We have all been distracted or unfocused during moments of our yoga practice and have felt our eyes wandering around the room. While it is not harmful to allow your attention and eyes to wander, it certainly is not helpful in increasing your mental focus and concentration. The teaching of yoga sees a direct correlation between an unfocused gaze and an unfocused mind. To combat the addictive and stimulating nature of the eyes, yoga provides a way to draw your focus inwards by using a drishti or focal point. Locking your gaze at one point can cultivate a deep state of concentration, refine your alignment, heighten your awareness, and turn your asana practice into a powerful moving meditation.
What is a drishti?
The Sanskrit word drishti is commonly translated as “view,” “gaze,” or “point of focus.” It is a specific point to lock your eyes or inner vision on to that is used most commonly during meditation or while holding a yoga posture. The ancient yogis discovered that where our eyes are directed our attention naturally follows, and that the quality of our gazing is directly reflected in the quality of our mental thoughts.
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There are two main categories of focal points. A bahya drishti is an external gazing point that is used in externally oriented yoga practices. An antara drishti is an internal gazing point that is used in contemplative and meditative practices to encourage pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses).
The purpose of using a drishti
When the eyes are fixed on a single point the mind is diminished from being stimulated by all other external objects. And when the gaze is fixed on a single point within the body, our awareness draws inwards and the mind remains undisturbed by external stimuli. Thus, the use of a drishti allows the mind to focus and move into a deep state of concentration. And the constant application of drishti develops dharana (yogic concentration) and ekagraha (single-pointed focus) essential yogic techniques used to still the mind and initiate states of meditation.
When used while practicing yoga poses, a focal point directs and refines the movement and alignment of the asana. It can be used as a primary cue that allows the rest of the body to follow behind.
A drishti is commonly used in meditation to focus and concentrate the mind. The most useful points to deepen meditation are the breath (diaphragm) and the third eye center. External focal points can also be used, such as the tip of the nose, a candle, yantra, or a mandala.
How to use a drishti
In yoga postures, a drishti is used to deepen the primary movement of the pose, as well as to keep the mind engaged and focused. To use a drishti while in a yoga pose, simply select the point where your eyes are naturally directed by the alignment of the posture.
The use of drishtis in yoga postures is to be developed slowly over time. First, one must develop and focus on the alignment of the asana, then the breath, and then finally the drishti. Using a point of focus is especially helpful if you are holding a posture for an extended period of time, and will be enormously helpful while practicing Balancing Poses. As you direct your eyes at your chosen point of focus, allow the attention and focus of your mind to converge at the same point. Let the movement of your spine follow the direction of your eyes.
The 9 drishtis
In Ashtanga and other schools of yoga, nine specific drishtis are used and described:
- Nasagrai Drishti, gaze at the tip of the nose, as used in Upward-Facing Dog, Chaturanga, and standing forward fold asanas.
- Angusta Ma Dyai Drishti, gaze at the middle of the thumbs, as used in Warrior I and Chair.
- Pahayoragrai Drishti, gaze at the toes, as used in Hand to Toe pose and most seated forward bends.
- Nabi Chakra Drishti, gaze at the navel, as used in Downward Facing Dog.
- Hastagrai Drishti, gaze at the hands, as used in Triangle and Warrior II.
- Parsva Drishti (left), gaze to the left side, as used in seated spinal twists.
- Parsva Drishti (right), gaze to the right side.
- Urdhva Drishti, gaze upwards, as used in Warrior Angle, Balancing Half-Moon, and Prayer Twist.
- Naitrayohmadya or Broomadhya Drishti, gaze at the third eye (ajna chakra) or forehead, as used in Fish, Upward Forward Fold, and Reverse Warrior II.
Drishti in Ashtanga Yoga
Yoga teacher Kino MacGregor has created a video discussion on the use and importance of the nine traditional focal points used in Ashtanga tradition. Check out this short 2-minute video for another view on how and why to use this tool to intensively train the mind to be free from the distractions of the external world. Watch the video below:
Other focal points
It is not essential to memorize and use these traditional points of focus. It is more important to play and experiment with how you use your eyes and what the effects are. In general, set your gaze in the direction of the stretch or movement in the yoga pose. Just as you would modify a pose based on ability or injury, you may also need to adjust the traditional drishti point. Locking your attention on a single point is more important than where you look in your asana.
For more internally focused practices, you can also focus your inner eye on one of the seven chakra centers. Pranayama breathing exercises and mantra yoga can use Nasagrai Drishti or the diaphragm as points of focus. A guided yoga nidra relaxation uses over sixty focus points, and these can also be rotated through for a meditation or mindfulness practice. The traditional yoga nidra script by Satyananda Saraswati describes the following drishtis “thumb, second finger, third finger, fourth, fifth, palm, wrist, elbow, shoulder, armpit, waist, hip, hamstring, thigh, knee, calf, ankle, heel, sole, toes, one, two, three, four, five.”
Tips on using a drishti
When using a focal point, do not strain the eyes. The muscles around the eyes should be relaxed and the gaze should be soft. Generally, it is recommended to use bahya (external) gazing for externally oriented yoga practices and antara (internal) gazing for contemplative and meditative practices. But there is also value to having the eyes closed and using antara drishti during yoga postures, as this creates a deep state of meditation and inward focus while holding the pose.
In bhakti yoga, drishti is used in a slightly different way: a constant loving and longing gaze is turned toward the concept, name or image of God. Drishti can also be thought of in a broader context, of having the proper view or perspective of one’s life. By developing the ability to adapt one’s perspective to accommodate the continuous change in the world, we can avoid the unnecessary attachments that cause us suffering.
Whenever you notice your focus and mind wavering away, gently and compassionately bring it back to your point of attention. Every time you catch yourself wandering and bring your eyes back you strengthen your concentration. The more you exercise your mental focus the stronger it will become and the easier this yogic technique will become.