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Vision Quest

December 1, 2010
Do you ever find yourself squinting and rubbing your eyes after a long stretch in front of a computer? If so, you’re not alone. Average adult Americans now spend more than eight hours a day staring at screens of one sort or another. And this growth in “screen time” has brought an increase in adults suffering from blurred vision, itchy and watery eyes, headaches, double vision, and other symptoms of eye strain.

Screens - including those on computer monitors, handheld computer games, and smart phones - force users to focus their eyes intently at a single distance near the face.

“The eyes were not made to do extensive close work,” said Marc Grossman, behavioral optometrist, licensed acupuncturist and author of five books on natural eye care. “But now, almost all of our processing is happening at a near distance, and that puts extra strain on eye muscles.”

Fortunately, simple exercises can help rejuvenate the eyes. Several yoga systems - such as Sivananda, Integral Yoga and the Himalayan Institute - include them in their repertoires. Eye care professionals and other holistic healers sometimes recommend them as well. When mindfully practiced, these simple exercises rest overused muscles, reduce tension in the face and eyes, and help strengthen muscles that help the eyes focus.

“By making the eyes more flexible and adaptable, you can keep eye problems from getting worse, and can even improve them,” said Dr. Grossman.

Aside from the physical benefits, yoga teachers sometimes offer these exercises for another reason: to draw one’s attention inward. This, in turn, can help cultivate a keener sense of body awareness, inner presence and well-being.

“By controlling the eyes, you’re controlling the mind,” says Ananda, a yoga teacher at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California. “There’s a physical benefit, of course, but there’s a mental benefit as well.”

The next time you find yourself rubbing your eyes while staring at a screen, experiment with the following exercises. They can be practiced individually, or as a sequence, and can be repeated throughout the day as needed. Dr. Grossman says they are mild enough for anyone to explore.

1. Palming. Rub your hands together for 10 to 15 seconds until they feel warm and energized. Then gently place your hands over your eyes, with the fingertips resting on the forehead, the palms over the eyes, and the heels of the hands resting on the cheeks. Don’t touch the eyeballs directly, but hollow the hands slightly and allow them to form a curtain of darkness in front of the eyes. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and relax.

Envision the eyes absorbing the darkness like a sponge, while also welcoming healing warmth and energy from the hands. Invite the eyes to grow soft and spacious, and enjoy this break from visual stimulation. Continue this palming action as long as it feels soothing - for just a few seconds or up to five minutes. When you are ready to emerge, gently remove the hands from the face and slowly open the eyes.

This palming technique can also be done after the eye exercises that follow, in order to further rest the eyes.

2. Eye Rolling. Sit upright with a long spine and relaxed breath. Soften your gaze by relaxing the muscles in your eyes and face. Without moving your head, direct your gaze up toward the ceiling.
Then slowly circle your eyes in a clockwise direction, tracing as large a circle as possible. Gently focus on the objects in your periphery as you do this, and invite the movement to feel smooth and fluid. Repeat three times, then close the eyes and relax. When you’re ready, perform the same eye-rolling movement three times in a counterclockwise direction.

3. Focus Shifting. Relax your body and breathe comfortably. Hold one arm straight out in front of you in a loose fist, with the thumb pointing up. Focus on your thumb. While keeping your eyes trained on it, slowly move the thumb toward your nose until you can no longer focus clearly on it.
Pause for a breath or two, and then lengthen the arm back to its original outstretched position, while maintaining focus on the thumb. Repeat up to 10 times.

4. Distance Gazing. Rest your gaze on a distant object (if you’re indoors, look out a window if you can). Focus on the object as clearly as possible, while staying relaxed in the eyes and face. Take a deep breath, and then slowly shift your gaze to another distant object around you. Imagine your eyes are gently “drinking in” the image you see.

Continue letting your eyes drift about the world around you, momentarily pausing at objects at varying distances away from you. As an extra bonus, if you spy something particularly pleasing, smile, enjoy the vision, and give thanks for your strong and healthy eyes.

This article was originally published in Yoga International (Spring 2011)