Setting Your Sights
Look outward, toward the horizon, to go farther inward.
My work bridging the worlds of neuroscience and yoga has literally taken me inside the eye now. And I love it! So for me, personally, this post is not just about looking outward to go inward, it’s also about looking to my past to move into my future.
Are you still with me? Good! Now, let me explain...
Drishti is a Sanskrit word that refers to the steady placement of the gaze – eyes focused on one unchanging point. As a meditation technique, focusing your eyes on that stable point enhances the physical and mental stillness conducive to exploring the inner terrain of the mind. In yoga asana (meditation in motion), we also have the opportunity to harness this concentration booster of drishti. Here I’ll share with you some principles and tips about how to hold that steady gaze.
In my experience, most yoga teachers only introduce the concept of drishti into their class when leading you into a challenging balance posture. Standing on one leg, perhaps teetering back and forth (or at least that’s how I do it), you are reminded to lock your gaze on a fixed point in the room. Often the teacher instructs you to look down and fixate on your mat or perhaps on the floor a foot or so in front of your mat. And there you wobble, staring a hole in the floor, thinking, “Don’t fall. Don’t fall.” Your face is so forcefully intent that it’s like Superman’s eyes with the lasers shooting out.
Now, take a breath and ponder this: Have you ever considered that the muscles and ligaments inside your eye are capable of providing a feedback signal to your brain, a signal that revs up the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) or a signal that encourages deeper relaxation by the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest)? It turns out that they do! When you have the tough laser gaze and furrowed brow, which signal do you think is in a positive feedback loop?
You can skillfully use your eye position during your practice to take care of your nervous system and to enter deeper states of concentration and self-inquiry beyond the senses (Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga). I offer a sweet challenge to all yoga teachers reading this page to start cuing students to pay more attention to the quality and location of their gaze.
Let’s add another new piece to the mix here. Neuroscientists know that there is a hard-wired link between the oculomotor system and the attentional system (my area of postdoctoral research, before I changed my focus to yoga research a few years later). In yoga, we talk about cultivating a one-pointed focus of attention to train the mind. This level of concentration isn’t going to happen as you are cruising your eyes all over the yoga studio.
So the first rule of drishti is to keep the eyes gazing at a steady point as you practice. Steady eyes equal steadier attention; control the eyes and have a bit more control over the monkey mind.
The second rule of drishti tells us where that point should be in 3D space, an optimal minimal distance away from you. When you are in complete darkness and there is no visual stimulus to focus on, the eyes take on a relaxed state. They are perfectly parallel and the lens in each eye is flat; this geometry is assumed when the eyes look past the horizon and into infinity.
Most yoga studios, however, are smaller than infinity – otherwise, their rents would be outrageous. So I’ll leave you with a number that very closely approximates the geometry of the eyes looking into infinity. The so-called far point of accommodation is 6.1 meters from the eyes. When your drishti is approximately 6 meters or 20 feet away, then you are skillfully using your eyes to provide a signal to the rest of your brain to rest, digest, concentrate and go inside. Twenty feet is pratyahara’s gaze inward.
If you’re interested in learning more about the gorgeous convergence of ancient yogic wisdom substantiated by modern neuroscience, then stay tuned. My sights are set on writing my first book and I’ll be posting pieces along the way here on the Austin Yoga Hub.