I got my first prescription glasses in 7th grade. My vision was 20/80 in each eye and it proceeded to decline with each new prescription. By the time I got to college, I could only read the top two lines on the eye chart. My prescription was 20/400. I was considered ‘legally blind’.
At college I stumbled across a flier advertising Bates Method natural vision recovery. I resonated with the idea and made an appointment.
In the first session, the teacher, Paul Anderson, explained some of the ideas behind natural vision recovery. It was clear to me that this was not just a theoretical idea, but rather something he had discovered from his own experience.
Paul asked me to take off my glasses and then asked me to count backwards from 20 to 1, two times. He then directed me to look at an eye chart on the wall 20 feet away. For just long enough to register what was happening I could read every letter on the bottom line of the eye chart (20/10), with sharp clarity!
Paul explained that all he had done was help me to take my mind out of its habitual state of strain.
As soon as I realized I was doing something that I normally ‘could not do’, my mind went into a state of confusion and my vision blurred again, reverting to a state where I could only read the top two lines of the eye chart.
Dr. William Bates (1860-1931), was an ophthalmologist whose approach ran counter to the economic interests of his professional field, which centered on prescribing glasses. His successes were ignored or vilified by his colleagues and he eventually lost his teaching position at a college of ophthalmology. Nonetheless, he continued to teach throughout his life, also publishing a regular magazine, “Better Eyesight,” to document his successes.
In my teacher’s view, Bates was widely misunderstood. He wasn’t teaching physical exercises to strengthen eye muscles. Paul’s direct experience and deep reading of Bates indicated that poor visual acuity was caused primarily by mental strain. The Bates exercises were a physical pathway to release this strain.
My brief experience of perfectly sharp vision made such an impression that I continued to see Paul and began a dedicated natural vision recovery practice. I resonated deeply with Paul’s perspective that encouraged cultivating an open, receptive and non-grasping mental state.
I quit wearing my glasses except when driving or at events like concerts or movies where enjoyment depended on my vision and not wearing them would have been stressful.
I had the most success with an exercise where I visualized a neutral object that had no emotional charge, like a letter of the alphabet. Paul said that when one could visualize an object perfectly, one could simultaneously see with perfect visual acuity because the same relaxed mental state was required for both.
After a couple weeks of daily practice I had another experience of sharp clear vision. Yet I often felt frustrated in my practice because these experiences were initially so few and far between as to have no apparent practical value. Paul told me I had much more deeply ingrained habits of mental strain than anyone he had worked with before. I too was aware that I lived with constant worries, mental intensity, rumination, and a sense of being everywhere but in the present.
My progress continued in a ‘two-steps-forward-and-one-step-backwards’ fashion. I would have periods of remarkable visual acuity, in the range of 20/20-20/40, followed by long periods where my vision reverted back to what it had been. After five years of regular practice I still could not produce sharp vision at will. It seemed there was no practical value to all the work I had done and I gave up in frustration.
A few months after quitting I began having spontaneous periods of sharp vision. I realized that my natural vision recovery practice “to release mental strain” had been so intense and driven that it had in itself been creating mental strain! This was a watershed moment.
I took up my practices again, but in a more gentle and exploratory way. Correspondingly, I began to have more frequent and prolonged experiences of sharp visual acuity.
Understanding the principles underlying the Bates Method, I began to develop my own vision recovery practices. I invented processes I enjoyed and which produced not only clear flashes but brought me more into a felt sense of presence and connection with the beauty of the world around me.
This trend continued towards more frequent and lasting periods of clear vision, but I still didn’t know how to make them last long enough to be of solid practical value. I then discovered the Feldenkrais Method while seeking help for a running injury, some twenty years after meeting Paul Anderson.
The application of Feldenkrais to vision recovery wasn’t immediately apparent to me, but I was immediately struck by how whole and connected I felt after a session of hands-on guided movement exploration, known as a Functional Integration. I was struck by the subtlety and gentleness of the practitioner’s touch. It seemed like magic that an input so small could produce such big changes in how I felt and moved.
I soon realized that I wanted to understand and embody this method more deeply, and enrolled in a professional Feldenkrais training in Boston. During the training I boarded in the home of Carole, a woman in her 70s who, as I learned one day, had regained her own sharp visual acuity naturally.
She told me she had worn glasses all her life, but in her 50s began to notice that when she first woke up in the morning she could sometimes see the tree leaves out her window sharply without her glasses. Then she began to take off her glasses in the garden, where she loved to work, again noticing that she could sometimes see clearly. So she wore her glasses less and less, and these spontaneously ‘clear flashes’ became more common.
When it was time to renew her driver’s license she decided to take her vision test without glasses. She passed the test and subsequently stopped wearing them altogether. When I met Carole she hadn’t worn her glasses for twenty years.
During the first two years of my training, I explored dozens of Awareness Through Movement lessons which Moshe Feldenkrais invented to explore and bring awareness to every imaginable aspect of human movement, including such unexpected explorations as sucking, praying, and, yes, eye movements. The lessons exploring vision often called for visualizations which I found particularly challenging. I felt frustrated by my sense of failure and the lack of any noticeable improvement of my eyesight. I shrugged this off, knowing from my Bates experience that vision recovery can’t be forced. I had not taken the training with that goal in mind, but rather as a way of learning to move with more ease and power and to develop a feeling of connection in the whole of myself, and I was making progress on that front.
I also soon came to understand that a fundamental premise of the Feldenkrais Method is that we function as an integrated system, not as disconnected parts. It made me realize that vision problems might be connected to unnecessary strain anywhere in the body, and not necessarily the eyes. I was therefore content to keep improving the quality of movement throughout my body, letting visual improvement happen in its own way and time.
In the third year of my training I did a lesson called “The Movement of the Eyes Organizes the Movement of the Body.” Over and over during the lesson, I experienced clear flashes of sharp vision. When I got up to walk around afterwards I had an extraordinary sense of seeing, feeling and moving in three dimensions, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was as if I’d only ever seen the world in two dimensions up to this point. This experience only lasted a few minutes, but it gave me a new awareness of the potential for vision and sensory integration through movement.
During the last years of my training, I began to have frequent and spontaneous periods of seeing with crisp clarity. It seemed to me that this must be the cumulative effect of the general improvements I was making. The Feldenkrais method was significantly enhancing the progress I had made in my natural vision recovery via the Bates method.
When I later read the wonderful biography, Moshe Feldenkrais, A Life in Movement, by Mark Reese, I learned that Feldenkrais had studied the work of William Bates.
According to Reese:
“The controversial but influential Bates, who the medical establishment excommunicated as a heretic, believed that corrective lenses were not the only, and not normally the best, means of correcting eyesight disorders. He found that he could improve his patients’ eyesight by improving their habits of seeing through relaxation and awareness exercises.
“[Bates] began teaching his methods around 1891… making him the first of the somatic pioneers…
The term “somatic”, Reese explains, refers to methods of self-improvement based on “the assumption that a human being has evolved as a self-regulating, self-correcting, and self-improving organism who can take over greater control of himself through ever greater somatic awareness…
“For Bates, seeing was an action of the whole person…Feldenkrais later taught many lessons about using the eyes that developed out of his experience of working with Bates’s ideas and method.”
By the end of my training my vision had improved enough that periods of sharp vision had become fairly frequent, and when I wanted to see something more clearly I could often do so by attuning my mindstate. I enjoyed being able to move about in the world with more confidence and less visual handicap. Finally, I was tasting the thrilling and rewarding fruit of my long journey to make sharp vision my normal state.
The newly emerging field of “behavioral optometry” now acknowledges and explores exactly what Bates was ostracized for proposing, i.e. that we see with our brain, not just the physical mechanism of our eyes, and that visual problems often arise from a brains difficulty in processing incoming information, or in other words what Bates had called ‘mental strain’.
If such strain is a primary cause of poor vision, we now live in a time when the propensity for such strain is exceptional, given the complexity of modern life, the speed of change, and the tsunamis of information we must process in order to function and adapt.
In my own experience, the Bates and Feldenkrais methods offer different but complementary paths, they both help in reducing strain, and aid in improving vision and our overall functioning.
When I began my journey, the idea of natural vision recovery was nothing short of wacky to most people. One close friend thought my talk of “clear flashes” was laughable. At the time these flashes were few and far between, and I couldn’t back up my conviction that they meant anything. I sucked up my humiliation at his amused responses and eventually quit bringing the topic up.
One day many years later, we were sitting in a restaurant. I pointed out the window at a car parked at a distance down the street and asked him, “Jim, can you read the license plate on that car?” He looked out the window then quizzically back at me. He wore glasses, and I wasn’t sure if he could read it himself.
“I can,” I said. And I read the license plate to him.
He looked back at me, and, conveying the most beautiful feeling of support and acknowledgement, he said, “I believe you can.”
Kevin Cassity is a private music teacher and Feldenkrais practitioner in Anchorage, Alaska. When he discovered Feldenkrais he had been making his living for 20 years and a river and wilderness guide and was inspired by the possibility of living and moving day to day in his body and his life with the same awareness, timing and “felt sense” of power and effortlessness he had learned to run rivers.
You can find out more about Kevin on his website: www.kevincassity.com