You may often see eye pillows at the yoga studio or in people’s practices on Instagram. Maybe you’ve got one and you love to use it in your savasana. These little weighted bags may not look like much but often bring calm and relaxation to us. How do they do it?
Our nervous system
To understand how our body relaxes we need to have a quick look into our nervous system. Our nervous system is one of the main systems of our body. Alongside the circulatory and respiratory systems it is a vital part of how we survive. Our nervous system is responsible, among other things, for how we feel. It regulates different responses in our body based on situations we are in.
The nervous system consists of our brain, spinal cord, sensory organs, and all of our other nerves. There are two parts of the nervous system, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
CNS – consists of the brain and spinal cord. It uses the sensory information it gets to basically keep us alive.
PNS – made up of all the the parts of the nervous system, nerves, ganglia and receptors and it connects the world to our CNS, transmitting information of what is going on around us
The PNS is what we are interested in when looking at eye pillows and how they help us relax. The PNS itself is also subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system which affect how our bodies and minds react to external stimulus.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight state and the parasympathetic is our rest and digest state. The parasympathetic state is what we are looking to spend more time in away from the stress of fight or flight.
How does our body relax?
This is a big question but a lot of it comes down to the vagus nerve. This nerve helps to engage our rest and digest state. This is where our body slows down, starts to digest nutrients, finds a calmer breathing pattern and a lower heart rate.
Our bodies are very clever and are doing all of this without us telling them to. Although it is an autonomic part of our body we can do things to help ourselves drop into this parasympathetic state.
How can you help stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system?
Here it comes back to the vagus nerve. This runs all the way from the brain through the face and neck and down into the abdomen. It is this nerve that we can tap into to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and help ourselves relax without waiting for it to happen naturally.
The vagus nerve can react to:
- touch – such a running hands down the neck
- vibrations – from humming
- slowing and lengthening of the breath
- pressure – in areas related to the nerve
How do eye pillows help?
Pressure is where eye pillows come in. One of the ways of applying pressure can be gently to the eyes. This is known as the ocularcardiac reflex which may actually decrease the heart rate as the body understands it is not in danger. Combined with taking longer softer breaths down towards the diaphragm it is a recipe for relaxation.
Taking some of the science away purely removing our sense of sight may induce a feeling of calm. It removes external stimulus and can save us becoming distracted by things around us. This in turn helps bring focus to the breath which can lengthen and soften, inducing relaxation in the body and once again stimulating the nervous system.
How to use an eye pillow to aid sleep or relaxation
An eye pillow is a weighted bag often filled with linseed or wheat, much like the bean bags you had at school. Often they are scented with lavender but Yogipod eye pillows are unscented so you can add your own calming scent to them or use without one.
To use in your own practice:
- Firstly get comfortable, make sure you are warm enough, and the body feels supported by the ground or maybe even other props
- Take hold of the eye pillow and give it a little shake to even out the filling
- Place over your closed eyes and give it a moment to settle. If you have glasses then take them off
- As you adjust to the feeling of pressure on your eyes tune into you breath and notice where you can feel it in your body
- Focus on a feeling of softness to the breath and in taking slightly longer for the breath to enter and exit the body