Meditation enthusiast and occasional songwriter Sir Paul McCartney recently told listeners to Jessie Ware’s Table Manners podcast that he practices eye yoga to improve and maintain his good eyesight:
I learned off some yogi in India. He explained that your eyes are muscles. Your ears aren’t, so you can’t exercise your ears,’ he said.
Now I’m not eager to criticise Macca, not least because he wrote a lot of my favourite Beatles songs, but whether or not he Saw Her Standing There – even without his specs on and despite the fact she was all the way down the end of the street – there is currently no good evidence that it was eye yoga that helped him do it.
Tell Me What You See
The notion that eye exercises could have a positive effect on one’s vision has its modern origin with nineteenth century physician and ophthalmologist William Bates, who believed that:
the eye does not focus by changing the power of the lens, but rather by elongating the eyeball through use of the extraocular oblique muscles; this model contradicted mainstream ophthalmology and optometry then and now
Bates did not believe in the prevailing theory of accommodation to account for the eye’s ability to focus images, which explains that the ciliary muscle changes the shape of the lens, allowing one to focus accurately on points both near and far – all of which you will likely recall from high school biology lessons. Bates instead held that the entire eyeball changes shape, thanks to the extraocular muscles which move your eye around.
It turns out that both the ciliary and extraocular muscles do influence the degree to which light is brought into focus, but to enormously different degrees – the distortion of the eyeball by the extraocular muscles can create just 0.036 dioptres (the unit of refractive power) of potential change, whereas the ciliary-muscle controlled lens manages 15 dioptres for a typical teenager – though my ciliary muscles will offer me rather less accommodation When I’m 64, hence the increased need for glasses with age.
Good Day Sunshine
Despite being based on a faulty premise, the Bates Method has many adherents even to this day. Some of his suggestions for eye exercises are harmless enough – for example exercises in distant vision and visualisation – but others are risky. Palming (covering the closed eyes with the palm of the hand) increases the risk of glaucoma if pressure is applied, and even a brief period of sun-gazing can obviously cause permanent damage to eyesight – photic retinopathy – despite Bates’ reassurances:
One has to be very careful in recommending sun-gazing to persons with imperfect sight; because although no permanent harm can result from it, great temporary discomfort may be produced, with no permanent benefit. In some rare cases, however, complete cures have been effected by this means alone.
It is a relief, then, that modern-day advocates of the Bates Method suggest using a desk-lamp rather than the sun for this aspect of the technique!
Magical Mystery Tour
So-called eye yoga, and other “natural vision correction” approaches, are currently more fashionable than the Bates Method. Beyond Macca’s endorsement, Vogue gave eye yoga an uncritical write-up in January 2021, and a show on Fox affiliate WFXB featured eye yoga in June. In addition to eye yoga, the WFXB segment did include some widely-shared advice – for example, the 20-20-20 rule (taking a 20 second break every 20 minutes of computer time to look at something 20 feet away) is well-known and endorsed by the RNIB, though as a way to “avoid tired eyes and headaches” rather than correct your vision or prevent deterioration.
What then of the claims that eye exercises can either delay myopia, or even fix it? There are some high-profile adherents, including astronaut Mike Massimino:
Mike’s Rx was -3.50 in one eye and -4.00 in the other eye, well below the amount of myopia for which one could qualify for NASA’s unaided visual acuity standard.
Mike apparently used vision training and ultimately managed to pass the test and flew two shuttle missions, which is a pretty solid endorsement. However, one anecdote – even one featuring a man who made it through a NASA sight test – does not settle the case. While we cannot know the specifics of Massimino’s case, optometrists and ophthalmologists such as David B Elliott suggest that the explanation for the results seen by people using Bates-like vision training methods is likely due to blur adaptation (“with sudden blur… the visual system will adapt to improve visual acuity, likely by increasing the gain of high spatial frequency channels and decreasing the gain of low frequency channels”), memorisation, perceptual training (“repeated practice in a demanding visual task”) and the placebo effect.
The final point is worth dwelling on, as per this line from a review of vision training by the American Academy of Ophthalmology:
In other studies undertaken over the last 60 years, an improvement in subjective visual acuity (VA) in myopes with no corresponding improvement in objective VA has been reported.
In other words: patients in studies report subjective improvements, but when it comes to objective visual acuity, the improvements vanish.
Eye exercises are not entirely to be dismissed – as with the 20-20-20 rule, there is something to be said for feeling better and taking a break from the screen, for example. But it is not a big surprise that studies have, so far, failed to show objective benefits to such exercises. Personally, I know I’d rather Drive My Car down a Long And Winding Road while wearing my specs, than relying on my eyesight Getting Better naturally.