“Where focus goes, energy flows.” Tony Robbins
Dolphins are experts in sound, bears have a formidable sense of smell, bats navigate through echolocation but we, as humans, are predominantly visual animals. And although it isn’t talked about often, vision plays a very special role in yoga.
The Sanskrit word drishti is commonly translated as ‘focused gaze’. We use the drishti, much like the breath, to enhance concentration and direct attention to our inner experience. The gaze can act as a focal point for the mind and as a tool for deepening awareness. We can also use the drishti to direct the flow of energy (which is far less esoteric than it sounds) and intensify our practice.
Drishti is not so much an intense stare, as a soft but directional gaze that lies somewhere between narrow and peripheral vision, focussed concentration and open awareness.
A TOOL FOR MEDITATION
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” Bruce Lee
When you learn to be intentional with your drishti, yoga is a form of meditation. Much like the breath in seated meditation, the drishti becomes a focal point for the mind. It helps us to draw attention in from the outside world and be mindfully aware of our inner experience. This is what makes the drishti so powerful. It keeps us anchored to the mat—present and grounded, rather than lost in space, unconsciously going through the motions.
When you turn up the volume on one sense circuit, in this instance vision, it helps to suppress competing stimuli, such as intrusive thoughts and distractions in the environment. In traditional breath meditation, focusing on the sensations of the breath allows you to watch the workings of your mind more closely. In yoga, being intentional with your gaze allows you to tune in more deeply to the physical sensations of your practice and the effect that the poses have on your mental state.
THE NINE DRISHTIS
There are nine drishtis in classical yoga—seven to specific parts of your body and two into space.
- Up to your thumbs, when you bring your palms together above your head, like at the beginning of Sun Salutation A.
- At the tip of the nose, in backbends like Cobra and Bridge.
- To your toes, in most seated forward bends, for example, Head-To-Knee pose.
- To the tips of your fingers, in poses with out-stretched arms, including Triangle and Warrior 2.
- To your naval, for example, in Downward Facing Dog.
- In between your eyebrows in seated meditation.
- Upward into space, for example, in Extended Side Angle and Reverse Warrior.
- (and 9) All the way to the right or the left in twisting poses, including Reclining Spinal Twist.
The specific drishti is less important than your attitude. The goal is to be intentional with your gaze as you come into each pose and to stay connected to what you see throughout the session. You can use your drishti as a tool to direct your energy, refine your alignment and deepen the intensity.
DRISHTI IN ACTION
One of the easiest places to start experimenting with the drishti is in one-legged balancing poses, such as Tree or Dancer. The trick is to look at a point at eye-line that isn’t moving and then soften your gaze. You’ll notice that as soon as you lose your drishti—either you are distracted by something in your visual field or your mind wanders away from the practice—you’ll topple over. (You can see how practicing in an uncluttered space can be helpful.) When you’re super focused and in the zone, you should be able to hold these poses for several minutes at a time.
When you have mastered your drishti in balancing poses, you can practice your skills in other postures. For example, in twists, the tendency, if you’re not concentrating fully, is to look down, collapsing your spine and restricting your breathing. If you lengthen your spine and look at a point at eye-line all the way to the right or the left, you’ll find that you can go much deeper into the pose.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE EFFECT
When you start to become more comfortable with incorporating the drishti into your practice, you’ll find that your awareness of your inner experience is heightened, especially as you become more adept at blocking out distractions.
Choose one of the balancing sequences and play around with it. Notice how focusing on and adjusting your gaze affects your experience. How does shifting your drishti affect your balance? Can you use it to take you deeper into the poses? Does focusing on your drishti improve your concentration? What do you notice about your alignment when you pay attention to the direction of your gaze? Does focusing on your drishti allow you to tune in more closely to sensations in your body?
I’d love to hear how focusing on your drishti affects your practice.