Have you ever wondered why even when you’re tired, your mind can resemble a light switch, permanently set to the “on” button and preventing you from falling or staying asleep? And have you ever rested for simply five minutes with an eye pillow over your eyes or browbone and found that it was just like hitting the “reset” button? There’s a reason why it’s hard to access your off switch—and it has a lot to do with eye pillows, your passport to relaxation.
Eye pillows have an undeserved reputation for being the new age version of snake oil: a little bit of flax, and a whole lot of money. Yet they may be one of your most powerful healing tools, especially when it comes to your nervous system.
Let’s get into the science for a moment. Your vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves. It originates in the brain (in the medulla), travels down the back of the neck and into the chest, and then moves into the abdomen and digestive tract. (Vagus literally means “wandering”.) The vagus nerve is responsible for heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis (digestion), and sweating, among other tasks. It is the primary communicator to our rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system, which helps us to relax more deeply. This is also our tend-and-befriend system, which enables us to reach out and connect with others- an important factor in long-term stress resilience.
You also have a reflex called the oculocardiac reflex. When light pressure is placed on the eyeballs (and, it is thought, the browbone), it lowers heart rate–sometimes by a considerable amount. There’s a fine line here between therapeutic stimulation and overstimulation, so gentle pressure is best.
What does all this have to do with relaxation—or emotional well-being, for that matter? If light pressure on the eyeballs stimulates the vagus nerve and oculocardiac reflex, this pressure also facilitates our relaxation response.
This means that eye pillows are a highly effective tool to retrain our nervous system. They dial it down a notch from what may be a continual state of overdrive.
An eye pillow is a perfect example of how a subtle intervention can have a powerful effect on our physical and emotional well-being. It helps to reduce stress, lift depression, balance anxiety, help regulate chronic pain, stimulate digestive equilibrium, reduce tension in muscles and connective tissue, and more.
You can use eye pillows in myriad ways:
- before bed, to help you fall asleep more quickly, or if you wake up frequently throughout the night or early morning hours
- at the end of a yoga practice, in final relaxation
- in your restorative yoga practice
- any time you feel anxious, depressed, or stressed
Let’s take this opportunity to bring an eye pillow into your Yoga Practice Lab, and see how it works.
Before practicing, get your pre-practice baseline. In an easy sitting posture, or lying down on your back with your knees bent, slowly close your eyes. Take several long, slow, and deep breaths through your nose. Connect with the level of energy in your physical body. Is it high, medium, or low? Note the speed of your mind, or thoughts. If you’re tuned in to your nervous system today—your “wiring”—take a moment to note whether it’s tightly wired (in overdrive) or balanced. You can also tune in to the depth of your breath and your sense of connection to your center. As you breathe, also make a note of any other baseline measurement that’s important to you, such as pain in a particular area of your body. You can record your pre-practice baseline in your notes, if you wish.
Place your eye pillow over your eyes. You can do this lying down on your bed, in savasana, or in a restorative yoga pose. Breathe slowly through your nose. If your mind is active and your thoughts are racing, lengthen your exhale so that it’s longer than your inhale. If your mind is balanced or slow, lengthen both your inhale and your exhale. Stay like this for at least 3 minutes, or as long as you like.
When you’re ready to emerge from the practice, transition slowly up to sitting, putting your eye pillow aside. Place a blanket or bolster under your sitting bones for support. As you breathe, assess your post-practice baseline, noting the effects of the eye pillow. Look once again at the level of energy in your physical body, the speed of your mind or thoughts (or how calm you feel), how wired you feel, the depth of your breath, and the extent of your connection to your center or core. You can also note your mood, pain levels, or whatever else seems important to you. And when you have a sense of this new baseline, slowly transition your eyes open.