Using a focal point, a drishti, in a yoga practice is something that to a beginning student or new yoga teacher may seem pointless and fussy. Who cares where your eyes are when you’ve barely figured out where to put your feet, right? But developing soft, open awareness is one of the classic intentions of the yogic path. And for good reason. Helping your students to develop proper drishti can help them establish the yummiest kind of subtle attention in their yoga practice from the very beginning.
Not Where, But How
Rather than worry about where to direct your gaze (whether the toes or the hands or the third eye), consider the way in which you are trying to do so. A narrow and intense focus brings the cortical (think logical/analytical) brain springing to action. When the cortical brain is trying to manage balance, we tighten and clench the bigger surface muscles rather than employing smaller, intrinsic balancing muscles which are better suited to the task. Those big muscles also restrict movement in the joints, creating less spaciousness and body-ease.
Enter peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is tied to awakening the subcortical brain and to the kind open awareness we want to cultivate in our yoga practice. Studies have shown that people from holistically oriented Asian cultures naturally seek a relationship between a subject and its context. In contrast, goal-oriented Westerners tend to focus on the most colorful or most rapidly moving object in a scene.¹ One of my primary intentions as an ecologically-oriented yoga teacher is to foster just this kind of inter-relational, Eastern-awareness of interconnectivity. The yogic path also prescribes use of drishti as a movement away from goal-oriented small-self to interrelated non-dual true Self.
Eastern Mind Drishti
Use your drishti to cultivate awareness of true Self with what I call “Eastern-mind Drishti.”
Notice how you can settle your gaze softly on a single point and yet have your awareness mostly on the periphery. With this kind of unforced awareness of the periphery, we no longer misperceive the self as separate from object and apart from, and instead feel ourselves a part of the larger whole. This is the way things actually are. Interconnected. Interdependent. System-oriented. From this perspective, we are likely able to release some of our egoic goals, our striving, our judgments and comparisons.
To guide yourself and your students into Eastern-mind drishti, it helps to start with some physical cues. Begin in savasana or in a comfortable seated position. Let your eyes be soft and deep in their sockets. Soften your eyelids, melt your eyelashes onto your cheeks. Imagine that your eyes could release, heavy, to the back of your head. After a few breaths here, very gently open the windows of your eyes. As you open the windows of your eyes, can you imagine that you are perceiving the world from eyes resting, like puddles, at the back of your head? Rather than straining outward to reach for it, let the world of sensory objects come to you. Give your attention, like a gift, to the negative space, the space between and around objects. Rest in stillness, and simply observe what comes into the sense field of sight. A steady gaze indicates a calm and steady mind. When the eyes are still, can you hold your thoughts more lightly, or let them go completely? Can you loosen your grip on present moment? Can you open the hand of thought, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says?
The poet Rumi said “Out beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I will meet you there.” The shift from single-pointed intense gaze to periphery-drishti is subtle. It is internal. Noticing differences require what I like to call a kind of open-sky mind, an inner quietness, if it is to be perceived at all. But in that place of open-sky mind we may just find ourselves momentarily in a world beyond the ever divisive for/against, hot/cold, full/empty polarity of daily existence. And instead, we may come upon, almost as if by accident, that field where Rumi waits.
For a free audio recording of Indira guiding the Eastern-mind Drishti Relaxation please write us to request one at firstname.lastname@example.org.
¹ Bond, Mary. The New Rules Of Posture: How To Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World. Healing Arts Press.