As we move through our practice, and through life, it’s important to stop and ask the simple question, “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” Something I believe is very appealing about yoga to many people is that it challenges you in all aspects of your being: physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, etc. Yoga recognizes the totality of the human condition and provides a means to integrate the various layers of Self. Therefore every movement in a Hatha Yoga class has an emotional and psychological connection or response, and a philosophy to back it up.
While I was in the Bay Area over the holidays, I had the opportunity to experience the Berkeley yoga scene. I found a really beautiful studio on Telegraph named Yoga Mandala. It is a Tantric temple space, spiritual community, and Hatha Yoga studio. I took two classes and really enjoyed them both. I appreciated the deep element of spirit and authenticity the teachers brought, and of course lots of chanting!
Something really interesting came up, however, during practice. In both classes the teachers continually reminded us to keep our eyes open. Simple. Right? I realized that until now, I had always been encouraged to close the eyes, to go inward. And now out of habit, it was very difficult to keep them open for an entire class. (I did close my eyes during Savasana…)
I spoke to one of the teachers, Jessica, after class to inquire about this very simple but subtle dilemma. Her answer made perfect sense from the tradition she is coming from, and actually represents a fundamental divergence in yogic philosophy that we see present within modern yoga!
“We are coming from a traditional Tantric approach,” she explained. Simply put, Tantra recognizes that the Divine is found in everything. The underlying creative force or shakti of the universe is manifest in all things. The “unity in the multiplicity” could be considered the Hallmark of Tantra. It is in this sense a “life-affirming” philosophy. Embracing all phenomena, experience, thoughts, sensations, etc. Closing the eyes during a Hatha Yoga practice can be viewed as cutting yourself off the from the experience and world around you. Most Tibetan Buddhists (Vajrayana/Tantra), in fact, meditate with their eyes slightly open. This is seen to provide a more seamless integration of mindfulness “off the mat”. In this sense, there is no “checking out” during practice, and no “checking back in” to this world after Savasana. With the eyes open, it is one open field of consciousness.
The eyes closed approach, however, is just as valid, but comes from a different philosophical approach. It is perhaps more Classical, stemming from pratyahara, the idea of sense withdrawal found in the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.
"When he completely withdraws the senses from their objects, as a tortoise draws in its limbs, then his wisdom is firmly fixed." - Gita II:58
Here the focus is on drawing the yogi’s awareness inward to do away with sensual experience. By closing the eyes, it can be easier to develop one-pointed inward concentration – focusing on the breath, sensations, prana, ajna chakra, Isvara, etc. Eventually this highly concentrated focus will lead to deep absorption in samadhi.
I believe that both approaches are equally suitable for a yoga practice and can serve the individual based on his/her needs. Most of us begin our yoga journey with the eyes open. Naturally, we need to see what the teacher is instructing, and to observe our own body alignment. I also spent much time looking at other bodies aligning around me, comparing them to my own... It is interesting to notice how dependent we are on our senses, particularly vision, to guide our experiences through life. Closing the eyes in Vrksasana Tree Pose will show you real quick. However, one of the magical unfoldings of this journey is that as the practice progresses, the body naturally aligns itself. It knows when to lift the heart, relax the shoulders, tuck the pelvis, etc. We can begin to close the eyes and perhaps have a deeper inward experience. However, over time our practice can switch to autopilot - habitually closing the eyes out of repetition and muscle memory, and potentially disconnecting from our experience.
Do you practice with your eyes open or closed? As an experiment, next time you practice, try doing the opposite. An eyes closed inversion can be an invigorating experience. So can keeping the eyes open during a forward bend, while maintaining total awareness of the breath and sensations. If nothing else, it can be a curious investigation into your own experience, and a fun way to shake up your yoga practice. Either way, don't forget to ask why you're doing what you're doing!