My father was born a short half lifespan removed from an eerily quiet single-street town, Clinton Indiana. His mother Etta took herself from rural Indiana into downtown Chicago by herself in the 1950’s. Etta was a beautiful rebel in that way. A beautiful rebel was the spirit in which my father was born.
He grew up on the southside of Chicago poor. He was deeply affected by the windswept streets of that city, and he never stopped talking about Chicago and it’s many suburbs for very long. He would tell us about the empty overgrown lots that dotted his neighborhood, where he and my uncle and their friends would play as children. When we’d drive there in the summers, he would point to these empty lots and exclaim how he loved them and why they were important and how they would have been shrinking in numbers as new real estate built on top.
Fields of thistle and creeping charlie overlooked by the hot Chicago sun and shaded by their four story brownstone walk ups, were the spirit in which my father was born.
Father’s father was a wiry, fascinating man. He started our family with Etta. They had my dad and uncle. Father’s father was a haunted alcoholic who grew more angular and removed as the years went on. He had been in the Navy in World War Two. He took off on the family when my dad was 8, and never returned even a Christmas card thereafter. A nomad, a ghost from then on. That man’s hopes, bright eyes and fierce working class intelligence were the spirits in which my father was born.
My father John Chuckman was giggly, rascally, intellectual, extremely sensitive and artistic. His instinct for being social never really rebounded after his dad left. Unspeakable abandonment danced with my dad for the rest of his life. They, too were the spirit in which he was born.
My father was 6 foot 5 inches by age 13. Though physically strong, he was not given to athletics- but he vicariously enjoyed mine. We played catch in the park with hardball 4 nights a week when he got home from work. He would act so impressed with me- he was. He helped me become a fine T-ball star and little league outfielder. He had a good arm. He maybe felt too awkward to have played on a team. His tallness made him more introspective, a serious challenge for an already serious boy. Also, his father probably never played catch with him, but I don’t know. Tallness, awkwardness, physical strength and vicarious enjoyment were the spirits in which my father was born.
John and Bill’s mom Etta became an American gypsy when she mostly retired in her 60’s- when people used to retire. She was a royal wanderer and snowbird, and was physically very beautiful. She and my grandpa did three seasons in Illinois, then the winters in Arizona. I think she and my grandpa Wayne, who she married long before I was born, just loved the drive. Even in Arizona, where I visited on the wise insistence of my father, Wayne and Etta never stopped moving. Calculating the next route across the desert to a casino, or up to Laughlin, or to a restaurant 110 miles away cause there was nothing else to do but watch TV, and they had a good smorgasbord there.
Wayne and Etta were the first seniors I saw in passionate love with one another. Their marriage and Wayne himself was a perfect antidote to the abandonment of my father’s father. Wayne was a beautiful man, a mechanic who taught all his boys to repair cars, who grew up in Harvey Illinois- a suburb of The Windy City. Wayne had been a trucker after The War. He already had volumes of immediate kin when he and my father’s mother married in ‘64. They loved the road. He and Etta had the US highway system memorized, and they would give us detailed instructions on the best routes to get to Chicago, or anywhere else in America.
My dad would meet us in either Homewood Illinois, or later Crown Point Indiana. The summer when I was 11, my father allowed me and Grandpa Wayne and Grandma Etta to take a tour through the southern states. Dad insisted on me knowing my American side- a great fortune to me I think. They drove a Chevy van with blue vinyl seats and no air through southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, then Mississippi. At probably half our stopping points we met with distant relatives I had never even heard of. Working class Americans who ate their eggs runny and talked in gruff accents and had hands like clubs. We worked our way back up Oklahoma and Kansas, back to Chicago. It was a two week whirlwind.
My father was so happy and proud that I got that experience. Dad only had a few weeks vacation. Otherwise, he surely would have joined us. Wanderers and gypsies were spirits in which my father was born.
Father was half mathematician and half artist. Not an easy line to divide. He became a prominent economist in the oil industry in Canada, where he also wrote speeches for the company’s figureheads. Some of them were published in high profile periodicals. His writing could have have contributed to his introspective dislike of the boy’s-club that was the oil business- though he left Texaco in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster. He dedicated the rest of his career to writing. Economics was a spirit my father possessed.
Father did not fight in Vietnam. He took himself and my mom to Canada just prior to conscription, an act that surely enabled me and my brother to be born. Muhammad Ali also refused conscription, and my father talked about him incessantly. They had met once in O’Hare Airport in the 70’s. Others caught up in that pitch-perfect casket machine of a war labelled John a coward, which affected him greatly and alienated him in a situation in which history proved him right. It was one of his most courageous acts- refusing the draft. Being on the right side of a senseless war was part of the spirit born with my father.
My father took hundreds of thousands of photos, which he painstakingly organized through the years. He used a meticulously cared for Pentax. I remember posing in front of the Grand Canyon with Wayne and Etta as dad reloaded another spool with feverish dexterity, sincerity and love. My grandpa asked once in the desert heat, “Why do you need to take so many damned pictures, John? Why?” One of my father’s great legacies were the photographs he took all the time, a dedication that never left him from the moment he picked up a camera.
He and I would draw the blinds and sit in the comfort of the living room on Sunnyside avenue for slideshows. These were some of the best times I had with my dad. The photographer holds themselves outside of the action they record- it wasn’t until slideshow nights that I understood this paradox, deep seated in my father. The high pitched bulb and soothing fan of the projector were sure signs that good times would be relived. The photographer, cataloguer and keen observer of the light-plays on people and buildings- was the spirit in which my father was born.
He was a temperamental idealist, ideologue and individualist. A ranter, lover and alcoholic, but he didn’t drink much. An anxious worshiper of slowly disappearing liberal-left values. Of pointing things out. Of intelligence, english and words put together in serious ways. He was a master’s degree student who wrote out his essays by hand with cheap pens pressed too hard into yellow foolscap, which my mother would then type for handing in. My father was a writer- the spirit in which my father was born.
My father was completely and childishly in love with trains. We had model trains- HO-gauge until we eventually got an O-gauge Lionel- a bucket-list-level model train that father had always dreamed of owning. I remember when it occurred to me that model trains were real trains, not toys in the proper sense of the word. I ran in and squealed to dad, who beamed with acknowledgement. “Yes they are real trains,” he said, smiling.
Furthermore, growing up in Toronto, we had subways and streetcars to enjoy, and he loved them. To be honest if there’s one thing my immediate family all agree on, it would be love of public transit, based I think on our love of trains. Father beautifully photographed Toronto’s burgeoning transit system in the early 60’s when he and my mom first came. Some of his iconic pics of Toronto Streetcars are collected. I remember riding with him on an empty 506 to the University of Toronto on a quiet weekday. He sat at the edge of his seat the whole time, indestructible orange vinyl squeaking under his butt. He turned around this way and that, happily pointing out to me the switches and details of the complex infrastructure of energy lines fueling our car.
There was a streetcar barnyard at the end of our street where they were repaired- a not surprising coincidence given his love for trains. He was fascinated by a small short turn spot for the Westbound Queen-car near Roncesvalles. I remember kicking at the steel rails embedded in the concrete and being fascinated as well.
There was not an Alfred Hitchcock movie he didnt love. His films all seem to have a train in them somewhere. Father would nearly shout anytime one showed up in a scene. I think he literally salivated every time we re-watched the train sequences in North By Northwest. (Father insisted on me watching great films). I think it was John’s love of post-war America that inspired his infectious romance about trains. The America of his childhood when anything seemed possible, and his idealism was matched by the idealism and industry of the society around him.
But it didn’t end there. My mother’s father, grandpa Sorensen, was an engineer on Chicago’s elevated line after the war. My father held that man in a state of unparalleled reverence because of it. Grandpa Sorensen also loved and supported my father unwaveringly. I think my father would have been happiest as a train engineer. He had the perfect temperament for it.
We visited trains on our vacations all the time. There was a giant, imposing Chicago-built Burlington Steam engine in one of the big rooms at the Museum of Science and Industry. We stood under its spell whenever he took me there. He spoke with venerence about famous train engines like the Zephyr and the 20th Century Unlimited., as if they were super heroes who had saved people’s lives.
Also, one time, my dad had to jump up from his seat on the 506 streetcar and apply the brakes because it was rolling down the other side of the Dundas bridge, west of Landsdowne. The operator had gone in for a piss and forgot to take it out of drive.
I wonder if the clock-like rattle and swoosh of a passenger train weren’t sounds that made my father feel truly peaceful. I picture him on a train now. Going somewhere. Between two places. Looking forward to his trip. Like a kid. Safe. A ride on a train is a break from the hardships of everyday life for anyone. But for my dad, trains subdued the very feeling of ecstasy and put it into his spirit better than anything else. We were on them a lot together. He showed me everything he could out those fast-tripping windows. He would have commented on the “terrific speed,” or how the train “hurtled along.”
I will remember my father with the smile of a child, in a state of pure presence and joy. That was the spirit in which my father was born. RIP John William Chuckman, February 1945- March 2021
The experience of safety enables individuals healing from trauma to access levels of emotional pain required for healing. Feeling deeply is a natural human response to inescapably painful experiences. However, the personal and interpersonal dynamics that characterize traumatic stress prevent individuals from feeling at depth. This is part of the “hell” of PTSD- psychological disturbance combined with an unconscious apparatus that prevents sufficient awareness of traumatic memories.
Clinicians working with sufferers work firstly to establish safety. Safety is an internal experience related to calmness, and it includes a sense of connection to others. Thus, safety is both an interpersonal and intrapersonal phenomenon, reliant on the expression of humanistic traits such as empathy, creativity, and trust. These are modelled by clinicians in authentic ways, and emerge spontaneously in clients during treatment. Safety is a critical dialectic to trauma that must be realized in clients seeking recovery.
Kindness is a practical tool that can be taught to clients that also helps clients realize a dialectic to their pain. Like the stage-one trauma goal of safety, kindness creates feelings of well being and trust. Expressions of kindness likely result in kindness being returned, creating a self sustaining system of psychological reward, which can act in service to overall trauma recovery.
Kindness could therefore be used as the purposeful engagement of the complex, positive emotions that facilitate deep social connections.
Polyvagal theory has discovered that traumatic stress disrupts functioning in areas of the body responsible for creating well-oiled social exchange. For example, warm facial expressions are sometimes reduced, making it difficult for others to approach them. Sufferer’s perceptions of positive social behaviour in others is also often disturbed. The hostility associated with PTSD, for example, can be attributed in part to missed or erroneous interpretations of social cues and their physiologic underpinnings in the body-mind.
The establishment of safety can be increased using kindness as a systematic interpersonal goal, in service to the dialectics of trauma recovery. Like the manner in which safety operates on an individual level, kindness resolves the social disconnectedness that lies at the heart of traumatic stress.
You are driving along a two lane highway, through the desert, in Nevada. There is no where particular to get. It is a warm day, and the car you are driving moves effortlessly, at 60 or 70 miles per hour. If this is too fast or too slow, increase or decrease your speed as you wish. It is safe and easy to do so on this road.
The road you are on runs a clear, straight line from your position, takes on a slight incline before disappearing in a set of purple mountains in the distance, 20, 30 or even 50 miles in front.
Notice the road. It has some loose gravel, but is otherwise clean and dry, near perfect for driving. Its once black asphalt surface has been blanched by the sun and now appears light grey. There are cracks here and there that the car goes over.
You notice that this road is like a tiny spine running through the desert. The road takes you as much as you it.
Purple mountains are visible to the left and right. They seem closer than they are, like you could reach their footings by an hour’s walk, however this is an illusion. To reach them, one would walk for many days. Noticing the sheer immensity of this place has a sheltering quality.
Here and there, a few of the higher mountains have a brief section of snow at their top, before giving way to the sky above and beyond. Beautiful.
The windows to your car are open and the air is gusting in. Notice how different the air looks out on the desert-plain, where it is noticeably still, vast, and silent.
You seem to barely be moving. The car’s velocity is steady and comforting.
The sky is a shade of purple, and has gold, blue, and white. There are a few clouds. You can see that a few larger clouds cast shadows on the desert floor as they speed along, changing their color like a fine artists brush.
Maybe 15 miles on, a car is travels ahead. You wonder who is in the car. Are they noticing the things you are? Every ten minutes or so, a car passes in the other direction, with a thrush of wind that rocks your vehicle for a second, then disappears.
You notice then that the car in front of you begins to melt into the mountains ahead as it drives on, until you cannot see it anymore. Notice that as it does, that you are now by yourself, a feeling in this case that you welcome. Ahhh.
Notice how your car floats as it moves. The landscape shifts, but only subtly as you drive. The light brown color of the desert floor, from lighter to darker shades. It’s undulations. Notice the plant life. There are low shrubs all around. You notice the occasional whip-tail cactus, which have large, sharp thorns. There are other cactus types, visible in any direction you look. Some of these have curious, interesting shapes.
Consider the wildlife that populates this landscape. Though you may not see them right now, you wonder about rabbits and coyotes. Where do they sleep? What other small furballs exist here and call this their home? You then remember that rattlesnakes must live here too, of no danger to you as you drive.
Just as you think about the strange and amazing creatures that call this place home, you notice two hawks out to the right, maybe 70 feet from the desert floor. Their wings hardly move. The smallest adjustment seems to keep them afloat. They are nearly effortless, shifting lightly to make circles. They appear lifted, which indeed they are.
Now notice that you are also one of the organisms inhabiting this place, for this moment in time, with all of these other creatures and plants.
Notice how good it feels to drive on a long smooth desert road. Notice thoughts as they arise, but then drive past them.
Before a course of trauma therapy gets into a client’s troubling experiences, they and their therapist usually work diligently to establish a sense of safety and calm in the present moment. I use yoga for this purpose as well. It helps me help clients to develop inner and outer resources required for the treatment of their trauma, because it connects people to their bodies and helps them feel strong and relaxed. Yoga can be felt as increased resiliency, relaxation and more adaptive thinking.
Safety and calm are trauma recovery skills.
Traditional EMDR teaches the use of visualization exercises to increase these, but
there is a wide set of available skills to increase or establish safety that do
not require visualizations. Learning to feel safe and calm is what we are
really after, not that we “know” the course of a particular mindfulness
routine. Safe/calm place exercises are thus called affect regulation skills-
where we make ourselves feel better. The body and breath are allies in this
journey to increase regulation.
What inner resources and skills are you
already using for the things you find stressful in your life? What helps you
feel like you are rebounding after stressful things happen? Maybe therapy,
maybe music, maybe your partner, friends and allies. Hatha yoga is simply
another type to add.
Hatha yoga- generally speaking the physical
branch of yoga- is a means to create space for inner awareness. It includes
ancient as well as ever-evolving sets of techniques that remain viable
thousands years later for millions of people due in part to the benefits of slowing
down the mind’s compulsive thought-emotion-behavior patterns. Yoga increases
awareness of and control over the body, necessary parts of the creation of a
sense of safety and calm.
Polyvagal theory explains why yoga and other mindfulness are so helpful in phase one trauma treatment. Polyvagal postulates that the body is specially equipped to quickly sense safety and danger, which through the vagus nerve accumulates information and sends it back to the brain, informing it about the environment. This talent is called “neuroception.” Polyvagal shows that when we strategically engage and relax some of these parts of the body, our entire nervous system including the brain benefits, leading to various gains related to stress resiliency and trauma recovery.
Polyvagal refers to a set of three possible responses to our circumstances. It seems we had first conceived of two possible responses to our outside worlds: Sympathetic fight/ flight, and parasympathetic rest/digest. The third response third response – socialization- is considered in polyvagal to come first. We first try to resolve things with cooperating and communicating. It is only when this fails that we end up fighting, fleeing or freezing (parasympathetic from this standpoint talked of as freeze).
Associated with more recent evolution, this
third response is also called our “smart vagus.”
Smart vagus is critical to having a functional relationship to our environment. Since fight, fight and freeze are less adaptive and require more caloric energy, they are less sustainable than connecting. Polyvagal’s developer Stephen Porges sstates,“To switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies, the nervous system must do two things: (1) Assess risk, and (2) if the environment looks safe, inhibit the primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze.” Our intelligence and communication skills act as brakes on our more primitive responses.
When a person experiences trauma, socialization and problem solving responses are sacrificed. Sometimes this becomes a tragic and permanent transformation. We can become stuck in fight, flight or freeze responses. But we have reason to hope: We can re-teach the mind-body that we are safe in the world. Socialization and problem solving can again take precedence in our lives, keeping less adaptive and defensive thinking in the background. That is the promise of neuroception.
Hatha yoga may be a kind of neuroceptive activity, where chronic defense activations associated with trauma are re-written by controlling certain aspects of our physical lives. Yoga teaches we are simply at our best more often when we are not only relaxed, but when we know we can make ourselves relaxed, an empowerment that is indispensible to trauma recovery plans.
Stage one trauma work is about practicing the talents of safety, trust, strength and connection. Yoga provides the psychotherapy space with a host of specific techniques, such as asana and pranayama, each with hundreds of exercises to choose from. Coordinating with a trained yoga instructor- better yet one who knows therapeutic yoga- can play an important role in helping psychotherapy clients gain control of their inherent abilities to relax and be present. Hatha yoga is also a good alternative for clients who do not respond to verbally-guided mindfulness meditations. Adding coordinated breath and physical movement to relaxation programs can draw such clients in, make them want to try different things, and ultimately reap more of the the benefits of phase one trauma treatment.
EMDR is an advanced psychotherapy technique used primarily to treat trauma. Known for it’s potent, predictable and relatively fast treatment effects, EMDR is supported by a wide body of research literature. It is an excellent treatment option for conditions like PTSD, addiction, dissociation and anxiety.
EMDR compliments and indeed relies upon the success of other psychotherapy strategies, while also being totally unique. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (BLS) during recall of traumatic memories to induce the mind’s own information processing/ healing systems. If eye movement is chosen as the BLS, client follows therapist’s hand to the left and right.
The central explanation put forth regarding EMDR’s effect is the Adaptive Information Processing model (AIP). This theory suggests that the mind normally stores memories in adaptive ways, which creates homeostasis and a sense of resilience after stressful things happen. According to AIP, we come to understand troubling memories in their rightful context as the mind inherently processes information.
But sometimes, what happens to us is so troubling, that the mind is hindered from normal integration of an experience. Childhood abuse, for example. Car accidents. In such cases, the mind’s natural ability to process information is impaired, and memories are stored in dysfunctional ways. Therapy is generally aimed at accessing these memories to resolve them.
Traumatic events can therefore damage the mind’s inherent ability to store memories in adaptive ways. This means that dysfunctional material is not connected to adaptive thinking and is easily activated in the present. It is quite literally as if the part of the mind of trauma sufferers lives in the past. This leads people to re-experience, have nightmares and be afraid- the hallmarks of traumatic injury.
EMDR clinician and client carefully access these maladaptive memory networks through 8 phases of treatment. As these are carried out, memory and physical sensations are reorganized from a state-specific, trauma-induced form, into an adaptive form. EMDR assists the mind to create new neural networks around old material, such as a car accident. Signs that new neural networks are forming around old material during sessions include relief of knots in the stomach, new perspectives on the disturbing event, clearer recall of the event, and a general feeling of calm and safety… in relation to the trauma.
For those of you well versed in this kind of work, you can understand the importance of this distinction. EMDR in essence has the power to connect disconnected parts of the self. It reaches into the client’s very own history, heals it, and instills permanent gains in the various presentations of traumatic injury.
I am so excited to be offering this technique.
How it Works
As with any psychotherapy technique, EMDR relies upon general therapist skills such as rapport building, the ability to hold space, grounding techniques, and awareness of client readiness factors. The therapist’s job is to build a solid relationship and helps client develop self-soothing skills. It is then that reprocessing can begin.
This technique is very specific. As with any psychotherapy, its power to heal can also be the capacity to do harm. Maintaining fidelity to the core aspects of the technique is a must. Unskilled or amateur practitioners in EMDR could be a hazard to people dealing with real trauma.
To help clients prepare, EMDR therapists also use The Window of Tolerance model. I teach it to my clients. It can act as a form of biofeedback, similar to the SUD (subjective units of distress) scale. As such it is a valuable skill as well as a theoretical model.
The Window depicts a zone of optimal arousal, where feelings of safety and connectedness pervade the individual’s experience. This is sandwiched between zones of hyper and hypo arousal, where the client experiences fight/flight/bite/ freeze responses, typical to trauma. The EMDR therapist guides their client into these dysfunctional states to reprocess them, while working to keep the client in optimal (connected) arousal. This is a skill known as dual awareness- one foot in the past and one foot safely in the present. You and your therapist work towards developing dual awareness prior to reprocessing the memories you have selected.
SUDs from 1-10 help clients subjectively gauge their current level of upset for targeted memories. Each SUD adds to therapist’s growing clinical picture of what and how the client has been affected. A sense of competence emerges in clients through history-taking, as they begin to look forward to ameliorating problems that have been holding them back.
EMDR empowers clients to be bold. We can resolve our trauma! EMDR is one of the psychotherapy techniques that make this statement true.
You will be introduced to bilateral stimulation. Eye movement is my preferred method. I use hand pulsars or headphone beeps as a second option. Everything is explained as part of informed consent. Sometimes clients used to talk therapy find this technique feels quite different. EMDR does not place a high priority on the words that occur between sets as healing is taking place. Words spoken between sets are noted, held compassionately, but then followed up by another set of bilateral stimulation and processing is resumed immediately. There is a debrief after each session, where the things which did come up in reprocessing are discussed at greater length.
Clients can expect relatively rapid resolution of traumatic memories during EMDR. One of the best things about being an EMDR clinician is the effect seen in clients, often regarding issues that have proven resistant to other forms of therapy.
I am excited to be fully trained in a psychotherapy technique with the impact of properly conducted EMDR therapy. I offer free 20 minute telephone conversations to anyone interested in finding out if this kind of therapy is right for you.
There are 9 common drishtis, or gazing techniques regularly utilized in Yoga. I have been really using them regularly and they have totally transformed my inner practice. That’s why I’m writing about them now.
Deliberately manipulating the eyes- known in ordinary language as the “windows to the soul,” creates a more sound inner yoga practice… a yoga aimed at quieting the mind, observing the self and moving past it.
The eyes are formidable entertainers, however. They do not exactly like to give up first billing in the theatre of mind’s entertainments and distractions. All of the senses are of course capable of pulling a yoga student away from their personal and immediate yoga goals- like when in deep savasana, your neighbor cranks his new Harley Davidson up, leaving your ears and mind ringing. But the eyes are constantly making this kind of noise. As it relates to my own mental practice, the eyes seem to be the sense organ most affiliated with the constant production of “self” or ego that is the purpose of yoga to transform.
The eyes compare, search, notice, investigate, flit, flutter and express. They sense danger one moment, and the next they are bidding one to enjoy the glance of a handsome fellow yoga student! There is a tremendous power in eye contact- consider for example the highly important yet differing expectations regarding eye contact depending on the culture or nation in which you find yourself. The eyes express the self in so many ways- they announce it- like no other part of the body.
But the eyes can also express divinity, discipline and laser focus. Drishti is the manipulation of eye expression to drastically transform these visual circumstances.
The genius of the technique of drishti is that it teaches us to express soul, depth, love and connection to god. And its really the simplest of techniques that require little more than a sentence of instruction. For example, I find when I reorganize for even a few moments the quality and object of eye-focus, an inner world beams open. Adding drishti to practice is like adding an extra glimmer of previously unnoticed light to a prism.
The eyes are so powerful. They can just as easily be used to yoke as they can be used to distract. These are several of the drishtis I have come to regularly utilize in my practice to yoke, or connect.
Hand (hastagre). Focusing on the hands is incredibly rewarding. I especially use this technique during seated meditation, prior to or after practice, with hands at heart centre (Anjali mudra). This morning I used this technique. I focused on the tips of my two middle fingers. Just to be a yoga nerd, I incorporated the idea entailed in chapter 1, verse 40 of the Yoga Sutras as well, where the student visualizes infinitely small objects to achieve stability.
While seated in rock pose, I studied and reveled at the fineness and detail of my finger tips, – the etching- like quality of the pads’ unique prints, and the vast intelligence and experience of my hands.
I also use this drishti during tree pose. It makes the pose far more challenging in terms of balance, and in that regard alone, it is worth trying. With a little practice, gazing at the hands during tree amplifies the tendency of this pose to relax, calm and steady my mind.
Mind is immediately quieted by this eyes-down-at-the-hands-in-heart-center position. I sometimes feel like I have entered a small room that is still and welcoming, and where I can hang out for hours.. Not only that, but the muscles of my eyes relax in this position. Furthermore, this small dedication is a way of observing the small self and its habitual agitations. In hashtagre, one immediately notes the mental challenge of “not looking around,” while at the same time feeling the benefits of “not looking around.”
Secondly, I use urdva drishti. This gaze is loosely translated “upward” but that can be slightly confusing, since this gaze (to me) also entails focusing horizontally and outward into infinity or space. This is the drishti I use in chair pose or warrior 2 nearly always. It has required probably the most practice for me to feel like I’m getting it. However, it’s simple to begin. Lean back, for example in your chair pose, and blur the eyes. Its that easy. As you try, begin to control the “blur.” That is, blur your eyes so that if some object were 4 or 5 feet in front of you, it would be in focus… but of course there is nothing in front of you. “In space.” The small self has no clue what that is, but the big Self does and it grabs hold quick when doing this technique.
Of course, as the name implies, this drishti is also used in upwards gaze- poses like warrior 1 or advanced versions of tree. However, I have found that simply looking at an object on the ceiling of your studio, or a leaf on the tree in the park, does not meet the definition of this particular gaze. Landing on an object does not have the same impact on the practice as“looking into space,” and that is the essence of this drishti for me.
The benefits of this one are numerous. Once again, used in tree pose, it immediately puts one back in the beginners seat- where we can always benefit from hanging out for a while. It’s worth tripping and falling and flailing 10 or 100 times to really nail gazing into space upwards in tree pose and keeping one’s balance. It’s incredibly liberating, and adds to all the muscular benefits derived from balance such as knee and ankle strength. Soccor players do this one to keep from getting injured. Plus, if you master it a little at home each day for 15 minutes, you can show off at the studio the next time you go, since few people tend to be able to look up and balance.
I also highly recommend this gaze to advanced students in mirrored yoga practices. I have certainly used the mirrors in Bikram and Moksha/Modo studios to greatly enhance my pose techniques. But my mind also uses the mirror to be self- absorbed. It’s that self-eye connection that warrants being cautious about. I have to remember that the mirror in Western cultures means the place where we check our make-up, abs, or hair before going out. Some of us stare longingly like Narcissus into our own reflections as we get better and better at the poses. But the flip side is that some more unfortunate students- people with body dysmorphia conditions for example, associate mirrors with feeling bad about themselves. It is there, in that precise location, that urdva drishti can come to the rescue. Use it in chair. Practice it in warrir1 and 2. Even at your local Moksha studio.
Urdva eye technique also produces a similar feeling to hastagre. I feel like I am in my own peaceful little world- and I am. The eyes love it, too, while they relax, and the constant need to “identify objects” in one’s surroundings dissipates. This drishti also influences the self to take a noteable backseat to my practice. It adds an extra bit of divinity to the work. It’s a bit blissful in that way.
The final eye-gaze I will discuss is bhrumadhye, or “third-eye- point- gaze.” This technique is often done with eyes closed. I then look upwards by about 15 degrees- into the spot in the head behind the middle of the eyebrows. Its simpler than all that sounds: just close the eyes and look slightly up.
This technique can be used in nearly every one of my practices- usually during seated or lying-down meditation. It produces a nice feeling for the eye muscles, and creates the same kind of “container” or small room in which one feels protected and calm. This technique is said to increase intuition, as the point between the eyebrows contains the 6th chakra, and focusing on it evokes it’s talents.
I also use this gaze anytime I feel like it in poses like warrior 1, downward facing dog, or chair pose. It can make my practice immediately more personal, but at the same time a little more ecstatic, and connected to the higher self. It certainly affords the student a break- as do all of these techniques- from the mind’s powerful, distracting and nearly obligatory operation of the visual organs.
By taking the eyes back from the wandering mind, I teach myself daily lessons about the power of yoga to reconnect me. Drishti is a whole realm of discipline that I only recently began to fully incorporate into my asana practice. It produces immediate results, especially towards the work of an inner yoga.