If you’ve ever been transfixed by a candle flame and felt your mind clear, you may have been tapping into a yogic focusing practice called trataka. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika defines trataka as “looking intently with an unwavering gaze at a small point until tears are shed.” This simple technique has a purifying, invigorating effect on the mind and improves concentration, paving the way for a deeper meditation practice. Because it is one of the shat kriyas, or six cleansing actions, trataka also cleans and heals the eyes.
Though many objects can be used to focus your gaze during trataka, the most common is the flame of a candle. Assume a comfortable meditative posture with your head, neck, and trunk aligned. Set a candle two feet in front of you, with the flame positioned at eye level. Make sure the room is dark and draft-free.
STEADY YOUR GAZE
Begin with your eyes closed, surveying the body and watching the breath until it becomes calm, regular, and even. Then open your eyes and rest your gaze on the middle part of the flame, right above the tip of the wick. Keep your eyelids slightly more open than usual, and maintain your gaze without blinking or blurring your vision for as long as possible. Observe any thoughts that arise, watching them come and go without becoming engaged.
Close your eyes only when they begin to strain and water, and you can no longer sustain the gaze. (You can cup your palms and place them gently over the eyes to ease the strain, but do not rub the eyes; because the tears you have shed are carrying away impurities, wipe them gently with a tissue.) Then find the afterimage of the flame in your mind’s eye, resting your awareness at the ajna chakra, or eyebrow center. If the image moves up and down or side to side, stabilize it by bringing it back to the center, and continue to fix your gaze until the impression disappears. To delve deeper into the mind, you can follow this practice with meditation.
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Trataka eradicates all eye diseases, fatigue, and sloth, and closes the doorway creating these problems. In addition to improving concentration and memory, trataka cleanses both the eyes and the cerebral cortex, balances the nervous system, and relieves depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Another yogic text, the Gheranda Samhita, states that the practice cultivates clairvoyance and inner vision.
Because sight, mental discrimination, and the fire at the manipura chakra are intricately interwoven, trataka also nourishes the subtle flame at the navel center, promoting vitality and inner health. In its more advanced form, as the Himalayan master Swami Rama said, “The practice of trataka eventually merges into surya sadhana, meditation on the solar energy.”
STARING AT THE SUN
Under the guidance of a teacher, you can learn how to use a variety of auspicious objects or symbols as the focus of your gaze during trataka, such as a yantra (a symbolic geometric representation of aspects of Divinity), the symbol Om, the form of a deity, lightning, the moon, your own shadow, or the glowing orange orb of the rising or setting sun. So steady your gaze, and follow the light all the way to your inner self.
Natalya Podgorny is the editor of Yoga + Joyful Living