How can your pupils help you stretch?

by | Dec 4, 2023 | General Stretching

Several months ago, while listening to the “Huberman Lab” podcast, host and Harvard professor of Neuroscience and Ophthalmology Andrew Huberman was talking about how to induce states of relaxation. This discussion piqued my interest because one of the most important factors in achieving success in stretching is the ability to consciously relax. Muscles do not to want to be torn apart, and so many students, especially beginners, remain tense and anxious which increases muscle tone and is counterproductive.  To complicate things further, relaxation is not straightforward. We can’t just relax on demand very easily, and the instruction to “simply relax” isn’t always helpful. So as a teacher, I’m always on the lookout for cues and ideas that I can use to encourage and increase a student’s ability to relax.

Prof. Huberman talked about expanding one’s peripheral vision as a means of facilitating relaxation. As an example, he talked about watching a panoramic landscape and how this seems to be naturally very relaxing.

After further investigation, it turns out that Prof. Huberman was encouraging the utilization of the pupillary reflex to enhance relaxation. This reflex controls the diameter of the pupils in the eye. To be clear, the size of the pupils is not under voluntary control and Huberman was not suggesting that we master the ability to control our pupil size on demand. His advice was, for example, to “expand one’s peripheral vision to enable one to see more of ones body in ones filed of vision.”  This activity is intended to affect and modulate the balance of the autonomic nervous system. In particular, the goal is to tone down sympathetic activity, which is associated with increased arousal and to activate the parasympathetic system which is associated with relaxation. This, in turn, reduces muscle tone.

Although it seems counterintuitive, expanding one’s peripheral vision can narrow the pupils, (called “miosis”,) and is typically associated with parasympathetic nervous system activity, linked to a “rest and digest” or relaxed state. In contrast, dilation of the pupils, or mydriasis, is associated with the sympathetic nervous system’s activity, related to the “fight or flight” response. The result is increased alertness, more light entering the eye, stress, cortisol, and muscle tension.

In summary, expanding peripheral vision influences the autonomic nervous system, leading to parasympathetic activation, pupil constriction, and subsequently contributes to states of relaxation and reduced muscle tension.

The process goes something like this:

  • Peripheral Vision Expansion

Actively broadening peripheral vision involves a shift in attention, expanding awareness of the surroundings.

  • Parasympathetic activation

Broadening peripheral vision is associated with engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a “rest and digest” state.

  • Pupil Constriction (Miosis)

Parasympathetic dominance leads to pupil constriction (miosis), reducing the amount of light entering the eyes.

  • Relaxation Response

Pupil constriction contributes to an overall relaxation response, fostering a calmer physiological state.

  • Muscle Tension Reduction

The relaxation associated with parasympathetic activation and pupil constriction can lead to a reduction in muscle tension throughout the body.

Cueing peripheral vision practice in class

After nearly a year of exploring the concept of peripheral vision, my observation is that it is indeed effective. While clients may initially perceive the practice as unconventional, even a bit odd, a short explanation of its benefits followed by an encouraging invitation to try it is the most effective approach in a class setting. Those who trust in the process and give it a chance will experience firsthand a unique and potentially transformative practice.

Here are some teaching cues that can help encourage the expansion of peripheral vision:

Soft focus
Encourage participants to adopt a “soft focus” by avoiding a narrow, intense gaze. Instead, suggest they soften their gaze, allowing their vision to become more diffuse.

Wide angle vision
Use the analogy of “wide-angle vision” to convey the idea of seeing the entire scene rather than fixating on a specific point. This encourages a more inclusive awareness.

Awareness of surroundings
Prompt individuals to be aware of their surroundings beyond the immediate focal point. Ask them to notice objects, colours, or movements in their peripheral vision.

Gentle head movements
Introduce subtle head movements to expand the field of vision. Encourage participants to move their heads side to side or up and down while maintaining a relaxed gaze.

Peripheral scanning
Incorporate exercises that involve intentionally scanning the periphery. For example, ask participants to slowly scan the rise and fall of the abdomen out of the corner of their eye, as they hold a stretch.

A focus on the big picture
Encourage participants to focus on the overall scene rather than specific details. This can shift their attention away from a narrow, intense gaze to a broader, more relaxed awareness.

Relaxation cues
Use verbal cues associated with relaxation, such as “soften your gaze,” “expand your awareness,” or “let your vision be spacious.” If a student’s mat has colours or patterns, encourage them to lose focus on the pattern itself, so that it becomes more blurry in their field of vision.

Visualizing and expansive view
Guide individuals to mentally visualize a wide and open expanse. This visualization can help reinforce the concept of expanding peripheral vision.

Here’s an example:

“Allow your gaze to soften and encompass the entire scene. Let your eyes relax without fixating on any particular point. It’s not about zoning out but rather expanding your awareness to take in the broader environment. Feel the spaciousness of your vision, noticing details in your periphery without the need for intense focus.”

And finally, the tendency to “fixation”

The eyes have a natural tendency to focus on objects, a phenomenon known as fixation. Fixation is the process by which the eyes direct their gaze toward a specific point, allowing for detailed and sharp visual information. This ability is crucial for activities such as reading, recognizing faces, and examining fine details.

The desire to focus on objects is a part of the visual system’s normal functioning. While the eyes naturally prioritize fixation for detailed tasks, they can also adapt to a softer, more peripheral focus for a broader awareness. Indeed, an ability to balance focused attention with an awareness of the surrounding environment can be developed during class.

When encouraging individuals to expand their peripheral vision, the goal is not to eliminate the natural instinct to focus but to foster an awareness that extends beyond the point of fixation. This broader awareness can enhance overall mindfulness, relaxation, and a sense of the surrounding space. It’s about finding a balance between focused attention and an open, inclusive awareness of the periphery.