Focus and Follow the Eyes (Drishti / Gaze Practice)

Pay attention to me...
Pay attention...

In the past week I’ve had two good lessons on drishti, or the point of focus for each pose. I knew that looking in different directions stimulates different functions of the brain (looking left stimulates new thought, which is why liars look left, while looking right stimulates memory, etc.), and that keeping our eyes focused on one thing keeps our mind from wandering, but a few exercises last week helped me really feel it.

Simplify the poses, and practice with the eyes. Steve’s Classic Hatha class at Greenhouse on Tuesdays has fairly minimal instruction, but he always points out the direction for the eyes to go. In Locust, for example, (lying on the belly with the arms and legs raised behind) we look forward towards the horizon. In Cobra (again on the belly, legs straight, arms straight under the shoulders to arch the spine), we look up towards the periphery of the vision. If the eyes start to blur and waver, he says it’s good; it’s strengthening the optic nerve. When I’m cross-eyed I’ll remember that.

It’s a weird feeling, when you really keep the gaze fixed. It’s so incredibly boring that you realize how much the eyes usually scan around, looking for entertainment. (I’ve heard we get 90% of our sensory information through the eyes.) Since Hatha classes don’t care about A+ alignment details, and we held poses for two, three, four minutes, I could actually devote my entire attention to this one effort… and I felt so much calmer just from making the eyes sit a while.

Initiate movement by anchoring the eyes. So, keeping the gaze fixed while holding a pose is one thing, but we can eventually practice drishti while moving, or even to initiate movement. Leslie mentioned this in his Application of Breath-Centered Yoga class at The Breathing Project on Wednesdays. We sat cross-legged facing partners, and as they traced a path in the air with one finger, we tried to follow it with the tip of our nose. By fixing the eyes and forcing the head and neck to work, the whole body began to participate: the chest would lift or round, the stomach would turn and contract. It was a funny feeling the head really didn’t want to move, it was much more natural for the eyes to jump around. It was disorienting; l felt like a child bobbling along, trying to walk. Some people got nauseated just from sitting and moving their heads.

I think that previously, I was doing a lot of movement of the eyes within the sockets as I directed them towards the sanctioned point of focus. Moving from the tip of the nose seems to keep the eyes more calm, in more of a softly focused gaze, and also acknowledge the limits of the neck. (I think Ana Forrest teaches something similar; she puts drishti for most poses at the tip of the nose, and even has you use your hand to move the neck around.) Leslie says it helps to quiet the internal laundry list of alignment corrections, and bring the attention back to how the pose feels, rather than how it looks. Indeed, it’s much less strain to follow the nose.