Focused Gaze in Yoga
Where the eyes go, there the mind goes.
In Sanskrit, drishti means gaze; it can also mean vision, a point of view, or intelligence and wisdom.
Human beings are predominantly visual creatures. We see through the eyes, which are the sense doors, responsive to light and are the delicate. This is why they can be appear more tense than any other sensory organ,. With the eyes in tension, the whole mind is tense. Eyes are the doors to the mind. They connect the inside mind to the outside world.
Control of gaze, drishti, has been taught in Yoga for millinea. Drishti is the use of specific, directed gazing for the eyes, to control attention. Focused gaze, is a means for developing concentrated intention. Its practice relates to the fifth limb of yoga (pratyahara) concerning sense withdrawal, together with the sixth limb (dharana) relating to concentration.
The use of drishti in asana serves both as a training technique and as a metaphor for focusing consciousness toward the vision of oneness. Drishti organises our perceptual apparatus to recognise and overcome the limits of ‘normal’ vision. One of the main purposes of yoga is to bring the mind under control so that it isn’t constantly wandering from one thing to another.
Drishti encourages an inward looking attitude and discourages students from looking around the room or being distracted by non-yogic thoughts. In the postures of yoga, drishti, or gaze, keeps the mind focused and concentrated.
The practice of drishti develops concentration, and teaches you to see the world as it really is.
When the eyes are totally steady and fixed, the eye-sensory mind, stopped from its usual mode of operation, stops; it cannot wander.
Where the eyes are directed, attention follows.
Our attention is the most valuable thing we have. Yet the visible world can be an addictive, over-stimulating, and spiritually debilitating lure. When we get caught up in the outer appearance of things, our prana (vitality) flows out and gets dissipated. Allowing the eyes to wander creates distractions that lead us further away from focus.
By controlling and directing the focus of eyes, and then of attention, we can control the focus of our mind.
Drishti is a primary part of Hatha Yoga, Gyana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga traditions. However, there may be differences and variation in styles regarding how drishti is practiced and which ones are used for specific asanas,
Besides its use in asana, drishti is applied in other yogic practices. In the kriya of trataka the eyes are held open until tears flow. This technique not only gives the eyes a wash but also challenges the student to practice overriding unconscious urges – in this case, the urge to blink.
Human eyes can only see objects in front that reflect the visible spectrum of light, but yogis seek to view an inner reality not normally visible. With drishti practice, we develop the awareness and understanding of how our brains let us see only what we want to see. Joining the dots, we learn to see how often our opinions, prejudices and habits prevent us from seeing Reality. Drishti is a technique for seeing correctly the world around us. Used in this way, it becomes a technique for removing the ignorance that obscures this true vision, a technique that allows us to see oneness in everything.
Incorporating drishti into every posture is an advanced practice, so students usually undergo a heirarchy of practices that build up to drishti. Students master co-ordinated breath and movement (vinyasa) first, and then gradually incorporate more dams, locks, seals and gestures (bandha and mudra) into their practice, and then drishti.
The correct use of three pillars, tristhana, namely the breath, bandha and drishti in an yoga practice is said to bring us closer to reality and unleash the power of the five elements.
The element of earth is activated by mula bandha, producing foundation, stability and strength.
The element of water is found in the fluidity of flowing posture work, or vinyasa, and in the sweat produced by the practice.
The element of fire is found by connecting to the heat of ujjai practice, particularly at manipura chakra and throughout the body in the practice of sun salutations, surya namaskara.
The element of air is linked to by the continuous and uninterrupted flow of breath in and out of the body and the feeling of lightness at the heart centre, anahata chakra created by the application of bandhas.
The element of space is found during the postures as students seek to open up the body and find new levels of stretch and flexibility, and at vishuddhi chakra, the throat centre.
Yoga brings about transformation on physical, emotional, mental and energetic levels. When the above elements are correctly incorporated into the practice of yoga, the process of positive change starts. The positive transformation of the body and mind by yoga is seen as the fruit of practice and a reward for working with dedication and discipline at this demanding system of asana practice.
For instance, sometimes in meditation and pranayama practices the eyes are held half-open and the gaze is turned up toward the third eye or the tip of the nose. In the Bhagavad Gita (VI.13), Krishna instructs Arjuna, ““to hold the body and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose.” When using an inner gaze, the eyelids are closed and the gaze is directed in and up toward the light of the third eye.
“The closure of the eyes … directs the sadhaka (practitioner) to meditate upon Him who is verily the eye of the eye… and the life of life.”
Throughout the history of yoga, clear, true perception has been both the practice and goal of yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “You are not able to behold me with your own eyes; I give thee the divine eye, behold my Lordly yoga” (11.8).
In Yoga Sutras, the classic exposition of yoga, Patanjali points out that ‘in viewing the world, we tend not to see reality clearly, but instead get deluded by the error of false perception’. This basic misidentification iarises from avidya (ignorance), and from its counterpart, vidya, is our true identity. In Chapter II, verse 6, he says that ‘we confuse the act of seeing with the true perceiver: purusha, the Self’. He continues, in verse 17, to say that ‘this confusion about the true relationship between the act of seeing, the object seen, and the identity of the Seer is the root cause of suffering’. His cure for this suffering is to look correctly into the world around us.
Simplistically, in every asana in yoga, students are taught to direct their gaze to one of nine specific points, but, as we have seen, the full meaning of drishti isn’t limited to its value in asana. The nine drishtis (when you count both Parshva Dṛiṣhṭis, left and right sides, as one) are:
Nine Types of Drishti
Angustha madhye means ‘to the middle of the thumb’, the practitioner looks to the thumb, for instance in the Surya Namaskara vinyasas.
Bhru madhye means ‘to the middle of the eyebrows/brow, has the gaze set at the ‘third eye’, which is right between the eyebrows. In order to do this, the eyes are closed half way. This purportedly stimulates the olfactory and optic nerves, consequently awakening the autonomic and central nervous systems. It soothes the cranial nerves and aids concentration, and helps awaken kundalini shakti.
It is advised that caution be taken as prolonged or incorrect practice may cause problems for the eye muscles or nervous system. Initial practice is often done for only seconds at a time, but is gradually increased.
An example of a vinyasa which includes the Bhrumadhye dṛiṣhṭi in its practice is Surya Namaskara.
Nasagre means ‘to the tip of the nose’, has the eyes fixed on the tip of the nose, which purportedly strengthens the eye muscles.
Keep the body in a firm, upright pose as in padmasana (lotus) if possible, and centre the gaze at the tip of the nose. In the later stages, it can be practised even with the closed eyes. The process of gazing at the tip of the nose without fluttering the eyelids, helps to achieve the concentration of the mind.
While learning it can be performed for a minute or two at a stretch. Later, it may be practised for longer duration.
This helps achieve the concentration of the brain fast and with ease.
Hastagrahe generally meansg ‘the taking of the hand’ or ‘the putting of the hand to’, or (in the context of dṛiṣhṭi) ‘to the tips of the hand’, involves looking at the (usually extended) tips or palm of the hand.
Utthita Trikonasana, and its twisted partner Parivrtta Trikonasana are two examples of asanas which employ hastagraha dṛiṣhṭi.
Parshva involves looking to the left or right side.
Urdhva has the eyes raised, pointing upwards, to the sky.
The navel is the center of focus for the nabhichakre drishti, meaning ‘to the magical navel-circle. Downward facing dog, adho-mukha-svanasana uses the Nabhichakre drishti.
Padayoragre means ‘to the tips of the feet’. It can be achieved by gazing to the toes.
Basis of Drishti
The source of drishtis in yoga is pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and dharana (concentration), which are the fifth and sixth limbs of the eight limbs of yoga.
To avoid the delusion and suffering caused by preoccupation with sense objects as described in the Maitri Upanishad, sense withdrawal must be practiced in order to help the practitioner become ‘centered’. According to tantric philosophy, keeping ‘centered’ madhya will eventually suspend the mind, and prana, allowing recognition of bhairava, or device consciousness.
The sixth limb of yoga, dharana (concentration), includes maintaining drishti during yoga practice in order to ensure dhyana (meditation) will occur.
As with many Yogic techniques, with drishti too there is a danger of mistaking the technique for the goal. Dedicate your use of the body (including the eyes) to transcend your identification with it. Thus, when you look at an object during your practice, avoid focusing on it with a hard gaze. Instead, use a soft gaze, looking through it toward a vision of cosmic unity. Soften your focus to send your attention beyond outer appearance to inner essence.
In general, practitioners should use the various bahya (external) gazing points during more externally oriented yoga practices, including asanas (yoga poses), kriyas (cleansing practices), seva (the service work of karma yoga), and bhakti (devotion); use the antar (internal) gaze to enhance contemplative and meditative practices. If you find yourself closing the eyes during any practice and focusing on the dramas or perplexities of life instead of being able to maintain a neutral, detached focus, re-establish an outer gaze. On the other hand, if the outer gaze becomes a distraction to your concentration, perhaps an inner-directed correction is necessary.
Constant application of drishti develops ekagrata, single-pointed focus. When you restrict your visual focus to one point, your attention doesn’t wander from object to object. Moreover, it becomes much easier for you to notice the internal wanderings of your attention and maintain balance in mind as well as body.
Drishti gives the True View
A Yogi uses a vision comprised of viveka (discrimination between ‘real view’ and ‘unreal, apparent view’) and vairagya (detachment from a mistaken identification with either the instrument of seeing or that which is seen). Charged with yogic vision, we see the true Self. As we gaze at others, we perceive our own form, which is Love itself. We see their suffering as our own; our heart is filled with compassion for the struggles of all these souls. The yogic gaze emerges from an intense desire to achieve the highest goal of unitive consciousness, rather than from egoistic motives that create separation, limitation, judgment, and suffering.
Like all yogic practices, drishti uses the gifts of a human body and mind as a starting place for connecting with our full potential. When we clear our vision of the veils of habits, opinions, ideas, and their false projections about what is real and what is false, we gaze beyond outer differences toward the absolute Truth of internal oneness.