Yoga is a great low-impact workout when you’re managing muscle strains – but few of us ever think of doing it for our eyes. Writer Jessica Harris chats with one eye yoga expert about why our peepers could do a good old stretch.
Just when you think you’ve mastered a downward dog, there’s another form of yoga to contend with. Forget ashtanga or hatha, we’re talking about a specific practice that targets one unlikely area of the body – the eyes.
With 10 million of us suffering from recurring headaches in the UK, eye yoga has been tentatively proven to not only contribute to eye health but also relieve head pressure. No wonder Paul McCartney credits it as the reason why he doesn’t wear glasses at the grand age of 79.
One practitioner who has seen a big rise in clients complaining of headaches this last year is Molly Robinson, yoga teacher and founder of Down To Flow Escapes. “As people have had to work from home more, their work posture and desk position have been affected – resulting in poor posture and a slouching of the shoulders which applies pressure to the neck and skull,” she tells Stylist.
Coupled with an increase in screen time over the last 18 months, the WFH revolution has created the perfect conditions for an explosion of tension headaches and migraines. “There’s no doubt that this increase in screen time during lockdown has played a huge part in the increase in headaches and dry eyes,” explains Dr Elizabeth Hawkes, consultant ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon.
According to an Ofcom study, lockdown saw people in the UK spend 40% of their day watching TV and online video services to pass the time. That, plus our unstructured working hours that have developed as a result of no longer having a commute to worry about has “had a knock-on effect on our health,” says Dr Hawkes.
Lockdown may be over but many of us are still managing that fallout. The solution? Apart from jacking in our desk jobs, the key to reducing eye strain may lie in eye yoga.
What the heck is eye yoga?
While we’re used to stretching and strengthening our hamstrings and biceps, we often overlook our smaller muscles – especially the ones around our eyes. “We often forget that we have muscles in the eyelid, on the eyeball and inside the eye – all of which are very important and are controlled by the nervous system and brain and need our attention,” Dr Hawkes explains.
“We have six muscles on the outside of the eyeball called the extraocular muscles, which cause contraction of the natural lens and allow us to focus on objects close up. As we age we lose this ability, which is why many require reading glasses, but we can slow down this process.”
Designed to help strengthen said muscles as well as giving them the rest they need, Robinson believes that eye yoga can provide the respite our over-worked eyes deserve: “It’s a form of yogic exercise that will ease fatigue and strain that has been brought on as a result of more time looking at screens. Just like a massage for our body, it can be a great way to lengthen muscles and release that pressure.”
Eye yoga benefits
It doesn’t take an expert to know that we could all do with a little less screen time. With headaches, muscle soreness and sleep issues on the rise, taking a break away from our devices could be a worthy insurance policy for our future eye health.
“Allowing your eyes to have some time away from screens to give them a moment to pause will only help improve the health of your eyes as well reduce puffiness around the eye which is common for those who are glued to screens and constant stimulation,” Robinson explains.
“By simply de-stressing the eyes, you can see huge benefits to the appearance around the eye as well as your vision and headache frequency.”
While more studies are needed to back up many eye yoga claims, there is evidence to suggest that doing it can help. A small 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Diagnostic Research found that simple eye exercises improved response time to what the study group was seeing. Another eight-week study found that eye yoga made eyes feel less tired and fatigued. As yet, no one has found it to improve eye sight, but that’s not really what the practice is about anyway.
How to start practising eye yoga
Put your yoga mat away because this is a zero equipment practice that can be done anywhere and any time.
“Eye yoga requires very little time – just 30 seconds a day will be enough to reap some reward,” Robinson explains. “As soon as your eyes feel tired, achy or a headache starts to appear, place your palms over your eyelids for 10 deep breaths. That’s as little as you need to feel the stress start to ease.
“For more long-term results, look to decrease your screen time, take plenty of breaks and take steps to correct your posture through a proper desk set-up and some alignment exercises.”
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Dr Hawkes’ top 5 eye yoga exercises
Think of this as setting the scene for your eye yoga practice.
- Rub the palms of your hands together for 15 seconds to warm them and then gently place them over your eyes.
- Take deep breaths and relax for a few minutes, repeating as necessary.
This exercise is particularly beneficial for those suffering from dry eyes. The tears created when blinking will lubricate the eyes, sweeping your tears across the cornea which then helps to nourish the eye and provide clarity of vision.
- Open your eyes and then rapidly blink ten times.
- Rest with your eyes closed for around 20 seconds and then repeat another five times.
This is particularly important for those who work on screens for the majority of their day.
- Look at an object in the distance and try to focus on it as clearly as you can.
- Then, very slowly, shift your gaze to an object that is very close up. This will cause the pupils in your eyes to constrict. Try to take deep breaths as you are doing this.
Figure of 8
This is great to stimulate the extraocular muscles which are responsible for moving the eyes.
- Focus on an object or point on the floor about 3m away and trace a figure of eight with your eyes.
Another great exercise for strengthening the eye muscles is eye-rolling.
- Keep your head still, focusing your gaze at the ceiling then slowly rotating in a clockwise direction, gently focusing on objects in your periphery.
- Repeat in an anticlockwise direction, and repeat around three times for each direction.
Now that you’ve sorted out your eyes, it’s time to improve your overall mobility with this 15-minute mobility stretch.