Is it possible to train your eyes to see clearly without your glasses or contacts?
By Elleke Bal
From The Optimist Magazine Fall 2015
I almost put rice in my coffee maker. It feels very odd, going through my morning routine without my contact lenses. With a prescription of –3.0 in both eyes, I’m fine around the house, really. But the packs of coffee and rice on the top shelf of my cupboard are dangerously similar. The world is covered by a veil of fog.
“First thing, leave your contact lenses out for a few hours in the morning for a while,” Kim van der Hoeven advised me. I had gone to see her to talk about learning to see clearly without contact lenses or glasses. Van der Hoeven is a vision educator for people who want to improve their eyesight with natural methods. She is convinced you can decrease the strength of your prescription. She herself once wore glasses with an Rx of –7.0 and now has brought it down to –2.0.
Van der Hoeven, a young woman in the Westland region in the southwestern Netherlands, tells me in a down-to-earth way how she reduced the strength of her prescription. As we sit at her kitchen table, she tells how it all began when a friend gave her a magazine article two years ago. “That was the first time I read that you can do things to influence your eyesight,” says Van der Hoeven.
Influence your eyesight? I think about it. It’s so hard to believe no optometrist has ever mentioned it to me. I have been wearing contact lenses and glasses for ten years now, and have never enjoyed it. The glasses slide off my nose and get smudged all the time, and the contacts irritate me and dry out my eyes. Could I stop wearing them?
For now, my effort to live without contacts is leading to some awkwardness, but I also notice this: My eyes feel relaxed, they are moving freely and easily, and I really don’t want to put my lenses back in. It gives me a whole new sense of freedom.
William Horatio Bates would probably have recommended that I never put my glasses on again. He called them “eye crutches” and saw them as an obstacle to restoring vision. Nearly 100 years ago, this American ophthalmologist argued that most vision problems can be improved if you learn to relax your eye muscles. The effort you put into seeing better makes your vision deteriorate, went his theory.
At the time, this was a highly controversial idea, and to be honest, it still is. Mainstream optometrists and eye doctors disapprove. But tens of thousands of people are using the Bates Method. By learning how to relax their eye muscles, people can improve their eyesight. When you think about it, it’s unbelievable that Bates’ approach hasn’t become more widely used.
Lately, though, his ideas have been receiving corroboration from an unexpected quarter: scientists who are studying neuroplasticity—a new branch of neuroscience that is developing from an understanding that the brain is capable of much more self-repair and healing than we ever thought possible. They’ve discovered many instances of the brain’s being able to develop new patterns through learning experiences.
Consider this for one moment: you see with your brain. The brain processes the signals from your retinas and your optic nerve to supply an image to your conscious self. This could be the key to explaining the theories that Bates developed.
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, neuroplasticity-expert, writes: “The natural vision principles behind what [Bates] did can be applied far more widely than is done now, from the milder problems of those who have blurry vision to more serious ones, and to prevent future vision problems.”
But let’s take a closer look at the problem. The World Health Organization estimates that 246 million people have “low vision,” which means they are not blind (as 39 million others are) but they have serious visual impairment, even with corrections like eyeglasses. This includes myopia (nearsightedness), hypermetropia (farsightedness), astigmatism (also known as “cylinder”), and presbyopia (farsightedness caused by loss of elasticity of the lens of the eye). What’s more, these numbers are considered to be on the conservative side.
In recent decades, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in nearsightedness. According to Australia’s Brien Holden Vision Institute (BHVI), known for its international eye care research, myopia “affects many school-aged children and is fast becoming a major public health issue of our time.” The institute estimates the current number of people with myopia at 1.45 billion, and expects the condition to grow to 2.5 billion by 2020.
China is experiencing a major epidemic of myopia. Sixty years ago, only 10 to 20 percent of the population was nearsighted; now, up to 90 percent of high school graduates in major Asian cities suffer from myopia, research published in The Lancet shows. In the United States and Europe, the number of nearsighted people has doubled in the past 50 years, the BHVI states.
Researchers say it is because we are looking at screens more often and are not outdoors as much as we used to be. That’s bad for your eyes, because looking into the distance is what gives them a chance to relax. So imagine what happens when you spend most of your day staring at a small screen, as we habitually do these days.
Nearsightedness drives a lot of business—eyeglasses, contacts and laser treatments are all readily available. And once you’ve started wearing glasses or contacts, you’ll have to keep buying new ones all your life. Now that is a sustainable profit model!
But if our vision is getting so much worse because of how we are using our eyes, wouldn’t it be logical that we could recover by learning to use your eyes in a better way?
Esther van der Werf became nearsighted when she was 17. At first she had a positive feeling about wearing glasses. “I thought, Maybe they’ll make me look more intelligent,” she says with a laugh when I speak to her on Skype from her home in Ojai, California. The story of her eyeglasses is a short one. “I took them off again very soon,” she says. “They made me feel as if I wasn’t participating in the world anymore. I was an observer, not a participant.” For 16 years, she stubbornly navigated the world with hazy vision, until she reached a point where she couldn’t read traffic signs well anymore. Her vision was measured as –1 and –1.25 then. “So I knew something had to be done.”
By coincidence, she then attended a health expo where she ran into Tom Quackenbush, who was there to publicize his book Relearning to See: Improve Your Eyesight Naturally. “I asked him the stupidest question you can ask an author: ‘Does it really work?’ Quackenbush held up his book and answered, ‘You will find out if you read it.’” So she did. His book had relaxation techniques, like palming, which is a way to give your eyes a rest by using your hands to block out all light, and sunning, which entails closing your eyes, facing the sun and swaying your head from left to right.
“Once I understood that it is all about relaxing the eyes, I had 20/20 vision again within two weeks,” she tells me. That was 15 years ago, and now Van der Werf herself is a renowned expert and teacher of the Bates Method. She wrote the book Read Without Glasses at Any Age: The Natural Method to Near Vision Clarity.
Talking to Van der Werf, you quickly find out that not everyone has the same ideas about what the Bates Method encompasses. She says people often incorrectly assume that the method is “a set of eye exercises.”
“It is definitely not a regimen of eye exercises,” she proclaims. It’s a bad idea to focus only on eye exercises, she says, because “every time you try harder and make an effort to see better, you are increasing the tension on your eyes. While actually you should be letting go of tension.” Eye exercises are forced movements, she says, while relaxation is the key to vision improvement. Bates developed several techniques that can help you relax your eyes.
When Bates developed his method, he had no idea what he should call it, Van der Werf tells me. He was just promoting the natural way of seeing. He wrote all his findings down in various texts. His book, Perfect Sight Without Glasses (1920) is well-known, but he also wrote about his work in Better Eyesight, a monthly magazine published throughout the 1920s. Van der Werf recommends that everyone reads those texts, as they provide the best explanation of the method. The magazines are sold together as a bundle on various websites, and sometimes you can read a single edition for free.
The Bates Method is primarily successful with functional problems such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and strabismus. Eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration are a different matter, says Van der Werf. She says the Bates method will likely be helpful for people with these problems, and Bates had some great successes with curing eye diseases, but the results are less sure certain and require more than just visual relaxation.
As far as Bates was concerned, all people with nearsightedness or farsightedness should take off their glasses, sooner rather than later. “Every time you put on glasses, that perfectly compensate your problem, you are reinforcing the problem,” says Van der Werf. In our modern world, it is quite difficult to just discard your glasses. “We have to work and be able to drive a car, of course. What you can do is slowly step down, each time choosing glasses with a slightly lower Rx than the ones you are currently wearing.”
Van der Werf also warns that the refractive error is not static as eyeglasses are; vision acuity fluctuates all day, sometimes focusing a bit better, other times somewhat worse. Glasses give you the same constant compensation all day long, she explains, and that’s hard on your eyes. They lose the freedom to adapt to each situation—another reason why glasses create eyestrain.
To understand all of this, it is important to know how Bates saw the eye. Bates was one of the first to disagree with the establishment’s perception of the eye. In his day, German eye doctor Hermann von Helmholtz was the main authority in this area. Helmholtz proposed that the eye is able to focus on different distances because the lens changes shape. His theory was that the eye is able to change because a small muscle, the ciliary muscle around the lens contracts. This theory is widely accepted as a fact today.
But Bates didn’t think that focusing depends only on the lens changing shape. He studied patients who suffered from cataracts and had had their lenses removed and replaced with an inflexible lens; some of these people, he found, were still able to focus.
Bates replicated Helmholtz’s experiments, testing the eyes of fish, dogs, cats and rabbits, and discovered that the entire eye changes shape when focusing. Six different muscles in the eye play an important role, and according to Bates these external muscles that surround the eyes change the focus by lengthening or shortening the eyeball. He found that when he cut these muscles in animals, they could no longer focus.
Later, other researchers confirmed that the length of the eyeball can be an indicator of poor eyesight. For example, myopia is correlated with a slightly elongated eyeball, which means that the lens focuses light from distant objects slightly in front of the retina, rather than directly on it. But theories vary regarding why our eyeballs differ in length. According to Bates, the muscles tense in a certain way, causing the eye to change shape. Mainstream eye doctors say the eye changes shape mainly due to genetic differences, or because of a malformation that cannot be undone.
Bates developed a series of relaxation techniques for the eye muscles. He said it was crucial to move the eyes in the correct way. He quickly garnered an international following and started training people. But optometrists and eye doctors in the United States called him a charlatan and made him resign from his work at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School. However, his ideas continue to resonate and find followers, and they yield surprising results.
“It was his misfortune to have discovered the use of mental experience to train aspects of vision in an era before mainstream medicine accepted neuroplasticity,” Norman Doidge says about Bates. The Canadian psychiatrist on the faculties of both the University of Toronto and Columbia University, has written a number of popular books and is known as a worldwide expert in the field of neuroplasticity.
In his most recent book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, Doidge recounts the story of David Webber, who had almost lost his vision because of an autoimmune disease called uveitis, but by using the Bates Method and other techniques, such as visualization and the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education, he can now see again. He learned how to use his eyes, brain and body in a new and different way, regained his vision and astounded his physicians.
Doidge credits the restoration of Webber’s sight to “the plasticity of the visual system.” Neuroplasticity assumes that the brain is not a static mass—as once was thought—but rather that new links are constantly being made, due to changes in behavior, neural processes, thinking and emotions. Doidge admits that neuroplasticity research is in its early stages, but so far it seems to indicate that mind and body are far more connected than we thought.
Take visualization, for example, a fundamental part of the Bates Method. Bates would ask students to create a perfect image of a familiar object in their minds, before looking at that object. If you do that, he theorized, your eyes relax, because your brain already has a perfect image of the object, and there is no need to strain it. Bates often made use of the ways in which the eyes are connected to the brain in his relaxation techniques.
Doidge is convinced that Bates made a very valuable contribution to the way we look at the eye, he writes in his book. He also writes that he is concerned about how children today are learning to use their eyes, and especially the amount of time they are spending peering at screens. “Their peripheral vision is being underused. The unintended consequence of such devices, which don’t take our biology into account, is to take us further from the principles of natural vision necessary to preserve good eyesight.”
Ironically enough, various computer games are being developed to improve eyesight and train the brain, and they make use of the concept of neuroplasticity. Last year, UltimEyes, a game-based app that works on the brain’s visual cortex, was released onto the market. The game invites your eyes to work in ways they don’t in everyday life, and scientific research with baseball players as research subjects has shown that the game works. According to a study published in the journal Current Biology, “Players reported seeing the ball better, greater peripheral vision and an ability to distinguish lower-contrast objects.”
P… E… C… D…I squint my eyes and try as hard as I can to read the letters on the line. “Take a deep breath and move your attention to the back of your head,” Van der Hoeven advises me. That helps. Relaxation clears up those letters better than strain does.
Van der Hoeven does some tests with me first so that she’ll be able to tell me if I can improve my eyesight. In the past year, she followed a course in natural vision at the College of Vision Education in London. We are looking at the Snellen visual chart—the classic eye test—from 6 meters (20 feet) away. When someone can read the line of letters from a certain distance, eyesight is considered 20/20.
With my contact lenses in, I can read practically the whole chart. Only the last line is difficult. Van der Hoeven concludes that with contacts in, I can read from 6 meters what a person with healthy eyes can read from 4 meters. Conclusion: my lenses are too strong. This happens often, says Van der Hoeven. Opticians want to help you so much that they fit you with contact lenses that are too strong. That’s bad news, says Van der Hoeven, because it means my eye muscles are working too hard every day to match the strong lenses. This creates even more tension in my eyes.
Together with Van der Hoeven, I practice a few relaxation techniques that I will be able to start doing at home. One of the most important techniques in the Bates Method is palming—the eye muscle need this period of rest to be able to see better afterwards, he discovered. Just closing your eyes without cupping your hands over your eyes is usually not as effective, he said, because it still allows light to filter through your eyelids. Van der Hoeven explains how palming works, and ten minutes later my eyes feel very calm. We also practice some other techniques, like “sunning.”
In the end, I’ll need to teach myself good eye care habits, says Van der Hoeven, like going outside more often to give my eyes sunlight. Every time your eyes are in the sun, the photoreceptors necessary for good sight are stimulated. In addition, your pupils narrow, which is important for keeping the eye healthy. Blinking and moving your eyes, instead of staring, is also very important. Blinking improves the condition of your eye, by activating the tear ducts, among other things. As long as you keep your eyes open, your brain gets information to process. “A healthy eye blinks approximately 22 times per minute,” she tells me; “when you are sitting at a computer, that goes down to 7 times, while during reading it’s about 10 times.”
She thinks it’s quite likely I can improve my eyesight. But it’s a personal process for each person who does this, she says. “Seeing is actually receiving, without making an effort,” she says at the end of our conversation.
In the days after my visit with van der Hoeven, new questions keep popping up in my head. If this Bates Method works so well, how is it possible that it’s not better known, and that I, and millions of people like me, have been repeatedly fooled into going to the optometrist to be prescribed eyeglasses or contact lenses? I ask Esther van der Werf.
“It is still often seen as quackery,” she says. She knows that regular eye doctors and optometrists have little patience with the Bates Method. “I worked with a girl to straighten her strabismic eye, and when she visited her eye doctor again she was told she no longer needed to come back for check-ups as her eye was now consistently straight. The girl’s mother wanted to explain what had helped, but the doctor had no interest in hearing about it. I always wonder: Aren’t they curious about what happened?”
Ultimately, Van der Werf hopes that more people will become aware of the Bates Method. “It’s not natural to walk around with glasses your whole life,” she says. But we have been taught we have no control over our eyesight. Glasses are culturally accepted. But it’s the same as breaking your leg and using crutches the rest of your life.”
I’m going to continue spending a few hours without lenses every morning. You have to learn to accept the blur, Van der Werf has told me. We want perfect vision all the time, but as a result we’re losing touch with our natural vision.
“That blur,” she says, “you have to become friends with it. Think of it as a friendly reminder for you to relax.”
Elleke Bal decided to continue doing eye exercises to improve her sight. Why don’t you join her for the next three months? Share your experience at –Facebook.com/groups/optimisteyes. Look for an update in our next issue.
They can see clearly now
Two tales of regaining natural vision.
pharmacist in San Sebastián, Spain
“I was 6 years old when I started wearing glasses. I wore them alternately with contact lenses for almost 35 years. For most of my life, my eyes were simply there; I didn’t consider them a special part of my body. But suddenly my eyes got tired; I started having difficulties with wearing lenses. One day, a friend told me about the Bates Method. I couldn’t believe it. I was skeptical.
Everyone told me I should go for a laser surgery, but that was not an option for me—I didn’t want anybody to touch my eyes. So I decided to go for a Bates Method training weekend in Madrid. As soon as I started the course, they asked me to take out my contact lenses, which had a strength of –5. I felt like I was almost blind after doing that, it was really difficult. But the next day I started recognizing what I was able to see, instead of what I couldn’t see. I could recognize shapes, colors and movement. I was still able to see things that were close to me.
So I took the decision to leave out my lenses for the first few hours of every morning. I stopped wearing contact lenses and started using glasses, because I could easily take those off when I wanted to. I bought glasses with –4, and then later –3 and –2. After a few months, I noticed I had started wearing the glasses less. One day, I just forgot to put them on. And now I only wear glasses with –2 when I drive; otherwise, I go without glasses. And I’m fine!
Taking off the glasses has changed my life. For me, the capacity to see is related to my ability to relax and to let go. Eyes are part of the body, and if there is a constant strain on them, your body needs to make a constant effort to let them work. Letting go of this tension and strain is very valuable. What you gain is much more than just being able to live without glasses.”
M.D., in a rehabilitation center, Treviso, Italy
“In medical school, I’d already started looking up books in the library about holistic ways to treat the eyes. I was wearing glasses with a strength of –3, and I wanted to get rid of them. I found an Italian book about the Bates Method and I started doing some of the exercises, but I was distracted and stopped.
A few years later, I discovered that I couldn’t see the colors of the traffic lights anymore. I was shocked and started reading about the Bates Method again. I found a Bates teacher in Italy, and I started doing exercises, but I think I was trying too hard. The exercises gave me a lot of stress, and all the time I thought I wasn’t practicing hard enough.
Two years ago, I reread the Bates book again, this time in English. I contacted Bates teacher Esther van der Werf and I took some lessons with her over e-mail. Only at that point did I understand that I had some bad eye habits and that I had to replace them with good habits. Most important, I had to learn to relax my eye muscles. I learned that I had to become friends with the blur and release tension.
Right now, I don’t wear glasses anymore; clear vision comes to me in a natural way. Last year I renewed my driver’s license and discovered that I don’t have a prescription anymore. I’m free.” | Interviewed by Elleke Bal
Tips when visiting the optometrist
When you do need a new pair of glasses or contact lenses, you usually get your eyes measured first by an optometrist. The situation during these eye tests is often not optimal, says Kim van der Hoeven, a Bates Method teacher. It is important to get your eyes measured properly, though, so that you don’t get a prescription that is too strong. When your glasses or contacts are too strong, it puts stress on your eye muscles.
These are Van der Hoeven’s tips when visiting the optometrist:
The best time of day to have your eyes measured is in the morning. Your eyes are still rested from a good night’s sleep.
Don’t wear your glasses in the hours before your measurement—in sofar as this is possible and safe with your level of vision, of course. This will keep your eyes more relaxed.
It is important that the prescription not be too strong. Talk with the – optometrist about this, and make sure that you will get a prescription that is not stronger than it needs to be.
Try to avoid having your eyes measured in stressful periods. Stress creates tension, including in your eye muscles.
While examining your eyes, they will ask you to place your chin on a chin rest. Pay attention to keeping your neck straight so that there is no bend in your neck. This ensures better circulation.
Keep blinking and shifting your eyes and make sure your breathing is even and calm during the measurement.
Source (Dutch only): detoekomstvoorogen.nl