Better Eyesight, Healthier Eyes

While most of us know that we can improve our health and live longer
by eating better, getting regular exercise, reducing stress, and
learning relaxation, when it comes to our eyes we have a kind of
learned helplessness. Very few of us believe there is anything we can
do to make our eyes healthier and improve our eyesight. That fact is,
however, that the things we do to improve our bodily health are also
good for our eyes.

The eye is not simply a mechanical tool. Like every other part of your
body, it is profoundly affected by your state of mind. For no good
reason, the popular belief today is that vision can only deteriorate
and cannot improve. Statistics show that most people who see poorly
never see well afterwards; their vision just gets worse and worse. But
these statistics might look very different if we were taught how to
take care of our eyes – and, even more importantly, if we understood
that we have the power to improve our eyesight.

Vision is the sum total of sensation, perception, and conception.
Mechanically speaking, your retina has about 126 million light-sensing
cells that produce some billion images every single minute. The brain
cannot possibly assimilate all those images to create a picture, so it
selects – basically determining how much of a picture you will and
will not see. How clear or how poor your vision will be is largely a
function of your brain.

Western medicine tends to ignore the complex interactions between eye
and brain. Medical training puts greater emphasis on treating the
symptoms. If you have cataracts, doctors will remove the lens. If you
have high blood pressure in the eye, they will alleviate it. If you
see poorly, they will give you glasses. They do not tend to go deeply
into the causes of these conditions.
Yet nearsightedness, for example is clearly the result of mental
stress and the fact that your brain conceives of the world as a fuzzy
place. Most children who become nearsighted do so at about third
grade, when the initial excitement of learning has subsided and they
begin to glimpse the unchanging pattern of school years ahead of them.
Those who do not get glasses in third grade generally get them in
college, when the future is not clear and seemingly endless studies
lie ahead.

Farsightedness, on the other hand, tends to develop in our forties and
fifties, when most divorces happen and when people ask themselves,
“Could I live my life differently?” There is no question in my mind,
after nearly thirty years of working with all kinds of vision
problems, that your eyesight is truly a part of your mental state.
Helping your eyesight is not simply an issue of getting rid of your
glasses, but of dealing with your total being: your mental, emotional,
and physical state in its entirety.

Vision problems usually manifest as lack of clarity in either near or
distant vision. The physical act of seeing things close up is
different from that of seeing things in the distance. Consider, for
example, how a camera works. When light rays from the object you are
photographing reach the camera’s lens, they need to converge so that
they are focused on the film behind the lens. To focus, you change the
distance between the lens and the film until it is just right –
otherwise the object will not focus exactly on the film and the photo
will be a blur.

In the same way, your eye needs to converge light rays from the object
you are looking at and focus them behind the lens. Instead of film,
you have a retina: a network of nerve cells that translates the light
rays into neural information. These data are sent through the optic
nerve to the brain. Where a camera changes the distance between lens
and film, the eye changes the shape of the lens instead.

When the ciliary muscles that hold the lens in place are relaxed, the
lens is relatively flat and allows for distant vision. When the object
you are looking at is closer than twenty feet away, those muscles
contract, and the lens assumes a more spherical shape. This process is
called accommodation.

Another factor thought to determine how a person see is the shape of
the eyeball. Irregularly shaped eyeballs are considered the cause of
the two most common vision problems: myopia and hyperopia. Myopia
(nearsightedness) means the inability to see distant objects clearly,
caused by an eyeball that is too long from front to back. This shape
makes it impossible for the lens to focus the light rays from distant
objects onto the retina, though it can focus the rays from close
objects. Hyperopia, or hypermetropia (farsightedness), refers to the
inability to see close objects clearly. Here, the eyeball is too short
from front to back. Light rays from a distance focus correctly, but
the lens is unable to bring the rays together before they reach the
retina. If they were capable of passing through it, the rays would
probably focus behind the retina.

These descriptions explain the mechanical conditions underlying poor
vision. But what causes these physical changes to occur? In one word,
the answer is stress. The eyes are as susceptible to stress as is any
other part of the body, and are subjected to at least as much of it.

Two components of visual stress – prolonged unrelieved near-focusing
and tasks with high-level cognitive demand – often coincide in school
and office work. The advent of computers has compounded the problem,
creating a visual/postural repetitive strain condition called computer
vision syndrome (CVS). Symptoms include eyestrain, general fatigue,
neck and shoulder pain, dry eyes, and difficulties in focusing. The
computer screen is itself a visual stressor. Since the eye can never
determine the focal length of computer pixels, it is plunged into a
visual limbo in which the ciliary muscle continually quivers with
unavailing effort. The visual stress of CVS tends to bring on myopia
or make it worse.

Many of our actions and reactions – as well as much of our memory –
are guided by mental pictures, including conscious and subconscious
images of events that shaped our emotional makeup. Our eyes are
stressed even when we are perceiving these only “in the mind’s eye.”
All of these events take place in the brain, of which the eye is an
integral part. Because of all this, and also because we use them for
just about everything we do, our eyes respond strongly to our thoughts
and emotions. Because they work so constantly and so hard, they are
also extremely sensitive to physical pain and fatigue.

Poor vision arises from a complex interplay in the bodymind. This is
why, when we begin working to improve our eyes, we need to approach
this work from every possible angle. It is also why, in the process of
doing so, we discover things about ourselves that we never have
suspected.

You may have heard of the Bates Method: a series of exercises designed
to strengthen eyesight without the use of glasses. Its creator is Dr.
William H. Bates, who was born in 1860 and graduated from Cornell
University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons at the age of 35.
Three years later, he was serving his internship at Columbia Hospital
in New York as an ear, nose, throat, and eye doctor (in those days,
these specialties were combined). Dr. Bates was working as a teaching
assistant, but was dismissed after repeatedly encouraging fellow
doctors to go without the glasses prescribed for them by the chief
ophthalmologist at the hospital eye clinic.
Dr. Bates used an instrument called the retinoscope, with which he
could observe minute changes in the surface curvature of the eyes, and
thereby determine the nature and degree of a patient’s vision
problems. Over many years, he observed the eyes of hundreds of
patients in every kind of activity, emotional state, and physical
condition. He noted how their eyes changed when they were doing work
they disliked; when they were fatigued, anxious, or confused; when
they were focused, excited, stimulated, or relaxed.

Among the discoveries Dr. Bates made was how visual clarity changes –
in the same person – from good to bad and back again, depending on
that person’s physical and emotional state. He concluded that vision
is not a static condition, but one that changes constantly. In your
own experience, you’ve probably noticed that your vision is better at
some times than at others. Dr. Bates was the first ophthalmologist to
make a scientific study of this phenomenon. His research shows how
vision defects can be created and/or worsened by the stress of
everyday situations. He also proved that these problems can be
corrected by conscious and correct visual behavior.
Dr. Bates died in 1931, having spent his life researching and
developing a method to relieve the unnecessary suffering of people
afflicted with eye disorders. His compassion and concern for his
patients was legendary. Upon seeing an infant fitted with tiny
glasses, Dr. Bates remarked, “It’s enough to make the angels weep.”

The exercises on Yoga for Your Eyes are based on the Bates Method,
with refinements and additions developed during my nearly three
decades of reversing my own blindness and helping others work with
their visual problems. These methods have been proven effective in
relieving all refractive conditions (any structural problem affecting
the trajectory of light within the eye), correcting squints and lazy
eyes, and similar problems. They do not necessarily address eye
diseases; but they do help you nurture healthier eyes that are more
resistant to disease and better able to heal themselves from any
reversible condition.

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