Noticing our gaze and the quality of our visual attention offers us great insight into our present being and state of mind-body. Where our eyes are traveling to, what they may be fixating on and where they tend to rest are signals that we can use as a guide in our practice and feed out into our lives.
Stepping back from our most dominant sense – sight – to develop a more wholly felt awareness of our place in time and space, in the here and now, invites an ability to meet the outside world, whilst remaining attuned to our inner landscape. In yoga, drishti (or drshti) describes a steady, focused gaze that allows the mind to become still and present. The quality of this attention then determines the quality of mental patterns.
Many of us in the modern world spend much time on computer screens and one of the fallouts of this is that we make eye movements that are very quick and rapid across screens; in a way we simply would not do in the natural world. These motions and artificial lighting can interfere with production of the hormone melatonin that gives us a good quality of sleep, particularly if this is late in the evening. At this time, we are primed to come to darkness and little visual input, but modern lighting and screens keep muscles around our eyes working hard. Thee information coming into our eye from brain keeps us stimulated at the time they most need to come to rest.
So when it becomes ‘normal’ to live with darting eye movements, bringing our gaze to rest can seem unfamiliar and even difficult and vulnerable. Rapid and constantly shifting focus plays into the constant vigilance that is part of stress. We have a natural, protective tendency to continually scan our environment running in the background most of the time, but this ramps into overdrive when we feel any sense of danger or perceived threat and might check for exits, strategies or just trying to understand the world around us.
Within the stress cascade, this is often referred to as ‘orientation’, where we might have a bit of a freeze response, a slight immobilisation (before we take action) where we look around our immediate environment and check it out. I see this often as a yoga teacher and particularly when students have been laying down on the ground for a while. If for instance we’ve been doing a very grounding somatic practice with eyes closed, when we come to a different plane, – maybe to all fours from there – for many, there’s a natural need to orient around the room. I will instruct it as a specific practice so that they can come back into their bodies again. I might say “Just have a quick glance around the room to get a sense of where you are, so you can feel safe dropping into the ground, feeling where you are right now.”
This conscious orientation means that we can then cultivate drishti, not just as somewhere to look and hold our heads, but as a cultivation of awareness of our internal world and its relation to the external at the same time. So as we look over one arm in Warrior 2 for instance, we are still aware of how the back arm reaches back from the centre with equal awareness. With its meditative focus, the quality of drishti is a steady focused gaze that is soft around the edges – embodying stirra sukha, the ‘steadiness with ease’ described in the Yoga Sutras.
Focusing on one point gathers in attention to give the mind a rest from all the other possibilities of input and notice what we may be generating internal via thoughts. Rather than a hard stare that creates tension in face and eyes, steadying the gaze, softening our sense of our peripheral vision can drop the need to be vigilant and create tension in face and jaw. Then noticing our breath and whichever parts of our body touch the ground creates an inherent safety that can free us from the need to look around for self-protection. What’s happening on the mat next to you, external noise outside the studio or your house, are noticed, but don’t need to take you away – helping to cultivate pratyahara or sense withdrawal, one of the yamas or behavioural codes within yoga.
When we move inwards in this way, we can drop tendencies to seek for information – very heightened in this modern world of news, phones and globalisation. We get a break from making judgments about the world around us that can help free us from internal judgments of whether we find a particular practice pleasant, unpleasant, we like it, we don’t like it. We can drop away from these reactions and move towards feeling in tones, flavours and textures.
Noticing what our eyes are doing in our yoga practice and in life – like our breath – can provide a guide to when we are attuned and aware and when we have wandered off into more stressed, reactionary modes. This gives us the opportunity to come back to the present, soften the eyes and jaw and find some well-needed space.
Delve deeper into how to be more present and how not be pulled around by distraction by listening to my podcast on ‘Focus Throughout The Day’.