It seems that, in this day and age, many of us takes our eyes for granted. We spend our days looking at computers, watching TV screens, reading books and papers. Our eyes were not designed to stare fixedly at an unmoving point in space for an extended period of time. I’ve been just a little bit short-sighted and have had to wear glasses since the age of 14. Normally only need to wear glasses if watching a movie, teaching or at night—basically whenever I need a little extra clarity of focus. When my eyes get tired, however, my eyesight gets much worse. Some years ago I read a fascinating book called “Seeing Without Glasses” by a doctor named Roberto Kaplan. His basic thesis was that the eyes are meant to flit around the field of vision, changing direction and focal distance lightly and frequently from moment to moment. It’s a hard thing to remember to do, especially as I type this up on the computer.
Our posture can have an effect on the eyes. If your chest is slumped and your head is habitually tilted forward, the face turned towards the floor, for example, the eyes re-orient themselves towards the horizon and the eyes assume a new neutral position rolled up in the sockets. If the posture changes, then the eyes will have to re-set themselves back to the horizon and the quality of vision changes. Sometimes this can lead to tiredness or tension around the eyes until the body adapts to the new state. Similarly, if we habitually roll our eyes down towards the floor and never look further than a few feet in front of us, we stand the risk of drawing the head down and creating a slump over time.
Aside from these mechanical/postural considerations, the way we use our eyes can have an effect on the nervous system. In Iyengar Yoga it is thought that looking up stimulates the nervous system, just as looking down settles it. If you are feeling sluggish, opening the eyes and looking up can help wake you up. If you are feeling over-stimulated, try looking down. In a restorative practice, you can take this further by adding a head-wrap. A head-wrap is a soft and slightly elastic crepe bandage that you can wrap around your forehead and eyes in such a way as to draw the skin of the brow down towards the eyes and to put a gentle pressure on the temples. This is thought to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and de-stresses the body.
One of the big skills in Alexander Technique is observation. We turn our awareness inwards to observe the state of our bodies and our habits. It’s a tempting trap to get drawn into and caught up in the sensations of the body. Too much inner vigilance and the body becomes hard and held, exactly the opposite of what is called for. We were warned against this by several of the teachers this week. If the gaze becomes glassy and far-away, it’s a sign that there is too much internalization going on. The gaze should be light and free, with as much awareness of what’s within as of what is without. This is something I’ve heard in many different ways from many teachers in many different traditions.
Our teacher today—Daniel Singer—brought up the idea that when the gaze turns in, the face frowns and there is a downward pull in the front of the head. Keeping the lips lightly touching brings a half-smile to the face, a balance of release and tone in the smile muscles that softens the nostrils, allowing them to open and the breath to flow freely, as well as providing the required upward direction to free the head.
Iyengar talks a lot about the face as well. The temples, for him the entire area between the outer corner of the eye and the opening of the ear, is a very important area for regulations of the nervous system. If that area is gripped and hard, pulling in towards the eyes, the nervous system is tense and over-loaded. The goal would be to keep that area soft and free, so that the electrical impulses of the nervous system can flow unimpeded. This he calls the most advanced for of pranayama, the practice in yoga of regulating the flow of energies through the body.
Pranayama usually involves practices of breath control. When teaching this, Iyengar often talks about the flow of the breath through the nostrils and the effects across the cheekbones as well as the temples. One should allow a sense of softness and freedom across this entire area as the breath flows in and out.