When we first learn ashtanga, one of the things we are told is that this practice can be boiled down to these things: breath, bandhas and drishti.
The breathing can be difficult for some people to master at first. To find the strength of ujjayi breathing without forcing it; to always move with the breath. I was taught well as a beginner, so this was one of the foundations of my practice. Still, there are days when my breath is ragged, or it catches in my throat, or I feel myself having to "stop" and take a deep breath into my belly, but generally speaking I think I can say: breath? Tick.
Bandhas are a trickier one. I was told in my first weeks of practice that it takes seven years to learn to use them. Hurrah! I thought, that's me off the hook, I don't have to try! But of course that's not the case, we are supposed to diligently try try and try until one day this will start to make sense. It hasn't come as a lightbulb moment for me, or rather I should say not one lightbulb moment, but a sequence of them, but over maybe the past few months, two years into my ashtanga journey, I have started to find that activation , and to feel the effect it has on various places in my practice. The funny thing is that it seems to appear of it's own volition as I stand in tadasana preparing to take my hands into prayer and begin the chant. And sometimes it just doesn't appear, and that's OK too, but on the days when it floats in during tadasana, I know I can rely on it to be present in a patchy way at least throughout my practice. Anything where the pelvis is open it feels incredibly hard to engage, I suppose this is where it will be easier once I can learn to keep it engaged throughout, rather than having to remember once I am in the asana, and trying to find it again. But it's coming.
Drishti is an interesting one, because at first I thought it was simple - just look where you're told to look. In most asanas (with a few exceptions) remembering the drishti was a bigger challenge at first than actually doing it. But maintaining drishti actually within each asana is one thing (look at your hand, tip of the nose, over your shoulder - how hard can it be?), but what about through the vinyasas? And in surya namaskar A and B? When shalamate SY taught our led class shortly before Cary came back from maternity leave (and I should point out, it was the first time she'd ever done such a thing and she did a GREAT job!), before we began she spoke briefly about drishti. She talked about using nasagrai drishti in upward dog, and focussing on the moments of awareness where we are fully present in the moment, and asking us to notice those moments so that in time they could be expanded throughout the practice (I'm paraphrasing and probably getting that completely wrong). But her reminder helped me, in that it made me aware that I was already very diligent in keeping my focus on the tip of my nose as I came into upward dog. Gold star for Mel! But I said to her afterwards that for me, the point where it all goes hazy is going into downward dog. For me, my practice begins like this:
Ekam: Raise the arms overhead, look to the thumbs.
Dve: Fold forward on the exhale into standing forward bend.
Trini: raise the head, looking at the tip of the nose
Catvari: jump back into chaturanga, looking - slightly ahead? Never sure if that's correct
Panaca: up into upward dog, drishti fixed very firmly on the tip of the nose
Sat: ahhhh....this is where it all falls apart. For some reason, rolling over the toes and back into downward dog, my drishti goes a bit swimmy, I lose the focus, and as I go back into downdog with it's uncertain gaze-point I frequently take the opportunity (completely unconsciously, most of the time) to see who just came in the room, to glance at the clock, to see who the assistant is today.
In other words, a total drishti violation! Somebody call the ashtanga police!
Swimmy drishti...not that you can see it in the clip.
A few suryas from my trip to Yoga Thailand last October (that's me in the purple) with Clayton Horton. Vanity requires that I say I think my practice has changed a lot since then ;)
So one day this week, it occurred to me to try and hold nasagrai drishti from upward dog, right through the transition into downdog and see if I could manage it. I'll admit, the first few times I tried it, I felt literally sea-sick and thought "oh well, at least I tried." But then I carried on, and held the drishti through every surya, through every vinyasa, and found that the swimmy feeling was gone, as was the queasy feeling from my first few attempts. So the next day I did it again, and I managed to maintain my drishti through surya namaskar A and B (actually, B is a little trickier what with all of that lungey business, but I did my best), as well as through every vinyasa, and the results of this minor alteration to my practice have been quite incredible.
For starters, I realised just how much I glance around during my practice. Those who practice with me can vouch that I am not one of those people who constantly stops and looks round the room (right Susan?) but it's true I am generally aware of who's there. who got new poses, who fell on their head, who broke the rules...and this level of assessment and judgement of the room affects my practice, and it something I am working on getting over (or I WANT to work on it, but can't seem to figure out how); after all, yoga helps us to become more self-aware, meaning that we don't necessarily stop doing things that are wrong - it just means we notice them more! Keeping that firm focus through the sun salutations leads to a practice which is 100% more focussed than in the past - if not more so. The impact is nothing short of phenomenal.
I've also been surprised to realise that I haven't been keeping the vinyasa to one breath per movement until now. Somehow my transition back into downdog stretches out over a number of breaths, even in a vinyasa where I should inhale to up dog, exhale downward dog, inhale jump forward, this has been s-t-r-u-n-g out as I fiddle and faff with my feet, or kick my rumpled up towel flat, or - I don't even know how or why, but it's just something I noticed as I learned to maintain the drishti. And having becoming aware of it, I am now doing my best to maintain the rhythm of breath with movement.
An added fringe benefit which I'll admit surprises me is that it seems to be helping my jumping forwards. I am working on this as Kino teaches it, to jump as far through the hands as you can with legs crossed, then instead of giving up, sitting down or planting the feet, to keep your bum lifted off the mat whilst wriggling until the feet go right through to straight legs. Having accidentally engaged my bandhas before jumping forward the other week I felt like I'd found the magic key to get the feet further through the hands (i know, I know; I've read it/been told it a thousand times, but I had to experience it for myself to understand it) but when you add the drishti? Somehow it helps even more! I don't fully understand why, but there is no doubt in my mind that it does, and my feet are now landing further through my hands than ever before, and I'm actually getting one foot right through on the initial jump a few times each day.
So every day it becomes ever more clear to me how these three things work together: breath, bandhas and drishti.
The challenge comes for me when I get to surya B which I have some issues with that my teacher keeps picking up on (and hence my mind starts to wander too when I get here) but I could happily do surya A all day and all night with perfect drishti and disappear into some some of sense-withdrawal wormhole. And then of course after an ease-to-maintain-focus padangustasana comes trikonasana and all that follows which seem to allow for a bit of looking where you are going, realigning the hips and feet, checking who your mat neighbour is and general loss of focus, so I suppose this is where my work will be next: how to maintain drishti and focus during the transitions between asana until eventually, maybe, I can maintain focus throughout my practice and not be so concerned about what is going on around me. And there was me thinking I had to actively work on not being so judgemental and scattered in my attention, when in actual fact all I had to do was come back to those three things: breath, bandhas and drishti.