Drishti: Gazing Practice Bridges The External And The Internal

January 23, 2024
Drishti: Gazing Practice Bridges The External And The Internal

We hear a lot of lip service about how yoga practice isn’t just about our physical accomplishments. But while it may be obvious how we work towards the physical benefits of increased flexibility and strength, training the subtler aspects of practice may not be so obvious. In the Ashtanga practice, we have several different tools that we can use to evolve our practice beyond just the physical. One of those tools is drishti. In this article, we’ll explore what this technique is and why we incorporate it into our practice.

What is drishti?

Drishti most simply means gazing place. It’s a prescribed place to focus our eyes during each inhale and exhale of every pose. But, of course in our practice, it’s more than that. It’s not just a place to hold our eyes, it’s a place to hold our attention. Hopefully, our asana practice exists within a larger container for yoga practice that includes establishing a foundation to support all eight limbs of practice. One of the ways that we do that is through techniques that help us bridge the gross and the subtle. Our breathing techniques do this and so does the technique of drishti. In the Ashtanga practice, drishti is one of the three elements of the tristhāna. Those are the techniques and practices we use to take our asana practice deeper than just exercise.

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What do we do in drishti practice?

In the Ashtanga practice, we have nine drishtis that we work with. Those are the nose, third eye, navel, hand (right or left), toes, far right or far left, thumbs, and up to the sky. Each inhale and exhale of every pose and transition has a prescribed drishti or gazing place. At the most basic level, what we do in gazing practice is simply look at the specific drishti in each pose. At the gross level, focusing our eyes on specific places has the effect of keeping our eyes and our attention on our own yoga mat.

But, from the yogic perspective, of course, our intention is more than that. Drishti is not just looking at a certain point, but what you do with your attention. We’re using our eyes to develop a subtler form of focused concentration. Drishti is a practice of directing both your external (your eyes) and your internal (thoughts, intentions) experience onto a point. Since our drishti is always changing throughout our practice, we are also practicing focusing and refocusing our attention in a fluid way, without getting drawn into what is happening in either our external environment (our physical practice space) or our internal environment (thoughts) in a sticky way.

Why work with drishti or gazing practice?

Drishti practice is like our breathing practice in that it acts as a bridge between our external and internal experiences of yoga practice. We’re practicing how we respond to external stimuli and choosing to direct our attention inward. In this way, our gazing practice can act as a doorway into the experience of pratyahara. We are drawing our senses in, using our eyes and visual sense to connect our external and internal experiences. Krishnamacharya related gazing practice to mudra practice, which is another way that we focus our attention and bridge the external and internal. Krishnamacharya says in Yoga Makaranda: “If one practises these twenty mudras according to one’s strength and capability, then diseases associated with svasam (respiration), kasam (coughing), spleen, meham (bladder)—such 84,000 diseases can be prevented…Moreover, the prana vayu will join the susumna nadi and one develops one-pointedness of the gaze and of the mind.”

Applying drishti in life

Interestingly, in A.G. Mohan’s book on Krishnamacharya’s life, Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings, he describes how Krishnamacharya applied the idea of drishti outside of formal practice and incorporated it into his life. A.G. Mohan says this: “In addition to controlling his food habits though, Krishnamacharya also controlled his other senses. As an example mentioned earlier, he generally kept his eyes down, whether he was sitting on the verandah or in his room or walking to teach a class. As our gaze wanders, our mind follows. By preventing our gaze from straying needlessly from the task at hand, we take in fewer distractions.”

Consistent focus takes practice

Incorporating drishti practice into our Ashtanga practice can be challenging. It will likely take time before you can keep your eyes focused and not get visually distracted by what’s going on around you. In our survey of long-term Ashtanga practitioners, participants reported that their ability to maintain drishti in their practice increased over time. Only 39% of survey respondents who had been practicing for 4-10 years reported that they could maintain their drishti most of the time during their practice. However, 61% of practitioners who had been practicing for more than 20 years reported that they were aware of their drishti 76-100% of the time while doing their practice. Drishti practice can be hard! But, it is worth the effort as it can change the quality of not just your practice, but also how you relate to the world outside of practice in significant ways.

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The history of drishti practice

Drishti is an interesting concept, because, unlike the idea of bandhas, I haven’t found a formal definition of drishti in a historical yoga text. There is no mention of drishti practice in Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The only mention of focused gazing techniques in Hatha Yoga Pradipika is related to the practice of Trataka Kriya. There are of course many texts I haven’t read or deeply studied, so a formal definition that I haven’t found may still exist. But based on my research, it seems that the use of the word drishti in the particular way we use it in the Ashtanga practice likely originated from Krishnamacharya and then evolved with Pattabhi Jois.

Defining drishti

In Krishnamacharya’s book, Yoga Makaranda, he refers to a specific gazing place for each posture. However, he uses the phrase “gazing place,” not the word drishti to describe this technique. His only use of the word drishti refers to a specific type of drishti, divya drishti. He defines divya drishti as “divine sight or understanding,” which he suggests is a possible result of certain yoga practices.

Based on my research and study, it’s not clear exactly when gazing practice was incorporated into asana practice. Krishnamacharya clearly references a prescribed gazing place for the eyes in most of the postures he describes in his book, Yoga Makaranda. He mentions gazing points that Ashtangis will recognize like the nose and midbrow. He says if not otherwise specified that, “the gaze should be directed towards the midbrow.” However, as I said he doesn’t use the word drishti to refer to this kind of gazing practice.

Is gazing practice used in other yoga styles?

B.K.S. Iyengar refers to a particular gazing place for a few of the postures he describes in his book, Light on Yoga. However, gazing is not mentioned in many posture descriptions or emphasized when it is mentioned. T.K.V. Desikachar describes an internal gazing practice (one done with the eyes closed) to accompany pranayama practice in his book, The Heart of Yoga. However, he doesn’t describe an external gazing practice in his descriptions of asana practice.

Drishti in Ashtanga yoga

Only Pattabhi Jois, in his book Yoga Mala, uses the word drishti to refer to gazing practice as we do it in Ashtanga within our asana practice. He says only, “According to the yoga shastra, this tradition includes: vinyasa, rechaka and puraka; dhyana [meditation]; drishti [sight, or gazing place]; and the bandhas [muscle contractions, or locks]. And this alone is the method which should be followed when learning the Surya Namaskara, as yogis declare from experience.” This emphasizes an idea we’ve already touched on in this article. Our asana practice only goes from being exercise that is mostly about the physical benefits, when we incorporate these subtler practices like drishti. Even very fundamental portions of our asana practice like sun salutations can be more than just exercise if we incorporate these subtle elements into our approach.

Conclusion

Gazing practice has likely been a part of yoga practice more broadly for a long time. It’s uncertain exactly when it was incorporated into the practice of asana. In the Ashtanga practice, drishti is an important part of practicing in a way that goes beyond just the physical benefits. It’s a tool that allows us to bridge the external world with our internal experience.

References

Desikachar, T.K.V. (1999). The heart of yoga: Developing a personal practice. Inner Traditions.

Iyengar, B.K.S. (1979). Light on Yoga: The bible of modern yoga. Schocken Books.

Jois, K.P. (2002). Yoga Mala: The seminal treatise and guide from the living master of Ashtanga yoga. North Point Press.

Krishnamacharya, T. (2011). Yoga Makaranda: The nectar of yoga. Media Garuda.

Lino Miele, L. and K.P. Jois. (1996). Astanga Yoga: Including the benefits of yoga chikitsa, 1 and 2 series. Self-published.

Mohan, A.G. and G. Mohan. (2017). Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Translation with notes from Krishnamacharya. Svastha Yoga.

Mohan, A.G. and G. Mohan. (2010). Krishnamacharya: His life and teachings. Shambhala.