Recently in class, I was observing the students’ reaction to holding some of the standing poses about one or two breaths longer than we usually do. I found the result was fascinating. Some students immediately focused on their breath to sustain the physical sensations and even appeared soft and relaxed with a quiet, concentrated look in their eye. Others came across slightly agitated, with a sharp quality to their breath and darting eyes, looking somewhat wildly around the room.
After that round of standing poses, we came into a supported squat to practice Kegels. I asked the students to be mindful of their focal point and its relationship to the breath and concentration during the next few standing postures.
We went through a few more poses, then regathered in virasana and discussed their discoveries. Many of the students had a positive experience and said that they were able to better connect with their breath when they had a purpose and focus with their eyes. I explained that when the eyes can settle on one specific point, the mind settles and the breath stabilizes, allowing us to feel more relaxed. In yoga we call this a drishti. This specific gaze can help control attention and bring the mind into a single pointed focus called ekagraha.
Incorporating a drishti point into one’s yoga practice is an ancient technique used by the yogis. Interestingly enough, this is also a long time used technique in pain management for childbirth. By focusing on one object the mind is occupied and distracted from the pain. Some childbirth techniques encourage an external focal point; a person, picture or object. Others encourage the mother to close her eyes and focus inward. One advantage of the internal focal point is it can help soften the eye muscles a bit more and remove stimulation from the outside world (In yoga we call this pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses). Both have valid points, but it is really up to the mother to see which method best resonates with her.
The eyes are a sensor for the overall state of excitement of the nervous system. When the eyes are overly active and the pupils dilate, the body is in the sympathetic nervous system aka “fight or flight.” This stimulation is a natural reaction to the eyes taking in the whole scene around, being prepared to defend itself. When the eyes are soft, the muscles relax, the body shifts into the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is more cohesive with beneficial hormonal function during childbirth.
The eyes and the nervous system
How to Practice This!
There are several ways to practice settling the eyes and quieting the mind. Since it is likely that the laboring mother will use several different pain management techniques throughout her labor, we teach a few options throughout class:
We start every class with a short meditation. The purpose of this is to help the students remove themselves from their busy day and shift into being present with their body, breath and baby. The students take either supta baddhakonasana (reclined goddess pose) or supported savasana (corpse pose). Students are led through a brief relaxation, and then invited to close their eyes and soften the muscles around their eyes into the sockets. Some students prefer to keep their eyes open, which is fine too. After a few breathes we instruct them to watch their breath as it moves in and out of their body. Sometimes we present the idea of breathing down to their baby. This often helps the women drop their breath deeper, moving it away from a shallow breath.
During this beginning mediation, we incorporate pranayama (breath exercises). This starts to introduce the idea of having some control over one’s breathing pattern. Sama Vritti (even fluctuation) is a common exercise we use since it involves counting the breath to a specific number. In sama vritti the practitioner is aiming to have the inhalation and exhalation the same length. In prenatal yoga, we typically use a 4 count breath. Since there is a more structure to the pranayama, we remind the students to continue to be aware of their body, is this concentration contracting any muscles group, especially the eyes.
It is a very common practice for women to start to count their breath in labor. I have found from my own labor and as a doula, many women naturally are drawn to this technique without any instruction. Counting the breath gives the mind a very definitive focal point and there starts to be a recognizable pattern of when the contraction has peaked and will subside.
Practice In the Pose
After having introduced the idea of relaxing the eyes in meditation and pranayama, we take these techniques into the asanas (poses). A lot of the yoga poses involve sensation. It can either be a stretching sensation, a muscular sensation or both. It is easier to find concentration when the body is in a relaxed state. Now that the body is working a bit harder, how can these lessons be useful?
This brings us back to my observation of the class. When the students were instructed calm their eyes and to follow their breath, many of them achieved this and reaped the benefits of a quieter, more concentrated mind that perceived the effort of the pose with more ease. Keep in mind, even if the eyes are still, you don’t want to strain the eyes- the muscles should be relaxed and the gaze soft.
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed with thoughts or sensations, play with choosing a focal point and settling your mind on that spot. It might be surprising just how a simple gaze can help quiet an overactive mind.