Good Vision: What’s Yoga Got to Say About It?
Remarkably little, alas. I’m a yoga teacher, and I’d love share with you tons of effective yoga techniques, but—for all the modern awareness that we have about eye health, apparently ancient yogis (and yogis as recent as the early 20th century) didn’t have much to offer for vision any more than they did for hearing.
My guess is that just as yogis probably didn’t lose their hearing from repeated exposure to hip-hop or death metal concerts, they probably didn’t get progressive vision loss by staring all day at a tiny little screen less than an arm’s length away.
When diabetes first surfaced in the 1600s, the physicians of the day checked Greek treatises to find out how the ancient Greeks dealt with this particular affliction. They couldn’t find anything. All through ancient times, there was no diabetes. Our love affair with carbohydrates got quite a boost once sugar cane appeared in the West (around the time of the Crusades), and although sugar is only part of the diabetes story, sugar helped to turn diabetes into today’s pandemic.
Likewise, the yogic toolbox is a little lacking in eye health because they probably didn’t need to fix something that didn’t need fixing. My great-grandmother had perfect vision into her 70s. She was also illiterate until late middle age. While I wouldn’t give up my literacy and all it has brought me, I’m aware that all my life I’ve been using my eyes to do something they never evolved to do: look at tiny little squiggles for hours on end, every single day of the year.
This is me the individual, not the yoga teacher speaking: I think less-than-perfect vision is the canary in the coal mine that alerts us to other underlying issues, such as:
- Spending too many hours of the day looking at screens
- Spending too many hours of the day indoors, looking at things not particularly far away
- A diet that’s carbohydrate-heavy and not sufficiently emphasizing of fresh vegetables
- Not sleeping enough (recent statistics suggest that 37% of North Americans do not get enough sleep; I suspect the number is higher)
- We’re tense: driving, juggling work, personal and family time, too much of a barrage of information and news that we don’t really need
- Not hydrating ourselves enough or in the correct fashion
- Not having enough time of true relaxation.
Now, this is me the yoga teacher: Whatever yogic techniques exist are limited and often borrowed from associated disciplines. The most successful, as far as my own experience, is “palming”—cupping your hands over your (closed) eyes till all the light is blocked, and staying with it for 5 or 10 minutes at a time:
Needless to say, even though you might visit this technique briefly in a yoga class, five minutes would feel like an eternity. Plus, in a yoga class, where do you rest your elbows? Elbows up might be fine for a minute or two…after that, it gets tiresome, then tight, then painful.
There’s another technique: rubbing the eyelids lightly with your fingers, but that (plus massaging assorted other pressure points around the orbits of the eyes and at the back of the head), in my experience, only delivers a very short-lived refreshment to the eyes and to vision—certainly not as much as palming for 5 or 10 minutes.
So, what to do with tension around the eyes? Enter our friend, the yoga strap:
Bring it up to eye level and tie it behind your head. Not tightly, just enough that the eyelids are being lightly held shut by the strap. Like this:
Leave it on for 10 minutes. Yes, you still have to invest 10 minutes, but you can talk with someone (hey, even on the phone—in case anybody still does that), you can sit and listen to relaxing music, or you can meditate.
Which brings me to the only time in which my vision felt truly reset without doing so artificially (click here for an extended account of my experience with orthokeratology): it was many years ago, at a workshop that involved extended guided relaxation. I don’t remember the length of this guided relaxation, but when we sat up (we were lying on our backs), myopic me could suddenly see far across the room with a level of acuity that I hadn’t experienced in a long time—and it lasted, to my surprise, for half an hour or more.
There’s evidence that we can indeed do something for our vision, and vision therapy is one of them. Granted, this is outside of yoga, but if you look for vision therapy programs from reputable optometrists, you will find techniques and exercises effective in coordinating your brain, your vision, and the signals they send each other. I have personally experienced these in the past and can attest to their value.
But if you’re in the market for a solution that doesn’t involve paying a professional, I believe you should consider this:
- Can you find a way to cut down drastically on the time spent staring at screens? Calling instead of texting? Listening to audio instead of reading?
- Can you find a way to spend time outdoors daily, looking at things near and far?
- Can you consider that your diet may be more carbohydrate-intensive than you think. (Labels on U.S. foods suggest that an “average” carbohydrate consumption for an “average” adult should be 300 grams a day. Any dietitian worth her weight in—salt? sugar?—will tell you that this is a formula for putting on weight through the years and becoming at least pre-diabetic. Some feel that a third of that, about 100 grams of carbs, is more than sufficient for the average person.)
- Can you find a way to rearrange your life so you can sleep eight hours? (Your actual ideal number might be more or slightly less, but generally, if you’re relying on caffeine in the morning to energize you, that may be the clearest indication that your sleep tanks are not getting full).
- Can you identify sources of stress within your control? Can you find a more relaxed way of commuting? Can you substitute watching or listening to the news (or your friends’ social media rants) in favor of more calming, more pleasant, more fulfilling things?
- Can you find a way to sip, not gulp, water regularly throughout the day? (Click here for something else I wrote about eye health.)
Can you find a way to build true relaxation into your day, whether that’s with yoga, tai-chi, a meditation practice, being with friends, or taking a bath? Here is my final yoga pose suggestion that incorporates some of the above:
Lie on your back, swing your legs up a wall, cup your palms over your eyes, and remain here for 5-10 minutes. If your eyes don’t thank you, your back, your lumbar spine and your hamstrings will.
If it’s not restful enough to have your hands on your eyes for this length of time, try doing this with a yoga strap lightly tied around your eyes, as in the previous illustrations.
Just be sure that if you do this at work, you’re wearing a sign that says, “Don’t freak out! I’m just resting my eyes!”
Author: Ricardo das Neves
Images: Author’s own
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina