It’s my favorite yoga class of the week: Sunday noon, 90 minutes of Power with Kelly. But I walk in all jumbly and rattly. As I pull out a block and unroll my thick blue mat, even as friends walk in, I feel jagged around the edges. I can feel my eyes strain as they dart around the room. Who’s that? Ooh, that’s a cute top. I wonder what the story is behind that tattoo?
Oh girl, I think. If you keep up with the darty eyes, there will be no peace for you today.
I see it in my students sometimes, too. They walk in and look around to figure out if they belong or not. Did I wear the right thing? Am I the right age? Is this a thing for hippies and weirdies?
Oh friend, I think to the nervous newbie, relax your eyes or there will be no peace for you today.
In yoga, it’s called the drishti, the gaze, where we set the eyes and align the head, but more than that, how we direct our energy and attention. Every posture has a particular place to focus the eyes: Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), between the big toes; Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), front middle finger; Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana), up at the thumb. We practice steadying the drishti on something unmoving. By letting the eyes rest on one spot, the body and mind can focus letting our alarmed busy-ness drop like fall leaves.
Yogis know that when the eyes dart around, so does the mind. By settling the gaze on a steady point, we have a deeper access to our internal experience. When in the midst of an uncomfortable situation, whether it’s a long hold in Side Plank, (Vasisthasana) venturing into a new class, or driving in a downpour, my darting eyes only rattle me, stir up my mind, disperse my attention. Settling and relaxing my eyes invites patience with what’s actually happening instead of the distractions around me and in my own little head.
One of my favorite online yoga teachers, Philip Urso, says that yoga helps us practice “going from panic to patience and from patience to peace.”
We are such visual creatures – from the moment we awaken, we are taking in the visual scene around us. We use our eyes so much that we are rarely even conscious of them (until we get something under our contact or we can’t read the print on the menu). Intentionally using the eyes instantly offers a way to connect the body and mind, and break the pattern of unconscious looking.
A soft eye relaxes both ocular muscles and active brain to allow the literal and figurative peripheral vision to expand. Suddenly, I can see that I’m really okay, that any intensity is temporary, and that I am part of a larger experience. An intentional gaze allows us to be fascinated with what is happening without becoming bewitched.
Like in yoga, in Nia we use the eyes to integrate body and mind as well as to stimulate healthful alignment and safe head movement. Perhaps more essentially, intentional use of the eyes trains us to go beyond superficial looking to seeing deeper, to what is so. Intentionally seeing the space, the other movers, and ourselves in the mirror allows us to shift from the panicky small mind through the patience of presence to the peace that really is available in every moment.
No matter what your practice – whether it is yoga or cycling or gardening or parenting – you can use the physical eyes to relax the brain and shift toward peace. Look with intention, to both relax the physical and mental bodies.
And in a bigger way, when we vision our lives and our world, we can also set our gaze on something unmoving, something steady. By setting our drishti on that which matters to us most, we can find a steadiness that moves from panic to patience, and from patience to peace.