Certified Bates Method and yoga teacher Nathan Oxenfeld wore glasses and contacts for 15 years before improving his vision holistically. He authored Give Up Your Glasses for Good: Holistic Eyesore for the 21st Century in early 2015 and completed a three-month book tour in which he taught vision improvement workshops in dozens of cities across the country. In the few years he has been teaching the Bates Method, he has helped several dozen people of all ages with all types of vision problems decrease dependency on artificial lenses and increase inner and outer clarity naturally. He works with people in person where he is based, in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as with people all over the world online via Skype. He launched The Naked Eye Podcast in 2015 and offers lots of free instructional Bates Method 101 videos on YouTube.
Nathan, please set the scene for readers by describing your path to going lenses free. Also, how did you learn about the Bates Method and how long did it take you to achieve 20/20 vision?
Nathan Oxenfeld: I got my first pair of glasses at about age 10 for myopia. I wore glasses in elementary school and then got contacts in middle school and wore both all through high school and college until I learned about the Bates Method in 2010. A friend of mine was wearing a pair of pinhole glasses, and when I asked him about them he proceeded to tell me that he was improving his vision naturally using the Bates Method. I had no idea there was anything I could do to improve my vision, so I quickly became very interested. I read as many books as I could about the Bates Method, including Dr. Bates’ book Perfect Sight Without Glasses. All these books got me started on the path to becoming glasses-free.
For about two years, I researched and dabbled in the practices I learned from books. Even though I wasn’t practicing it regularly, I still made improvement. The next time I went to my eye doctor, my eyes tested at –2.0 each instead of the –3.5 and –3.75 I started with. This initial gain brought even more encouragement and confidence, which motivated me to get some additional help from a professional Bates Method teacher. After extensive research online, I found my vision teacher, Dr. Jerriann Taber, based out of the San Diego area. After working with her for about six months online via Skype, I was able to read all the way down to the 20/20 line on my eye chart without any glasses. I noticed a big difference between doing it by myself versus having the guidance and accountability of a coach, so I decided to go through Dr. Taber’s teacher training program myself to help assist other people improve their vision in a fast and efficient way.
Please describe the Bates Method, lending a view to its history, and how it works. Also, discuss your approach to the Bates Method—mixing meditation, yoga and affirmations—and the success you’re helping vision seekers find.
Nathan Oxenfeld: The Bates Method was developed by the American ophthalmologist Dr. William Bates in the early 20th century. Dr. Bates started off as an orthodox eye doctor and surgeon in New York City, eventually becoming a prominent authority in his field. However, the more he prescribed glasses, the more he saw his patients’ vision getting worse over time. I experienced that exact phenomenon—each time I went back to the eye doctor, I left with slightly stronger prescriptions. Dr. Bates saw that the glasses were not a good medicine for the eyes because they were simply treating the symptoms of vision problems instead of addressing their underlying root causes. So he set out to discover what is causing all the vision problems, and the conclusion he came to was strain. Mental and physical stress and strain are the precursors to all types of vision issues, including nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and even more serious issues like glaucoma, cataracts, strabismus and macular degeneration. Strain in the mind leads to strain in the visual system and the muscles inside and around the eye organs that help the eye accommodate or focus. Strain can also constrict circulation, lymph flow and nutrient absorption in the eyes.
Bates didn’t want to find out only what caused vision problems but what relieved them. He found that the best way to treat vision problems was with relaxation. Mental and physical relaxation allows the eyes to heal and come back into balance, and the visual system becomes automatic again, just like all the other special senses. So the Bates Method in a nutshell is that strain is the cause, and relaxation is the remedy. The Bates Method works by removing prescription lenses, learning how to relax the eyes and mind, get the eyes to access more fluid and rapid movement, and learn a new way to see the world with just the naked eyes. In Dr. Bates’ time, he recommended that if you wanted to improve your vision, you had to throw away your glasses, but nowadays, it’s a better idea to wean off glasses gradually and gently. So you go without your glasses as much as you can, especially while doing the relaxation and vision-training practices from the Bates Method and wear slightly weaker prescription glasses when you need some assistance, and in a matter of weeks or months, your vision will sharpen, and you can drop down to even weaker glasses. It’s very simple when you think about it like physical therapy for your eyes. As long as you are relying on the “eye crutches,” your eyes will not be able to heal and strengthen. The rest of your body heals, why not your eyes?
My approach is based heavily on the original Bates Method that I learned from my vision teacher, who is in direct teaching lineage of Dr. Bates himself. However, I am also a certified yoga instructor, so I also like to infuse elements of other self-healing practices to accompany the Bates Method practices. I didn’t use only the Bates Method to heal my own eyes. I used a combination of the Bates Method, yoga, meditation, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, Alexander Technique, tai chi, qigong as well as diet and nutrition.
It has been so inspiring to see my students succeeding with the Bates Method. When I get e-mails from previous and current students who are starting to see clearly again without glasses and passing their drivers’ license tests without glasses, it feels very gratifying and reaffirming that this simple practice really does work.
About three-fourths of American adults require glasses or contact lenses—and we’re the only species requiring vision aids. Why do we need corrective lenses, and is our eyesight worsening with each passing generation?
Nathan Oxenfeld: Yes, the problem is not only the rising numbers of people getting glasses but that wearing glasses is considered more and more normal and expected. Even just 50 years ago, if you wore glasses in school, you would get ridiculed and called “four eyes.” Since then, they have become quite fashionable, and we see more and more people of authority wearing glasses. It’s dangerous when it becomes normal and widespread because then fewer people question them. When people do question them, the answer they get from their eye doctor is usually not satisfactory. They usually just say that your eyeball is too short or too long and that there’s nothing you can do about it. They just expect you to accept the lifelong sentence of glasses or contacts. But it’s not normal.
You make a good observation that humans are the only species to use vision aids. Humans stand out from other species in many ways, all of which probably contribute to the vision loss our species is experiencing. Dr. Bates helped people understand that vision problems were functional, not hereditary. In other words, vision problems often develop based on how the eyes are used every day. Bad vision habits like squinting, staring and straining accumulate over the years, and the vision deteriorates. Our modern society does not promote good vision habits. Most of our daily activities keep our attention and focus up close, on cell phones, tablets, computers, books and even everyday activities like cooking, cleaning and conversing with friends. Our ancestors used to balance their near and far vision. They spent more time outdoors, exposed to healthy amounts of full-spectrum ultraviolet light from the sun. They were more in tune with nature and her rhythmic cycles, waking up and sleeping with the sun’s patterns. Today, we ignore nature’s rhythms, sleeping in and staying up well past sunset using artificial lights. We spend more time indoors in general and starve our eyes and bodies from the trace amount of ultraviolet sunlight they need. We stare at screens for hours at a time and rarely look far off into the distance. I do believe as our modern society speeds up even faster and stresses mount even higher, we will continue to see more vision problems in future generations. Whenever I see a young child with his or her eyes glued to an iPad 4 inches from his or her face, it makes me cringe. When I was that age, I was outside playing in the sunshine, using my imagination.
Computer and, lately, smartphone and tablet use causes quite a bit of eye strain. How much screen time is acceptable, and are these razor-sharp screens with ever more tightly packed pixels better for our eyes than old 640×480 cathode ray tube monitors?
Nathan Oxenfeld: This is a topic that Dr. Bates didn’t have to deal with, but he did provide valuable insights into how to make reading a vision-building practice instead of a vision-deteriorating practice. So it’s not necessarily the screens themselves that are causing harm to the eyes but rather how we use the screens. It’s the fact that we hold the eyes at one distance for too long that leads to eyestrain and fatigue. If you practice the 20–20–20 rule (every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet or farther for 20 seconds or longer), you can work longer on your computer without your eyes feeling so drained. I do think that the higher-resolution and better-technological displays are more agreeable to the eyes than the old monitors, but you still want to be mindful of how long you’re looking at them, no matter how beautiful they may look. A colleague of mine completed a master’s degree studying Computer vision syndrome, which is characterized by dry eyes, red eyes, eyestrain and blurry vision. He found that just two hours of computer time a day could be harmful to the eyes—not to mention eight hours a day if your work is computer-based. Luckily though, he also found that practicing relaxing eye exercises can help counteract that damage and restore the vision.
One of the things I enjoy about your book as well as my vision-training lessons with you is that everything builds neatly, kind of like mathematics. Describe how foundations such as tapping and acupressure points as well as sunning, the long swing and convergence and divergence games all lead up to exercising eyes by reading letters from charts. This chartplay, as you well know, is producing the best results in me.
Nathan Oxenfeld: Dr. Bates taught that one of the best ways to maintain and improve vision was to read fine print up close and far away. The way we practice that is by reading tiny letters up close and tiny letters in the distance. However, if those tiny letters look blurry, you may be tempted to squint or strain to read them. This is not the correct way to practice. This entire process is learning a new way to focus through relaxation. So before you reach the stage of practicing relaxing while reading fine print, you want to make sure you’re really good at relaxing in general. So the beginning practices in the book like you mentioned are designed to get your eyes and mind “warmed up” for the reading practices. Once you spend a few weeks practicing the basics of relaxation, by the time you begin reading charts, your eyes and mind will be much better suited to see the words more clearly.
Since starting my Bates Method eyesight improvement lessons in September 2014, the biggest challenges I’ve faced are going lenses free to give myself a chance to get acclimated and sticking to chartplay every day or practically every day. I finally achieved the former, thanks to a two-week vacation in July, and renewed my commitment to chart exercises in late September. Are these challenges common in many clients you’ve worked with?
Nathan Oxenfeld: Yes, you are not the only one! Many of my students struggle with going glasses-free and also find it difficult to fit daily practices into their busy routines. Part of my job is to coach people through those challenges that come up during the transition from glasses to no glasses. Typically, the stronger your glasses, the harder it usually is to go without them, especially if your work or school requires sharp vision. That’s why it’s usually easier to wean off glasses instead of just throwing them away. By wearing weaker prescriptions, you’re still getting some assistance from the lenses, but they’re not totally taking the job away from your eyes, so they still get to work a little. In an ideal world, you’d be able to put everything on hold and focus 100 percent on healing your vision and return to reality once you’re seeing clearly again. However, that’s not very feasible for many people. We all lead busy and sometimes stressful lives that rarely allow us to take a breather let alone focus on bettering ourselves. My goal as a Bates Method teacher, though, is to show you how simple it can be to incorporate a few simple practices and principles into your pre-existing daily habits.
I’ll never forget some of the earliest “flashes,” moments when I can see with clarity beyond my current lenses-free state of vision. Can you lend insight on what these brief occurrences are and how they serve as precursors to what’s to come to a Bates Method practitioner?
Nathan Oxenfeld: Absolutely. Clear flashes are moments of temporary improvement in your vision. All of a sudden, you won’t be wearing glasses or contacts but will catch a very clear glimpse of something that is normally in your “blur zone.” At first, they are very temporary and last only a second or two before fading back to blurry. With practice, though, you can start to get more comfortable with the clarity and allow them to stick around for five seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a few minutes and then a few hours until that clear flash doesn’t really go away and becomes your new way of seeing the world. The flashes come about when your entire visual system relaxes and harmonizes. Your eyeballs assume the proper shape, your lens curves perfectly, your retina receives the light and the signal gets successfully transported to the visual cortex in the back of the brain. Clear flashes are exactly what we are working toward by practicing the Bates Method, and they are little previews of where you are headed as you continue practicing. People often experience their first flashes of clarity within the first few weeks of practicing, but their permanence doesn’t usually set in until a few months into the practice.
Many Fruit-Powered Magazine readers are exploring, transitioning to or leading a raw food diet. Discuss how healthful diet factors into our vision and efforts to improve eyesight.
Nathan Oxenfeld: Diet, nutrition and supplementation all play a major role in improving your vision. You can be practicing all the positive Bates Method principles, but if you are eating or drinking poorly, you hold yourself back from fully healing. The eyes are connected to the rest of the body, so we need to heal the entire body. And by eating the right foods, you nourish your eyes from within, speeding up the entire healing process. I always advise my students to cut back on sugary, processed foods and alcohol because both have negative effects on vision. Eating eye-healthy foods like dark leafy greens, bright-orange veggies and antioxidant-rich berries makes sure all the parts of your eyes are getting the vitamins and minerals they need to function optimally. There are also lots of eye-related supplements available that can help boost eye health as well that provide lutein and zeaxanthin. And don’t forget about the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D, by drinking some sunshine through your eyes and skin!
After making serious strides with my vision in July, once I was back to work, with glasses-free eyes just inches from a computer screen, I felt my progress come undone rather quickly, especially considering it took me longer to work, making me miss chartplay. After several weeks of stumbling—practicing the morning drills but failing on chartplay—I hit a moment in late September when I was about 4 inches from my computer screen and thought my vision had never been worse. This turned out to be the defining moment of my journey so far. I readjusted my schedule, committed to chartplay and began making progress quickly, helping me pick up where I left off in about a week. Talk about this “muscle memory” in our eyes.
Nathan Oxenfeld: I’ve seen this in many of my students. We’ll take a break from lessons or they will fall out of practice for a few weeks or months and seem to lose some of the gains they made. However, right upon picking back up where we left off, the eyes quickly sharpen back up. Your eyes prefer to see clearly. Seeing clearly not only relaxes the eyes but also brings a sense of ease and peace throughout the entire body and mind. Your eyes and mind don’t want to go back to blurry vision. So they will jump on the opportunity to go back to clarity very quickly once you start practicing again.
Thin white line reading has reinvented how I look at a page of text. How does this technique eliminate strain and how has it enabled you to read for longer periods and faster?
Nathan Oxenfeld: Dr. Bates taught a new type of reading called “thin white line reading,” or “strain-proof reading,” which involves looking at the white spaces between the lines instead of at the lines themselves. At first, this may feel awkward since you’ve been reading while looking at the letters and words your whole life. However, keeping your attention and focus at the foot of the letters proves to be more relaxing and less fatiguing. The idea is that it takes no effort to focus on a plain white background. Only when you try to look at the black ink on top of the white background does eyestrain start to creep up. If you pivot your head and point with your nose as you slide from left margin to right margin underneath the letters, you may actually start to perceive an imaginary thin white line traveling along with you. Imagination of that thin white line improves reading ability and clarity at the near point if you are farsighted.
It can also help stretch your clarity out farther into the distance if you are nearsighted. You can look for the thin white line on an eye chart across the room instead of trying to make out what the black letters are. At first, thin white line reading is pretty slow because your comprehension levels will be low since you’re not used to reading words by not looking directly at them. But as you get better at it, you can start to speed up and eventually speed read. Another element of thin white line reading is building tiny little resting periods into your reading. So at the end of each paragraph or page, close your eyes and imagine the last word read in your mind. You take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed and then open your eyes back up on that last word. Often times, after resting and breathing, you will see the word more clearly than before you closed. This way, you relax throughout your reading and rest your eyes before they feel tired.
Palming has enhanced my meditation practice and helped me relax much more quickly. How does this method help our brains quiet down? Compare and contrast what our eyes experience when palming and sleeping.
Nathan Oxenfeld: Palming is when you cup your hands and place them over your closed eyes in order to block out all the light and generate warmth to soothe the eye muscles. For me, palming helped me access a calm, meditative mind state faster than if my eyes were just closed. The total darkness gives your optic nerves, which are constantly being stimulated, a brief rest. Your eyes are extensions of your brain, so when you gently cover them up with your palms, it sends a calm feeling of relaxation right into the central nervous system. Many people do not realize how taxing eyestrain is on the entire nervous system. Palming immediately decreases eyestrain, freeing up a lot of tension being stored in the eyes and mind. That freedom allows more spaciousness and a greater sense of ease. The lack of any type of visual distraction allows the mind to focus very deeply. You just want to make sure your arms are comfortable to sit in a meditation posture, so prop a blanket or cushion under your elbows to support your arms.
Lots of people ask what the difference between palming and sleeping is because one would think the eyes get plenty of rest overnight. However, Dr. Bates discovered that people who have eyestrain during the day carry it over into the night, sometimes even increasing eyestrain while sleeping. It’s kind of like people who grind their teeth at night. Unless you are sleeping in a totally pitch black room, your eyes and optic nerves don’t totally relax. Any type of ambient light, whether coming from a streetlight outside or from electronic devices inside, disturbs the eyes’ rest. The darkness you can achieve in palming is oftentimes darker than the room you sleep in, so your eyes actually relax more when palming than when sleeping. The other missing element is the hands. The skin-to-skin contact and energy flow from the centers of the palms provides an extra level of healing that is not happening while sleeping.
Lots of folks with various eye conditions—from astigmatism and cataracts to glaucoma and double vision—would want to know whether they can achieve eyesight improvement. Are there any eye conditions that cannot be improved using the Bates Method? How about those who’ve had any kind of surgery on their eyes?
Nathan Oxenfeld: The greatest thing about the Bates Method is that it benefits virtually all vision problems. Nearly all vision problems can be traced back to the same underlying root cause of strain, so when that strain gets removed, the eyes start to harmonize and heal, and the health of the eyes comes closer back into balance. The Bates Method is most commonly used for basic functional vision problems like nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism but is also extremely effective in helping with lazy eye (strabismus, amblyopia), double vision (diplopia) and even cataracts and glaucoma, if they are in the early stages of development. Even if someone has had cataract surgery or laser eye surgery, he or she can still boost his or her overall eye health by practicing the Bates Method. I’ve actually worked with several people who have had the LASIK or PRK procedures and are now starting to notice that fading and their vision returning to the blur they had before. Addressing the root cause holistically allows them to sharpen their vision back up.
I’m sure everyone raring to practice the Bates Method wants to know how long it’ll take him or her to achieve perfect vision. I understand many factors play a role in achieving success, but will you provide a few examples so folks have time frames to look forward to when they embark on their journeys to eyesight improvement?
Nathan Oxenfeld: Sure, like I said, I practiced for about two years on my own and then about six months with the help of my teacher to go from –3.50 myopia and astigmatism to reading 20/20 without glasses. Since beginning to teach vision lessons, I’ve worked with more than 70 people and have seen varying results from everyone. Everyone responds differently to the Bates Method, and no two people restore their vision in the same time frame. One of my Skype students in the U.K. is showing tremendous improvements in just the first three weeks. She’s already gone back to her older, weaker pair of glasses and is starting to see her eye chart clearly without any glasses. Another one of my students has been working at it for two years and is showing good signs of improvement, but it’s just taking longer for her. Various factors include but are not limited to: age, occupation, diet, type of vision problem, strength of glasses, how long glasses have been worn and discipline. Typically, my students who do their homework and build a solid daily vision routine experience improvements faster than my students who slack on their home practices or have trouble spending time without glasses.
A unique stretch and gentle-exercise program, the Egoscue Method [see the Fruit-Powered Life Force Center‘s Posture Exercises Method to learn about Brian Rossiter‘s service] enabled me to reverse a decade of chronic pain and get into the best shape of my life. It is for life, however, meaning that I must practice my posture exercises daily because discomfort sets in without my completing specific exercises. Does the Bates Method require a daily lifelong commitment or occasional tune-ups if eyesight improvement gains are to be kept?
Nathan Oxenfeld: That’s a great question. It’s important to point out that the Bates Method is not just a set of eye exercises designed to strengthen the eye muscles. Vision problems exist because the eye muscles are already too strained, too tight and too tense. By practicing the Bates Method, you are encouraging those tight eye muscles to loosen and relax. So it’s not like going to a gym. If you go to the gym for a few months and build up a bunch of muscle mass and then stop going, you’ll lose that muscle mass over time. But the improvements you achieve through relaxing your eye muscles do not fade away. However, it often takes several months of near-daily frequency to get to the point where you don’t need to repeat the practices every day. Even though it’s not necessary to repeat the practices every day, once you improve your vision to a certain point, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to do occasional tune-ups. I remember when I first learned about the Bates Method, I viewed it as a lifelong endeavor. I thought to myself, “I can either wear glasses for the rest of my life or I can do a few simple relaxing exercises for the rest of my life,” and I’m glad I chose the latter.
For those with vision so sharp they can see clearly with the naked eye, do you suggest any eyesight improvement program to ensure they maintain their vision?
Nathan Oxenfeld: Yes, the Bates Method is an excellent way to maintain clear vision as you age. Although most people use the Bates Method as a way to reverse vision problems, it would actually be ideal to use it to prevent vision problems before they even form. Ideally, these simple vision habits would be taught to children early in school as they are learning visually demanding tasks like reading and writing. Unfortunately, many children develop bad vision habits that lead to blur and get fitted for glasses before any natural interventions are considered. Preserving clear vision isn’t the only incentive for practicing the Bates Method, though, because the positive side effects of the Bates Method go well beyond just the eyes. People who already have clear vision can still use vision training to improve their memory, balance, mental focus and overall brain functioning—not to mention the Bates Method’s ability to lower stress levels and adapt to stress better. Everyone, regardless of their vision, could use a little relaxation in their lives.