Most of us have heard the phrase, “I think therefore I am”. The mind behind that phrase, Rene Descartes, known to some as the father of modern philosophy, was born late in the 16th century. His many contributions to the worlds of philosophy and mathematics included an interest in the pineal gland, a light sensitive gland in the middle of the brain, responsible for producing melatonin and thought to be where the body produces its only in-house hallucinogen, dimethyltryptamine.
Descartes thought of the pineal gland as the seat of the human soul, and other philosophers have also speculated about its importance, pondering whether it might have mysterious or mystical properties due to its position deep in the brain. The French philosopher, Georges Bataille, even referenced it in describing what he saw as a blind spot in Western rationality.
Beyond this talk of hallucinogens and mystical potential the pineal gland is also significant as the site of the sixth chakra (Ajna chakra), the place where two key energy channels, Ida and Pingala, meet and unite with Shushumna, the energy channel that connects the base and crown chakras together. In translating from Sanskrit to English we discover that this spot is known to be both a center of command and a center for perception, and is located at the site that we commonly refer to as the third eye.
Physically this spot is associated with our sight and so to our ability to visualize, to recall dreams or even our capacity for telepathy or clairvoyance. By bringing our attention to this chakra we bring our attention to our imagination, our intuition and our ability to construct a bridge between our higher and lower self.
This is all lofty stuff, but how can we work with Ajna chakra practically during class? Forward bends and inversions are typically associated with this chakra, and more generally we can connect with some of the qualities associated with Ajna chakra by experimenting with a closed-eye practice (at least for some postures). By closing our eyes and sealing ourselves off from some of the distractions that come with visual sensory input, maybe we can become more aware of the ‘aliveness’ of the body, reacquainting ourselves with its inner workings and perhaps experiencing some of these postures afresh.
Attention is one of the most valuable things we have and it can be an extremely powerful tool, but the visual world can also be over-stimulating, distracting and draining, perhaps even something we space out to. This is where drishti becomes important. Used in asana, and wedded to breath, drishti or gaze, is a tool we use to help focus our mind. Beyond asana drishti can also refer to wisdom or vision and in this way we can understand that this very practical tool implemented in each and every class can also be an allegory for a process by which we connect to Ajna chakra, organizing the machinery of our senses to look beyond the limits of our ordinary vision to a much wider vision of reality.