Trataka is an ancient yogic meditation technique. If you usually find that when you close your eyes to meditate, hundreds of thoughts start to rush through your head and you can’t seem to settle into the meditation, then this might be a great addition to your practice.
During trataka we use our gaze to find a focal point for the meditation, this means we can meditate with our eyes open with our awareness fixed on an external object, such as a candle flame.
In this article we will cover:
- What trataka is
- The 3 types of trataka
- An exploration of the mind-eye connection
- The benefits of trataka
- And 3 ways to practice trataka
What is trataka?
Trataka is one of the shatkarmas (yogic purifications) and is therefore performed to internally purify the body. It is thought that the practice of shatkarmas help prepare the body for further work or higher practices, such as asana and pranayama.
If you have read The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali then you may have come across the term citta vritti. If you are not familiar with this term in a theoretical sense, I am sure most of us will have encountered the concept practically more than once!
Citta vritta is a term used by Patanjali to describe the unnecessary thoughts that take up space in the mind; this is what we might have heard of as the ‘monkey mind‘. It might show up as an inability to silence our worries, fears, creative ideas, indecisions, day dreams or anything else that goes on in our wild mind. A study even found that humans have, on average, more than 6,000 thoughts per day!
These chitta vrittas prevent us from seeing the world in a truthful light and so decluttering our mind allows us to return to a true sense of self. Patanjali explains in 1.2 of the Yoga Sutras that the goal of yoga is to restrict the ‘fluctuations of consciousness’, and trataka meditation helps us to do exactly that.
Both the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and The Gheranda Samhita talk about trataka as a form of shatkarma. As you may have guessed, it relates to the cleansing of the eyes. It involves the constant and steady gazing of the eyes on a single point of focus.
3 Types Of Trataka
There are three types of trataka:
#1 Antar (Inner) Trataka
This is when you focus the gaze on the ajna chakra, the space in between the eyebrows, with the eyes closed. When we bring our attention to our third eye space, we bring our awareness to our centre of consciousness and it helps to bring us into a meditative state.
As you progress, you can also practice staring into the void behind the eyes or focusing on an imagined image such as the heart or a deity.
#2 Madhya (Middle) Trataka
This can be done through concentrating on the tip of your nose (nasikagra drishti) or the space in between the eyebrows (Sambhavi Mudra) with the eyes open.
This one may be slightly harder to master, so you may want to start with inner or outer trataka first. The same effect could be achieved by placing a small object closer to the face, such as an Om symbol.
#3 Bahya (Outer) Trataka
This is the practice of staring at an object such as a flame, yantra or small object.
Either of these versions helps us to command control of the mind and channel our flow of consciousness onto one particular point, hence reducing the mind chatter or citta vritta.
Exploring The eye-mind connection
When we fix the gaze, the constant chattering of our mind begins to slow. This is because we are practicing eye-mind coordination which happens when both our eyes and brain are focusing on the same thing.
As well as having a physical connection, with the optic nerve directly connecting and transmitting visual information from the retina to the brain, it is also important that we nurture this connection cognitively.
It might sound simple or obvious, but often this is something we rarely make time for in modern society. For example, we might be watching a show whilst thinking about all the emails we need to answer from work, or on a walk whilst thinking about what we want for dinner instead of focusing on the environment around us.
It has been suggested that this may be due to a system called the Default Mode Network (DMN). This refers to our brain activity when are supposedly at ‘rest’ or not thinking about anything in particular. Specifically, it relates to the increase in brain activity when we are not focussing our awareness on the physical world.
This is when our mind begins to wander about self-related topics or, in other words, think about ‘me’. It could be thinking about something embarrassing that happened to us, our to-do list at work or all of the places we want to travel to. Sound familiar?
These are thoughts that our brain automatically defaults to and many then become habitual. Importantly, they all stop us from being in the present moment.
To add to this we also have a visual process taking place called microsaccades. These are tiny, involuntary eye movements that happen around two or three times per second. They happen in order to bring an object into a high quality focus, determine its color, prevent it from fading and ensure that everything else in our vision is being registered by the brain.
In fact, more than half of our brain is dedicated to processing visual information. Therefore, our eyes are constantly scanning different objects in our environment and it makes it hard for our mind to settle.
When our biggest threat was the sabre tooth tiger, this would have been a very useful and probably necessary mechanism for our survival to ensure that we picked up on the threats in our environment.
However, we no longer need to hunt for dangerous prey or run away from wild animals (hopefully) and so, this process is not necessary for our survival and can lead to unnecessary anxiety.
Trataka helps us both to rebuild this connection between the eye and mind and settle the tiny microsaccades to slow our brain down.
Benefits of Trataka
During Trataka meditation, the focus on one point minimizes the likelihood of oscillation in the eyes and the constant scanning of our surroundings. This inevitably leads to a calmer mind.
Trataka is believed to also strengthen the eye muscles and sharpen the eyesight. This practice becomes increasingly important as we spend more time staring at our phones and computers, leading to the straining of our eyes and regular exposure to blue light.
In general, a study on meditation used brain scanning to find that it led to a reduction in the default mode network. From an experiential perspective, it meant that meditators found they had less self-related thinking and mind-wandering.
Other studies have found that trataka improved ‘working memory, spatial memory, and spatial attention‘, increased vagal tone and led to a significant improvement in concentration.
This is also thought to be a great practice for those wishing to develop their intuition, as the energy produced by tatraka stimulates the pineal gland. The pineal gland has been described as the ‘seat of the soul’ as it helps us to achieve higher states of consciousness.
3 Ways to practice trataka
You can combine any of these practices before, during or after any asana, pranayama or meditation session. Trataka is a meditation within itself, but you can also use it to prepare yourself for a longer meditation if you prefer.
#1: With A Candle Flame
If possible, it is best to do this practice in a darkened room with the candle flame being the primary source of light. The room does not have to be completely black but try to avoid doing this in a light room.
It might also be helpful to close the windows or stop any other ways in which air can enter the room and cause the flame to flicker.
Try to place the flame at eye level or just above. You might want to position the candle on top of a desk or a stack of books in order to achieve this, or you can buy an adjustable candlestick made especially for trataka.
Sit in a meditation pose that you can remain in comfortably, such as sukhasana or siddhasana with a cushion under your bum to lift your hips. Ensure the spine is tall.
Remove any visual aids like glasses or contact lenses as otherwise, it may be uncomfortable for your eyes.
Take some time to settle into the meditation, if you wish you can close your eyes and focus on the breath without trying to control it. When you feel ready, open the eyes and steadily bring your attention to the flame.
As the mind wanders, keep bringing it gently back to the flame.
Start with doing this for around 2 minutes and you can gradually build up to 10 or more.
#2: With A Yantra
Yantra is a sacred, geometric symbol that can be used to invoke deities or energies during meditation.
Sit in a comfortable meditative posture with the yantra at eye level.
Focus on the center of the yantra and set an intention to call in the qualities that the particular yantra symbolizes.
You can also close your eyes and try to visualize the yantra internally. Once you begin to lose the mental image, open the eyes again and come back to the physical yantra.
#3: With Ajna Chakra
Save this one for when you’re in a bad mood as it can help to remove negative thoughts from the mind.
Close the eyes and sit in a meditative position.
Inhale and exhale deeply a few times, then allow the breath to return to its natural rhythm.
With the eyes closed, look upwards to the point between the eyebrows.
You may feel some discomfort in the third eye area as you do this, but it should not last too long. If the eyes feel like they are straining, then allow them to return to a normal gaze.
Again, you can start with 2 minutes and begin to build up slowly as the eyes get used to holding this position.
These are just a few suggestions, but you may also want to practice trataka with crystals, trees, mountains, water, the moon, the sky or anything else that you feel called to!
For More information on meditation techniques:
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