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Bates Work, Bodywork for your Eyes

The muscles around our eyes are our unheralded overachievers. They are one of the most complex of our sensory organs. They bridge our physical world to the cerebral and spiritual. Not only do our eyes have to take in everything that we see and do—but they also have the punishing and thankless job of looking at computer and TV screens for a large percentage of our waking day and even for brief periods when we sleep. They are also some of the most under-cared for organs in our body and they rely on muscles to operate. They are called the oblique and rectus muscles.

We tone our bodies and do yoga and work outs but, our eyes if they are lucky, get optical lenses and a squirt of eye wash from time to time. And much to their detriment, when you think you’re helping them, we wear sunglasses. Take a moment right now and closes your eyes. Just for a few seconds. Feel your eye muscles. They are tired.

I am writing to tell you about a particular modality of my practice called the Bates Method. If you have been a regular client of mine over the last few years you may have heard me refer to Bates work or Bodywork for the eyes. Since there is so much information to share about the Bates method, I will explain the basic ideas and concepts in this first blog and will list and explain some exercises in a second piece.

The understanding of Bates Work is that vision, since it is controlled by the four oblique muscles around the eye, can be improved by actively easing and strengthening the muscles that control eye movement through exercises, as with any other muscle in the body.

There are many who have expanded upon the Bates Method since it was first introduced by William Horatio Bates in his book, Perfect Sight Without Glasses published in 1920. There have been many updates to his work since then and many others have expanded upon his theories. One of the most interesting and well-known publications is by Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. Huxley also wrote a book about his work on vision improvement using the Bates Method called The Art of Seeing. One of the reasons why Huxley is actually a very good author to explore this topic is because in many of his works he looks into perception, attitude and environment. He was also associated with meditation and spiritual practice making him the perfect author to pen the association between eyesight, clarity and peacefulness of mind and body.

William Bates came across much opposition and controversy when he first introduced the idea of vision improvement. For example, at the beginning of the 20th Century the only people who one might see wearing sun-glasses were people with eye problems such as glaucoma or complications through disease or other infections. Bates argued that the sun’s rays warmed and eased the eye to help it relax. He argued that wearing sunglasses made our eyes sensitive to natural light making us squint in the sunlight when worn too much, straining the eye. Although now we know it is very harmful to look directly into the sun and that UV rays can be damaging, but with regular exposure to natural sunlight it can kill harmful bacteria in the eye and even help prevent some forms of eye disease. There are many naturopaths who consider the sun an external organ to the body, cleansing the eye and blood naturally.

Many opticians and eye doctors have issues with the Bates Method, arguing that it is impossible to improve ones vision, the easiest and most reliable solution is to just use a pair of glasses or contacts. As we all know, the aging process is not kind and is the largest factor in the deterioration of our eyesight. Bates work is not only about improving your vision, it is also about the conditions in which we see; environment, attitude and state of mind and of the present state of mind and body.

One of the basic concepts to having better vision is to calm the eyes; better eyesight is achieved when we are most relaxed. We are most relaxed when are bodies are at ease and when are minds are calm and balanced; when tension is least present and when we are calm of mind and spirit.

As a trained Structural Body-worker/Heller-worker, I take a different approach to the practice because I do not offer it as a singular therapy, or one that can be approached only from the muscles in the eyes, head or cranium. It is a particular method of vision therapy or vision “improvement” and is a complimentary modality that I have offered for most of my career.

My approach is to aid in the realignment of body structure as a whole for overall improvement; to practice optimum Bates work or eye therapy I believe we must start with the structure from the lower body up; to give the apparatus and gift of vision a balanced base before proper alignment of vision begins. We begin your visit by making a physical assessment and discuss your daily habits and how you use your vision.

Our eyes operate very much like a lens of a camera. The retina receives the images of light through the cornea and lens onto light sensitive tissues, color cells or “rods” and transform these images into electrical impulses through the optic nerves to the back of the brain. It is through this process where a physical image becomes a thought and is contained in our memory. Our brain processes this memory and translates them into what we perceive as Vision.

The basic shape of the eye is a sphere, (the sphere being the camera). When that camera changes in shape to an oblong or imperfect sphere it can change the way the viewing apparatus takes in light and information…sight. It is the muscles that constantly move the eyes around called the Rectus muscles of which there are the superior, inferior, medial and lateral rectus’. The superior and inferior obliques move the eye left and right. When our eyes are open, when we experience REM sleep, dreams or nightmares, these muscles are almost always moving.

Did you ever notice how we are able to see more clearly in the morning or at the beginning of the day than at the end of a long workday? It could be from being bored from studying or stressed out all day from financial reports, being tired from sitting badly at a computer or laptop with your head tilted incorrectly and your body slouching forward. It’s most likely from over strained and tired muscles of the neck and shoulders and the occipitals pulling and straining unnecessarily at the rectus and oblique muscles that move the eyes

If elements in our structure are imbalanced, if we slouch and have to strain our head, neck and shoulders to see, we are making the process of eyesight more difficult for the apparatus; the eyeballs and the brain. Now imagine how, if at the end of a long day, stress can affect the quality of your eyesight…now imagine a lifetime of stress, unhappiness or strife can affect your long-term vision.

As I mention above when the light through the lens hits the rods in the backs of our eyeballs, the information is sent via the optic nerves to the processing centers in base of the brain. The passageway for part of the optic nerve is through the sphenoid bone and proximal to the pituitary gland. It is because of this close proximity to the sphenoid and pituitary gland that breathing and stress can play an enormous factor in how we see.

There are other factors that effect sight and vision that we may be completely unaware of. For instance, take a look outside your window? Where do you live? If you live in Los Angeles is the smog level at stage one or stage two today? Do you live on the East Coast near cherry blossoms? I can show you some simple right and left nostril breathing exercises that can offer relief to your eye stress.

There can be many factors which tighten muscles of the neck and shoulders adding to the detriment of your eyesight. Sometimes there is so much tightness in these areas that they can pull and contort the cavity in which our eyes rest. Muscles of the temporalis, the jaw, mandible and occipitals can grow wearisome and can be factor. A tired or exhausted body can slouch and tilt at the neck and over long periods can damage our rectus and oblique muscles.

When many practitioners prescribe the Bates Method it is almost always through practicing certain techniques or exercises designed to tone and vitalize eyesight. It is very rarely addressed through direct and intentional bodywork techniques. This process allows us to exercise and strengthen our eyes from a more relaxed state, giving more ease and freedom to help you see better.

It is through careful and intentional manipulation or bodywork for the eyes as well as the entire body as a whole that can contribute to poorly functioning eyesight. So when you come in to see me it is through a full body analyses that I look to see where we can begin Bates Work, whether it’s working on the psoas or abdominal muscles to help you sit more erect or whether it’s work to the shoulders, neck and jawline. Good Bates-work begins with a tailored assessment to the individual.

It may surprise you to find out that poor eyesight may not be attributed to your eyes alone -- that factors such as stress and strain, poor posture, improper alignment, attitude or even the environment and the way we breath can affect your vision.

Even if science were able to give us a brand new set of eyes and muscles around the eye to see, it cannot give a better outlook on HOW we view our world. Learning how to see the world more openly, letting more light in and practicing a mental and physical journey with more ease and excitement can help us see better this chromatic and vibrant world around us.

Now that we’ve discussed the theory of Bates work, in my next blog, I will show you some exercises that you can do at home, on your own, or with a partner.


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