Are you suffering from frequent tension headaches, maybe accompanied by blurred vision? Or just a sense of tension around your eyes? Good news: There is a simple way to get relief for your tension headaches that you can do in just a few minutes by taming your occipitofrontalis.
The occipitofrontalis muscle runs across the head. It is constructed of three components, the frontalis muscle, the occipitalis muscle, and the galea aponeurotica. The latter is a large tendon that connects the occipitalis in the back of your skull with the frontalis, running from the top of the head and inserting in the superficial fascia of the fascial muscles and the area above our eyebrows.
It’s basically the muscle that raises your eyebrows and wrinkles up your forehead and creates fascial expressions in the upper part of the head. And it is often very tense, contributing to tension headaches, migraines and blurred vision.
Follow the mini massage in the video below to release any muscle tension around your eyes. If you don’t have massage balls, you can simply use your fingers.
Close your eyes, and breathe into your belly to activate the relaxation response. Make sure your elbows are supported so you can relax your shoulders while you massage the frontalis muscle.
Massage along the ridge of eyebrows either with your middle finger, index finger or with several fingers together by making small circles, applying gentle pressure. If you have massage balls, place one ball at the inner edge of your eyebrow and then wind it up a bit in a spinning motion. This will gather up your myofascial tissues, creating a deep massage action and increasing blood flow to your eyes.
Move from the inner eyebrow toward the temples, by picking a new spot to massage.
When you reach the temples, spin the ball or press your finger into your temporalis muscle with a circular motion. You can open and close the jaw to create a deeper massage action.
Then spin the ball the other way, or circle your fingers in the other direction and move backwards along the ridge of the eyebrows.
We paradoxically often have a hard time relaxing. Not just when sitting or lying down to palm our eyes, but in daily life as well. We get wound up about about another driver cutting us off in traffic and stress about the small and big stuff that gets thrown at us every day. This is were belly breath can help you to get to deep relaxation instantly.
Without going too much into anatomy, here some basics to help you understand why we get so easily stressed out and how to avoid that trap.
Our autonomous nervous system had two main components, the sympathetic system also known as “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic system often referred to as “rest and digest”, aka relaxation.
Flight or flight is important when we face real danger. It stops the digestive tract, widens the pupils, increases the heart rate and blood pressure, flows oxygen into the muscles and tenses them up to get ready to run or fight off an offender. We automatically start to breathe more into the chest.
Unfortunately we tend to get stuck in that sympathetic nervous system response even when danger is over or when there was no danger in the first place, just daily stressful situations. This causes digestive problems, blurry vision, tension in neck, shoulders and head, increased blood pressure, shallow chest breathing and so on.
So how can we keep calm and carry on? The key is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The main nerve responsible for this activation is the vagus nerve, which has been getting more attention from the scientific community in recent years. It communicates with the thyroid, adrenal glands, intestines, pancreas, gall bladder, heart, and brain. It’s a very long nerve, connecting the base of the brain stem with the viscera, our “gut”. In fact, some scientists refer to the gut as the “second brain” because of this connection. We say “gut feeling” for a reason! My younger daughter rightfully proclaimed as a five-year-old that her secret power source is in her belly.
The vagus nerve gets stimulated in a number of ways, one of which is the movement of the diaphragm down into the abdominal cavity on a deep abdominal inhale. When you do this deep belly breath, it will automatically expand outwards and contracts back on the exhale, when the diaphragm moves back up into the ribcage. You can imagine the diaphragm like a dome tent where there is no breath after the exhale. It’s attached to the lower six ribs. On a deep inhale, the diaphragm tent flips upside down, creating a bowl shape. And therefore creating a big space for the lungs to expand into the flexible rib cage.
If your stomach and belly are tight from holding stress and tension, or maybe from overexercising the abs, having them always sucked in (as we were taught as kids, especially girls), your diaphragm has no space to go and you will automatically breathe more shallowly into the chest. And with that activating the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system. It’s a devils circle.
The following Yoga Tune Up® ball sequence will massage your belly, the internal organs, activate the vagus nerve and teach you belly breath. It will also remove any tension you might carry in your abdomen. You will need either a Yoga Tune Up® Coregeous ball, or a soft and grippy exercise ball that is not inflated too much.
1. Lie down on your mat or floor. Place the ball underneath your navel and gently lower yourself down. Check how the pressure of the ball feels. If it hurts or feels very uncomfortable, do this sequence at the wall. If on the floor, either support yourself on your forearms in a sphinx like yoga position, or come all the way down and let your forehead rest on the floor.
2. After a few initial breaths, do five contract and relax breaths. To do so, inhale deeply into your belly only, so that your lower body lifts off the ball. Hold this for a few seconds, then exhale sharply, letting the ball sink deeper in to your abdomen. If possible, create a small break between the bottom of your exhale and the next deep abdominal inhale. You might notice, that each exhale relaxes your abdomen more, letting you sink deeper into the ball after each breath.
3. Move the ball to another spot on your abdomen and repeat the five contract & relax breaths there. You might notice more tension in the stomach area or more in the lower abdomen, the digestive tract. Spend time where you feel the most tension.
3. Then start rolling on the ball from top to bottom using a push/pull motion in your hands and feet, stripping along the rectus abdominus (“six pack”) while continuing the deep abdominal breath. This big muscle runs parallel to the spine. Do some contract & relax breaths on any tight spot you can still find.
4. Change the direction now, going side to side, cross fibering (going against the grain) of the rectus abdominus. The transverse abdominals go the other way, they run deep below the six pack muscles in a 90 degree angle. And the obliques are oriented in a 45 degree angle for our full range of motion. Do about 5-10 rounds in each plane of the belly, giving any tense areas more attention.
5. The last technique is the most intense, yet it feels amazing. It’s a pin, spin & mobilize movement. Move your ball back into the center of your abdomen or the area where you felt the most tension. Press your body weight on to the ball, then walk your hands and feet to the right side to a roughly 45 degree angle to the mat. This spinning action will wind up your skin, fascia and muscles, creating heat and deep massage of the internal organs. If you want more, press yourself up on your forearms or hands, then lift one arm up toward the ceiling for a breath or two. Lower and and switch arms. Spin back to center and go the other way. Repeat on any other areas of your belly if needed.
Roll off the ball and come to a seated or standing position and notice the difference in your breath and your relaxation level. If time permits, sit down and palm your eyes for ten minutes or more. Use your (mental) foundation object or any positive thoughts, a mantra, a memory, word or image that gets you into a deep mental relaxation. You might notice more visual clarity and a calmer state of mind after this self massage sequence. Even when you have no time to palm your eyes afterwards.
Remember this feeling to bring you back into this state of calm quickly when stressed. Find a mental foundation object (memory, word, image, mantra, smell, sound etc) for a faster way to calm yourself down. Being able to easily move back into relaxation after the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) was triggered is called vagal flexibility. But that is a whole new post!
In part 1 of this post I demonstrated a neck and head self massage to improve posture and eyesight. In addition to directly working on these areas, it’s important to massage the upper back muscles as well, namely the upper trapezius, levator scapulae and the rhomboids. The first two are contributing to the movement of the neck, and the rhomboids and the levator scapulae are responsible for lifting the shoulders up. We do this all the time when sitting hunched over at the computer, holding a phone between shoulders and ear, and even when doing yoga.
This constant state of elevation in the shoulders combined with stiffness in the neck mover muscles due to bad posture, stress, shallow chest breathing, sitting at the computer with a fixed gaze, creates major tension in the upper back, neck and head. All of which effects our eyesight.
While you can roll the neck and head muscles at your desk, you will need a wall or floor space (more intense) to do the following upper back release sequence. Do this short sequence after work or in the morning after waking. Best to roll directly on the skin for maximum shear in the myofascial tissues (and clothes tend to get rolled into the balls).
The video shows the sequence at the wall. For more intensity, do it on the floor.
1. Place the balls right above your shoulder blades in the center of the shoulders (not to close to neck). Step away from the wall and use your body weight to let the balls sink into your upper trapezius and levator scapulae. When on the floor, lift your pelvis up (you can put a yoga block under your hips for a more restorative version). Breathe deeply into belly and chest
2. Start crossfibering the muscles by bending and straightening your knees (wall) or by chugging your hips forward and back (floor). The balls will move up and down the shoulders, about 2 inches.
3. Then change the direction of the movement by moving side to side. The balls will glide along the edge of the shoulder blades from left to right, covering the whole width of the shoulder blades. When doing this on the floor, it helps to move the arms side the side, bending one at the time to create that sideways motion of the upper body.
4. Move the balls together and down to just under C7, the last cervical vertebrae. They will be right and left of the spine, touching each other. Repeat the chugging motion, moving the balls up and down a few inches, crossfibering the upper trapezius and rhomboid minor. When doing this on the floor, cradle your head in your hands.
5. While chugging, put more weight onto the left side for a few strides, then to the right. Wherever you feel more tightness, do it a bit longer.
6. Add a pin & stretch by moving the arms up in circle shape on an inhale and lower them down on the inhale. The movement should resemble the snow angel arms we did as kids.
7. Last stop is at T5/T6, roughly in the middle of the shoulder blades. Do a bit of moving up and down, then hug yourself and twist the upper body from side to side, putting weight onto one side at the time. This massages the rhomboid major and the trapezius.
Notice the difference after you have rolled these upper back muscles. You will feel relaxed, refreshed and be able to breathe more deeply. Your body and eyes will thank you!
As a Bates Method and yoga teacher, I pay attention to the whole body, the posture and the breathing. For this post, we will only look at the upper body, specifically the neck, jaw and temples, since these areas are directly connected to tension and strain in our eyes. And with the help of the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls, you can conveniently self massage these hot spots directly at your desk, while closing your eyes and giving them the rest they deserve.
Many of us spend hours, if not the whole day, sitting at the computer. Spine rounded in flexion, shoulders in protraction, internal rotation and elevation, head extended backwards, craned forward, or tilted sideways holding the phone between shoulder and ear, with the neck bearing the weight of the head. And our heads are heavy, about 11 pounds or 5 kg without hair. That constitutes roughly 8% of our body weight. Quite a lot of weight that our neck and shoulder muscles have to hold up there, all day long!
All of this sitting and slouching looking at the screen is creating muscle tension and weakness throughout the body, witnessed as bad posture and resulting lower back pain, neck stiffness, limited shoulder mobility or pain, tension headaches, migraines, jaw pain, TMJ, the list goes on. This in turn leads to an imbalanced posture from head to toe.
When looking at this from an eyesight perspective, it becomes obvious that some of the head tilts initiate from poor vision, e.g. craning the head forward when myopic, or tilting it back when presbyopia starts and the near point gets blurrier. But this also goes the other way. That is a whole new post, but just know that our head posture is a main contributor to astigmatism, and the angle or tilt of the head can directly be measured in the angle of your astigmatism. And staring at a screen up close for hours will most likely end in myopia.
Glasses are also a major reason for bad head posture and the resulting strain and pain. Are you tilting your head backwards when sitting at the computer? If you do, you probably wear bifocal or varifocal glasses. These lenses assume you are looking down when you are using the plus prescription in the lower part of the lens for near work, and straight ahead when looking at the distance. But the computer is straight ahead and near. To compensate, you need to crane your head backwards to access the lower part of the lens. This not only creates extraordinary neck tension, but starts or worsens any existing astigmatism.
The following therapy ball self massage sequence gets into the nooks and crannies of your tense muscles and fascia, the connective tissue which runs throughout your body. Its superficial layers are right under the skin, the deep layers in and between our muscles. The stiffer and harder the fascia, the more tense and stiff the muscles surrounded by it.
Start by breathing deeply into the belly five times, feeling it expand and collapse. Then let the breath ripple from the belly up into the chest on the inhale, letting it leave the body on a long exhale. Keep inhales and exhales equal in length. Continue this abdominal thoracic breath throughout the whole self massage sequence. It improves flood of blood and oxygen into your tissues and cells.
1. Place one of the balls at the lateral side of the neck. Test the waters by pressing the ball against the sternocleidomastoid muscle (the one you’ll use to turn your head backwards when changing lanes, tilt your head to the side and when looking down). If you feel tension there, spin the ball, winding up skin as you do. This alone stimulates the superficial fascia around the neck muscles, creating slide and glide between fascia and muscle which is important for smooth and pain-free movement.
2. Add some motion for a deeper tissue massage. Nod your head “yes” a few times, then “no”, turning it side to side.
3. Move the ball to another area on your neck and repeat.
4. Cup the ball in your hand and place it on the side of your jaw. The muscle you feel there is the masseter, the strongest muscle in the body. Turn your head slowly sideways as if saying half of a “no”, letting the ball crossfiber the masseter. This might be quite intense, so adjust the pressure with your hand or by leaning more or less into the ball. If you find a particularly tense spot, keep the ball on that area with sustained compression for a couple of breaths, then add a stretch by opening and closing the jaw.
5. Place the ball at your temple and roll it forward and back. You can also use sustained compression by just pressing it against one area, or spin the ball on the skin, gathering up superficial fascia. Remember to breathe deeply.
6. Repeat this on the other side. One side might need more attention than the other, because none of us is symmetrical.
7. Finish this tension tamer by gently drumming your fingers along the bony ridges of your eye sockets (above the eyebrows and along your cheek bones) and your temples.
For a quicker version (albeit without the spinning movement of the ball on the skin) you can massage jaw and temples at the same time by using the balls in the tote.
You can purchase The Yoga Tune Up® balls during a session at my practice, or by visiting yogatuneup.com Should you order online, make sure to get the smallest size for this exercise, or the starter kit with differently sized balls which come in handy when massaging your whole body.
Part Two of this stress relieving sequence will include the shoulders, upper back and chest for a complete release of “tech neck”. When working these areas, you will need floor or wall space.
Please remember that while self care through neck and head massage is really important in your journey to improve your eyesight, you need to address the origins and causes of your poor posture and eye strain at the computer as well. Be it by getting rid of varifocal lenses, an ergonomic makeover of your workstation, improving your proprioception through yoga or other movement practices, learning the Bates Method to recognize eye strain in the first place, practicing the Bates Method to improve your vision, blinking and breathing, daily exercise, relieving mental strain, or just taking frequent breaks.
In fact, as you have probably figured out by now, all of the above mentioned changes are important for good eyesight and a healthy body and mind. If you only address the tension but not the root causes, the tension will come back quickly and your eyesight will not improve. It might even get worse.