Over the last couple of months, I’ve received a few text messages from my eye doctor’s office alerting me that it’s time to schedule my next check-up. I haven’t followed through, and I know why. If I show up for an appointment, my eye doctor will likely increase my prescription, and I just can’t bear the reminder that my eyesight is getting worse.
“Do glasses make vision worse?” I ask Kripalu presenter Marc Grossman, a behavioral optometrist, licensed acupuncturist, and natural vision educator. “Yes,” he says, not skipping a beat. “They treat the symptom. They do the work for you. They reduce the flexibility of your eye muscles. We get used to our glasses, so our eyes aren’t as flexible.”
Optometrists are not considered failures if their patients’ vision deteriorates, Marc notes. “If we go to a dentist, a massage therapist, a chiropractor, and we keep getting worse, we’ll look for someone else,” he says. “But with the eye doctor, we expect our vision to get worse. Optometry is one of the few professions where we’re okay with that.”
As someone who first needed glasses in third grade and now only wears glasses 10 percent of the time, Marc says that, when eyesight deteriorates, it’s an indicator of stress in our lives. It was for him. “My mother had a nervous breakdown when I was in third grade,” Marc recalls. “She was emotionally absent. Around the same time, I also moved to a different town. I ‘blurred it out’ so I wouldn’t be as scared.”
While Marc believes his eyesight worsened as a child due to emotional stress, he contends that eyesight can also deteriorate due to functional stress. “If you carry 50 pounds of rice on your back every day,” he quips, “eventually your back will not be straight. Function affects structure.”
Likewise, Marc says, if you sit in front of a computer or gaze at a smartphone for hours on end, day after day, you may be causing myopia, or nearsightedness. “There wasn’t a lot of nearsightedness before the Industrial Revolution,” he explains. According to the New York Times, “in primitive cultures, where hunting and gathering is commonplace and illiteracy prevails, myopia is practically nonexistent.”
“Many of us wear glasses because of how we abuse our eyes every day,” Marc continues, defining “abuse” as more than one or two hours a day of sustained computer work at a distance of 16 inches or less from the screen. Yet studies show that Americans spend more than 10 hours a day doing just that.
He acknowledges that presbyopia—the difficulty in seeing up close that sends many of us in search of reading glasses at midlife—is part of the normal aging process. However, he also says that presbyopia can show up earlier among those whose adrenal glands are overworked and weak. Optical focusing is related to the kidneys and adrenal glands in Chinese medicine, so Marc might prescribe herbs or do acupuncture on some of his patients to treat the problem. An integrative approach that takes into consideration lifestyle, habits, diet, exercise, stress management, and family history is the way to ferret out those underlying causes, he says.
Another underlying cause of vision problems is nutrition, according to Marc. While excessive alcohol, sugar, refined foods, coffee, and hydrogenated oils, like margarine, have been shown to have a deleterious effect on the eyes, a shortage of certain nutrients can also cause damage, he says.
“A deficiency in lutein can lead to macular degeneration, a deficiency in vitamin C can lead to cataracts, and a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can lead to dry eyes,” Marc says. Whole foods like kale, spinach, collard greens, blueberries, and orange peppers are health foods for the eyes. Kale, he notes, has a particularly high concentration of lutein, an important nutrient for keeping the retina strong.
Natural vision educators like Marc emphasize nutrition, but they also emphasize exercise—for both the body and the eyes. While we accept that working out is necessary to keep our muscles fit, most of us don’t realize that we need to exercise our eye muscles regularly to keep them in shape. Natural vision educators say we do.
“Eye exercises can help strengthen eye muscles, maintain flexible lenses, and preserve sharper vision, with just five to 10 minutes of daily practice,” Marc says.
Here are a few of his favorite eye exercises.
This exercise helps reduce stress around the eyes and is done without glasses or contact lenses. With palming, you’re giving your eyes a break from the constant effort of seeing. It’s practiced by placing the palms around the eyes, which stimulates powerful acupuncture points that help to calm the mind, relax the muscles surrounding the eyes, and bring healing energy to the eyes through increased circulation. To practice palming:
- Take two deep breaths.
- Sitting at a flat table, lean forward and place your elbows on the table. Then place your head in your hands and close your eyes. Allow your arms to bear the weight of your head. To avoid stressing your neck, make sure you don’t bend too far forward.
- Now, place the palm of your left hand over your left eye with your fingers on your forehead and the hollow of your palm directly over the eye, but not touching it. The heel of your hand rests on the cheekbones. Make sure that you have enough room to blink.
- Place your right hand over your right eye with the fingers overlapping the fingers of the left hand, which helps to block out more light. The right palm should be placed over the eye and the heel of the hand should rest on the cheekbones in the same manner as the left.
- Focus on relaxing your mind and eyes simultaneously.
- Practice for three minutes at a time, as often as you like throughout the day.
“Staring is bad for your eyes because it freezes the muscles, restricting the blood flow,” Marc explains. “The process of scanning is the opposite of staring. Scanning objects in your environment keeps your eyes alive and energetic.” Here’s how:
- Take two deep breaths to begin.
- You can stand, sit, or move around your environment.
- As you look at objects, let your eyes glide over them as if you were painting them with your gaze. Continue to breathe deeply and easily.
- As your gaze shifts from object to object, allow your eyes to move easily without staring. Don’t forget to keep breathing and blinking. Your eyes should move in a relaxed manner, without tension. Remind yourself to release any stress you might be holding in your mouth or jaw.
The Hot Dog
This exercise improves the flexibility of the ciliary muscles, the interior muscles of the eyes. Follow these steps:
- Take two deep breaths to begin.
- You can stand or sit with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands at your sides. Don’t cross your hands. If you’re standing, let your knees bend slightly.
- Focus your eyes on an object in the distance.
- While looking at your distant target, bring your index fingers, tips touching, about eight inches in front of your eyes and into your line of sight.
- Still looking at your distant target, calmly notice that a mini “hot dog” has appeared between the tips of your fingers. Remember to continue to breathe easily and deeply. Do not be distracted by the spectacle of the mini hot dog, and do not allow yourself to look directly at this optical illusion. Continue to focus your eyes on the distant target.
- Pull the tips of your fingers apart slightly and observe the hot dog floating in the air.
- Keep looking at the hot dog for two breaths. Then look directly at your fingers and watch the hot dog disappear.
- Take two breaths before looking back to your distant target and finding the hot dog again. Switch back and forth for two minutes.
In addition to vision exercises and proper nutrition, basic tips for good visual hygiene include looking up from your work frequently to keep the eye muscles flexible, staying at least 14 inches away from your work, blinking often, breathing when working, keeping the eyes moving (not staring), exercising, getting outside to benefit from natural sunlight—and smiling. “It’s easier to focus when you smile,” Marc maintains, because moving the facial muscles can help the muscles around the eyes relax.
Expanding our eyesight can expand our worldview—and vice versa, says Marc, referring to Magic Eye pictures.
The hidden 3-D images inside each picture require that viewers shift their perspective. “To many people, this is a frustrating skill to learn,” Marc muses. “However, when you discover the hidden image for the first time, the feeling is overwhelming, refreshing, and extremely rewarding. As you see the depth in the picture, you find yourself saying things such as, ‘Wow! Now I see it clearly!’ But the picture was always there. The only thing that changed was your focus and perspective.”
The same is true, Marc says, when we’re looking at anything. “When we change our perceptions of what we can and cannot see, we become open to viewing the world as a whole new adventure.”
Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health