Candle Gazing: Why did Svatmaram call Trataka Kriya a Box of Gold?
Trataka kriya (candle gazing) is a yoga cleansing technique (Shatkarma) used to improve vision, memory, and concentration. We discuss how to do Trataka and its variations and benefits.
Trataka kriya or candle gazing can be performed as a standalone cleansing practice. It's an ancient yogic cleansing technique that is also performed before pranayama and/or meditation. It is one of the six methods mentioned in shatkarma or shatkriya.
Did you know that half your brain is dedicated to visual processing? That's a staggering 50% dedicated to sight and vision sight and vision. In fact, the optic nerve and retina are a direct outcrop of our brain that develops within the first two weeks of conception. It sounds incredulous, doesn't it?
Evolution has tasked the eyes with a serious responsibility - to continuously perform restless scans of our environment for the sake of safety and survival. In simple words, our eyes are constantly moving with microscopic jerks (microsaccades) to feed the brain with images that fall on our retina.
The eyes need to work incessantly so that our brain has a constant stream of data of all the objects in our field of vision. It uses this data as a survival mechanism. This process was of the utmost importance for the survival and success of our species. Through evolution, humans have had to deal with a lot of hardship and threats from the forces of nature.
Fast forward to 2021, we live in big cities, staring at screens, and surrounded by man-made structures. In our shielded environments and cramped cubicles, this survival mechanism has become redundant and obsolete.
Most of us aren’t even aware of this phenomenon, let alone accepting our inability to turn off or control a redundant biological fight or flight response. Instead, we're left with the burden of overworked eyes, an anxious mind, and rapidly dwindling attention spans. Are we surprised with the hoopla over PCs and mobile phones making us more restless by the day?
Steady Gaze | Steady Mind
Ironically, long before the advent of cubicles, ancient Yogis seemed to understand the nature of this mind-eye connection. A steady gaze leads to a steady mind and vice versa. This is not to say that using your gaze is the only or even the most effective way to steady the mind. However, it is a powerful way that has found purpose in the shatkarmas of the Hatha Yoga tradition.
Shatkarma (or shatakriya), for those unaware, refers to the six yogic purification techniques outlined in Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The author, Yogi Svatmarama, describes Trataka as “to look intently at a small point or an object with an unwavering gaze until tears are shed.”
What is Trataka Kriya?
Trataka kriya (also callled candle gazing) is a yogic technique that involves of focusing your gaze on something steady like the flame of a candle. It is done with full concentration and without blinking until the eyes swell up with tears. It is usually followed up with rubbing the palms and cupping the eyes gentle. There are two types of trataka:
Bahiranga Trataka (External Gaze)
Antaranga Trataka (Internal Gaze)
It is used as a purification technique (shatkarma) in Hatha Yoga to cleanse the eyes. It is also used as a supportive practice to achieve deep states of meditation by improving a yogi's ability to concentrate.
Beginners start with external gazing for short periods and gradually increase the complexity and duration of Trataka. Over time, you shift to internal gazing practice with the focus on holding the “after-image” in your mind’s eye – between your eyebrows.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika say that when performed regularly, candle gazing can enhance the efficacy of your meditative practice. It also categorically says that Trataka kriya “eradicates all diseases of the eyes.”
Method: How to do Trataka - Candle Gazing?
Antaranga Trataka: Internal Candle Gazing Meditation
Perform Trataka in a dark room without any breeze or draft. The flame must be absolutely steady. Breeze will disrupt your practice by causing the candle flame to flicker.
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged sitting posture such as Easy Pose or Accomplished Pose. Place a candle at chest height and an arm’s length away (two feet). Use our instructions as a guideline and adjust it according to your sitting position and stature. The flame should be one inch lower than eye level.
Adjust the distance and height if you experience strain between the eyebrows or a burning sensation in the eyes. These are signs of incorrect candle placement.
Close your eyes and practice deep, rhythmic breathing for a few minutes. Your breath should be calm, even, and steady before you start. When ready, open the eyes and stare at the flame without blinking. The eyes should be slightly enlarged as you stare.
Concentrate on the brightest part of the flame – usually towards the tip. Do not engage any thoughts that arise in the mind. Continue to observe the flame till your eyes begin to water and you can no longer sustain your gaze. Close your eyes at this point.
You can stop here. This part of the practice is called External Gazing (Bahiranga). You can continue to the next part, which is called Antaranga (Internal Gazing).
When you close your eyes, you will ll see an “after-image” of the flame. Concentrate on that image, visualizing the flame to be just the way it was when your eyes were open.
The after-image disperses within a few seconds. It will disappear faster if you tense up your muscles or mind. It is meant to fade out out, let it do so gracefully.
Rub your palms against each other and cup your eyes for 5 seconds. Don't press down the palms on your eyeballs. There should be no contact between your palm and eyelidsl. Open your eyes very slowly and gently. Keep blinking while you open them fully.
This was one round of Trataka Kriya. You can repeat this three to five times (maximum).
Beginner: Stare at the candle flame for 10-15 seconds and close your eyes and concentrate on the “imagined” flame for however long you can. Do it a maximum of three times per day.
Intermediate: Slowly increase the duration of staring at the candle flame. Only increase it once every three to four days. Stick to three times per day until you can start for 30 seconds.
Advanced: Eventually, you reach a point where you can look at the candle flame for 60 seconds and hold the “imagined flame” with closed eyes for four minutes. This would count as mastery of the practice. You will notice a significant improvement in concentration and vision by this point. However, do not practice this longer than the stipulated time frame as it can strain your eyes.
Antaranga trataka activates the Ajna chakra (third-eye) located between the brows. You can follow it up with Anuloma-viloma and move on to meditation. This is an excellent way to prepare for deep meditaiton.
Candle Gazing Technique: The Types of Trataka Kriya
It is not mandatory to use a candle or oil lamp to practice this. You can perform Trataka using a symbol, image, or any stationary object. Candles are preferred because they are easily available. Here are a few other things you can use to achieve the same effect:
1. Bindu Trataka: Gazing on a Dot or Point
You can also attempt this with a black paper with a white point or white paper with a black point. If you stare at a white background with a black dot, you will visualize a black background with a white dot when you close your eyes and vice versa. A simple way to do this is to make a black or red dot on a white wall (or use a sticker). This eliminates the need for paper.
2. Bahiranga Trataka: Gaazing at a Shadow or Reflection
Bahiranga Trataka is the practice of gazing at the crown of your shadow or at your own reflection in the mirror. Of these, shadow gazing is less commonly used because it can be hard to project your own shadow on a wall at the exact level and height. In the case of a mirror, focus your gaze on the right eye of your reflection in the mirror.
3. Yantra Sadhana
The candle flame’s after-image is easy for beginners to visualize. Over time, you can also use an auspicious object like a yantra, a symbol of AUM, a picture of your guru, a deity, or something that has deep spiritual meaning/significance. The object must be meaningful to you.
4. Surya or Chandra Sadhana: Meditating on the Moon or Sun
There are some variations where you can look at the orb of the moon or rising/setting sun to perform Trataka. However, please do not stare directly at the bright sun as that can seriously damage your eyesight. It should only be done for the first few minutes of the rising sun or the few minutes before it sets.
Benefits of Trataka and Candle Gazing
Trataka kriya strengthens the eyes due to its cleansing and healing effects. It improves an individual's ability to visualize, which could be immensely helpful in some forms of meditation.
Candle gazing has been used to improve memory and concentration. It is used as a shatkarma because it eradicates fatigue and lethargy, allowing the yogi to feel light, focused, and proactive.
Trataka kriya cleanses the cerebral cortex and has a balancing effect on the nervous system. It is said to be helpful for those who suffer from sleep disorders and insomnia.
The Hatha Yoga texts indicate that this process develops intuition by activating the Ajna chakra (third eye chakra located at the eyebrow center. The Ajna Chakra plays an important role in our ability to distinguish between true reality and illusions.
Contraindications: Is Trataka Dangerous?
As is the case with every spiritual practice, Trataka kriya is safe to practice for adults if done correctly. It is contraindicated for those who suffer from epilepsy, schizophrenia, migraines, and eye/vision problems such as Glaucoma. It is not advisable to perform Trataka when the mind is agitated, angry, or the person is experiencing a headache.
Steady candle gazing helps you channel your mind by reducing the constant bombardment of images via the retina. It is one of the most rudimentary concentration-building exercises in yoga. There are dozens of techniques to attain the benefits bestowed by this practice.
If you try Trataka and it does not resonate with you, find something else that works. In the process, you will learn the importance of your eyes (and their stillness), which will be useful in other spiritual practices or even moments of everyday life.