I hear it at the beginning of my practice: “Set an intention or focus.”
I hear it after a physically challenging vinyasa or standing series: “Come back and focus on your breathing.”
I hear it in standing balances: “Set a focus point to steady your body.”
The concept of focus is important to the physical, mental, and spiritual facets of yoga. Moreover, it’s a word I hear and use (whether I’m speaking or just thinking it) in practice all the time, in different contexts and for different purposes, so it makes sense to explore its meaning.
I’m not unfamiliar with this physics-based definition (such fond memories of high school and very tiny cannons):
a point at which rays (as of light, heat, or sound) converge or from which they diverge or appear to diverge; specifically : the point where the geometrical lines or their prolongations conforming to the rays diverging from or converging toward another point intersect and give rise to an image after reflection by a mirror or refraction by a lens or optical system
Though I am surprised Merriam-Webster lists it first. I’m used to seeing common use definitions listed first, so it made me wonder — what if this is really the most commonly used definition of focus?
It actually fits quite well with the way I conceptualize drishti, particularly in balance postures. For me, when I enter a balancing pose, whether it’s a standing balance or an arm balance, it’s not enough to select any non-moving point in front of me as my drishti (which is often how the concept has been taught and explained to me). Rather, my correct balance gaze is the one that’s in alignment with my center line in that pose, that’s at the place where the rays coming from the two sides of my shape would converge.
I think my yoga uses physics, which I suppose should not be shocking. Rather, I think the language of yoga uses the language of physics, which is more of a surprise to me.
Even more surprising, however, is that the science-y flavor of focus travels back with the word’s origins. In Latin, focus originally meant “hearth or fireplace” (or, metaphorically, “home”). At times, it was even used in reference to fire itself and is related to some Romance languages’ words for fire (in French, it’s feu, Italian fuoco, and Spanish fuego).
Astronomer Johannes Kepler is credited with first using focus to mean “a point of converging” in 1604. There’s some speculation as to why he chose this particular word, perhaps considering the hearth the symbolic converging point of the home or thinking of the burning point of a mirror or other lens.
In yoga, fire is often associated with manipura, the third chakra, located near the solar plexus. A healthy third chakra aids qualities such as motivation and willpower, which, while not synonymous with focus or intention, are instrumental in actually putting it into practice.
Similarly, instructors have often called this process of finding and returning to one’s focus before and after a meditative practice “centering” or “recentering.” This fits in with the common contemporary definition of focus too, but some of my favorite instructors and practices have ended with what they call “coming home” — It’s essentially the same thing, of course, returning to oneself and recentering at the end of a meditation, but “coming home” just sounds so nice. Maybe it’s just me as someone who’s lived away from my home for so long, but it’s really easy for me to focus on the feeling that phrase creates.
Note: Thoughts on a Word series is blatantly stolen — not even just “inspired” — from Autumn Whitefield-Madrano over at The Beheld. If you like the concept, you should definitely check her out.