In Spirit: The Importance of the Gaze in Yoga
As a yoga teacher, I often hear “I can’t come to class, I have an injury”, “I can’t practice yoga, I’m not flexible enough”, “I had to stop yoga because I had a problem in such and such an area of my body” as if yoga was only for healthy people.
Yet, these limits – whether occasional or experienced daily – are always a gift. They allow us to become aware of things that we would not understand or feel otherwise. Encountering pain, discomfort or incapacity is always an opportunity to explore and discover subtleties that we would not have been able to grasp otherwise.
Get in the habit of having a notebook or your phone’s recorder at hand’s reach: take notes on details you observe, questions, understandings or observations that arise during your practice or spontaneously during the day. Doing this will become so natural that at some point it will simply become a part of you without you realizing it. Everything will become an invitation to learn.
Here are some notes I made during the month of June, on the role of the gaze in yoga.
Note #1: First Day
I just had eye surgery. The pain is so acute that I feel the slightest movement, the slightest tension in the eye. It is the first time I so clearly experience proof of how the eye is always active: the eye constantly moves to capture information, to analyze what to do, where to go, what to look out for. The eyes, connected to the brain, constantly record and analyze all the data they receive, without respite.
My eyes are so sensitive that no movement can escape my sensory receptors; the pain alerts me immediately. One would think that when the eyelids are closed, the eye would finally be at rest. But no, I realize that even then, the eyes are active. When I speak on the phone, or even when I am thinking, I feel some form of tension in my eyes: eyelids open or closed, the eyes react to mental activity.
A realization hits me,I suddenly experience in my body the full extent of the truth I have been studying in yoga for years: the activity of the eye and the mind are intimately connected. A restless mind is an optic nerve in tension. By relaxing one the other can also rest. All the eye deconditioning work that I have learned from Éric Baret in recent years – visualization exercises, tactile exploration – take on another dimension. I understand the deep impact of this work, and its importance like never before. The work of deconditioning the eyes is crucial if one is to experience a peaceful mind.
Note #2: Third day
Pain and discomfort in the eyes are still strong. Lying on the bed, I let my body and my eyes rest, I feel the weight of my body on the mattress. I sink into a state of half-sleep, still conscious of the room. I see myself, Mariette, in her various roles: mother, daughter, woman, employee, teacher. The pain is still there but I stay with it, I just notice the colour of the pain.
All of a sudden, I sink into the mattress, experience myself from ‘behind’. I feel as if ‘Mariette’ no longer exists, the context of “my” life has disappeared. In a split second, the pain also evaporates. I’m in the same room, the same body, on the same mattress, but it doesn’t matter who or where I am. Then I “come back to myself”, the “context” of my life resurfaces, and the pain with it. I go back and forth like this several times – from context to no-context, from pain to no-pain – before falling into a deep sleep.
Note #3: Seventh day
I am on my yoga mat. My eyes are still sensitive but the pain is finally gone. I do some asanas. Legs crossed, I explore the directions with the arms, I let the tension in the shoulders come alive and the arms glide through space. Extending the arms to the left, the head follows the movement, then I open my eyes and invite my gaze to extend the line that presents itself naturally. When there is intention in the gaze toward a direction the pain and the tension arise. On the contrary, when my gaze, like the body, expands in all directions, the pain falls away. Then there is no longer any seeking in the gaze and the object disappears. It is a seeing that participates in the deconditioning of the body, which lets the identified person come to rest and makes room for pure presence. Practicing this way of seeing supports the asanas. I can feel a line, an exploration that I had never experienced before. As always, the yoga posture is the teacher, I simply follow, not the other way around.
“Where the hand goes, the gaze goes
Where the gaze goes, the heart goes
Where the heart is, there is expression
Where there is expression, emotion (Rasa) arises »
Treatise on dance by Natya Shastra from Bharata
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