Hey-Gaze (The Yoga of Seeing)

By Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe

“I love airports,” I found myself saying as I picked a friend up the other night. “People are going places.”

I realize this is an unusual experience.  Nothing seems to challenge our yogic sense of peace more than being delayed at the airport.  Traffic, shopping, family karmas and overbooked flights can send even the most centered practitioner into a scattered frenzy.

You will be surprised to hear what has helped me the most in times of agitation. It is not the breath, although please do keep breathing at all times! It’s dristi, the gaze of the eyes. The word dristi comes from the Sanskrit root drstr meaning ‘to see,’ ‘to gaze,’ ‘to focus on,’ or  better yet, ‘to direct.’

Yoga teaches us that wherever the eyes go, our energy goes.  Many of the asana practices that we learn in the West teach us to look up. Gazing upward has its benefits, including increased energy and an added challenge to balancing. But there are drawbacks as well – the most obvious being that it strains a lot of necks! Looking up also has the potential to agitate an already over-stimulated nervous system. The other issue: keeping our eyes still is much more difficult when they are focused upward. Therefore our eyes dart all over the room, looking somewhere, anywhere for some help.

If our eyes are ‘all over the place,’ so are our bodies. We end up scattered. When we focus our eyes, our bodies focus and, thankfully, our energy gets focused as well.

How many times have I forced myself to look up in half moon pose only to strain my neck, stop breathing and fall over? One day I realized that I was doing this out of habit – something someone told me to do, something I read in a book (which was written within the last hundred years). None of the ancient scriptures dictate looking up; it is not pre-requisite to enlightenment.

When I need to get grounded, I look at the ground.  When I’m in a challenging asana and really want to focus, I look down.  When I need that same level of absolute concentration, I look down. And when do I need that level of focus more than when my flight is delayed?

Try this as an experiment: Next time you are waiting for a flight, do the usual thing and people watch. Inevitably there will be someone madly tapping away on their laptop, someone will be talking just a little too loudly on their cell phone while someone else is stuffing a French fry in their mouth. As your eyes dart around and you try to keep track of everyone, create stories in your mind of what their lives must be like. Try to make sense of their existence for them. Pause. Watch your energy leaving you and going to them; watch it dwindle away.  Where your eyes go, your energy flows.

Pause again and look down. Know that the world is swirling around you, but you don’t have to look at it. You don’t have to comment or help it along. You’re just you. Just as you would in a crowded yoga class, balancing in tree pose, look down, and bring your attention and energy back to you where it belongs.  Try this in the shopping mall, at your family dinner, but mostly at the airport.

I promise you, you’ll still get there at the same time, and you just might arrive at your destination a little less frazzled and a little more rested. You may even feel so energized that you find yourself saying, as I did to my friend that day, “I love airports!”

Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe began teaching yoga in 1995. She is the instructor for the Yoga for Dummies series, the “Crunch Yoga” series, as well as the collaboration with Russell Simmons “Yoga Live.” She is currently on Fit TV’s “All Star Workouts” and her self-produced “Yoga on the Edge” runs on Exercise TV.  Sara will be teaching four classes at the Tadasana Festival of Yoga & Music: Bhakti Vinyasa, YogaWorks Flow, Vinyasa Flow and Yin & Yang. To save $50 off a three-day pass (expires April 1), use her promo code, ‘ivanhoe2.’