By Inna Costantini
Inna has been practising yoga for over a decade and teaching since 2008. With a background in media, anthropology and a stint in PR, she experimented with a variety of yoga paths, before deciding to trade her desk for a yoga mat, and embark on an intensive yoga training course in India. Inna is fascinated by yoga in all its forms, its effects, and the intricate links between physical and mental well-being. As a teacher, she loves seeing the changes in people, being a witness, an observer and sometimes a guide, and inspiring students and friends to practice, evolve and grow stronger on so many levels. Inna is also a freelance writer and loves sharing her passion for yoga, travel and the environment both off the mat and across the globe.
In the practice of yoga, drishti is a technique, broadly speaking, of focusing attention, using the eyes to gaze steadily at one point, thus increasing concentration, quietening thoughts and ultimately calming the mind.
On an average day we spend so much time looking – there is a constant stimulus of the senses and nerve connections, which can be both a source of energy and fatigue. The nervous system can become tired and saturated, and this is especially true when we are bombarded with information, data, lights, people and screens – essentially anything that comes our way on a daily basis in modern society.
Drishti in the context of ashtanga yoga
The ashtanga system is based on a progressive sequence of postures (asana), synchronised with the breath, bandhas (energy locks) and drishti. The union of these three places of attention is trishthana: performed in conjunction with each other they form a powerful practice that increases energy, purifying the body, mind and nervous system.
Asanas are there to purify, strengthen and give flexibility to the body. The breath connects postures to each other through steady, even inhalations and exhalations: this creates heat and further purifies the nervous system. Drishti is the point of gaze in the asana.
There are nine drishtis (see below): the nose, the space between the eyebrows, the navel, the thumb, the hands, the feet, up, right and left. This practice calms the mind and generates a sense of focus and stability.
According to Sharath Jois of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (the grandson of its founder, late Shri K Pattabhi Jois), the drishtis – or focal points – are there to develop concentration in one’s practice: “Gazing will help you in many ways – also in pranayama (breath control) it will help you focus and in dhyana (meditation) it is very important to focus the attention in one place.” (Souce: Shala conference, 26/01/2014) In fact, Mark Darby, a certified teacher and student of late Shri K Pattabhi Jois, notes: “If drishti cannot be done in asana it will also not be possible in pranayama and meditation.”
Usually, when teachers speak of drishti, they refer to it as a technique to keep the gaze steady and the mind focused. The different gazing points are used as tools to keep one anchored in the present moment, along with the practice of bandhas and ujjayi breath. But by looking deeper, one may uncover other layers of meaning.
Reasons to practice drishti:
- To maintain focus and concentration both on and off the mat.
- To guide the directionality of the pose – the gaze often relates to a line of energy in the asana, and makes the practice fluid. Directionality lies both in the alignment of muscular strength, as well as in the intention of the mind.
- To create awareness – staying still, steady and connected to the moment.
- To have an internal gaze: it’s not so much about where one looks, but on more subtle levels about looking inwards, so that one’s concentration will not be troubled by outside influences. This is very important in asana as well as pranayama and meditation.
- To create a meditative state and deepen the connection to different parts of the brain: different drishtis may affect different parts of the brain.
…and some precautions
- Seek to understand the true meaning of drishti. Beyond the simple gaze, there is a way of seeing. It is more about how we are seeing: the visual part of the brain is at the back of the head, so one point is to encourage a feeling that we are actually seeing from that place.
- Switch on – don’t switch off. Once in the asana, it can be so easy – especially if you’re proficient in that pose – to simply ‘hang out’ in a shape, whilst blankly looking at a steady point. This is switching off. The whole point of an asana practice is to tune in – and practice fine-tuning those elements that need refining. Whether it is a muscular engagement (or dis-engagement), breath awareness, or making space for the body to be at ease, there are always ways to stay present and active in the asana. Failing that, we are just making shapes and looking at our toenails.
- Alignment – look with the eyes not the head and neck. Awareness comes into play once again. As much as we seek to understand the directionality of a pose, and look steadily at a point, can we maintain a sense of openness and space? The eyes may focus, but the neck should remain free and the shoulders broad, hopefully creating space rather that tightness. 
- Relax the eyes. Looking cross-eyed or zombie-eyed is not, as far as I understand, drishti. ‘Quiet eyes’ is a perfect description of a manner to practice drishti.
- Go beyond the gaze. Do not assume you have achieved a pose just by looking in that direction – drishti could be a gateway to a deeper connection with the self. A practice, perhaps of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). While we gaze at the tip of nose (nasagra drishti) we are not simply looking at a place, but we are perhaps using the eyes as a window into our soul…
Interestingly however, some have offered other views on the concept of drishti. Manju Jois (Shri K Pattabhi Jois’s son) highlighted that ashtanga yoga was originally taught to young children, and the gazing points were given to stop them from looking around the room. For instance, in adho mukha svanasana (downward dog), they would be instructed to look at their navel as a way to keep them focused.
Besides, it is important to note that specific drishtis in asana have altered slightly over time. For instance, in the current system of ashtanga yoga, the gazing point for pachimottanasana (forward bend) is the toes, but Krishnamacharya (in the Yoga Makaranda) said it was the tip of the nose, while the late Shri K Pattabhi Jois is said to have added the following direction: ”Face down, look at nose centre”.
So as much as drishtis are there to help us focus and bring us deeper within the practice, one must be able to understand the effects of the eyes on overall posture and alignment. A simple shift of the gaze may be so much more than just mere looking.
The 9 drishtis of the ashtanga yoga system
Urdhva Drishti – looking up.
Brumadhya Drishti – third eye
Nasagra Drishti – tip of nose
Parsva Drishti – right side
Parsva Drishti – left side
Nabhi Drishti – navel
Hastagra Drishti – tip of middle finger
Angusta Drishti – tip of thumb
Padagra Drishti – tip of big toe
With gratitude to Mark Darby, Hamish Hendry and Norman Blair for their valuable input.
Photographs by Nikhil Kripalani.