can read more about these here). To explore this in Samastitih, start with the perineum. Lift it gently towards the navel. This will close the anal sphincter and create a feeling of core strength. In turn, lift the navel towards the ribcage, as if you were trying to make the belly button longer. Lift the ribcage away from the navel and allow your breath to fully expand your chest cavity. Breathe through the nose unless you are too congested to manage this. Lengthen and equalize your inhalations and exhalations. If it is appropriate, add sound to the breath at the back of the throat. Dip the chin to the throat (without locking it down). A soft dip of the chin will serve to truly elongate the spine by ensuring that the neck is fully extended. It will also allow you to maintain the dristi (visual focus) of samastitih, which is straight ahead.
Your hands should rest against the side of your legs and, as much as your ribcage is lifting, your shoulders are moving down and around the spinal column so that you are not hunching.
Reading all the above you might be thinking: “I never get long enough in Samastitih to go through all that!” It is true that in a led or counted class, our time in Samastitih is all too fleeting. In self-practice, however, you return to Samastitih to regulate yourself. It might take one or two breaths, it might take several. It should take as long as you need! This is one of the reasons why Samastitih is such an important posture. It constantly draws us back to a place where we can focus on the most fundamental aspect of practice: stilling the mind by regulating the breath. If we can do that, anything is possible.
A nice, concise Encyclopedia Britannica definition of Samkhya here
Listen to the David Swenson interview here
Listen to an audiofile of the mantra here