The first time we attend a hatha yoga class we may feel overwhelmed. Okay, that is a bit of an understatement. There is a lot going on. First of all, we are in a new place trying to learn our way around. We second-guess where we lay down our yoga mat, concerned we might accidentally impede upon the space of a “regular”. And we can’t quite seem to remember if the bathroom was the door on the right or the one on the left.
We finally settle down on our mats, when the teacher asks us all to stand up. “We’re beginning our class in Tadasana today!” she smiles brightly. Tada-what? Isn’t that something that we should be saying at the end of the class? “Ta-da! I’m done! I’ve survived my first yoga class!”
Fortunately, as we attend class regularly we begin to figure things out. In Virabhadrasana I we face the front of our mats. In Virabhadrasana II we face the side. (We are quite proud that we know Virabhadrasana means Warrior Pose, and that Tadasana has nothing to do with boasting that you have completed a yoga class.) Just when we’re starting to think we are pretty hot-yogi-stuff, the teacher drops a new one on us. “In this pose the drishti, or gazing point, is towards your fingertips.”
Wait, what? I’m just beginning to figure out where to put my feet and now I have to worry about where to look? I usually just look out the window! (Or at the person next to me to figure out if I’m doing this right.)
What is drishti?
The word drishti means “focused gaze”. In hatha yoga there are nine different drishtis: Urdhva dristhi (upward, or towards the sky), Ajna chakra drishti (between the eyebrows), Nasagram drishti (the tip of the nose), Parsva drishti (towards the right side or towards the left side), Nabhi chakra drishti (the navel), Hastagram drishti (the hand), Angusthamadhyam dristi (the thumbs), and Padayoragram drishti (the toes). Drishti is one way we can incorporate the fifth limb of yoga, Dharana, or concentration, into our asana practice. When our eyes are darting around the room, our attention wanders as well. When our eyes are focused, it invites our attention to remain in our practice.
Drishti is not something we are merely “looking at”. In fact, practicing drishti is quite the opposite. It is important for us to understand the difference between looking at something and gazing towards something. There is a hardness to looking at something that by its very nature affirms duality. Yoga is a practice that takes us from duality into nonduality. To simply look at something, even just our own thumbs, takes us out of the practice of Yoga. When we gaze towards something, we are channeling our awareness in a particular direction. This is how it is possible for us to practice Ajna chakra drishti without going cross-eyed!
What is it you’re seeing?
Like so many yogic practices, the implications of drishti go far beyond our yoga mats and meditation cushions. Consider how this practice relates to other people. There is a concept known as the “outward gaze”. We are participating in the outward gaze when we look at a person without the intention of really experiencing them as they are. This happens when we look at people who are a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or differently-abled and we consciously or unconsciously block our willingness to be with them as they are and not how we determine they are. We practice the outward gaze when we relate to friends, our partner(s), or family members as they were yesterday, last week, or even years ago, but not as the human being standing in front of us in this moment. This can be damaging as it has the potential to allow us to hold on to petty grudges that are long over-due, but also may lead us to stay in relationships that have soured because we remember when they were not so.
Yoga shifts our gaze from outward to inward. Our job is not to monitor other people and their processes- to blame, shame, and judge- but to become aware of our own. Where are we biased? Where are we not acting with honesty and integrity? How are we bypassing the work it takes to live a truly yogic life?
Begin to practice drishti during your yoga practice. It is more challenging than you might think! Start to train your mind to see beyond seeing. Shift your gaze within yourself and see all that is there.
Gannon, Sharon, and David Life. Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul. Ballantine Books, 2002.