Why does drishti work?

I was lucky enough to be introduced to Ashtanga by a teacher, Shayna Liebbe, who really didn’t talk about asana all that much (Shayna was Steve’s first teacher, too). After my first class with her, Shayna handed me some homework: A packet of pages run off on a copier that contained, yes, that ubiquitous diagram of the Primary Series, but also the opening and closing prayers (translated and explained) the “syllabus”—a list of the asana names and translations with benefits—along with a detailed explanation of the tricolon of Ashtanga, what makes it different from all other forms: breath, bandhas, drishti.

The dynamic relationship among these three things was a great mystery for me for a very long time, but these three elements were where Shayna put her students’ attention in her led classes. And that focus led my attention away from the seemingly impossible nature of the poses I was being told to do, off of my surface and on to my inner life. That’s a good way to start.

The precise nature of the Ashtanga breath was difficult to get, of course. I’ve since heard its quality explained dozens of ways (with a closed-mouthed Darth Vader being my favorite). I’ve even practiced in rooms where it’s not taught at all. But Shayna would begin class once a week or so with her students sitting down at the top of their mats, practicing correct breath. Tim Miller does this, as does Maria Zavala. Still, I was asthmatic and confused, and didn’t have the endurance. Synchronizing breath with movement was tough, much less controlling its quality.

And bandhas—what a mystery. My early teachers talked about them constantly, in the hopes that one day, you’d be humming along, and voila! There they’d be. Oh, the metaphors and comparisons! The colorful language! (I’m thinking most particularly of David Swenson’s, if you know it.) Finding those took a while; keeping them, even longer.

But drishti, I got: I became obsessed with drishti.

If I didn’t know the drishti for a pose, or if Shayna forgot to remind us, I asked, right there in class. “Where’s the drishti?”

It was important to me, because in any given moment, I was usually in a lot of pain. Having a place to look gave me space enough to endure.

The method was simple: Toward the thumbs, the bellybutton, at the toe, down the nose, etc. (I learned the Sanskrit names for the drishti first, before the poses; it was so much more romantic)—or to a place as close to that direction as range of motion would allow. Focus, but not too hard: Don’t strain. Look. But don’t see. Slightly release that tension of the gaze. But stay there, where ever that is, five breaths.

My father, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (and of three wars), used to call this “the bulkhead stare”: the blank gaze someone got when they looked like they were gazing intently at something (a “bulkhead” is the wall of ship), but were actually focused internally, on a thought. So I had prior training, a name and understanding; it was easy for me, and, to some extent, even necessary to get through the practice.

Guruji, it should be noted, says nothing about drishti in Yoga Mala. Drishti came later, part of the research. But what a revelation.

Drishti is only possible because of the sequence itself, the requirement of memorizing a series of poses. It’s the sequence that makes it possible for both the teacher and the student to become invisible. In all other forms of yoga—even the other sequence-based form, Bikram—the students’ gaze must be on the teacher (or, gasp!, a mirror).  You learn, essentially, by imitating what you see. In Ashtanga, you may never (or rarely) see the teacher do the pose at all (depending on how you learn). (Guruji did not demonstrate.) You must learn the pose from the inside out. It seems to me like this is a very fundamental philosophical difference with all other American yoga classes, one that might reflect a fundamental philosophical difference on what a “gaze” is.

Early occidental philosophy believed in the concept of the “eye beam”—an invisible ray that emanated from the seer, and struck the seen with a palpable force. Sometimes, in the case of the basilisk or the famous Gorgon Medusa, deadly force. But when eye beams of lovers met…well, poetry happened:

Our hands were firmly cemented

With fast balm, which thence did spring;

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread

Our eyes upon one double string… (John Donne, “The Ecstasy”)

The eye beam was the pathway to the soul and from the soul, a way for the outside to get in and the inside to get out: the senses were tools of measurement and reason the way we verify reality. “Your senses five,” said William Blake (somewhat ironically), “the chief inlets of soul in this age.”

But with drishti, something different happens. Drishti is a way to practice pratyahara—sense withdrawal—and if you think for a second about what you’re doing when you’re being asked to practice drishti. . .Well, be amazed.

It’s almost as if the entire design of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is to present you with a never-ending series of difficulties to constantly challenge your ability to inwardly focus, so that the external can disappear, dissolve.

It’s important, it seems to me, to have a sense of dissolving with drishti—also very different from Western ideas of vision, of seeing. For that to occur, the pose has to be challenging—like rock climbing, it will require your full attention. Wander, and you fall. But once you have a certain facility with a pose, you’re in danger of not needing to focus, really. So: next pose.

You are being watched in the Mysore room, you might be thinking. There is a teacher. But even the gaze of the best teachers has a certain softness too it. You know they see you, and you may even—consciously or unconsciously—adjust yourself as they approach (I’ve heard this called by teachers the “magic adjustment,” and I’ve seen it happen). But as soon as that gaze has gone, your own drishti returns and the teacher disappears once again. You’ve probably been surprised by an adjustment, by what seems like a disembodied pair of hands. It’s like magic. And I think it originates in the practitioner’s drishti, in the room.

Let me explain: If you have ever practiced next to someone who is not practicing drishti correctly, it can often interfere with your own, and totally mess up your practice. You become aware of them not looking at themselves: Who just came in, where the teacher is, something out the window, or (worst case) at you. It’s a human thing. They are looking, and like a meerkat, you have to look, too. There might be a lion! Poof. There goes your focus, and your system’s all in an uproar: Where’s the emergency? What are we looking for? Where’s the lion?

But when drishti is plugged in, and the whole room is invisible, that’s when Ashtanga happens. Nothing stands out, nothing is thought, and there is peace.

Drishti works because it presents us with the opportunity to overcome what we see, and see everything. I see “nothing at all,” wrote Shakespeare, “yet all that is I see.”

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

10 thoughts on “Why does drishti work?”

  1. http://karenmiscallbannon.blogspot.com/2014_01_01_archive.html

    I became intrigued with the idea of drishti as more than simply a focus- or gazing-point in the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa, while delving into some of the deeper backbends of the second, third, and fourth series. I discovered that when practicing the deeper backbends: specifically dwi pada viparita dandasana, raja kapotasana, chakra bandhasana, kapotasana, etc. (especially those poses where the feet touch the head) if I held the postures for longer than the prescribed 5-10 breaths, and, if I did not have my gaze down the tip of my nose, I would finish the practice with an excruciating headache. That led me to investigate the various Ashtanga texts that described the gaze point, or drishti, in the backbends, where I found that with the exception of lagu vajrasana, the gaze is described as past the tip of the nose. (David Swenson, Lino Miele, Matthew Sweeney) I began to bring more of my attention to the drishti in my practice and emphasize it in my teaching. I found that my headaches disappeared completely, and also found that my students had much less tendency to “break” in the cervical spine when bringing the gaze down the end of the nose at the apex of the pose.

    Drishti–

    Traditionally, drishti is defined as gazing point in asana practice –specifically in the Ashtanga vinyasa system as taught by Sri K. Patthabi Jois. Though it is commonly thought of as simply a way to focus the gaze and keep the mind from wandering, it is really much more than that. The drishti has deep implications for creating and maintaining the body-mind connections forged in asana practice. It does serve to focus the gaze and the mind; however, there are many other levels on which it functions to create and hold what we call Yoga, or union within the body-mind.

    On the physical level, the drishti functions to help keep the body in alignment from head-to-tail, so there are no shearing lines of force taken across the spine. It accomplishes this by setting the stage for the body to fall into its natural state of balance and alignment. When coming into any backbend, in the ashtanga vinyasa system, the gaze point or drishti is at or past the tip of the nose. This is especially important in the deeper backbends such as kapotasana and ustrasana, but equally important in urdva mukha svanasana, and bhujangasana as well. Let’s look at the physical relationship of the eyes to the spine first. The common tendon of the eye muscles that move them around in their sockets originates along the tendinous ring surrounding the optic canal, encasing the optic nerve, with some attaching on the sphenoid bone (plate 517 Clemente). The muscles that depress the eye (looking down) are the superior oblique and inferior rectus. The superior oblique attaches to the sphenoid bone of the skull via the occipital bone; and the inferior rectus to the tendinous ring. Thus, as we drop the gaze, the sphenoid bone is drawn up slightly, stabilized by the inferior rectus. The sphenoid bone is indirectly connected to the posterior surface of dens of the atlas via the alar and apical ligaments (pl 420, 549, Clemente). Thus, as we drop the gaze, we move the dens forward and up slightly, which has enormous implications for the health and safety of the spinal cord. If we take the head back without moving the dens forward, due to the orientation of the dens itself, we risk impinging the spinal cord. (The dens of C2 sits anteriorly to the spinal cord, acting as the body of C1). If we allow the dens to collapse back, which happens when students try to take their heads back without support, then there is a visible break in the cervical spine, and a subsequent impingement of the spinal cord, which I think most of us would agree is not wise practice. By dropping the gaze down the end of the nose, we provide ourselves with some of the support needed to keep the spine in a nice, long arc, opening up the central channel, which is sushuma nadi. There are many different ways to support the spine properly in extension, this is simply another way to affect subtle support in the backbend postures.

    Other subtle supports for the spine and sushumna nadi are found in the glandular system, particularly those of the head. The pituitary gland is situated in the cellae tursica directly above the sphenoid sinuses (pl 490, 522, Clemente). The mammillary bodies are situated posterior and superior to the pituitary gland, adjacent to the optic nerve. Some neuroanatomists believe them to be a part of the hypothalmus, which acts to link the endocrine system to the nervous system via the pituitary. (Innerbody.com: http://www.innerbody.com/image/endoov.html). It can be argued that when we take the gaze down, we also slightly lift the pituitary and mammillary bodies and shift them forward and down. (pl 495, Clemente) In fact, the pituitary sits just below the optic chiasm (Netters, pl.100), which connects directly to the corpus collosum via the anterior commisure and the lamina terminalis. The pineal gland sits just below the base of the corpus collosum, surrounded by the great cerebral vein and below the choroid plexus (artery). (Netters, pl 100). Thus, as the gaze drops, the corpus collosum moves slightly down and forward, which creates space for the pituitary, mammillary bodies, and the pineal gland, and ultimately provides more space for the flow of blood to the entire brain. When bringing the spine into extension, and taking the gaze downward, we bring the pineal gland up and forward, which brings us more into the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the sympathetic nervous system and bringing space to the area where the glands are housed. Simply by the nature of the backbending postures, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, thus it would seem logical that the nervous system would come into balance when we drop the gaze while placing the spine in extension, rolling around the axis of the mamillary bodies. We are stabilizing the glands of the head by bringing the gaze down, taking us more into the parasymapthetic nervous system and balancing the inherent sympathetic nervous system activity of the backbending process.

    In both teaching and practice, what I have found is that though the initiation of the backbend may be one where the eyes lift, at the fullest expression of the posture, the natural drishti should be at or past the tip of the nose. Though this has been by no means a full or scientific study of the effects of dristhi in backbends, I have found from my own experience and that of many of my students, that it is immensely calming to the nervous system to take the gaze down. Though it really isn’t necessary to find explanations for the ancient wisdom of drishti, it is useful when working therapeutically with students to know what the effects of the more subtle aspects of the yoga practice are, and how we can help our students to come to a place of quiet and calm in their yoga practices.

    Sources:

    Clementes Anatomy
    Netter’s Anatomy
    Innerbody.com Human Anatomy Atlas
    Miele, Lino; Ashtanga
    Swenson, David; Ashtanga Yoga

    Sweeney, Matthew; Ashtanga Yoga As It Is

  2. Great post, thank you. I only practice at home on Sunday, but I do find that my drishti is generally better at home. A big reason for this is the example you note at the end, as there are definitely those at the shala that have their heads on a swivel, and it can be contagious, much like yawning. Once one starts, we all seem to start. It’s maddening being human sometimes.

  3. yoga mala (my edition anyway) is quite explicit on the subject of drishti and its importance. The lack of specific drishti instruction for the various asanas described in yoga mala might reflect the notion that correct drishti is something to be taught one on one rather than gleaned from a practice manual (which I think yoga mala was not intended to be in the first place). When looking at footage of Krishnamacharya practicing, use of drishti is obvious. The assumption that the concept of drishti came to the practice as an afterthought , the result of “research” , seems a bit contrived. Although, the evolution of “correct method” for drishti like for other aspects of the practice is always interesting (or confusing, on other days).

    1. I’m not sure why you are equating research and “afterthought.” I think Bobbie’s point is that drishti is the result of Guruji’s longtime research into the practice — a good thing. A, dare I suggest it, improvement.

      S

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