Eyes on the Prize
In his book "Journey into Power", Baron Baptiste explains that "wandering eyes equal a wandering mind." We are rarely attentive enough to be aware of all that we communicate with our eyes or all the ways in which we self-sabotage by not training our eyes to focus. For evolutionary reasons, humans have their eyes at the front of the head rather than at the sides, like for example horses do. But often, especially in situations that make us feel more like prey, we lose the courage to look towards where we're going - literally and metaphorically speaking. Luckily, Yoga can help us re-train our eyes and minds to focus and guide us towards our goals.
Talking with your eyes
For me, it wasn't until I started kickboxing that I became aware of my eyes' communicative function. As a beginner, I unconsciously tended to look at the point I wanted to hit, oblivious to the fact that my opponent could trace my focus and predict exactly where I was going to attack. When defending myself, at first I thought it only logical to focus on my opponent's hands and feet to try to predict where the next punch or kick would come from. I learned the hard way that the best way to both surprise your opponent and read their intention is to look them straight in the eye.
Eye movement is mostly subconcious, which is why it's an excellent indicator of what is going on inside someone's head. Think of the last time you were talking to someone who wasn't looking at you. Perhaps they were looking at their phone (worst case), or gathering their things or just staring blankly into the distance, and you just knew that they weren't paying attention. In literature, eyes are often referred to as "windows to the soul," and it's true: We avoid eye contact when we're uncomfortable, right handers look right when they're lying and left when they're telling the truth, and when in danger, our eyes immediately trace the nearest escape route.
Training your eyes
The advantage of this eye-mind connection is that it goes both ways, and by steadying our gaze, we can steady the mind. In Yoga, this technique is called drishti: Finding a focal point helps with balancing poses in particular, but it also keeps the mind anchored in the present moment.
For those who want to take this a step further, Adell Bridges, a brilliant Yoga teacher and neuroscience geek (adellbrdiges on Instagram) has some amazing exercises that you can easily incorporate into a Yoga sequence:
Let's say you're standing in Tadasana (let's start easy, shall we?). Bring your right arm out in front of you, thumb pointing up. Focus your eyes on your thumb, and then start moving your arm out to the right. Follow your thumb with your eyes without moving your head! Do this slowly and really watch your head - don't let it move! Bring the arm back to center, again following your thumb with your eyes, then do the other arm, turning the gaze to the left.
Now let's say you're in Warrior 3 (but of course, you can practice in Tadasana first). Bring your right arm out in front of you, parallel to the floor, again with the thumb pointing up. This time, turn your head over to the right, but keep your eyes glued to your thumb! Tough, right? Don't forget to do it on both sides!
Look at where you're going
Training our eyes and controlling our focus is crucial, because when the body is in motion, it follows your eyes - whether they are focused on your aim or not. I experienced this when riding on the outdoor riding ground bounded only by tree trunks liying on the ground. Knowing that my horse had a tendency to test my strength and veer towards the outside, closer to the trunks, I was afraid of falling and nervously kept an eye (actually both eyes) on the trunks. But that only brought us closer to the trunks, because my body followed my eyes and I unconsciously steered my horse closer and closer to the edges. Only with conscious effort and a lot of trust was I able to look away from the danger and towards where I wanted to go. My riding teacher's words have stayed with me ever since: "Look at where you're going". This is also true on your Yoga mat. Take for example an arm balance like Bakasana (Crow Pose): If you look down at the ground, I guarantee you you'll fall. Look slightly up and in front of you, and you'll find it much easier to stay up.
But sometimes the path we need to take is less clear, perhaps because it is obscured by other people's judgement, or our own worries and fears. In these cases, Yoga teaches us to use our Third Eye, located between our eyebrows, to turn the gaze inward. The Third Eye Chakra, Ajna Chakra, represents mental clarity, our capacity for intuition and evaluating our own beliefs and values. The element associated with this chakra is light - the light of reason and truth. A great way of using your Third Eye is self-study, or svadhyaya, for example by journaling. Jay Shetty calls this a method of "mental weight loss": Putting all the worries and fears that weigh you down to paper can help you see your goals more clearly and move towards them more mindfully.
Making a vision board
In a metaphorical sense, if we lose sight of our goals, of our Why behind what we do, acting in line with our purpose becomes impossible. This is why I have what's called a vision board, a tangible visualization of my dreams, goals, and values. Making a vision board can be as simple as taking a piece of cardboard and gluing onto it any pictures, quotes, magazine or newspaper clippings, and symbols that inspire you. There aren't really any rules regarding what you can put on your vision board, but in case you need some ideas, below I share the guidelines I used, taken from my teacher Julie Montagu:
people you love, who support you, lift you up, are always there for you
places you want to see, not just for holiday but because they mean something to you
activities you enjoy
what represents you
a quote that inspires you
things/people you are grateful for - including the small, unextraordinary things!
places you feel comfortable and at home in
your goals/passions/dreams - the sky's the limit here!
The start of a new year is the perfect time to make a vision board and remind yourself of what you're aiming for in life. Make sure to place it somewhere where you can see it every day - I have mine at the top of my Yoga mat, so when I need to find a drishti, I choose an element on my vision board.
Do let me know if you end up making your own vision board,
and as always: Thank you for reading,
I'll see you in 2021,