Drishti comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “gaze” or “view.” Many think of it as describing the position and placement of your eyes during an asana practice. This is certainly part of it: Focusing your gaze can help focus attention, since your mind tends to follow your eyes (e.g., if your eyes wander over to the person on the mat in front of you, suddenly that’s what you’re concentrating on). But YogaGlo’s David Harshada Wagner, who teaches meditation, yoga, and “no bullshit spirituality,” points out that as with most yogic concepts, there’s volumes more to the meaning of drishti than just eye placement. Your gaze is also your vision in a larger sense: It pertains not just to what we see on the mat, but also what we see in the world as we move through it.
“Drishti is one of my favorite Sanskrit words,” he says, “and one that is often misunderstood. Or, at the least, I find us is often under-understood. With the prevalence of asana practice in the last 20-30 years, a yoga student often only hears the term drishti in the context of the placement of ones vision during the performance of a physical yoga practice. Along with awareness of breath and the gross placement of limbs and spine, the yogi can also refine practice by paying attention to where he or she looks.”
So that’s the classic definition. But Wagner points out that how and where we look guides us through life in a much larger sense, because our minds follow what our eyes do. “One of my hobbies is precision police-style motorcycle riding,” he says. “We learn to maneuver giant 750 pound police Harleys through seemingly impossible obstacle courses and avoid accidents in part by having control over our drishti. The huge bike follows wherever you put your eyes. This is true for life too, and the ancient yogis knew this.”
Going even a step further, drishti is about how we see the world as we navigate it. Our vision – both of ourselves and what we choose to set our sights on in the grander scheme – is all drishti. “In the Sanskrit texts, drishti refers not just to our gross vision, but to our overall vision of the universe,” says Wagner. “Drishti, in this sense, means our understanding, our outlook, our way of seeing.” He says that long before drishti referred to the placement of the gaze in asana practice, the term, first mentioned in the Yoga Vasishta, described one’s relationship with the universe.
“Here’s my favorite verse: ya drishti sa srishti,” says Wagner. “Here drishti is juxtaposed with the equally cool word srishti. Srishti means creation, or more literally, emission – that which flows forth. In this context it means the universe, our more specifically one’s universe.” So, he says, you could translate the term as meaning, “As your vision, so is your universe. Or: The world is as you see it. Or: As is your understanding, so is the world that you create.”
This is such a universal concept, one that’s been written about in some form by sages, scientists, poets, and philosophers. Just as our minds follow our eyes on the mat, our lives become very much how we view the world when we’re off it. If your gaze is focused mainly on problems, then that’s what your mind will also settle on. And this can actually be a disadvantage, because although it’s important to be honest about things that need fixing, focusing on them solely can make it hard to change them. For example, if you’re dealing with depression, focusing too much on the feelings of depression and the fact that you’re depressed will only amplify the feeling – discovering the right array of tools to treat or manage it, and spending your energies on those, is much more effective. And even if you don’t yet have the tools to fix the problems, just bringing to mind that they can be fixed is essential.
“It’s an absolutely brilliant, life-affirming, life-changing, life-saving teaching,” says Wagner. “Anyone who walks sincerely on the path of yoga will tell you that one of the big transformations is our outlook and understanding. We get a new prescription for our life-glasses. So, whether we’re doing an arm-balance, or riding a motorcycle, or creating a life full of love and wisdom, a conscious drishti is an essential ingredient.”
What are you focused on? If you’ve been spending too much time staring at the negative things, how can you refocus?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.