The Eye byAlfred Freddy Krupa
Q: I would like to know if it is safe for people with various eye conditions (glaucoma, detached retina, cataracts) to do yogic eye exercises - side to side, up and down, diagonal and “round the clock” eye movements? I have a number of people in my classes with glaucoma (and once I did have someone attend with a detached retina) and I would like to ensure their wellbeing in my class. Thank you.
A: Let’s begin with a quick introduction to yogic eye exercises. Because I’m not personally familiar with the history of these practices in the yoga tradition, I wrote to Richard Rosen to see if he could enlighten me. He promptly wrote back and informed me that there is mention of certain practices in early Hatha Yoga texts, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (around 1400 CE.) and the Gheranda Samhita. One such practice, called trataka, involves prolonged gazing at a focus (such as a candle flame, spot on wall, written Om) without blinking for long periods of time “until the point where your eyes begin to tear up and flow.” This practice is credited, according only to the ancient texts, with curing all eye diseases and bestowing divine vision on the practitioner!
In modern times, the practices as well as the claims for them are different. As mentioned above, the modern eye exercises include moving the eyes in specific directions and working the muscles that move the eyeball around in its socket. Therefore, they generally strengthen those muscles. Beyond that, it’s not clear what other benefits they actually have, though there are sometimes claims that they improve vision—so glasses may be discarded—and relieve other unwanted symptoms. For example, a recent Yoga International article claimed that yogic eye exercises have the following benefits: reducing eye strain, improving vision by strengthening the muscles that help improve focus, relaxing of facial tension, promoting better inner focus and concentration. However, the article provided no references to back them up. (See 4 Yoga Exercises for Eye Strain for additional eye exercises not mentioned by our reader. )It’s important to note that in my research, I was unable to find any studies or evidence to support any improvement in eyesight.
I have personally practiced exercises similar to those our reader described with a few teachers over the years, and found them accessible, easy to learn, and generally safe. My wife, Melina Meza, recalls learning these types of practices when she trained in the Sivananda tradition many years ago. Other modern systems also teach them, including the Himalayan Institute and Integral Yoga.
A 2012 study done in India compared western eye muscle strengthening exercises (called the Bates method) to those from the Ayurvedic tradition called Trataka Yoga Kriya (likely similar to those Richard referred to), to assess whether either method could improve nearsightedness, farsightedness, or irregularities of the lens of the eye (astigmatism). The researchers found that with both methods study participants reported some subjective improvement with symptoms such as eye fatigue, perceived near sightedness and far sightedness, watering of the eyes, brow headaches, and burning sensation of the eyes. However, none of these subjective reports were statistically significant nor was there any objective evidence of correction in vision, which they tested for. Despite this lack of objective evidence of benefit, the authors of the study still felt the Trataka Yoga Kirya practice was a safe adjunct to modern western approaches to vision care. (See A clinical study to evaluate the efficacy of Trataka Yoga Kriya and eye exercises (non-pharmocological methods) in the management of Timira (Ammetropia and Presbyopia)).
Now, let’s turn to the safety of these practices for those who currently have eye conditions. With any significant health issue involving the precious eyes, I recommend the first person to ask regarding the safety of any yoga practices is an eye doctor (ophthalmologist). And you should consider doing these eye practices ONLY if you get a clear okay from your eye specialist. That said, here is some general information on each of the eye conditions our reader asked about that can start to guide your decision about including yoga eye exercises safely into your teaching or in your practice. Let’s briefly define each condition and any general cautions that might relate:
Glaucoma is a condition within the eyeball itself in which the pressure increases above normal—essentially a kind of high blood pressure of the eyes. Untreated, it can lead to blindness. In fact it is the leading cause of blindness in older adults. It is often treated with eye drops that help to lower the pressure and less frequently with oral meds and surgery. Aerobic exercise is considered helpful in some but not all types of glaucoma. Doing yoga inverted poses and breath retention after the inhalation are contraindicated, as both can increase the pressure within in the eyes. In my research, I could find no mention of cautions regarding simple movements of the eyes nor any mention that eye exercises could worsen or speed up the development of glaucoma. Therefore, I feel they are safe for people with glaucoma to try. Relaxation techniques that lower stress have been shown to help lower the pressure inside the eyes, therefore doing a stress management practice that does not include inversions could be helpful for these folks.
Cataracts are a condition of the lens of the eye, which gradually becomes cloudy and therefore starts to cause the vision to blur. Aging is a big contributor to the development of most cases of cataracts. As you age, the lens of the eye becomes stiffer, thicker, and less clear. Once the lenses have developed cataracts, the only effective treatment is surgery. General aerobic exercise has been shown to lower your chances of developing cataracts in the first place, so a well-balanced yoga practice would be appropriate as a preventative measure in this regard. In my research, I could find no mention of cautions regarding simple movements of the eyes, nor any mention that eye exercises could worsen or speed up the formation of cataracts. Therefore, I feel that unless told not to by your ophthalmologist, yogic eye exercises are safe to practice for those with cataracts.
Retinal detachment is a medical emergency in which the back layer of the eye, the retina, suddenly pulls away from the inside surface of the eye. Any sudden loss of vision or large increase in the number of floaters that occurs can become permanent vision loss if not addressed promptly. So, in our reader’s case, we are really talking about someone with a past history of having had a retinal detachment, possibly having undergone one of the surgical options for treatment. One of the biggest risk factors for developing this condition is aging! Another is poorly controlled diabetes. Normal movement of the eyeball is not considered a risk factor.
Although there are a lot of activity restrictions for the 2-8 week period after surgery, once someone has recovered, they can typically return to normal activities. However, I still recommend running your regular yoga routine in detail, including yoga eye exercises and any inversions, by your eye doctor, since this was an emergency situation when it happened and could occur again. However, after the 8-week post-op period, these particular yogic eye exercises should be okay to try.
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