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