Time to get stoked about vision!

This blog post is for the dancers who have been told not to look down at the floor so much. Why is that so dang hard not do do, eh?

This is also a blog post for the dancers who have trouble spotting turns, balancing (in general), and generally projecting a focused gaze while performing.

Today we’re going to talk about eyes, vision, movement, and how becoming aware of and optimizing these things can impact your dancing (and yo’ life).

Vision: It’s a big deal.

In dance it is important for position sensing, movement quality, and artistic expression.

This is something I’ve always kind of known, but it wasn’t until LAST WEEK that I truly experienced it. In a ballet class, I was able to keep my head level, my eyes on the horizon, and I could balance, which never happens. And it was mind-bendingly effortless.

For you dancers who have been told to keep your eyes off the floor (hell, I know you have),  have you ever wondered why it’s such a hard habit to break?

Let’s break down looking down

The ability to hold a steady gaze on the horizon (or wherever you choose) and to keep an audience captive through your eyes is related in part to biomechanics, part autonomic nervous system function, and I will argue for dancers, part artistic expression and desire to communicate.

I have a few theories about looking down:

– It’s a learned behaviour that we use to cope with something. Something neuro. Something physical. Something from our past. Who knows, but it’s helping us to “survive” the moment.

– Lack of confidence: in one’s abilities as a dancer/artist, or an unconscious lack of confidence in their body to perform.

– Looking down helps to ground us when we don’t feel grounded.

– Being stuck in extension or compression of the cervical spine affects balance (which also influences where the eyes can go)

I suppose we could lump these into two groups: 1. How the nervous system relates to vision and 2. How biomechanics of human movement relate to vision.

From here, this blog post is going to get a bit technical, so here’s the summary:

Ability to keep eyes on the horizon= Happy brain= Happy body= Unlocked potential to dance your pants off.

Got it?

Your Brain Likes When Your Eyes Have Options

A few of your nervous system’s favourite things:

  • Eyes on the horizon
  • Wide field of vision (good use of peripheral vision)
  • Ability to use central vision (seeing what is in front of you)

So, much like your body is on the perpetual quest for the holy grail we call center, your eyes dig being “centered” too.

Centered doesn’t mean “stuck” in the middle (which can be a conundrum in itself), but means to have full access to each end of the spectrum. We can only understand what center feels like through our experience of the extremes. Through having options.

So, your eyes need to see all the way left and right (horizontal field of vision), and they need to be able to access all the way up and down (vertical field of vision). Our eyes can lose this movement variability due to:

  • Increased use of central vision (staring straight ahead at a screen)
  • Habitual patterns of moving (eye movement pairs with the rest of your body’s movement)
  • Trauma and injuries

Your nervous system loves having a full field of vision because evolutionarily speaking, this gives you a better ability to scan the horizon, the ground, and the sky for potential predators and threats.

With a full field on vertical vision you can also sense where the ground is. This is super important for feeling “grounded” and for the requisite input for your body to ambulate (and do cool dance moves) without looking down.

Let’s take this further (because that’s how I roll)… A full field of vision is correlated to a more parasympathetic resting state, connecting eye function to the important neural circuit that allows us to experience health, growth, and restoration (so, like, the ability to get good at dance and recover from soreness and injuries).

Now let’s try to connect this vision/nervous system stuff to how your body moves in natural gait.

Gait Mechanics and Vision

Your eyes have a role in gait? Try walking with your eyes closed…

Every part of our body has a particular, important action, in all three planes, at any particular point in time as reaction to each phase of gait. Even your eyes.

When we walk, we (ideally) keep our skull leveled on the horizon and our bodies move around it.

Kind of like the owl:

Taking that idea further, as we walk, and we keep our eyes level on the horizon, our skull moves around them.

Let’s break that down some more.

What happens through your spine, skull, and eyes in gait (sagittal plane edition):

– As you move into lumbar and thoracic extension (shock absorption phase), the cervical spine opposes into flexion (decompression), and eyes oppose with a relative upwards focus.

-As you move into lumbar and thoracic flexion (mid-stance through heel-strike phases), the cervical spine opposes into extension (compression), and the eyes oppose with a relative downward focus.

The image below represents these opposing movements nicely:

AiM-azing sketch by Caroline Williams, a fellow Anatomy in Motion student/practitioner.

Notice how the visual focus and the skull stay relatively still, but the movement of the body around it gives the sense that they are changing positions. Tricky, eh!?

NOTE: We could a lot about feet here and their role in gait, but for now, let’s leave it at: Eyes going relative down couples with rearfoot supination and dorsiflexion; eyes looking relative up couples with rearfoot pronation and plantar flexion. That’s for another day, another blog post, perhaps, but I would be remiss not to mention how feet have the potential to interact with vision. 

I encourage you to try it out now and see if you can feel these motions happening in your own body as you walk.

If you can’t feel it while walking, try it lying on your back on the floor. Look at a point on the ceiling, and move your spine through flexion and extension (my eyes are closed ’cause I was getting really into it). Credit to Gary Ward of Anatomy in Motion. Cogs are my fave.

I hope you can appreciate how the movement of the neck opposes the movement of the rest of your spine with the eyes staying level on the horizon. This happens during gait, sagittaly speaking.

These opposing actions of your eyes, skull, neck, lumbar and thoracic spine happen with each step you take, within 0.6-0.8 seconds.

Except sometimes they don’t. Damn!

We lose this opposition when we learn different ways of moving through experiences of trauma, injuries, or habitual “unnatural” patterns *coughdancecough* that never get the chance to unwind.

And yes, the neck compresses AND decompresses as you walk (and interestingly spends more phases in compression than decompression). Let’s be clear: Compression isn’t bad, but it can become problematic if you get stuck there. Your body needs the option to do both.

Let’s use a common dancer-thang as an example and make this super simple (stupid).

Something I see quite commonly in dancers is:

a) Lumbar and thoracic spine unable to fully flex (unable to decompress through gait), combined with…
b) Cervical spine that has wayyy too much extension (unable to decompress through gait).

Why?

  • Spending a lot of time back-bending…
  • Trauma, like whiplash (possibly dance-induced…), neck/head injuries, falling hard on your tailbone, etc.
  • High sympathetic tone- aka, just stressed the heck out!- which tends to show iteself through the extensor chain (tight hamstrings, neck, and lower back much?)
  • Simply spending too much time using central vision with a weird neck position from looking at computer screens and smart phones (over-optimized central vision can reduce your ability to use peripheral vision which, as you now know, is kind of a big deal).

What’s this got to do with keeping your eyes centered? 

If you are like the dancer outlined above, maybe you stay compressed as you walk and dance (which is just a fancy expression of gait, isn’t it?), never entering flexion or decompression, and this will present you with several challenges:

1. Eyes stuck in a relative down position. Remember, in gait, the eyes go relatively downwards when the neck is extended (or extendING). If you are like the example above and are stuck extenDED, then you may also be stuck with eyes that feel more comfortable settling down at the ground. So to get your eyes up, you need to extend your neck more, compress more, and this might not feel so great, not to mention…

2. Trying to cope with the above to get your eyes to lift takes some seriously, energy expending, creative strategies (I will not use the D word: d***unction).

Do you think it feels good to lift your chin up from of a position wherein the chin is already up, chronically? Hell no.

To create the sensation of neck extension in an attempt to lift the eyes (because it can’t flex well, which would allow the eyes to lift), it needs to first flex a bit to get OUT of the extended position.

In my books, this is way too much work, not to mention can exacerbate compression and limit neck range of motion in all three planes, not just the down-up.

So with all this work to get around compression, extension, and stress, the path of least resistance is simply to let the eyes go down to the ground. Things feel safer there. And easier. The happy place. Ahhh.

What do you do about it?

Long story short:

  • Teach your spine/neck how to flex and/or decompress to allow your eyes to reflexively lift
  • Reduce stress in your life so that you can let go of chronic extensor chain tone. Breathing helps. 
  • Get appropriate rehab to unwind injuries
  • Go look at actual things in the real world that aren’t on a screen and use your peripheral vision

It might be more complex than that (because this is just sagittal plane edition…), but I like simple.

How The Heck Does This Relates to Dance?

What’s the visual system go to do with physical performance? Visual input affects sensorimotor systems, so it affects your ability to perceive where you are in space and how you move. Kind of a big deal for you sensing, moving machines.

Ever wonder why your brain seems to freak out whenever you set up for a pirouette? (speaking for myself anyway, but please tell me I’m not the only one!)

The ability to keep your eyes level on the horizon, in gait, and in dance, is related to:

  • Ability to sense the floor via peripheral vision (so not needing to look down at it)
  • Ability to be return to a parasympathetic state and recover from training and injuries (also correlated to good peripheral vision and vagal tone)
  • Reduced strain on all things MSK through improved movement variability (ability to compress AND decompress, flex AND extend, blah blah blah).
  • Ability to spot a turn better (because you can actually center your eyes!)
  • Balance, your body having heightened position sensing as your skull stays level and your body moves around it, which is particularly evident in a slow adage.

Ahhh that Svetlana!

So to be able to walk, keeping your eyes off the ground, is a cool measure to check in with as it can revealing of your physiological and nervous system states. A few years ago, I couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without my eyes dropping to the ground. This became an outcome measure I tracked, and it was very revealing.

Conclusions?

The ability for your eyes to a) find center, b) leave center, and c) experience a full field of vision also relates to your body’s ability to to do the same: Find and leave center and experience full ranges of motion.

Having these options makes it possible to:

Spot turns
Balance
Feel grounded
Project to an audience
Recover
Learn
Be calm

This is the tip of the iceberg. But I hope to have connected some dots between the inability to keep your eyes off the floor and how it is represented in your body, globally.