[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:

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Yoga for depression and anxiety

I was happy to be able to snag the last available spot for a two-hour workshop called Yoga for Depression and Anxiety, held this afternoon at the beautiful, community-focused Just B Yoga in Lansing. It was taught by a good friend of mine, South London native Kim Lewis.

Just B Yoga website screenshot

Although I won’t try to document the breathing and moving techniques that Kim went through — I believe these types of things are best learned and digested in context — I do want to say it was very moving when Kim started out the workshop by telling her own story. Here is her bio:

I first experienced a yoga class about 20 years ago, but I began to practice consistently in 2002 in my late 30s. I’d never been comfortable doing sport or “physical” activity, so I was surprised how much I enjoyed this unfamiliar form of exercise. Since then, I’ve learned that yoga has much more to offer than simply physical movement.

Before getting more serious about yoga, I was suffering with backaches, headaches, and neck aches – probably all because of stress. I’ve also had trouble with depression and anxiety that has sometimes thrown me completely off balance. Yoga has helped me to build better physical and mental health, so I’m able to function well in my daily life – and really live life.

At 46, I’m in much better physical and emotional shape than I was at 26. The combination of yoga poses, breathing and meditative practices simply makes me feel good. I’m so fortunate that I found yoga and I want to share it with others.

I trained with Hilaire Lockwood at Hilltop Yoga. I am also certified by Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, as a LifeForce Yoga Practitioner.

Kim was diagnosed as bipolar in her 20s, and strongly advises anyone trying to come off medications to do so with the help of a physician — rather than trying to do so on their own. Kim told the group today that she is living proof that while yoga can’t take away all the challenges, it can change someone’s life:

It can change your brain.

Kim told us that yoga gives you the tools to take care of yourself. These tools can be summarized by three words: “Breathe, Move, Watch,” based on breathing techniques (pranayama), physical postures (asana) and looking at how yoga philosophy views the Self.

You can use breathing and movement to:

  • Balance the body and mind
  • Calm the body/mind when anxious
  • Energize the body and mind when depressed — but on this point, Kim emphasized how mindfulness is needed because this can also aggravate anxiety or set off a manic state.

She said everyone needs to cultivate self-awareness and check in with themselves. If you feel lethargic and depressed, start slowly and warm up to a more energetic practice. If you feel jumpy and anxious, start with more active movement and then slow down to a more calming practice.

As a yoga instructor, I appreciated Kim’s pointers for those with depression or anxiety when taking group yoga classes — that you have to cultivate this same self-awareness and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

On this point, I think yoga teachers would be wise to try to learn more about depressed and anxious students. You won’t be able to tell that modifications are needed the way you would if a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy walks into your class, but even being aware of different needs might make you more intuitive about students who may quietly be suffering through major depression and need a different energy from you.

I found these points particularly interesting:

  • For someone with major depression, it may be too much to turn in internally, so don’t allow yourself to go there.
  • For someone with major depression, it might be uncomfortable to close the eyes, so just soften the gaze.

On that point, as an Ashtanga devotee, it made me all the more aware of the importance of dristi — the gaze — of the practice. Dristi is one of the three tools that the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga system gives us (together, the three are referred to as the tristana). There’s not a whole lot of eye-closing in Ashtanga — you are always asked to set a soft gaze on one of nine points (tip of nose, hand, to the side, etc.). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that, to keep us present on the mat in a way that allows us to boomerang our awareness inward with true clarity, rather than in a way that allows us either to escape to another place or get sucked into a place we don’t want to go to.

I’m writing about this workshop to, generally, help share the resources that Kim shared. I also noticed that the workshop had sold out at 20 slots — but I only counted about 14 in the room, and wondered if some folks were too anxious to be in a group setting where the focus was on yoga therapy for depression and anxiety.

For anyone with depression or anxiety reading this blog post at home, know that there are people who get it, and that yoga therapy may be able to help. If reaching out seems impossible, maybe make a few clicks to buy some of these resources listed below, to help you get to a point where you can seek out a professional who can work with you on some basic yoga techniques that — while they will hardly fix everything — might be able to help.

Suggested books

Suggested CD

>>Related posts: A different kind of black Friday


By the way — I know it’s been two weeks since my last blog post, and I have to tell you that it’s killing me that I’ve been too busy to blog. If you’ve been following this blog for the past year or so, you know I fit in blogging whenever I can — so the fact that I haven’t been able to put anything up is a testament to how compressed my schedule has been. I think I literally have about 12 blog posts in my head right now — about the first Bikram class I took about what being a Radiohead concert made me think about injuries, about one excellent tool for home practice and how I lost my voice nearly completely but taught a led class anyway — and on and on. I hope to catch up on some of these. We shall see.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.