July 1, 2011

Yoga: Looking Past your own Schnoz. ~ Rachel Meyer

Photo: Tuppus

Where’s your one-pointed focus?

Sure, you can say, oh hey, my drishti’s at the tip of my nose during Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, or it’s upward toward my hand during Trikonasana. But that’s not really what I mean. I mean, what the hell are you looking toward? Hmmm?

A few Wednesdays ago, my friend V and I were having a chat. I’d just come on for the evening behind the bar, and she’d been lingering for a late lunch, having run into several old friends in the course of the afternoon. 4 o’clockish by now, she was a few glasses in, and her bullshit regulators were gone. You know, that old “alcohol is the truth serum” kind of idea? Well, it was in full effect—much to my eventual benefit.

So we got to talking about life and love and goals and all that existential stuff, as one is wont to do on a quiet late afternoon behind the bar when there’s nothing to be cleaned or stocked and you’re just waiting for the rush to hit. I had a birthday coming up, and V had run into those aforementioned old acquaintances, all of whom reminded her of former selves. Ex-husbands, ex-jobs, ex-travels, ex-loves and old routines were made new again in the remembering, bittersweet and not.

Our conversation turned to questions of purpose and direction and memory, leaving us chuckling resignedly about how very different our lives end up looking from the way we necessarily imagine they might when we’re nine or 19 or 29 or 49. We weren’t lamenting—not at all, as both of us are quite happy with where the less-traveled paths have taken us—but rather just kind of laughing at the very human naiveté of the thought that we might control or plan for these wild lives of ours.

I mentioned to V how every year when my birthday comes and goes, there’s an automatic tendency to analyze where I’ve been and where I’m going, whether I’ve achieved what I’d wanted to by now (also known as: Type A neuroticism). And V, several glasses in, leaned over, grasped my hand across the bar, looked me in the eyes and interrupted me, saying, in the most charmingly slurred kind of way:

“Rachel. You’ve gotta set your intentions. You’ve gotta stop being distracted by the little things, the daily diversions, the dudes—as fun as hell as they are, don’t get me wrong—and stop being diverted by this and that other sparkly charming adventure, excursion, flavor of the moment, whatever that might be, and set your intentions. Decide what you want to do, to be, and do it, be it, now, every day. No bullshit, nothing else getting in the way. Srrrrrss-iously.”

I tell you—that was weeks ago, three, maybe—and V’s vino-induced mandate has really stuck with me since then. She’s a wise one, this dame, having achieved enormous success in her career, and now, finding herself quite wealthy as a result, enjoys the time, the resources, the fire and the freedom to do whatever the hell she wants, culminating in fabulous stories of pilot’s licenses and sommelier courses and scuba-diving certifications and lovers and travels and oh-so-many good ways of being alive.

The woman is an inspiration. A belly-laughing, down-to-earth, damn successful inspiration.On top of all that, she serves on the board for a major theological organization which I hold in particularly high esteem. So when this bodacious broad, who is in so many ways what I’d like to be, tells me I’ve gotta set my intentions and cut the crap with the distractions, I listen. And the days since have been driven, focused, charged by that intention. Every day, every morning, as I walk downtown to teach, as I roll out of bed to practice, as I dry my hair in the wee hours, as I come home exhausted on the train, I think of it. I write it on my wrist, in the mornings: drishti. One-pointed focus. Concentration.

A photo of our yoga friend Kathryn Budig. Photo: Jasper Johal Photography (we love him, too).

The idea of a drishti, that soft gazing point that grounds and centers the practice, is really quite parallel to that of dharana, the sixth limb of Ashtanga yoga, the notion of one-pointed concentration that is part and parcel of meditation. If we truly aspire to live our lives in a dedicated fashion, mindfully, consciously directing our energies, our prana, toward that which is life-giving, life-creating, removing-of-suffering, we can find this meditative drishti in everything we do.

My mother used to sit in church, all of us lined up like ducks in the back pew, and make her Sunday shopping lists while my pastor father preached. I think of that sometimes when I strive to be present in a yoga practice or even in a conversation. Put the list down. Put the phone down. Be there. Listen. Guide all your attention to that gazing point. Let your drishti—whether it’s another person, your teacher, the play you’re watching, the book you’re reading, the music you’re playing—really receive all of your attention.

I like to practice this when I’m folding laundry. I do a lot of laundry, you see, what with teaching yoga, and most days there’s something to be folded. It’s tempting to multi-task, to knock out some phone calls while I fold, to listen to music while I hurriedly stuff socks into drawers. And part of the practice of really finding that one-pointed concentration is to sit down in Hero Pose, or Half-Lotus, and slow my breath, turn off the music, and turn the folding into a seated moving meditation. The drishti goes to the leggings, the long-sleeved t-shirt, the yoga skirts. And before I know it, the swirling thoughts and to-do lists and fears have all slowed down, assuaged, softened, there at the hands of fresh yoga tanks smelling of mountain air detergent and maybe a little laundry softener.

As my dear teacher Rusty Wells often reminds us in class: if you’re here, really be here. If you’re balancing in Crouching Warrior and wanting to cry while your calf cramps up, be there. If you’re in Virabhadrasana B, stop looking around, stop mind-wandering, focus your drishti past your middle finger, and be there. If you’re having a conversation, be in it, really be there. If you’re in a relationship, be in it, all the way, no half-assedness. If you’re watching a play, be there, don’t let your mind take you outside of the theater and into your to-do list.

The end result of all this, of course, is full presence. It’s a really being-here-now. It’s a one-pointed concentration that, in effect, slows the mind, clears the thoughts, allows us to be where we are with what we are and really finish it, live it, experience it, know it.

David Life – he of Jivamukti fame – has written an excellent piece on the tradition and history of the drishti for Yoga Journal. Life writes that a fixed gaze can help enormously in balancing poses like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Garudasana (Eagle Pose), Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III), and the various stages of Hasta Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). By fixing the gaze on an unmoving point, you can assume the characteristics of that point, becoming stable and balanced.

More importantly, constant application of drishti develops ekagraha, single-pointed focus. When you restrict your visual focus to one point, your attention isn’t dragged from object to object. In addition, without these distractions, it’s much easier for you to notice the internal wanderings of your attention and maintain balance in mind as well as body. Makes sense, right?

Life goes on to describe how the bhakti yogi uses drishti in a slightly different way, constantly turning a loving, longing gaze toward God. Through imagination the vision of the Divine appears in the form of Krishna, and the whole world becomes prasad (holy nourishment). …. As we gaze at others, we perceive our own form, which is Love itself.We no longer see the suffering of other beings as separate from our own; our heart is filled with compassion for the struggling of all these souls to find happiness.

The yogic gaze emerges from an intense desire to achieve the highest goal of unitive consciousness, rather than from egoistic motives that create separation, limitation, judgment, and suffering. 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.

Beautiful. So set your drishti—whether that’s in asana or in life, that one-pointed focus that can calm your mind and slow your body and really bring you into the here and now, letting distractions fall away, enjoying them for what they are but always drawing you back to that main intention, that base goal, that central foundation. Come back to it. Let it restore balance, channel your energy, drive your practice. And then watch everything you do, every conversation you have, every stroll you take, every clean sock you fold, turn into a moving meditation.


Rachel Meyer is a San Francisco-based yoga teacher and writer with roots in musical theater, theology and the arts. When she’s not jumping around in leggings and chanting in Sanskrit, she loves a good foggy wander up and over Nob Hill in search of  cocktails or used books.  You can find her bio and teaching schedule at facebook.com/RachelMeyerYoga, and further ramblings on yoga, the arts and more at her literary practice mat, rawrach.blogspot.com.

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