"In Sanskrit yoga terms, it's called drishti, which is a focal point where you're bringing your focus," says Haley Steinhauser, a New York City-based yoga instructor. This focal point supports everything from your balance, alignment, focus, and concentration, according to Jordan Ashley, founder of Souljourn Yoga. "When you use your vision with intent, it indicates to the rest of the body how the shape should follow," she says.
"When you use your vision with intent, it indicates to the rest of the body how the shape should follow." —Jordan Ashley, Souljourn Yoga
The drishti gaze helps you in every pose that you hold, but you'll really notice its effects when you're balancing. Ashley points to tree pose as one example of this. "If you are balancing on one leg, like in tree pose, the gaze needs to be focused at something that isn't moving," she says. So by zeroing in your vision with one focal point, it boosts your concentration and "gives you something tangible to focus on while the body adjusts," she explains.
The same happens during crow pose—with a gaze towards the floor, your head will follow, which can lead to a tumble. "But if your eyes are focused slightly forward, then the body is informed to keep shifting the weight into your fingers." The gaze helps to ground and root these poses, leading to better overall balance.
From an alignment standpoint, where your eyes are looking signifies how the rest of your body settles into a pose, as well. "If you're doing a backbend like cobra pose, dropping your vision down forces your entire head, neck, and spine to slump," says Ashley. "So by looking forward and slightly up, it will encourage a chest and heart opener to occur." So where you focus your eyesight turns your head, and your body will unfurl and twist more properly—and often more deeply—into the pose that you're holding.
And it's important to remember that your drishti is key on a mental level just as much as a physical one. "With yoga, you think about movement and breath, but when you begin to bring in focus with your eyes, it allows you to connect those two components even more," says Steinhauser. "During all of the movement in a yoga class, your mind can easily start drifting and your eyes tend to shift around the room. If you're able to focus your eyesight, that's the gateway of bringing your attention inward."
Emily Schmookler, master trainer with CorePower Yoga, adds that your thoughts follow your gaze: "If our eyes wander, then our thoughts will wander, which takes us out of the experience. Having somewhere to put your gaze will keep you present in your body and it helps unite the mind through movement," she says. Next time you step onto your mat, watch (ahem) how the position of your eyes can enhance your flow.
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