Using drishtis (focal points) in yoga offers great benefits including enhanced balance, increased inner awareness and concentration, reduced distractions, and greater connection to breath. While some styles of practice have specific drishti points, we will look at some basic elements of setting focal points to insure that optimum benefits and quality in postures are being delivered.
Retaining Postural Lines
In classic standing balances like Tree Pose, it is beneficial to place the gaze at one point to bring greater steadiness. I usually recommend in balancing postures where the head is vertical (ie Tree Pose) to set the gaze in a horizontal line to the earth to retain harmony through the neck and shoulders. However, if you are in a class with people in front of you, it may be more suitable to shift the gaze where there is less ‘distractions’ (ie looking down). Take note of where the eyes flow and insure that head retains its’ vertical alignment over the skull. Often, where the eyes flow, the head follows. If you shift the gaze down to a place more free of distractions, emphasize keeping the head balanced and level over the body versus flexing head and neck forward.
Keep Attention Inwards as You Look Away
Although our superficial gaze maybe set outwards, keep your attention always on the internal sensations and core alignment. Classic example is seated twists. As we rotate and look past our shoulder, we can readily lose attention to the various aspects of the pose. I often see people gradually collapse the spine in the twist as the eyes (and mind wanders) behind them. In Half Twist (extended leg), it is very common to see a great number of students drift attention away from the forward leg losing the benefits of engagement through the heel and toes. As the eyes gaze far off from the body, remain engaged and sensitive.
The Eyes Should Observe, Not Guide
Our visual senses are a primary proprioceptive mechanism that many people become overly reliant upon. We readily lead with our eyes as seen in postures like chaturanga (yoga plank to push up). As people descend in chaturanga, the eyes will grab onto the floor causing the head to fall into forward head placement ahead of the rest of the body. This causes a loss of spinal integrity adding potential strain and negative habitual postural patterns to the neck and shoulder girdle. Retain fluid head and neck alignment especially when the head is placed more against gravity and out of vertical alignment (Mountain Pose).
Bend and Fold Mindfully with the Gaze
As we flow into a forward bend, the eyes are typically encouraged to move to a focal point that enhances those spinal and hip flexion movements. For forward bends like Janu Sirsasana (seated 1 leg), gazing forward over the toes may take the neck into slight extension, but this action of setting your focal beyond the toes can further facilitate elongating the spine, engaging the transverse abdominals, extending the lumbar, and isolating the flexion from the hips.
The Drishti Should Invite Vertebral Space
The eyes reflect much of the state of the mind and the physical manifestations emanating from the nervous system. It is common when the mind is cluttered and jumbling with thoughts, unmindful tension will circulate and be reflected in where the eyes inherently settle. Example: I often see students in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) and Downward Facing Dog holding mental tension in their necks and allowing their gaze to shift into their mats. By holding a drishti on the mat, neck muscles contract (with particular concern of the suboccipital muscles). This adds unnecessary layers of stimulation to postures that are meant to be grounding (not to mention encouraging poor posture habits). Clear the wandering mind, calm the external eyes, and bring awareness to where unnecessary resistance may be lingering. In the case of Standing Forward Bend and Downward Facing Dog, I invite people to place their focus through the legs versus anywhere on the mat so the neck enjoys length and freedom with the action of gravity and release.
In case of back arches like Cobra Pose, before sending the gaze up and extending into the neck, take time to add space through the base of the skull. Simply tilting the gaze and nose up, pushes the neck arch aggressively into the upper cervical spine leading to compression. For many people with chronic sitting postures, they often already have issues with overactive, tense suboccipital muscles. Unmindful tilting of the head up adds further firing of these deep neck muscles promoting increased postural problems including impingement of cranial nerves and tension headaches. The simply action of setting a light amount of lift and space through the base of the skull and upper neck, AND THEN arching the whole neck with equal distribution can significantly reduce upper cervical congestion.
Our drishtis are meant to keep us engaged and aware. Looking at a specific spot is only part of the tool in focusing. How has your focal point positioned your mind, breath, and body? Train the practice to be less dominant on the outer gaze and use the inner gaze to service the greater benefits of the practice. With proper use of drishtis, we can shift into the deeper layers of practice where we become more connected to our necessary alignment principles, and ultimately are directed to a place of more fluid energy and inherent freedom.