Drishti: The Yogic Gaze For Alignment & Awareness

As you’re falling out of ardha chandrasana, half moon pose, your yoga teacher suggests you’ll achieve greater stability and balance by finding drishti, a single place of focus on which to hold your gaze. While this is indeed one way to define the Sanskrit term, the word’s definition, its place in yoga philosophy, and myriad applications of meaning are far more complex than that. Here we explore the multiple layers and meanings of drishti and how they might apply beyond the asana practice.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
drishti
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

A Sanskrit dictionary defines drishti as sight or seeing, a glance or a look, aim, or attention. In astrology, drishti refers to a planetary aspect. Those that are more direct are considered stronger. In Ayurvedic practices, dristhi is the name of the center of the retina and, in yoga, it is the gaze itself or the point of focus. Drishti is both with and without form, and can be physical and visual, or may refer to the focus or point of view of the mind.

Drishti’s relationship to the mind’s eye is related to its definition as knowledge or wisdom. Dristhi is a means of developing concentrated intention, the ability to cut through illusion and see the world as it is, and the quality of the result of this type of seeing. In Mahayana Buddhism, dristhi is one’s world view.

Drishti And The Physical Eye

We hear about drishti in most every and any contemporary yoga class in the West, usually in its gross form, as an instruction on where to place the focus of the eyes.

As a gazing technique, drishti focuses the eyes to focus the mind. Our eyes, like each of our senses, are a window through which we allow in distraction or the door of perception through which we mindfully experience the world around us.

Drishti’s relationship to asana and the physical practice of yoga begins with the earliest Hatha Yoga texts. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions drishti of two types, nāsāgre, a view toward the tip of the nose, (HYP 1.8) and bhrūmadhye, a gaze towards the space between the eyebrows, or the third eye. (HYP 1.37)

In Ashtanga Yoga, a later system developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century, each asana is associated with one of eight, or nine, drishti points:

  • Bhrumadhye Drishti: gaze between the eyebrows 
  • Urdhva Drishti: gaze upwards 
  • Nasagre Drishti: gaze at the tip of the nose
  • Nābhicakre Drishti: gaze toward the navel
  • Angusthamadhye Drishti: gaze at the thumb(s) 
  • Hastagrahe Drishti: gaze at the tips of the fingers
  • Padayoragre Drishti: gaze at the tips of the toes
  • Parshva Drishti: gaze to the far right or far left (sometimes counted as two)

For example, in adho mukha svanasana, or downward-facing dog, one is instructed to gaze at the navel, nabhicakre dristhi, while in virabhadrasana 1, or warrior one, the eyes look up, urdhva drishti.

B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga, reminds us in his 1981 book, Light on Pranayama, “the eyes play a predominant part in the practice of asanas.” Normally, where the focus of the eyes go, the energy of the body follows. A steady, intentional gaze provokes the same steadiness in the body.

Human beings capable of seeing predominantly connect to the world around them through the sense of sight. Over 50% of the human brain is involved with processing sight. Where we place our gaze influences our physical body, both posture and alignment, and equally  influences the energetic or pranic body. 

While yoga asana is a physical practice for guiding the movement of energy or prana in the body, the mind too has this power to guide pranic energy. Thus, through the intentional placement of where we hold our gaze, drishti supports not only physical alignment but encourages self-awareness through mindfulness by aligning our inner winds.

The concept of drishti goes far beyond yoga asana and is founded upon the earliest Yogic principles. In earlier contexts, drishti is based on not just where we look, but how we look. As yogis, we ultimately turn our gaze inward, using the mind’s eye to see the experience within.

Read more: Yoga asana is one tool of several inner and outer practices used to move the inner energy of the body, the prana. Explore how to come to your senses and bring awareness to your asana practice.

Drishti And The Mind’s Eye

While we may begin by using drishti in a yoga class to develop an awareness of our bodies, asana, and alignment, a drishti that’s focused inward guides us toward a deeper awareness of what it is that we are “seeing.” All that we see is impermanent and changing, and has no one single essence.

Dristhi is a point of view, it is our world view. Its definition as knowledge or wisdom refers to the wisdom gained through right view, which involves an understanding of yoga’s ethical precepts, or correct world view, a world view that cuts through illusion and sees things as they really are.

By concentrating our focus to see clearly how we see, not only what we see, we realize how much of our ordinary view is clouded by our memories, prejudices, judgments and thoughts. Through drishti this veil of illusion is lifted and we see clearly that all is changing, malleable, and divine. The world is perfect exactly as it is, and we are intimately interconnected with it.

Drishti And Yoga’s Eight Limbs

Dristhi is interwoven into the eight limbs of yoga through the fifth limb, the practice of pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. By holding a fixed gaze, we draw the energy of the mind to a single-point, shifting our energy from the world around us to the world within. Withdrawing the senses from external distractions allows us the ability to concentrate. Concentration, or dharana, is the sixth limb. Drishti is related to dharana, which can also be translated as to hold, or to keep. Having developed pratyahara, we establish concentration in the mind, holding the inward gaze steady. 

With the ability to hold steady, we’re able to develop insight through yoga’s seventh limb, dyana, or contemplation and reflection. We practice contemplation as a means to self-knowledge, made possible only through the ability to keep and hold a steady, concentrated inward gaze. 

Self-knowledge arises when we understand our interdependence with all it is that we see. The seer and the thing seen are no longer separate. We recognize samadhi, or the union of yoga, that all is one.

How To Practice Drishti

Practicing Drishti In Yoga

When working with drishti in your yoga class, find a balance between single pointed focus and a soft, easy gaze. If you find yourself staring, straining the eyes, or not blinking, go easier. Remember that the goal is not a fixed seeing of the object, but to steady the activity of the mind.

By developing a steady gaze, you free yourself from vision altogether and tap instead into the felt experience of each pose. You can even practice in yoga with eyes closed. Drishti transcends what’s seen of the outside world, to illuminate the world within.

Practicing Drishti in Meditation

In meditation, you can play with drishti by trying your meditations with eyes open, focused softly on an object or a certain point towards the earth ahead of you. You can also practice with eyes closed, by visualizing an object or a single point. Notice it’s possible to strain the eyes even when they’re closed. Keep the gaze soft.

Sometimes you’ll find an outer visual anchor helps calm the mind, while sometimes inner focused is sharpened by closing your eyes to the world around you.

Practicing Drishti In Life

By working with drishti, an inner single-pointed focus is achieved. By developing wisdom, we’re no longer pulled from right to left by various distractions, and we instead remain centered, balanced, and grounded. By applying drishti in our yoga practice and our meditations, we become better able to integrate this practice and the wisdom gained into each moment of our lives.

Read more: Explore informal meditation practices to bring your meditation practice off the cushion and into your daily life.

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