Balancing poses can be challenging; a truth I often encounter when I'm about halfway through my Ashtanga practice. Standing Half Bound Lotus comes through as a wobbly, unsteady posture that requires all the determination I can muster—especially when I attempt to fold forward. My teacher reminds me that the remedy to my swaying is drishti (gaze or visual focal point).
Between holding the physical pose and getting my breath right, sustaining a single-pointed gaze never feels quite as pressing. But there's a reason drishti is revered as a core yogic principle. After focusing on your physical posture and breath, it’s a finishing touch that locks in the pose, improving your balance and so much more.
"When you're gazing at one focal point, it helps calm the breath, the nervous system, and the heart rate," says Miranda Mitchell, Mysore teacher and founder of Daily Drishti Health and Wellness in Tarpon Springs, Florida. "A lot of people overlook these benefits altogether."
This is precisely why the power of drishti can extend to your entire practice. Whether you're settling into Downward-Facing Dog or flowing through a vinyasa, wrangling in your attention from start to finish is vital.
"When you have a concentrated gaze on a still point, you create a strong sense of being fully present in the moment," adds Mitchell. "That's where all our focus is, which takes us away from the noisy, internal mind."
Drishti is what helps us block out external distractions and deepen our practice by directing our attention inward. Here are 4 ways to make it work even better for you:
4 Ways to Improve Your Drishti
1. Keep your gaze soft.
Drishti is woven into a number of yoga styles. The Ashtanga tradition, for instance, embraces nine specific points of focus with each posture linked to a corresponding gaze, such as the fingers during Extended Side Angle Pose or the ceiling during Upward-Facing Dog Pose. But regardless of the style of yoga that you practice, it's important to take a gentle approach to drishti, since too much intensity makes it more difficult to calm the mind, says Lara Land, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and owner of Land Yoga in Harlem, NYC. She likens it to a sense of surrender where you allow it to happen naturally instead of forcefully.
"It's not a strenuous, intense sort of staring, but rather a soft gaze where your eyes are resting gently on one spot," she says, suggesting you hold your gaze while simultaneously focusing on the sensation of your body in the posture itself, as well as your breath. When all taken in together, the result is a soft gaze.
You can start by trying to look gently down the angle of your nose to a point on the floor or wall in front of you. Relax your eyes so that the surrounding area also comes into your awareness.
"Being able to pull in our senses is key to reining in our monkey mind, and we practice this on the yoga mat by keeping our eyes on one spot in a soft gaze," says Land. "It's as essential as the breath and the posture in allowing us to come into a moving meditation, which is what asana really is."
2. Resist the urge to close your eyes.
When I find a pose difficult, I often find myself closing my eyes—something Land identifies as a form of escapism.
"It's that urge to turn away from a challenging experience, like when your teacher has you stay in Warrior Pose just a little bit beyond your comfort zone," she says. "But instead of running away from the moment, what if you maintain your gaze and simply sit with the discomfort?"
Drishti, in other words, trains us to navigate difficult situations with the light of our awareness.
3. Shift your focus slowly.
Drishti becomes increasingly trickier when you’re asked to shift your gaze dramatically to one side or up above, which challenges your sense of balance. A fuller expression of Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose, for example, actually puts your gaze over your opposite shoulder. To stay grounded, Land suggests taking baby steps.
"Once you feel stable in the pose while looking forward, move your gaze just one foot to the side," she says. "Again, the idea is to go to the edge of your comfort zone, because growth happens when we're a little bit uncomfortable."
Drishti also evolves as we go deeper into the asana. Land points to Marichyasana I as a prime example. When first learning this challenging seated position, you're told to simply look down the tip of the nose. Gradually, with practice, you'll eventually extend your spine until your chest rests on your leg.
"If you can do this without straining, you can move your gaze to your big toe," says Land.
4. Cut yourself some slack.
There's no such thing as mastering drishti. Like physical poses and pranayama, it's a practice that gets stronger with each repetition.
"It's like a muscle you're building where you're being observant but not judgmental," says Land. "Be gentle with yourself. Sometimes we want so badly to be a good yogi that we skip the part of honoring what the body is doing naturally and just learning from it."