Often, when we hear a yoga teacher cue, “find your drishti”, perhaps while we’re shakily balanced in a Warrior III or Tree Pose, we’re being asked to pick a place to gaze – whether at the floor or our fingertips – to find some balance and stability.
However, drishti, which is translated to "focused gaze or concentrated intention", also has a deeper meaning.
To understand the deeper meaning of drishti, it's helpful to look at the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali and the concept of dharana (the sixth limb of yoga). While Patanjali doesn’t explicitly mention drishti in his explanation of dharana, he does refer to dharana as "the collection or concentration of the mind, which is essential to bearing, supporting, and maintaining steadfastness." This is a core tenet of meditation.
Drishti applies this same level of concentration, though, focused on the gaze. It is not so much the gaze itself that matters, but rather the quality of attention that we bring to it. Whether it's focusing on a gaze-point during an asana, or simply watching water flow down a mountainside.
The point is that drishti doesn’t simply refer to a technique aimed at accomplishing a specific purpose (such as balance), but rather a quality of focus and observation that contributes to how we view and construct our realities. Alice G. Walton gives a great example of how this can apply to everyday life here.
Seeing drishti as a quality of observation allows us to realize that it can also be used for self-observation. Our inward gaze; a focused and concentrated awareness of being.
While many forms of drishti entail a gaze point, the inward gaze can be cultivated by closing the eyes all together. With this new perspective, external distractions within our space are minimized. We begin to gaze instead at the sensations within the body, increasing our self-awareness. As we practice, our mindset shifts from observing how we are moving through our physical space to how the internal components of our body feel as they adjust and shift.
I like to think of this as similar to the difference between floating on top of a lake and diving underneath the surface. Both experiences exist adjacent to one another and are easily accessible, however each provides a unique and contrasting reality. Above the surface we see beautiful scenery and focus on the water surrounding us. When we dive under, we concentrate more on the air in our lungs, the feeling of our heart beat, and the sensation of pushing our limbs through the water.
So next time you're practicing, try shifting the gaze inward. Regardless of whether it’s for a seated meditation, a Sun Salutation, or an entire practice, take the moment to discover for yourself what lies beneath the surface.