How often do you find yourself “going through the motions” in yoga class while your eyes wander around the room—glancing at the graceful student three mats down or the ticking clock—instead of tuning into your body and breath? A technique called drishti (the method of gazing at a focal point in yoga practice) can help you draw your outward-looking eyes—and mind—inward, so that your asana routine becomes a moving meditation. Through drishti you can cultivate a deeper level of concentration, improve your alignment, and tune into the inner sensations of the body in every pose, so that you’re practicing the way the ancient sages intended—with full awareness. As yoga expert David Frawley writes in Inner Tantric Yoga, “Fixing the gaze…not only concentrates the mind but draws our energy inward along with it, extending the action of pratyahara, or the yogic internalization of the prana and the senses.”
Drishti is the method of gazing at a focal point in yoga practice.
In asana classes, teachers often recommend drishti for maintaining balance in one-legged standing postures like vrikshasana (tree pose), but the technique can be applied to any posture to improve your focus. Let’s explore drishti in pashchimottanasana (seated forward bend pose) by directing our eyes toward a natural focal point: the toes.
Assume a comfortable seated posture with the legs outstretched. If your hamstrings are tight, elevate your hips by sitting on a folded blanket, or bend the knees slightly and use a strap around the feet—these modifications will allow the body to safely release into the pose. Spiral the thighs inward, point the toes upward, and extend through your heels.
Gently cast your gaze toward your toes (this form of drishti is called padayoragram drishti). Then, instead of pulling your torso forward with your arms or a strap, soften your gaze so that the lines between your toes and the floor begin to blur (almost as if you’re looking beyond or through the toes). By gazing in the direction of the stretch, your body will naturally move in that direction. With each inhalation, allow the spine to elongate in the direction of the drishti.
On each exhalation, allow the body to soften and surrender into the stretch while maintaining an open heart and keeping the gaze softly fixed toward your toes. Notice how the awareness of the body intensifies when you steady your gaze and eliminate visual distractions.
Drishti can help you draw your outward-looking eyes (and mind) inward, so that your asana routine becomes a moving meditation.
Soon you’ll discover that there are a variety of sensory impressions—the quality of the stretch, the strength or weakness of the muscles involved, the quality of your postural alignment, the sense of spaciousness within the body—that you may not have otherwise noticed. All of these sensations emerge as your gaze becomes one-pointed. Gradually you’ll begin to witness the dialogue of your mind—simply watching distracting thoughts as they come and go—as you begin to settle into a peaceful meditative version of the pose. Now that’s what you came to class for, isn’t it?
Try These 9 Drishtis
Wondering where to gaze when you’re practicing drishti? The Ashtanga Yoga system (taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) identifies nine directions or focal points.
1. Nasagram drishti—tip of the nose
2. Ajna chakra or bhrumadhya drishti—between the eyebrows
3. Nabhi chakra drishti—navel
4. Hastagram drishti—hand
5. Padayoragram drishti—toes
6. Parshva drishti—far to the right
7. Parshva drishti—far to the left
8. Angushthamadhyam drishti—thumbs
9. Urdhva or antara drishti—up to the sky
To learn more about which drishti to employ in each asana, see David Swenson’s book Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. As a general rule, think about casting your gaze in the direction of the stretch—the proper point is the one that honors the energy of the posture while maintaining safety in your body. For example, in trikonasana (triangle pose), you might gaze up toward the hand that is in the air, straight down at the floor, or in line with the nose and sternum. Where to look isn’t as important as how to look—the key is to shift your focus toward your inner experience.