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Publication Date: Friday, November 08, 2002

Teaching eyes to see Teaching eyes to see (November 08, 2002)

By Diana Reynolds Roome

Meir Schneider grew up blind and now sees well enough to drive. His techniques for vision improvement can help people with serious eye problems or simple eye-strain.

When Rachel Riley Cox lost her vision in her early twenties, she wasn't ready to go on disability and have a seeing-eye dog.

"I didn't want to believe it," says the Mountain View resident who lost the sight in her right eye due to juvenile diabetes, then suffered distorted the vision in her left eye after an unsuccessful operation.

Her doctors didn't think anything could be done about the ruined retina as the damage was in the focal center, where detail is perceived. At age 22 her vision was 20/400 and she couldn't see the biggest letters on the eye chart.

Fifteen years later, Cox now sees 20/40 and holds a California driver's license. The person responsible for helping her regain her sight was not a surgeon or even an ophthalmologist, but a teacher of self-healing, whose methods are based on the simple but sound principle of strengthening what you have by using it.

"Meir Schneider was the first person who said, 'This is not how it has to be,'" Cox recalls. "My doctors had only talked about the damage. Meir told me I might be able to progress from where I was."

Cox began a battery of exercises and relaxation techniques, which strengthened and expanded the little remaining sight she had. "I learned how to see again with a damaged retina," she says. "A lot of vision is done with your brain, and I had to get used to a new normal. I was able to gain better control over how to see and what to look for."

Cox spent hours and hours doing the prescribed exercises. One involved blocking central vision with progressively larger pieces of paper taped to the forehead -- an activity that invariably produces surprised exclamations when students in Schneider's classes discover how effectively they can see with only their peripheral vision. Another exercise activates rods and cones (light and color receptors) by exposing them to sunlight under closed lids. Conversely, cupping the palms over the eyes to achieve total darkness relaxes the optic nerve.

Developing techniques to develop sight

Meir Schneider, LT, PhD, knows exactly what exercising the eyes mean in terms of personal commitment and sheer effort. Born in the USSR with cataracts in both eyes, he emigrated to Israel with his family when he was four years old and grew up using Braille.

As a teenager, he started using the Bates Method of eye exercises, and practiced them with an almost obsessive zeal. Within six months he was able to see objects for the first time, and within 18 months he could read print without glasses. By adapting the exercises and adding more, he was able to utilize and increase what little sight was left after multiple operations that badly scarred his corneal tissue. Today Schneider, who still possesses his certificate of blindness, also holds a California driver's license.

Based at the School for Self-Healing in San Francisco, Schneider holds classes and workshops on the Peninsula, and also travels to Europe, Israel and Brazil, where therapists and individuals have learned techniques to help a range of conditions, especially those which are receiving little benefit from conventional medical interventions.

Early on, Schneider found that his techniques could bring relief and hope to people suffering from chronic pain and immobility due to accidents and repetitive stress injury, spinal cord injuries, stroke, and degenerative diseases like muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and ALS.

Self-healing is also holistic, which means that no parts of the body, including the eyes, are treated in isolation. Massage is used to relax the whole body and improve circulation, especially to the head and neck areas. The exercises can benefit everyone, whether they have serious problems or not, as they are designed to strengthen eye muscles and utilize parts of the eye that may atrophy due to over-dependence on glasses. Habits of vision, such as reading and computer work, can cause repetitive stress in certain areas of the eye and under-use of others.

Sore eyes not inevitable

Tension in the eyes is often created by pressures such as deadlines, need for accuracy and long hours focusing on print or computer screens without resting the eyes properly. By contrast with less sedentary and more rural cultures, most of us seldom use distance and peripheral vision, or look at things in great detail.

A helpless attitude about the functioning of the eyes is encouraged by a medical approach that emphasizes correction over prevention or methodical sight improvement. As Schneider points out, people expect to exercise their bodies and pay attention to good eating and behavioral habits in order to live longer and healthier. But fatalism about the eyes makes people assume they have to accept their lot -- for example, myopia, astigmatism, farsightedness in middle age, and the inevitable wearing of glasses.

When disorders of the eyes are more serious, people are sometimes driven to find unconventional methods of help rather than passively accepting their ophthalmologist's prognosis. For those who have been told nothing more could be done, Schneider's encouragement to get beyond fear and trust the body's ability to adjust and heal has been a way to regain control over their lives.

"The approaches are like two different universes," says Jenny Hopkinson who attended one of Schneider's recent vision improvement workshops in Mountain View, in hope of improving sight in an eye that has some retinal scarring. "The retinologists say nothing can be done. But Meir has given me so much confidence in the fact that I can do many exercises that may well improve my vision without surgery."

Sarah Lundgren's son Dean, now 4, lost most of his sight due to meningitis when he was three weeks old.

"His pupils weren't responding to light," says Lundgren. "Meir gave us positive things to do, helped us find ways to begin stimulating those muscles."

Patching the stronger eye makes the weaker one work harder. Jumping on a trampoline helps to activate the peripheral vision, which is highly sensitive to movement. With Schneider's help, the Lundgrens designed a high-contrast environment for Dean at their home in Mountain View -- a room painted navy blue and light yellow and bedding featuring designs with strongly delineated outlines. Christmas lights are strung around his walls all year round, and toys with flashing lights or sounds help stimulate his responses. "It's normal to give interventions to help someone walk, so why not for sight?" says Lundgren. "The ophthalmologist felt the exercises couldn't hurt, but Dean has so far exceeded the neurologists' most positive predictions."

For Hopkinson, learning to relax the eyes has markedly improved her vision. "Instead of listening to messages that tense my eye -- frustration and anger, which create shallow breathing -- the exercises cut out that extraneous noise. It's like getting a clear radio signal for your eyes without scratchy interference."

"Whatever level of sight we have is good," says Schneider. "We cannot always compare with the norm, but we can try to have a philosophy of accepting what we have and building on that. Vision can improve if we improve our visual habits."

Self-Healing through Movement, a lecture with Meir Schneider, November 14, 8-9:30 p.m., at East West Bookshop, 324 Castro Street, Mountain View, $8. (650)-988-9800.

Vision Improvement Workshop, Saturday 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. East West Bookshop. Call: 800-788-5500 to register. For more information: or call 415-665-9574


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