Yoga, tai chi, meditation and stretching exercises make people feel better–but will they help you SEE better?

Deborah Banker, MD, a busy ophthalmologist in Malibu CA, is sure they can. Dr. Banker, who’s studied yoga and oriental medicine, explains, “The more tension on the muscles around your eyes, the more they push on your eye and the worse your vision gets.” She checks each patient’s vision to see which type of exercise to “prescribe” to lessen tension.

Dr. Banker’s approach is unusual in Western medicine, but experts in complementary and alternative care see its logic.

Physical and visual balance are related because 20% of visual fibers go to an area of the brain connected to the base of the spine, reports Gerald E. Wintrob, OD, MA, a holistic optometrist in Brooklyn NY. His vision therapy for patients includes balance exercises. “Yoga is breathing and balance. You can relax your eye through yoga alone, but you need vision therapy for a deeper, more profound level of relaxation. The two work together well.” Dr. Wintrob’s own eyesight improved measurably through yoga and meditation.

“Stress can theoretically affect the physiology of all tissues, including the retina and optic nerve, which are exquisitely sensitive to inflammation and poor oxygen supply,” says Richard Glickman-Simon, MD, Director, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Curriculum, Tufts University School of Medicine.

“Aerobic exercises increase oxygen flow to all tissues. Meditative exercises have the added benefit of widespread muscular relaxation. Although this could conceivably impact eye function, a direct connection between exercise and eye health has yet to be firmly established,” he adds.

Energy pathways from the heart, bladder, stomach and gall bladder all connect to the eye, notes Louis Kiwala, a doctor of Oriental Medicine. “Meditation or tai chi may improve energy flow to any part of the body with a blockage or imbalance. Therefore, a specific eye problem caused by poor circulation may be alleviated by an exercise that improves circulation to that region.” The Director of New York Center for Acupuncture & Alternative Medicine is not familiar with the practice of improving eyesight through exercise.

Lee Duffner, MD, Miami ophthalmologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says, “Patients have told me that when they do tai chi or yoga, they feel so much better afterwards, in general, that their eyes feel better, too. Tai chi gives you better control over all your muscles (possibly including ocular muscles), but I’m not aware of any specific benefit to the eyes.”

Tai chi students see surroundings without looking at any particular object. “The more they learn to scan with a soft focus–taking in a new scene in relaxed, tranquil fashion– the more their vision improves,” declares Ken Cohen, MA, author of “The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of ChineseEnergy Healing” (Ballantine Books, 1999). “State of mind affects the immune system, the release of free radicals, and amount of stress hormones in the blood, which can contribute to problems like macular degeneration. Learning to relax the eye improves oxygen delivery and vision,” confirms the noted authority on Oriental Medicine.