When we get caught up in the outer appearance of things, our prana (vitality) flows out of us as we scan the stimulating sights. Allowing the eyes to wander creates distractions that lead us further away from yoga. To counteract these habits, control and focus of the attention are fundamental principles in yoga practice. When we control and direct the focus, first of the eyes and then of the attention, we are using the yogic technique called drishti.
The increasing popularity and influence of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method of yoga, taught for more than 60 years by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, have introduced drishti to thousands of practitioners. On a simple level, drishti technique uses a specific gazing direction for the eyes to control attention. In every asana in Ashtanga, students are taught to direct their gaze to one of nine specific points.
In Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), for instance, we gaze at the nose tip: Nasagrai Drishti. In meditation and in Matsyasana (Fish Pose), we gaze toward the Ajna Chakra, the third eye: Naitrayohmadya (also called Broomadhya) Drishti. In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), we use Nabi Chakra Drishti, gazing at the navel. We use Hastagrai Drishti, gazing at the hand, inTrikonasana (Triangle Pose). In most seated forward bends, we gaze at the big toes: Pahayoragrai Drishti. When we twist to the left or right in seated spinal twists, we gaze as far as we can in the direction of the twist, using Parsva Drishti. In Urdhva Hastasana, the first movement of the Sun Salutation, we gaze up at the thumbs, using Angusta Ma Dyai Drishti. In Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), we use Urdhva Drishti, gazing up to infinity. In every asana, the prescribed drishti assists concentration, aids movement, and helps orient the pranic (energetic) body.
The full meaning of drishti isn’t limited to its value in asana. In Sanskrit, drishti can also mean a vision, a point of view, or intelligence and wisdom. The use of drishti in asana serves both as a training technique and as a metaphor for focusing consciousness toward a vision of oneness. Drishti organizes our perceptual apparatus to recognize and overcome the limits of “normal” vision.
Our eyes can only see objects in front of us that reflect the visible spectrum of light, but yogis seek to view an inner reality not normally visible. We become aware of how our brains only let us see what we want to see—a projection of our own limited ideas. Often our opinions, prejudices, and habits prevent us from seeing unity. Drishti is a technique for looking for the Divine everywhere—and thus for seeing correctly the world around us. Used in this way, drishti becomes a technique for removing the ignorance that obscures this true vision, a technique that allows us to see God in everything.
Drishti—The True View
Throughout the history of yoga, clear, true perception has been both the practice and goal of yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells his disciple, Arjuna, “You are not able to behold me with your own eyes; I give thee the divine eye, behold my Lordly yoga” (11.8). In the classic exposition of yoga, the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali points out that in viewing the world, we tend not to see reality clearly, but instead get deluded by the error of false perception. In Chapter II, verse 6, he says that we confuse the act of seeing with the true perceiver: purusha, the Self. He continues, in verse 17, to say that this confusion about the true relationship between the act of seeing, the object seen, and the identity of the Seer is the root cause of suffering. His cure for this suffering is to look correctly into the world around us.
How are we to do this? By maintaining a prolonged, continuous, single-pointed focus on the goal of yoga: samadhi, or complete absorption into purusha. The practice of drishti gives us a technique with which to develop single-pointed concentration of attention. The hatha yogi uses a kind of “x-ray vision” comprised of viveka (discrimination between “real view” and “unreal, apparent view”) and vairagya (detachment from a mistaken identification with either the instrument of seeing or that which is seen). This basic misidentification is called avidya (ignorance), and its counterpart, vidya, is our true identity.
Like all yogic practices, drishti uses the blessed gifts of a human body and mind as a starting place for connecting to our full potential—the wellspring that is the source of both body and mind. When we clear our vision of the covering of habits, opinions, ideas, and their projections about what is real and what is false, we gaze beyond outer differences toward the absolute Truth.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article See More Clearly By Practicing Drishti by David Life, the cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga
Why are so few asanas mentioned in the traditional Yoga texts, such as the Yogasutras and the Hathapradipika, and yet so many are practiced today in asana based systems like K. Pattahbhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga and B. K. S. Iyengar Yoga?
It has been difficult to ignore the absence of historical evidence on the development of later Haṭhayoga. Modern practitioners have clung to the hope of finding the long lost and mysterious Yoga Kuruṇṭa (a purported Sanskrit text allegedly used by Krishnamacharya) in the hope that it will validate the practice of vinyasa and Surya Namaskar as well as provide precedents to the ropes and props used by B. K. S. Iyengar.
A recent academic conference Yoga in Transformation held in September 2013 at the Vienna University was an extraordinary event that highlights the importance of this conversation and the efforts of scholars to provide a historically accurate picture while attempting to predict the future trajectory of this global phenomenon.
Jason Birch’s presentation on the Unpublished Manuscript Evidence for the practice of Numerous Asanas in the 17th and 18th Century is a helpful piece in attempting to solve this complex puzzle. Jason presents evidence to suggest that there were well over 100 āsana being practised in India before the British arrived. He states:
“Generally speaking, there are very few seated, forward, backward, twisting and arm-balancing poses in modern yoga that have not been anticipated by these seventeenth and eighteenth-century sources.”
Jason’s research involved the detailed study of several 17th and 18th century manuscripts found in various library around India. These particular findings are significant as they offer a window into the types of āsanas practiced in India at that time. Some of the Haṭhayogic techniques were prominent enough to catch the inquisitive eye of the Mogul Court and are recorded in a Persian manuscript.
It contradicts the assumption made by Scholars and Yoga Teachers alike that the physical āsana of modern Yoga have no precedent. Jason states that in the manuscript evidence:
“The majority of these āsana were not seated poses, but complex and physically-demanding postures some of which involved repetitive movement, breath control and the use of rope. When these manuscript sources are combined, the assemblage of āsana provides antecedents to most of the floor and inverted postures in modern systems of Indian yoga.”
Jason confirms that moving āsana, rope āsana and standing āsana were all part of the picture long before the revival of physical yoga in the 20th century. He also points out that Haṭhayoga had been appropriated by orthodox Brahmins before the 18th century, moving it away from the renunciant traditions, and they wrote yoga texts that blended Haṭhayoga with Patañjali’s yoga, the Upaniṣads and Bhagavadgītā, much like we see today.
Excerpt from Article ASANAS Old and New: Unpublished manuscripts and hints of the missing Yoga Kurunta By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES