Group Yoga classes are, actually, a recent phenomenon, if you take into account Yoga's five thousand year history.  In the West, where the cost of private Yoga classes make it prohibitive for some, group classes have become the norm.  Even in India, group Yoga classes have taken off and are very popular.  However, initially, Yoga was an individual practice, performed alone, or with your guru's instruction.

In a large group, there are dynamics that are quite unique.  For one, we all tend to have our Third Chakra, Manipura, a bit out of balance, and therefore we tend to be rather judgmental of ourselves and others.  We compare and compete with each other, our mind goes in endless loops of inner chatter.  How does one find a sense of inward turning and privacy in a group class?  I suggest, close your eyes.

In my previous post I talked about how visual cues can have a profound effect on the way we experience a Yoga class. A good visual example can sometimes do more than hours of verbal description. By closing the eyes, however, several other important objectives are achieved.  On the physical plane, you are able to have a bit more sukham, or "ease" in your postures.  The strain of the eyes creates a lot of tension in the back of the head, neck, in the facial muscles.  It is transferred down the entire spine.  By closing your eyes and resting them, you might be able to relieve an extra layer of tension along your entire backbone.

Secondly, once the outside world is closed off, you are able to truly connect to a deeper place.  One of the biggest challenges in a group class for me as a teacher is to make sure that people do not overexert themselves, that they are safe and are not pushing too hard - the so-called "effort without strain" approach.  When our eyes are looking outward, watching the teacher and the students next to us, comparing, judging, we are less likely to hear subtle warning signs of our body.  We are also deprived from intimate and subtle experiences of the poses.  With our eyes closed, it is easier to stop when needed, to appreciate the place we are in, to accept things the way they are.  

Closing the eyes has a cooling effect on the system.  Eyes are governed by Pitta, or the fire dosha, and closing them helps to cool off even in the midst of intense Asana.  We can re-direct the gaze inwards to various points in the body, awakening energy there and gaining insight.  Eyes are part of the Seven Gates of the head, major doorways to charge and discharge energy.  Keeping them closed or gazing at specific points (drishti) helps to contain Prana inside, increasing vitality and stamina. Sometimes we need to have our eyes open in standing and balancing poses, so practicing drishti and gazing at a thumb, toe, or a point on the floor or ceiling with the eyes relaxed is more appropriate than just closing them, but the effect is very similar.

And ultimately, my wish is for everyone to start practicing Yoga individually, in the privacy of home, alone, to cultivate the discipline and then reap the rewards of daily inward gazing, of staying connected to that deep place of peace, our Third Eye always looking in...