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Ever wondered why looking away from a computer screen is encouraged or indeed why looking into the distance might help you to feel calm?

Our vision is one of the main ways in which we make sense of the world around us (exteroception) and make decisions on how to react. The visual cortex of the occipital lobe in the brain receives data from the thalamus via the optic nerves and this information is processed via two pathways which identify objects and determine their position in space ( the “what” and “where”). In addition to understanding that our vision and gaze impact awareness and present moment attention it is also understood that our vision/eye movement impact our emotional state.

The key is knowing how our body responds to stress and how changes in vision affect our breathing and autonomic nervous system.

During development our eyes are part of the embryonic forebrain and whilst extruding from the skull during the first trimester they remain part of the brain and ultimately part of the central nervous system. It is this connection which has an impact upon how our body responds to stress via our visual field.

Andrew Huberman, Neuroscientist at Stanford University has studied the relationship between vision and stress and if you wish to read further on this it is worth reading his research.

When feeling stressed our body responds in a number of ways including an increase in breath rate, heart rate and dilation of pupils ultimately activating the sympathetic nervous system ( our fight or flight) as a way to divert the bodies resources into the muscles and mobilize the body to flee or fight. When the pupils dilate there is a change in the position of the lens in the eye, the visual field is narrowed rather like the portrait mode on an iphone and the activation of various neurotransmitters and chemicals make us feel agitated and ready to move. Perhaps imagine prehistoric man hunting and holding a narrow intense gaze prior to chasing their prey.

Of course, we know that although some stress is great to motivate us if we remain in a constant and elevated state of stress then this has a negative impact upon our bodies in multiple ways for example diverting resources away from healthy functioning immune, digestive and reproductive systems.

What the above does is reveal how our gaze can impact our stress levels and state of calm and vice versa.

The opposite of a narrow visual field is a panoramic gaze. Simply by looking away from our computer screens which narrow our gaze (contributing to elevated stress levels) and into the distance, moving our eyes through a fuller range of motion or even better pausing whilst outside  to take in a panoramic vista and allowing our peripheral vision to open up releases a mechanism which activates our parasympathetic nervous system, slowing down our heart and breath rate and helping us feel calmer.

It is amazing to think that by altering our vision we have a tool at our disposal which has a positive impact upon our autonomic arousal and levels of calmness. So now there is even more reason to justify a pause and take “a moment to look out over the horizon when by the sea or in mountains or even when walking through a local park”.

What is the relevance of this to yoga or indeed yoga therapy?

It may be that when seeing clients experiencing stress as part of a yoga therapy treatment, we might explore opportunities to spend more time looking into the distance. This could simply be embracing staring out of a window, without feeling guilty about seeming to be doing nothing when actually our stressed state is benefitting hugely from that very act of perceived nothingness. Also creating opportunities to spend more time in nature taking in the view and understanding ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system when feeling stressed or anxious.

The very act of looking out into spaciousness may also help release built up tension in the neck, encourage better postural alignment, greater awareness of how to release physical muscular tension and help to gently lengthen and slow the breath. Remembering that elevated stress levels quicken the breath!

As part of both yoga therapy or even a yoga class we might explore eye yoga which encourages movements of the eye in various directions improving the health of the muscles and tissues of the eyes. Alternating between near and far focus movements helps train our focus to engage and relax accordingly.

You may have attended a yoga class with me where at the end we sit cross legged in Sukhasana or an alternative and I invite gently warming the palms of the hands (rubbing them together) and palming of the eyes with the hands to relax the muscles around the eyes and reduce fatigue. It really can be a wonderful way to alleviate eyestrain.

The more we pay attention to how and where our eyes are looking and the impact of our vision upon feeling stressed or calm the better.

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