Updated: Jul 21, 2022
The eyes are the windows not just to soul it seems, but also to our mental state via a balanced nervous system. Throughout the day, one of the parts of the body that is the most used and strained, yet the least consciously cared for by us, are the eyes.
Eye strain can be intense. It makes us feel groggy, it triggers headaches and even migraines, it creates tension at the top of the neck and across the skull.
The occipital muscles (see above) are directly connected to the eyes, receiving information from them and in turn deciding how to hold up your skull. These muscles are the storage center for a great deal of head and neck tension that so many people feel, and they only function as they're supposed to if your head is successfully aligned on top of the spine (which it is not while you are working, or using your phone, unless you have an extremely ergonomic set up...).
Whilst it can be really useful and therapeutic to look at releasing the muscles involved with eye movement, and perform 'eye exercises', but we can go a layer deeper than eye strain reief too...
The way we stare at a screen in the act of concentrated 'doing' (aka working) can actually send an undercurrent of stress signals to the brain. One of the primary functions of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for flight/fight/stress and 'action') is to dilate the pupils. When we are engaged in screen concentration, and just generally the act of focusing on an image* our pupils dilate; an indicator of being in a 'stress response'.
It goes deeper still - for more than a century scientists have known that our eyes' pupils respond to more than changes in light. They also betray mental and emotional commotion, effected by stress, arousal, concentration and fear. Scientists have since used pupillometry (measuring pupil dilation) to assess everything from sleepiness, introversion and sexual interest to race bias, schizophrenia, moral judgment, autism and depression. It is an accurate, yet little understood measure of our mental state.
So how can we shift our mental state through control of our gaze? It's really a pretty simple exercise. If you practice Yoga with me, you may have heard me use the cue 'soften your gaze' and this is what I'm talking about! To soften your gaze, you simple stare out a little further away that you have been, roughly at the horizon level, ideally out into a vast open nature-scape but anything further than your screen or Yoga mat will do.
Try to relax the muscles of the eyes, and allow yourself to fall into a 'stare' gazing at nothing in particular, and not taking in much information on what you're looking at. It should feel instantly soothing, calming, and delicious. Almost as if they eyes are smiling gently, telling your brain that everything is ok, which on some is level is actually what they're doing!
So in this sense the eyes are the windows to our mental state; they give you direct access to your autonomic nervous system, and frequently 'softening your gaze' especially during a busy stressful day, can be one of the most therapeutic things you can do, not just to relieve eye strain, but to keep you relaxed and calm throughout your day.
By Laura Pearce, Senior Yoga teacher, chief Yogi @ Yoga Collective London.
*See research by Psychologist Daniel Kahneman