The Eyes Have It


By Roger Cole  |  

In yoga we choose our body position to shape our consciousness. Sometimes we opt for the adrenalized heights of a vigorous backbend, while other times we prefer the swaddled depths of a well-propped Savasana (Corpse Pose). Quite often we aim for the middle, halfway between flat-out action and flat-out rest.

In this middle place there exists a deliciously balanced state of mind, poised between acting and withdrawing. It’s focused; alert without being agitated; quiet without being dull; crisply aware; fully awake; and clear, clean, and present. You’re probably familiar with one of the most efficient ways to get there: Sit quietly, direct your eyes downward at a comfortable angle, gaze steadily at a single spot, and breathe smoothly. What you may not know is that the position of your eyelids can play a major role in making this practice work. By lowering them just the right amount, you actually change your physiology in a way that helps calm and center you.

When you open your eyes, two different muscles work together to elevate the upper lids: the levator palpebrae superioris and the superior tarsal muscle. Neither one of them is strong enough to lift the eyelid all the way, so if either is weak or paralyzed, the lid will droop. The levator palpebrae is under your voluntary control. You can choose to activate it to open your eyes in much the same way that you can choose to activate the muscles of your hands and forearms to open your fists. The superior tarsal muscle is controlled by your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that automatically prepares your body for action), so it’s ordinarily not under your direct control.

These two muscles work together in response to your physiological state. When you are highly excited or agitated, your hyperalert mind strongly activates voluntary muscles throughout your body, including your levator palpebrae muscles, which make your eyes open wide. Meanwhile, your active mental state fires up your sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates your superior tarsal muscles to involuntarily open your eyes even wider. Conversely, when you fall asleep, you lose consciousness, so the voluntary part of your nervous system stops telling your levator palpebrae muscles to lift your upper eyelids. At the same time, your mind stops stoking your sympathetic nervous system, so your superior tarsal muscles gradually release their grip, the lids fall shut, and you drift off into a state of sweet slumber.
When you enter a balanced state of calm alertness, dwelling in the middle ground between unbridled activity and unconscious torpor, your eyelids naturally gravitate toward a place between fully open and fully closed. Their semilifted, semidropped position reflects the semiactive, semipassive disposition of the mind.

Create Conditions for Calm

If the natural position of the upper eyelids in a tranquil, awakened state of mind is partly lifted and partly lowered, does this mean that deliberately placing and holding them there can actually help put you into this state? According to yoga and other ancient meditative traditions, the answer is yes. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends gazing at the tip of the nose while seated in Padmasana (Lotus Pose). An old Chinese text, the T’ai I Chin Hua Tsun Chih (The Secret of the Golden Flower), recommends a nearly identical practice, and explains it as follows:

“The two founders of Buddhism and Taoism have taught that one should look at the tip of one’s nose … The nose must serve the eyes as a guideline…But when the eyes are opened too wide, one makes the mistake of directing them outward, whereby one is easily distracted. If they are closed too much, one makes the mistake of letting them turn inward, whereby one easily sinks into a dreamy reverie. Only when the eyelids are lowered properly halfway is the tip of the nose seen in just the right way. The main thing is to lower the eyelids in the right way.”

The Chinese authors attribute the mind-centering power of the downward gaze to the fact that it restricts the meditator’s field of view, so that it’s not too distracting and it’s not too sedating. This is undoubtedly important, but lowering the gaze also triggers a reflex that lowers the upper eyelids, so part of its power probably stems from its effects on the nerves that control the lids. Here’s how it works. Imagine that your nervous system is excessively active, drawing your eyes wide open. If you then gaze downward at an angle, the reflex lowers the lids by partially relaxing the two eyelid-lifting muscles. It relaxes the muscles by quieting the voluntary and sympathetic nerves that tense them. A side benefit of soothing these nerves is that it makes you feel more at ease and reduces your overall level of physiological activation.

Conversely, lifting your eyelids from the closed to the half-open position can help awaken an underactive mind and body. If you’re feeling sluggish and you force yourself to open your eyes even partway, you will increase the total tension on the two eyelid-lifting muscles. The voluntary effort you exert will prod your mind gently toward wakefulness, and it will probably also indirectly stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, which will help open your eyes and send activating effects throughout your body. However, it’s easier to use the technique to induce a quiet, alert state of mind if you start out overexcited rather than sluggish and sleepy. If you need to calm your overactive mind, all you have to do is look down at a prescribed angle, which automatically lowers your lids just the right amount; then discipline yourself to wait long enough for the physiological benefits to manifest themselves. To rouse yourself from torpor, on the other hand, you have to make a strong voluntary effort to lift your eyelids, but the starting state of mental dullness itself makes it difficult to mount this effort. The ancients recognized this. The authors of The Secret of the Golden Flower said that during eyes-down meditation, “Distraction is much easier to correct than indolence.” They recommended using walking and breathing to dispel drowsiness.

This illustrates another crucial practical point: As powerful as it is, the meditative technique of lowering the eyes was never intended to be practiced on its own. It’s best to combine it with sitting and breathing. This makes excellent physiological sense. An upright, seated position naturally lends itself to quiet, alert consciousness because it centers you squarely between the stimulating effects of standing and the soporific effects of lying down. Likewise, a breathing practice that equalizes the length of inhalations and exhalations can promote balance between stimulating and calming influences.

Lower Your Lids

You can enhance your eyes-down meditation by taking heed of two additional points about breathing. First, you may have to make a conscious effort to hold your eyes at a fixed, downward angle on each in-breath because, as B.K.S. Iyengar observed, your eyes tend to unconsciously turn upward on the inhale. Second, you may also need to consciously release the eyelids down as you inhale so that they don’t lift involuntarily. Every time you breath in, it stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, which might subtly activate the superior tarsal muscles, causing the upper eyelids to creep slightly higher.

Here’s how to integrate all this information into a simple eyes-down meditation. Choose a time of day when you are not sleepy. Sit quietly, preferably in a cross-legged or kneeling pose, with your pelvis and spine upright. Keep your head in line with your spine. Place your palms together, pull your thumbs about 90 degrees away from your hands, and place the base of each thumb at the base of the breastbone. Without bowing your head, and moving only your eyes, look downward briefly at the tips of your middle fingers; then shift your gaze just slightly above the tips to find a spot on the floor within that line of gaze. One you’ve found the spot, lower your hands and rest them in your lap or on your legs. Gaze steadily at the spot without wavering at all. Breathe smoothly and evenly, taking special care to prevent the eyes or eyelids from lifting during the inhalations. You may blink as needed, but keep your angle of gaze constant; this will automatically return your lids to their previous level.

The first few times you try this practice, simply continue until you succeed in holding your eyes and lids perfectly steady for 10 breaths, then stop and take stock of how you feel. If you look in the mirror, even after this short practice, you may find that your eyes look pleasantly relaxed, and their upper lids rest slightly lower than they did before you started. This is a sign that the practice is working. Over time, work your way up gradually until you can sustain the practice for 20 minutes or more. When you’ve got it just right, you won’t have to look in the mirror to know whether it is working. Your own sense of clarity, ease, and joy will tell you all you need to know.

Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He trains yoga teachers and students in the anatomy, physiology, and practice of asana and Pranayama. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.