I will never forget my very first yoga experience. About ten years ago, a friend and coworker of mine invited me to join her in a ninety minute hot yoga class. Not knowing what to expect, I went into this class with an open mind and humbled presence. Ten minutes into this class I was sweating my booty off and I couldn’t help but become distracted by the women in the front row. They all had what looked like bikinis on and they were able to stretch and balance so gracefully as if they were practicing some sort of dance. Next to them, I felt like the clumsy rookie in the corner who was obviously new to this form of physical activity. One of the most amazing things I noticed about these advanced practitioners was their incredible ability to hold still and concentrate. They didn’t seem to move their eyes once and during that class and I realized that these women were not just staring off randomly, they were purposely setting and utilizing their visual gaze.
For years following that first class, I continued practicing different styles of yoga. Within those classes, especially in balancing poses, I would practice keeping my eyes still because I noticed it would help me maintain my balance. Although I had been consistently practicing this technique for a couple years, it wasn’t until my 200 hour teacher training that I finally learned the method and reason of a focused gaze or drishti.
Drishti is the action of controlling the eyes to visually focus in a specific direction during asana or meditation practices. In Ashtanga Yoga, there are nine different drishtis that are used in accordance to a specific posture. These view points vary from gazing past the tip of the nose to gazing toward the third eye center with eyes closed. Each of these drishtis are meant to align the head and neck properly and strengthen the nerves and muscles around the eyes, while helping the practitioner create awareness and connect to their breath and posture. The word “drishti” (sanskrit: दृष्टि) literally translates into “sight” or “perception”. The purpose of this practice is to eliminate visual distractions and improve concentration and balance. Considering that our energy, or prana, flows where our attention goes, drishti is a significant tool to use in order to develop focus on and off the mat. Here are some examples of using drishti in different yoga postures:
1. Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward Facing Dog Pose
Begin in a table top position (hands and knees) with fingers spread and position the wrists directly under the shoulder heads and the knees under the hip joints. From here, curl the toes under, press into the legs until they are nearly straight and lift the hips upward, creating an upside down V shape in the body. Spread the shoulder blades apart, lengthen though the spine and let the head relax completely (nod the head yes and no a couple times to make sure it is relaxed). While grounding down from the finger tips take some deep breaths in and out of your nose. Once you are in the posture, gaze in the direction you are given with a completely relaxed skull. This gaze’s location may be anywhere between your mat and your navel (Nabi Chakra Drishti, or the navel center is the traditional drishti for this posture). Continue to fill and empty your lungs entirely while maintaining a soft focus on that spot. Although, its best to not continually move the eyes around, you don’t want to stare too hard either. Try relaxing the eyes in their sockets and find a hazy, still gaze. Begin to notice if it is difficult to stay fixated on one single subject. If you are new to practicing with drishti, this may be the case. Try your best to resist the urge to shift your eyes and keep your focus.
2. Vrksasana or Tree Pose
Begin standing with feet close together. Bend into the left knee and place the left foot onto the inside of the right shin or thigh (avoid pressing on the knee joint). With the left toes pointing downward, encourage the left hip to externally rotate and open by slightly drawing that knee backward. Bring your palms together at the center of the chest or reach both arms overhead (palms together or at a shoulders distance) and focus your gaze forward and/or upward (Urdhva Drishti). Once again, try to find one specific location to direct your eyes and commit to it. Considering Tree Pose is a balancing posture, try experimenting with the idea that wandering eyes lead to a loss of balance. If you are skeptical of how powerful the practice of drishti can be, try holding this pose while continually looking around the room and see what happens. When you are ready to find a good balance, come back to your set gaze and notice the difference in your ability to hold still.
3. Trikonasana or Triangle Pose
From standing at the top of the mat, step the left foot backward about 3 feet (more or less considering your height) and position the front heel to line up with the inner arch of the back foot. Without locking the knees, straighten the legs and reach both arms parallel to the floor, in opposing directions (aligning the right hand over the right foot and left hand over left foot) with palms faced down. On an exhalation, reach forward with the right hand while hinging at your front hip. Once you cannot reach any farther, maintain a still torso and release the right hand down toward the inner (or outer for Ashtangi’s) part of the thigh or shin. Turn the palms to face outward and reach the left hand over head. Now, the traditional drishti for this posture is Hastagrai Drishti or at the top hand, however, if it is strenuous to move the neck in that direction, just simply look straight across or even down toward the right foot. No matter which gaze you choose, just be sure to maintain a soft, hazy focus without shifting the eyes around. For example, if you choose to gaze upward at your hand, don’t focus on the hand directly, but instead, imagine that your hand is transparent and you are looking beyond that point.
Looking back to that ever so humbling yoga experience nearly ten years ago, I can still remember the feeling of observing that peaceful strength demonstrated by the graceful women in the front row. Now that I have cultivated my own yoga practice as both a student and a teacher, I realize the importance of finding and maintaining a strong drishti. Over time I have noticed that my ability to focus in on specific ideas or actions outside of yoga has strengthened as well. I have found that my overall concentration has greatly improved as a result of practicing this form of visual and mental control.
Mastering concentration is the first step to practicing meditation. Meditation is the practice of stilling the mind to eliminate unnecessary stress and negative thought patterns. If drishti can improve our ability to concentrate, then surely drishti is a major contributor in achieving inner peace and oneness.
Liz Campbell is a 500 RYT certified yoga instructor living and teaching in Laguna Beach, California. She teaches a range of classes that include Meditation, Pranayama techniques, gentle and therapeutic asana and basic to advanced Vinyasa flow classes. As a teacher, her passion is to spread the knowledge and benefits of yoga to anyone who is interested in creating a better quality of life.