Yoga and the Eyes

In the Satyananda Yoga/Bihar Yoga system, eye exercises are taught for good reason as the eyes play a major role in movement. The movement of each eyeball is controlled by six eye muscles. Of all the senses, the eyes provide the most sensory information to the brain. Through the eyes one becomes aware of the environment.

There is a strong link between the eye and neck muscles. When one looks to one side, the head, in fact the whole body, prepares itself to move in that direction. One can experience that connection by placing the palm of one hand on the neck region. Keeping the head still while moving the eyes from side to side as well as up and down, one can use the feedback from the palm of the hand to sense how the neck muscles respond to the movement of the eyes.

Correct posture

One can practise moving the eyes independently from the head. This is particularly useful when performing daily activities such as using digital devices – smart phones, laptops and computers – where one tends to look down and the whole body tends to go into a stooped flexion pattern. As a result one can lose the support of the sitting bones and the breathing becomes more shallow as the diaphragm muscle has less space to expand.

In order for the eyes to move independently the head should ideally move from the top two vertebrae of the spine, C1 and C2, with the lower regions of the neck remaining passive. Two requirements are necessary to make this possible. The first one is finding a dynamic skeletal support while sitting. From the side the pelvis looks like a triangle pointing down. Finding the support on the pointed parts of the pelvis at the bottom of the pelvis (the sitting bones) allows one to sit upright with ease. Then the tail bone (the tip of the coccyx) is pointed back upwards, accentuating the forward slant of the pelvis. This establishes stability in the natural forward-pointing curve in the lower back ensuring an upright position of the spine, back and head, with minimum muscular effort.

The second aspect is that the jaw can move freely. The jaw connects to the skull in the region of the ears. Loosening the jaw by practising the roaring lion pose enhances the capacity of the head to move freely. This allows the head to sit balanced on top of the neck so that the torso can remain in an upright position while the eyes look freely in any direction. When one moves the head with the lower part of the neck the eyes tend to lock. When the eyeballs are fixed within the eye sockets, the ability to move freely is lost.

Eyes and asana

The eyes can also be used to lead one into an asana as the brain organizes movements in patterns rather than as singular muscular activity. Using the eyes consciously one can engage the body in an asana. This has the advantage that the demand, both on a muscular and skeletal level, is more evenly distributed over the whole body. The thoracic spine, where the ribs are attached, is invited to become more active. Areas like the neck and lower back which are often overused have a chance to recover and heal.

One can also use the eyes to tone the muscles once one is established in a twisting asana, either standing or sitting, by keeping the head and torso still while moving the eyes slowly in the opposite direction. When one looks to one side the neck muscles prepare the head to turn to that side. Eye and neck muscles move in the same direction in a coordinated manner. By moving the eyes in the opposite direction to the head movement, the neck muscles have to work harder. In the process the neck muscles are toned and movements become more fluid and efficient.

The brain learns by recognizing differences and relation-ships. Moving the eyes and head in opposite directions requires higher organization and attention. Unusual and unfamiliar, the brain becomes aware of the strong influence the eyes have on movement. When the eyes and head move again in the same direction one will find that the quality and range of movement has improved and increased.

Looking straight ahead, one can keep a relaxed focus on the horizon while moving the head from side to side or up and down. The same can be done by lying on the back, looking straight up to the ceiling while the head is turning from side to side. This has the advantage that the brain receives additional feedback through the contact with the floor.

The eyes also play a major role in maintaining balance. One can experience this by establishing oneself in a balancing asana. When the eyes are closed, one relies more on the joint receptors to maintain balance. The joint receptors give information about where one is in space as well as the direction and speed of movement. The brain uses the periphery of the visual field to orientate and maintain balance. Due to modern lifestyle and the use of digital devices people tend to use only the central part of the visual field. As a result the brain is deprived of the visual information coming from the peripheral field that is essential to maintain balance.

One can practise shifting from focused to peripheral vision by extending the arms with the thumbs pointing up. Slowly moving the hands and arms apart and back together and following the movement of the thumbs provides an opportunity for the eyes to re-establish an awareness of the peripheral visual field.

Consciously using the eyes in the various asanas can bring more ease and comfort, thus increasing the range of movement and the ability to relax into a pose.

Sannyasi Prabhavananda, New Zealand