©Copyright 2002 by Robert Chuckrow
Most people think that vision defects can be remedied only by wearing corrective lenses or undergoing laser surgery. The fact is that the majority of vision problems are self-inflicted and stem from the way we use our eyes. Many vision defects can be reversed by reeducating the way you use your eyes. A number of books1 describe methods for improving vision—even beyond 20-20! Also, there are a number of practitioners that specialize in “visual training.”
This chapter presents some basic concepts and concomitant exercises. Many of these exercises can be done quite naturally while walking outside.
Hard and Soft Vision
A stone-age human being, dressed in today’s garb, would go unnoticed in today’s world. In fact, sophisticated scientific testing is required to distinguish a fifty-thousand-year-old skeleton from a recent one. The biological and genetic differences between people then and today are minuscule. However, our lives today are radically different in a large number of respects—the food we eat, the way we use our bodies, the use of our brains and nervous systems, and the way we use our eyes.
Instead of looking into the distance and viewing birds, trees, mountains, cloud formations, and stars, we now spend many hours a day using our eyes to see close objects. Reading, if done incorrectly, takes a heavy toll on our ability to see distant objects. Moreover, when we look at details, we tend to use the center of our vision rather than our peripheral vision, which is more suited for detecting movement. Said another way, we tend to use hard rather than soft vision, which involves the processing of sense data from both the center and periphery. Read about soft vision and balance. Observing the following animation by using first hard and then soft vision provides an interesting illustration of the difference in perception provided by these types of vision. Click here to view the animation. Note that when the dots cross each other, using hard vision produces an optical illusion in which the dots appear to bounce off each other. To avoid seeing this illusion, use soft vision when viewing the animation.
When walking outdoors, the ambient light is natural instead of originating from incandescent or harsh fluorescent sources, and most objects are distant and part of a panoramic view. Therefore, walking outdoors can provide an opportunity to practice a highly beneficial use of the eyes.
What is Meant by “20-20” Vision?
There is a negligible difference between the adjustment of any optical device (here the eye) when it is focused on an object 20 ft away or very far away (at infinity). In other words, if you can clearly see objects 20 ft away, then you can see objects that are at any greater distance—even stars, which are light years2 away. Thus, 20 ft is taken as a standard for distance viewing, and tests for distance vision are done at 20 ft.3 The first number of the pair of numbers characterizing visual acuity is twenty.
The line marked “20” on the standard eye chart is printed with the minimum type size that can be read when viewed 20 ft away by a person with “normal” vision. A person just able to read the 20 line at 20 ft has 20-20 (normal) vision.
The type size of the line marked “30” is the minimum that a person with “normal” vision can read when 30 ft away. Similarly, a person with “normal” vision would have to be 10 ft away to read the line marked “10.” And so on. If your vision is 20-40, then your acuity is one-half normal. If your vision is 20-10, then your acuity is twice normal. Of course, 20-20 vision is normal.
Levels of Improvement
There are three levels in any endeavor to improve a deteriorating condition. On the first level, deterioration continues but at a lessened rate. On the second level, the deterioration is arrested. On the third level, the deterioration is reversed. The third level is attainable in most situations. Many experts feel that it is possible for most people to attain at least 20-20 vision.
Myopia is the technical term for nearsightedness. To understand myopia, it is first necessary to know a little about how the eyes work. The eyes of a healthy twenty-year old should have a range of focus from about 10 cm to infinity. That is, there should be no difficulty in seeing objects clearly if they are as close as 10 cm (roughly, 10 cm = 4 inches) or objects (such as stars) that are essentially an infinite distance away.
When the eye focuses on a close object, there is a natural tensing of its muscles, and when the eye focuses on a distant object, its muscles relax. If we were to look at distant objects as frequently as we look at close objects, there would be no problem. The problem arises because we tend to fixate our vision on close objects such as reading matter for extended periods of time (sometimes hours). When the eyes habitually focus on close objects for excessively long periods of time, there is a gradual loss of the ability of the eye to relax and view distant objects. This defect is called myopia, or nearsightedness.
The maximum distance at which objects can be clearly seen is called the far point, which, for a normal person, is at infinity but, for a myopic person, can be less than a foot. The common method of “correcting” myopia is to prescribe eyeglasses with diverging lenses. The image formed by a diverging lens is always on the same side of the lens as the object and closer to the eye than the object (see Fig. 7-1).
Corrective diverging lenses of the appropriate strength bend the rays of objects at infinity to produce an image at the far point. With such lenses, the eyes are then able to clearly focus on distant objects such as stars. The problem is that viewing other objects that are closer than infinity requires the corrected eye to tense to an even greater degree than without the corrective lenses. Thus, with time, the problem grows worse and worse, requiring successively stronger lenses.
One solution is to go without glasses completely. However, as a teacher, it is important for me to see the expressions on my students faces. Moreover, driving a vehicle without the aid of glasses is both illegal and unwise. I have learned that the best compromise is to obtain and use a prescription that is slightly weaker than my “full” prescription but still legal for driving. My vision over the past twenty years has improved to the point where I have reduced my full prescription substantially and require a prescription one-third the strength of the prior one.
I have found that reducing my prescription to one slightly below my full correction is of value because it allows me to most sensitively know whether I am using my eyes correctly. When you succeed in relaxing your vision, there is an immediate consequent improvement in the clarity of what you are viewing, and this change is much more apparent when you are using your eyes just below the threshold of clarity.
Fig. 7-1. The effect of a diverging lens on two rays emanating from a distant object. Note that the image is between the lens and the object.
Hypermetropia is the technical term for farsightedness, a condition wherein the eyes cannot focus on near objects. With time and wrong use, the muscles that focus the eyes on nearby objects become weaker. Moreover, the tissues of the eyes become less flexible, requiring more strength of the muscles. Thus, focusing on nearby objects becomes uncomfortable. The result is an avoidance of focusing on nearby objects. Disuse, however, worsens the condition. Eventually, the farsighted person opts for glasses.
Hypermetropia is “corrected” by means of converging (“magnifying”) lenses. However, the best course is to get along without corrective lenses and frequently challenge the eyes to look at close objects for short periods of time.
The following exercises are only a few of the many ways of improving vision that are shown in books or taught by vision-education practitioners. These exercises are designed to re-educate the use of the eyes and undo the effects of prior years of wrong use.
Palming. Palming is considered to be an essential part of vision improvement. It is a way to relax your eyes and, in the process, experience the feeling of soft vision. We tend to misuse and over use our eyes because of the pace of our modern society and the use of electricity to extend the length of the day. So resting the eye muscles and the neurological processing of images is highly beneficial.
I like to lie on my back while palming, but you may prefer to sit or stand. Start by rubbing your palms together to develop warmth and ch’i. Place your palms over your eyes to create dark warm caves for your eyes. Allow warmth to develop and enjoy the darkness and absence of need to receive or process visual sense data. While the eyes rest and are bathed in warmth, allow them to relax and relinquish the necessity to seek out images. Think of the eyes as pools of liquid resting in the eye sockets.
Sunning. When you have palmed for about five minutes, do not immediately open your eyes. Instead, keep your eyes gently closed and slowly remove your hands. It is important to abstain from seeking out images as the ambient light (sunlight or any bright light) filters through your closed eyelids. The idea is to sustain the relaxation achieved by palming as you gradually move from darkness to full processing of images. After a few minutes, slowly open your eyes and allow the images to come into your awareness (soft vision) rather than seeking them out. Palming and sunning are exercises whose full benefits accrue by capturing the feeling of the exercises and applying that to the way you use your eyes afterward.
Swinging. Swinging is another important exercise, which also has value in teaching balance and body unification. Stand with your feet parallel, about a shoulder width apart or more. Keep your weight midway between the centers of the two feet. Alternately turn your body from pelvis up from one side to the other, keeping your head pointed straight ahead. Everything should be relaxed—especially your neck and eyes. You should feel that the turning is propelled from the centers of the feet.
Usually, you keep your body still and turn your head, so the above way of moving is the opposite. Moving your body with your head still and neck relaxed is very restful and beneficial. For one thing, it enables you to practice soft vision during relative movement of the head and body.
Another version of swinging involves letting your head turn with the body, allowing the changing visual information to enter the eyes through soft vision.
Moving Eyes in all Directions. Moving your eyes in different directions involves moving the muscles of the eyes through their full range. This movement tones the muscles and brings oxygenated blood to the eyes. Since glasses and contact lenses inhibit the range of movement of the eyes, those who use corrective lenses especially need this exercise. Alternately looking at close and far objects. Alternating looking at close objects and far objects without straining is the basis of most eye exercises. Much of the way we use our eyes involves focusing at a constant distance. The accompanying muscular fixation cuts off blood and oxygen to the eyes, and the tension required tends to linger afterward. Periodic movement is required to reverse the effects of present and past fixations of vision and to teach better use of the eyes. Activating your peripheral vision. The major part of peripheral vision is mental rather than physical. Whereas visual stimuli affect the retina of the eye uniformly, the processing of those stimuli can be highly selective. We can choose to disregard the peripheral stimuli and pay attention only to the central stimuli. Being mindful of the peripheral information while walking is protective and an excellent way of learning to use your eyes more naturally. Using “Magic Eye” Pictures. For many years, I have had a vision disorder, called a vertical phoria. This disorder is like double vision but in a vertical direction. Until recently when I looked at a single, small object, I saw two identical objects, one slightly above the other. A few years ago, my phoria became noticeably worse, requiring me to close one eye in order to read or to use a computer. Habitually closing my left eye or ignoring what came into it resulted in my seeing almost nothing when I tried to use that eye alone.
On the one hand, I saw that my reaction to the phoria was causing me to lose the sight in my left eye, and on the other hand, I knew that using glasses with prisms to “correct” the phoria was going to eventually make it worse. I therefore set out to design an exercise to overcome the problem. I was familiar with “Magic Eye” pictures, which enable the viewer to see a three-dimensional scene when the picture is viewed in a certain way (see Fig. 7-2). I knew that seeing these pictures requires both eyes to work together equally. I started working daily and saw daily progress.
Knowing that prisms are used to “correct” the phoria, I further strengthened my eyes by orienting prisms in reverse to make it even harder for me to view the pictures. Today, my phoria is barely noticeable, and I only need to view the “Magic Eye” pictures occasionally (about once every few weeks).
I am convinced that these exercises also have reduced my myopia.
Fig. 7-2. An example of a “3-D” picture of an icosahedron created by the author. To view the figure, first mask off the text above and below it. Then place the middle icosahedron as close as possible to your face, at the midpoint between your two eyes. Relax your vision as though you were looking at a distant object. The figure will, of course, be out of focus, but you will now see two icosahedrons. Next, move the figure away (at a comfortable length) from your face until you can see it clearly. If you are successful, you will see four icosahedrons, with the middle two icosahedrons perceived as three-dimensional.
Cheng Man-ch’ing’s Eye Rub
When I was a beginning student under Cheng Man-ch’ing, he made a special point of showing me a massage for the eyes. The massage does not actually involve any pressure on the eyes but, rather, on the bony ridges of the eye sockets. Start by propping your forefingers against your forehead. Place the first joints (near the nail) of your thumb against the outside corners of your eyes. move the thumb joints inward along the top of the ridges of the eye sockets and then out along the bottoms. Repeat for a total of 36 times.
About twenty years ago, I had a physics student whose vision was very poor. He wore fairly strong glasses and always seemed to find it hard to look directly toward me. Each time I had a conversation with him, he would move to my side, so that we were at right angles to each other. As I turned to face him, he would simultaneously move to reestablish the 90° relationship.
After the summer vacation, I noticed that he was not wearing glasses. Now, he faced me head-on, not 90° to the side. I spoke to him about his improved vision. He reminded me that I had discussed vision when we covered optics. I had mentioned that there were professionals who did visual rehabilitation even though I did not know any practitioner at that time. Over the summer, he had found someone with whom to study. At the end of the summer, his vision was normal. He gave me the name and phone number of the practitioner, Renate Wassell, who worked with him, and I made an appointment with her.
When I arrived after a two-hour drive, Ms. Wassell immediately told me that I must remove my glasses and not ever wear them while in her house. She first had me stand in a specific spot and took out a box of index cards. Each card had a letter or number on it. She held up a card, and I then identified what it said. Then she kept moving farther away, each time showing me a different card to identify. She put down the box when I could not read any further cards.
Next we spent about an hour-and-a-half doing various eye exercises alternating with palming and sunning. Then she told me to go over to the original card-reading spot, picked up the box of cards, and resumed testing my ability to identify them. I was amazed at how much farther she was able to move away before I again reached the limit of my vision.
When I drove home, I was amazed at how clear things were. I estimated that my eyes had improved by one prescription (0.25 diopters). It was impractical to visit Ms. Wassell regularly as it required four hours of driving. However, she knew that I would be able to come only a few times and had generously given me the tools to be able to work on my own.
I found that progress was much slower when working on my own. Moreover, when I went for a period of time without doing the exercises, my vision deteriorated. However, on the whole, I have continued to make progress. Remember the Following:
The basic rule is, you get good at what you practice, whether it is beneficial or harmful. Practice soft vision and peripheral vision. Don’t fixate your gaze at one distance or in one direction. Don’t limit yourself with a goal to attain mere 20-20 vision. Most of us are capable of attaining 20-15 or 20-10 acuity. Even if you have 20-20 or better vision, you can still improve your peripheral vision.
*Adapted from Robert Chuckrow, Tai Chi Walking, YMAA Publication Center, Boston, MA, 2002, Chapter 7.
1See Harold M. Peppard, M.D., Sight Without Glasses, Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1940 or Margaret Darst Corbett, Help Yourself to Better Sight, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1949.
2 A light year is defined as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year. A light year is approximately 6 X 1012 miles.
3 Sometimes, when space is limited, the 20-ft. distance is achieved by having subjects view an eye chart, placed behind their heads, through a mirror 10 ft. away. Marc Grossman, O.D. and Rachel Cooper, Magic Eye: How to See 3D, Andrews and McMeel Co., Kansas City, MO, 1995, ISBN 0-8362-0467-0.
More Articles on and Information About T’ai Chi
Information about Ch’i-Kung Video