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Eye Exercises

Today, exercise isn’t limited to just running or lifting weights. There are dance fitness classes, different types of yoga, group workouts, and even online classes. Exercise also isn’t limited to just our arms, legs, or core. Did you know that we can exercise the muscles in our eyes as well? In fact, doing specific exercises for the muscles in the eye can actually help improve your vision.

Angela Nguyen

Angela Nguyen

William Bates was an MD who invented a method for improving vision using eye exercises. He believed that blurry vision was the result of increased tension in the eyes. Typically, it is taught that the eyes are able to focus on objects by changing the shape of the lens. The lens changes shape due to contraction of the small ciliary muscle. However, through experimentation, Bates proposed the idea that it is the 6 extrinsic muscles of the eye, not the ciliary muscle, that affects vision. These 6 muscles not only move the eye around in the orbit, but they also change the shape of the eyeball. These muscles can lengthen or shorten the eyeball, which changes where light entering the eye hits the retina. When the muscles have excessive tone or tightness, the eye is lengthened, like in someone with myopia, and the light entering the eye falls short of the retina, resulting in blurred vision.

To combat this altered vision, Bates developed a series of exercises based on traditional Eastern healing techniques. He modeled the eye exercises after traditions practiced by Buddhist monks. One of these practices was the visualization of darkness. Our eyes are constantly active. Even when we think our eyes are still and focused on an object, they are still moving. In order to see, our eyes must constantly move. Neuronal stimulus to the eyes quickly fades, so our eyes make these tiny movements called micro-saccades to provide constant input for our visual field. This constant movement can result in a lot of tension and stress in the eyes, creating a great need for ocular rest. The visualization of darkness aims to provide the rest that our eyes need. You might wonder if we can just close our eyes if we need darkness. However, closing the eyes is not enough to relax them. When the eyes are closed, we can often still see spots of color or different shades of black. These flashes of color indicate that the optic nerve is still active and firing. In order to truly calm down the eye muscles and optic nerve, the monks and Bates stressed the importance of visualizing a deep blue-black, true darkness. It is only this way that the eyes can truly rest.

Another focus practiced by both the monks and Bates was “bathing the eyes in sunlight.” This practice involves facing the sun with the eyes closed. The goal was to let the sun’s rays warm the back of the eyelids while moving the eyes around slowly, keeping the eyelids closed. Although there has been some argument about whether or not sunlight is helpful or harmful to the eyes, Bates believed that it provided benefit for those with visual conditions. His argument was that the eyes were made for light, and it is actually the absence of light that causes damage to the eyes. He said fish that lived in caves without sun were blind, and that people who worked in mines or lived in dark places developed more eye problems than those who didn’t.

Another point that Bates brings up is that unsmooth tracking of the eyes can also negatively affect vision. Our eyes can scan a scene or page of words quickly, however this doesn’t mean that we are really seeing all of the words. There is an area in the eye called the macula, which provides the clearest vision. When we move our eyes to look at something, we should be able to focus that object directly on the macula. This often is not the case. Our eyes will skip over certain areas when scanning a scene in order to get to an angle or position where it can focus. This skipping occurs because the eye muscles are unable to hold the eye in that specific position. In order to be able to focus clearly in every eye position, we need to have eye muscles that function correctly. They need to be exercised to practice smooth movement and tracking to avoid this quick, skipping, and large intake of visual information.

These eye exercises seem like such simple tasks. How could visualizing darkness, sunning your eyes, and moving them around make your vision better? As crazy as it seems, many people have found benefit from these exercises. Some people have made small improvements in their vision, while others have been blind and completely recovered their vision. These exercises can take some time to do and may take longer to reap the benefits compared to corrective lenses. However they offer an alternative and more permanent solution for poor vision. We take care of all of the other muscles in our body, why not take care of our eye muscles too?

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Lifelines, the Life West student magazine.

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