Optic flow gets you back in your body

Published 11:14 am Friday, April 9, 2021


Community Columnist

In 2016, I started an online yoga video subscription service called the OM channel. It enjoyed small-scale success, and I quietly added subscribers every year. Then, in 2020, I started getting a lot of cancellations.

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Wait, what? Everyone was stuck at home. Wasn’t a library of quick, high-quality yoga and mindfulness videos exactly what everyone needed?

When people unsubscribe, they are offered a space to comment about why they are dropping the service. And one word popped up, over and over.


Turns out, you can access over 5,000 Peloton videos for about the same price as my channel, which only houses around 100 videos. I totally get this. Peloton subscriptions grew from around 550,000 in 2019 to a whopping 880,000 in late 2020. With that many subscribers, they have access to lots of teachers, videographers, editors, make-up artists, lighting experts, and graphic designers. I was wearing all of those hats at the OM channel, and just couldn’t keep up with their output.

And you have to admire their brand loyalty. If someone does Peloton, they love Peloton. My students, friends, even the instructors that teach at my studio and on my channel, tell me over and over how much they love it. So I wanted to try it out for myself. I did a few “rides” on a Peloton bike at a friend’s house and then “ran” a quick mile on another friend’s Peloton treadmill.

And my experience was … perfectly fine. The instructors were great, motivating and upbeat. The machines were top notch and the music mixes motivating. The video and audio were first-rate. But it wasn’t for me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. My muscles felt tired, but my mind wasn’t settled like after a long hike or a good yoga session.

Was it sour grapes? I don’t think so. While I am a bit jealous of Peloton’s monetary success, I mostly felt relief in making the decision to stop filming and editing so many time-consuming videos for my own channel. Let them have the subscriptions. That was just the universe shifting my creative focus in a new direction. So why did Peloton feel like a slog? Why wasn’t I obsessed too?

Then I learned about optic flow. Optic flow is a motion pattern generated by our eyes when we move forward in space. It’s the conscious and unconscious three-dimensional, panoramic view created when we move relative to our environment. We move forward and stationary things move by. So I move and the trees seem to flow past me.

And this calms the stress circuitry in our minds. (You knew this was circling around to neuroscience at some point, right?) Movement forward, along with this sense of objects flowing past and behind us, calms our amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for threat detection and the stress response. Optic flow helps us not just move our body but actually be in it.

Optic flow is the opposite of what we do most days. Anytime we are in front of a screen, the screen is fixed in space. And even though the pixels are constantly changing, our eyes are only taking in the two-dimensional.

Neurobiologist and opthamologist Andrew Huberman explains further:

“Something that most people don’t appreciate is that the eyes are actually two pieces of brain. They are not connected to the brain; they are brain. During development, the eyes are part of the embryonic forebrain. Your eyes get extruded from the skull during the first trimester, and then they reconnect to the rest of the brain. So they’re part of the central nervous system.”

When we look at a screen, our eyes dilate, which in turn elevates our heart rate. It’s like shifting into portrait mode on your smartphone. We hone in on what is directly in front of us and shut down our peripheral vision. This is an evolutionary stress response and the forerunner to our fight, flight, or freeze response (first we see the tiger, and then our nervous system will take action). This takes us out of our body by putting the animal brain in charge.

When we look at a landscape, we engage the peripheral vision, like switching to panoramic mode on your smartphone. Now we can keep the head still, yet still see what is above, below, and beside us. This helps our brain feel safe (no tiger over there waiting to eat me!) and calms us down, getting us back into our body via the more evolved cortex.

Optic flow is the reason I’ve always felt like a hamster on a wheel when using a treadmill or stationary bike. Turns out, we generate zero translational optic flow on a treadmill or stationary bike. None at all. We feel like we’ve exercised, but remain disconnected from our body. Optic flow happens when walking, running, or cycling in nature during daylight hours (runners who train at night report feeling far more fatigued than when they run during the day; this is because the lack of optic flow uses more neural resources). It also occurs when swimming or doing yoga, because we aren’t just moving our muscles, we’re moving through space. It’s movement that puts appropriate stress on our muscles and bones without leaving our nervous systems wrecked.

If you love your Peloton, don’t let me rain on your love parade. But don’t forget to balance your indoor rides and runs with movements that get you away from a screen and back into your body.