Good News For Your Eyesight

Holistic vision improvement offers a return to clearer vision and greater awareness by changing the way you use your eyes.

When I first studied yoga I wore glasses all the time. I was twenty-four and had been wearing them since I was thirteen. The yogis I lived with said I could get rid of my glasses, but since I had been trained in a famous London eye hospital, I knew it wasn’t true. The doctors told me so.

A couple of years later I was spending my days working as an orthoptist (one who teaches eye exercises to people with poorly coordinated eyes), and teaching Hatha yoga in the evenings. I realized the orthoptic approach was the opposite of the yogic approach I taught at night. During the day I was encouraging my patients to push and try harder, while at night I was saying "Relax, breathe, notice your body letting go." I felt confused and prayed for guidance.

Within a week a man introduced himself and told me he could relieve me of my glasses using the Bates Method. I had heard of this method during my training and it had been labeled as charlatanism. He told me it was based on relaxation, which sounded like yoga to me. So, skeptical as I felt, I agreed to give it a try. In a year I had passed my driver’s license test without glasses. It was a wonderful gift.

How People With Good Vision Use Their Eyes

Stress manifesting in the visual system is the cause of most refractive errors such as myopia, farsightedness and astigmatism. There are no bones in the eyes. They are not fixed. They are made of soft tissue surrounded by muscles. The behavior of the muscles, however, can become repetitive and inflexible because of poor patterns of use. These patterns create neural pathways in the brain; the more chronic the behavior, the stronger the pathway. The good news is that we can change our minds and replace old patterns by creating other neural pathways in support of clearer vision. This is contrary to the most basic assumptions of ophthalmology that only lenses and surgery can correct refractive errors.

William Bates was an ophthalmologist at the turn of the twentieth century. He observed that when he prescribed glasses to someone, within a year or two they usually needed a stronger prescription. He decided this was not a successful form of treatment for refractive errors and began looking for alternatives. Bates left his practice in New York City and traveled, studying in particular how people with good vision use their eyes. He determined we see best when our eyes are relaxed, and our eyes relax when our mind relaxes. Bates described how the mind can only focus clearly on one thing at a time; whatever is peripheral to that point of focus in each moment is seen less clearly. When we are troubled or stressed we often do not clearly see what is in front of us because we are not present with what we are seeing. We are picturing something elsewhere. He concluded that mental and emotional factors contribute as much, if not more, to clear vision than do the optical components of the eyes.

The eyes see by constantly moving. These unconscious, minute movements of the eyes are called saccades. Bates noticed that people who see well have freely moving eyes and those who don’t tend to stare and keep their eyes more fixed.

Focusing the eye is an unconscious process controlled by the autonomic or "automatic" nervous system, the primitive intelligence that is responsible for our survival. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system. When we are frightened or stressed the sympathetic branch is activated in preparation for fleeing, fighting or freezing. The visual response is to pull back the eyelids, dilate the pupils and focus in the distance as we look for a way to escape. If we cannot escape, we are ready to fight. If we are overwhelmed, we freeze in this readied state.

Conversely, the parasympathetic branch provides us with the relaxation response. It promotes digestion, regulates breathing and visually is responsible for constricting the pupils and focusing our vision up close for tasks such as reading and working on the computer. Consequently, performing near-focused activities while stressed is like asking the body to do two opposing things at once; it is evolutionarily unnatural and likely to lead to strain. When our eye muscles strain, they will not be able to move as freely, the saccades will not be as fine and we will not see as well.

To have our vision successfully improve we need to change the habitual ways we use our eyes to encourage relaxation, eye coordination and fluid, rapid saccadic eye movements. Vision educators teach new habits that include changing focal distance often so the muscles do not tire, allowing the eyes to move freely, resting, blinking and keeping our central and peripheral vision in balance. As we practice these new behaviors, the way we use our eyes changes and we are rewarded with greater clarity and comfort.

What About Glasses?

Most of us are told we need glasses because of our genes. If this were the case we would expect identical twins to have identical vision, but twins often wear different prescriptions and one twin may not need glasses at all. On the other hand, there do seem to be families who tend to wear glasses and others who do not. If it’s not genetic, perhaps it’s that as children we are great imitators. We learn to deal with challenges from our families.

Frequently a major life stress can be identified during the two-year period prior to someone needing glasses. They or a loved one may have been ill, they may have started school or disliked their teacher or started a job with tougher visual demands. The change in vision is the result of a whole person issue, a body/mind response to the environment; wearing glasses or contact lenses only deals with the symptoms. They give us clear vision but do not address the stress underlying the change in eyesight.

Yet glasses can be useful as temporary crutches and learning tools. If we do not see well enough to live and work safely without some correction, then it’s important to use something to help. We can train the eye with new vision habits by getting a prescription for glasses that gives us a slight blur rather than perfect vision. The eye naturally self-corrects for blur; that is how we automatically change focus from one distance to another. Learning to relax with the blur allows the normal focusing mechanism of the eye to adjust; straining against the blur causes the muscles to tense, making it harder for the eye to focus. The slightly blurry glasses remind us to practice the techniques that allow the visual system to let go into clearer sight, progressing to an even weaker prescription until we no longer need glasses at all.

There are other modalities to improve vision such as cranial work, meditation, psychotherapy, acupuncture and qigong, which can cultivate a relaxed, focused mind and support more flexible, coordinated eye muscles. A useful way to embody this essential relaxation and presence is to have the sense of seeing from within, called "seeing from the core." When we are centered at our core we feel stronger so it is easier to let go and be more open to receive. As we are more in touch with our core and practice good vision habits, not only can we regain our visual clarity, but we develop greater awareness of ourselves, what stresses us and the way back to the calm and peace within.

Rosemary Gaddum Gordon, D.B.O., M.A., teaches Holistic Vision Improvement in Cambridge, MA, and Eliot, ME, and is a founding faculty member of the Vision Educator Training Institute. She can be reached at 617-354 8360 in Massachusetts or 207-439-9821 in Maine or by visiting