Early in my yoga practice, I was a self-conscious, self-critical and shut down beginner. Looking around at the elegant and graceful practices of others would trigger a landslide of self-doubt in myself and judgment of the others.
These people must have special powers, I thought, as I witnessed a man take a headstand with no hands. Later, as one woman casually braided her hair while in a front split, I hyperventilated in child’s pose and convinced myself that some people are just born without hamstrings.
These thoughts did not feel so good inside. To avoid them, I closed my eyes as often as possible.
Now, as a self-conscious, self-critical and slightly-less-shut-down practitioner, I try to keep my eyes open as much as I can. A common practice taught in yoga class is drishti, or maintaining a focused gaze. There are actually nine different drishtis, all of which take the gaze in certain directions, depending on the posture.
A focused gaze helps reduce the dreaded eye wandering and improve focus. Now, instead of watching others and indulging in an internal monologue about their practice, I try to concentrate and gaze past my front hand in Warrior II, or at my navel in downward facing dog.
Eye-gazing meditation is also something I’ve learned. It’s an intimate practice of sitting in front of another person and gazing right into their eyes. The goal is to practice seeing yourself in the other person and hold whatever comes up—the stuff you consider good, bad, and in-between—with loving awareness and acceptance. It’s similar to approaching a mirror, looking sweetly into your own eyes and repeating affirmations like, “I love myself,” or “I love my tight hamstrings,” or “I, too, have special powers.”
Not too long ago, I arrived to an early morning class feeling grumpy. I sat down on my mat in a huff and, after a minute or so, closed my eyes.
Soon after, I heard my beloved teacher take her seat at the front of the room. I opened my eyes. While the back of the long room was dark and shadowed, the front of the room was bursting bright, with sunlight streaming in through the frosted windows. The rays landed just behind my teacher, her face somewhat in shadow. I focused my gaze on her as she introduced a verse from the Upanishads and described its message of union, wholeness and completeness. She then closed her eyes and began to chant Om.
I too closed my eyes and began to sing. When I did, an after-image—a negative, of sorts—of my teacher in her seated position took shape in my mind’s eye. As I chanted, this after-image continued to appear. I felt better, softer. I soon realized that yes, this image was a result of the room’s light balance on my eyes, but it also reflected another balance I have been trying to master for a long time—the delicate line between light and shadow, darkness and beauty, pain and joy.
It’s said that good teachers reflect their students own innate, golden qualities back to them. With this serene after-image in my mind, I sat up taller, took a deep breath, and started to chant, trying my best to honor my own shaky, trembling and ever-shining wholeness.