The practice of yoga is an exercise aimed at harmonizing and balancing the mind, breath and body to form a perfect partnership. Yoga practitioners understand that the rhythm of the breath is as important as the physical pose and throughout the entire practise, the mind’s focus has to be maintained. Breathing allows the body to reach its fullest potential in a pose, while mental focus helps to maintain strength and balance in that pose. The main role of gaze in yoga is to help create that mental concentration.
Some yoga students look at their teacher, other students, or the mirror during their practice. Looking at other students is a cause for distraction and may encourage competition, which is self-defeating in any yoga practice. Unless the teacher is demonstrating, following their oral instructions are usually sufficient to find a pose. Correcting a pose using the mirror is understandable, but in truth the gaze, or “drishti” in yoga serves two very specific purposes – to express the energy and action of a yoga pose and also to focus the mind.
In some poses such as the Warrior, the gaze is instrumental in feeling the energy of the pose. In Warrior II, directing the gaze at the forward leading front hand gives the pose its requisite strength and elegance, while maintaining a tension and direction in the pose. In other poses, the gaze point helps to push the pose to a deeper level. For example, in the Half Moon pose, it is far easier to establish a gaze point on the floor, but yoga students who want to challenge their practice can advance the pose simply by shifting their gaze up to the ceiling instead. This small difference in gaze points makes a big difference in the difficulty of the pose.
In balance poses such as Tree, the gaze is essential to yoga practice. Without a fixed gaze point, balance poses can be impossible to maintain. Choosing a spot on the floor a few metres in front of them allows yoga students to find their centre of balance, necessary for the pose.
Each yoga session usually begins with a breath awareness exercise with eyes closed. Upon opening them, yoga practitioners should choose a specific stationery focus point – usually a few feet in front of them on the floor. Wandering eyes usually lead to a wandering mind, so having a specifc focus point where you can direct your gaze will help your mind to concentrate on the here and now of the moment. The mind is unsteady when it is unfocused, and to fully experience the benefits of yoga, the trinity of breath, mind and body have to be balanced.
During relaxation or meditation, or shivasana, yoga practitioners turn their gaze inwards, usually shutting their eyes. Mental visualisation can be used as an opportunity to choose a mental focus, a chance to clear the mind of clutter and introduce a new serenity. Being able to focus the gaze during the physical poses is merely a forerunner of focusing the inner eye during relaxation.