[Retreat dispatch] The eyes (well, dristi) have it

[I had the chance to unplug during an ashtanga retreat held March 2-9, 2013 at a magical, secluded little spot called Xinalani, located near Puerto Vallarta in Mexico’s Banderas Bay. While unplugging meant no social media and no online hanging out time, I did write on a few nights. (I didn’t want to actually post during the retreat, though, since it would have required selecting photos and spending the time to link, format and all that good stuff — and it was hard to justify taking that time while in the middle of a serious paradise.) I’ll be sharing those posts from the retreat over the next few days.]

Xinalani greenhouse, where we practiced each morning

The Xinalani greenhouse, where we practiced our dristi each morning. The fact that it was such an amazing space meant it also offered potential distractions — and thus even more reason to hold our gazes!


As the keys of my little iPad Bluetooth keyboard click away, the waves are rolling and music from the retreat center’s salsa night blares down below in the lounge as the other yogis on vacation here drink and dance a bit. (All the ashtangis, however, are in their rooms, and most are no doubt asleep. I should be too, but what else is new?) It’s a strange mix of sounds, but everything fits somehow.

Seeing the evening’s salsa instructor stroll in as I headed up to my room to start settling down to bed reminds me that it’s been far too long since my husband and I have had our own salsa lesson. One of the last times I saw my salsa teacher, he told me — as he does every time I see him — that I need to relax.

I remember the exchange really well. “I am relaxed,” I insisted.

“No you’re not,” he said. I must have given him a look, because he continued, “Do you know how I know?” I shook my head.

“Your eyes.”

He was right, of course. My head, as usual, thought I was relaxed, but some part of my body, as usual, gave it away that I wasn’t truly. Being the yoga dork that I am, I immediately thought of dristi at the moment, and how important it is to the ashtanga practice.

I’ve been blessed: My extreme near-sightedness has helped me keep my awareness on my own mat even early on in my yoga practice, when I didn’t have an ashtanga teacher to teach me about tristana (the concentration practice of breath, bandha and dristi). People just several feet away aren’t defined by clear lines; I see them as blobs if my glasses aren’t on. So even if I wanted to dart my eyes around the room, I wouldn’t have been able to see anything clearly enough anyway.

These days, I get to employ dristi to help deepen my internal awareness, and the more tools I have to keep the discursive mind at bay, the better. It’s also just a relief: I spend much of my time at work needing my eyes to flitter between my two computer screens (a set-up I love, don’t get me wrong) and sometimes my iPhone too. In the 700 miles or so that I drive each week, my eyes have to be focused and also scanning to keep me driving defensively and safely on the road. Only focus on one place during practice? I’m all over it.

Each evening this week, we’ve had an evening workshop that looked more closely at a couple of topics key to an asana practice or to a meditation practice, and the workshop yesterday on dristi sparked a lot of interesting discussion. Angela talked to us about two emerging fields that involve therapeutic use of eye movement: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and brainspotting.

Fascinating stuff. I know there is some resistance, and even controversy, over some of these techniques. But knowing the power of dristi — whether it’s in the yoga practice or in life and literature (eyes give lovers away all the time, don’t they?) — the concepts instinctively make sense to me.

More from the Xinalani retreat:

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