Trataka (called trotaka in Hatharatnavali), as described in the important hatha yogic texts, consists of steady gazing in a well-composed manner, at a particular point or minute object, without winking, until tears begin to flow.*1 Vacaspatyam quotes from Hatha Samhita that trataka is better performed in sukhasana, first at some object and thereafter at its after - image projected in the sky. It tells that the trataka on the nose tip (nasagra dristi) reduces mental tensions (kleshas) and trataka on the eyebrow centre (bhrumadhya dristi) facilitates attainment of khechari - a higher yoga practice.*2 Satkarmasangraha*3 advises the repetition of bija mantras - the 'Vam' and 'glau' (i.e. those of Varuna, the water; and Prithivi, the earth) during the process of trataka.
The principal hatha texts demand that the practice of trataka should be greatly valued and secretly preserved, like a casket of gold. It might be due to the hypnotic and ecstatic effect of trataka. According to the texts, the process of trataka cures eye diseases and improves eye sight, prevents sloth and manifests 'inward light'. By its constant practice, clairvoyance (divya dristi) is developed and sambhavi mudra, a higher spiritual gesture, is verily achieved.*4 Bhakti Sagara,*5 claims that whatever idea is contemplated during trataka practice, it will actually be fulfilled. However, this claim may be true only in advanced tratakas.
It is a recorded fact in the Aryan history, that an accomplished yogi can greatly mesmerise, hypnotise and control the psyche of others, by constant gazing into their eyes. For example, Yogi Vipula protected his master's wife from the sexual designs of Indra by constant fixation of his eyes into her eyes, thus stupefying her from advances. Similarly, the great ascetic, Vidura's act of inducing his psyche i.e. soul, into Yudhisthira at the time of his final departure, by steadily staring into his eyes, are proofs of trataka's hypnotic powers that are old as the Mahabharata.*6 Trataka, in fact, is the most important technique for concentration and is very old indeed, because the processes of gazing at the nosetip, eyebrow centre and any internal or external point etc., as described in the Gita and other ancient treatises*7, are but the variations of this practice.
A somewhat similar practice to trataka is accomplished by staring at one's own afterimage in the sky. This has been greatly extolled in the Siva Samhita*8 by the name pratikopasana or chayasiddhi i.e. invocation of shadow. Expanding this technique, it is told that at the time of the rising sun or by the moon, let one steadily fix his gaze on the neck of the shadow he projects. Then, after sometime, let him look into the sky to see his full grey shadow (i.e. afterimage). This practice should be further developed for contemplation on the great Void (Mahat Shoonya) and on or beyond the Cosmic Egg (Brahmandabahya). Pratikopasana is praised as the means for emancipation, immortality, great bliss, absolute purity and victory in every field.
Trataka is possibly classified as a yogic cleansing (shodhana kriya or shatkarma) because it purifies the eyes by the constant flow of tears; or because it acts as a psychological cleansing process by activating the area of subconscious and unconscious mind.*9
Traditionally many types of trataka are practised such as constant gazing at the tip of a wick of a lamp flame produced from clarified butter (ghee) or upon simple candle light; staring at the rising (or setting) sun, at the moon, the green grass or tree leaves, the clear water of a lake, some transparent glass, the sky, the space, a small round object, a minute black spot on a white background, or an illustration of Aum. A black or green circle the size of a small coin, approximately one half to one inch in diameter and marked with a dot at the centre, painted on a squared paper can also serve as a good object. The best form of trataka, in view of the personal experience of this scholar, is to steadily gaze at the third eye (the space between the eyebrows) of the originator of yoga - Lord Siva's picture. At a later stage, this helps to easily concentrate the mind at the midpoint of one's own eyebrows, with eyes Open or closed and also activates many mystical experiences.
Trataka should be done in a meditative sitting posture such as siddhasana, padmasana, sukhasana or vajrasana. The eyes should be kept focused at the tip of the flame or at the painted dot far away but directly in line with the normal visual axis, till tears start flowing. The area of central fixation should be gradually reduced, because the smaller the area, the better the fixation. The distance between the object and the eyes should vary to suit one's requirements, yet it should be kept between one and three yards. As soon as the tears begin to flow, close the wide-opened eyes (with or without cupped hands) for a few moments and contemplate upon the afterimage arising in the mental space. Then resume the practice again. Ten to fifteen minutes trataka without the least blinking of the eyes will start inducing some mystical experiences. The special importance of trataka on the luminous or light giving object is perhaps due to the similarity of the 'mental afterimages' thus produced, and the experience of the 'inner light' i.e. kundalini of the yogic theory.
The trataka exercises including the nosetip gaze, eyebrow centre gaze and right and left shoulder gaze, etc., especially train and strengthen the eye muscles - particularly the four pairs of muscles controlling the upward, downward, right and left movements of the eyeballs. Defects of vision and other eye troubles, which force people to use glasses or contact lenses, are cured by trataka. Gazing at various objects of nature accustoms the eyes to the varied influences of light and environments, etc. The eye muscles generally act asymmetrically in the ordinary use of the eyes, and thus produce eye strain or weariness, which further aggravates visionary troubles. The regular and systematic practice of various eye exercises of trataka can correct all these. Trataka can increase the vision so much so that even the smallest particle in the dead darkness (and also in the dazzling light) becomes visible. Inflammation of the eyes, trachoma, styes, astigmatism, myopia, hypermetropia and presbyopia, etc., in short all the eye problems can be corrected by trataka. Trataka vitalises vision by accelerating blood circulation in and around the area of the eyes, and also naturalises eye infections by destroying the microbes through tears.
By directing the gaze at the eyebrow centre, the olfactory nerves and the optic nerves are stimulated, and as a result, the autonomic and the central nervous systems are awakened. There is a close relationship between mind and vision, thus trataka not only maintains the physical health of eyes but also helps a great deal in controlling the mind. It causes a soothing effect on the cranial nerves, thus enabling the mind to become one-pointed. It greatly improves memory and willpower, and helps to attain perfection in samyama (i.e. dharana, dhyana, samadhi) described in Patanjala Yoga. Laboratory tests on trataka have proved that it brings back certain repressed experiences to the level of consciousness. For ocular health, in addition to the trataka practice, stroking, moving, pressing, palming, light kneading and salakyam (as described in Satkarma-sangrahah) of the eyes are also quite beneficial.*10
*1. Nimesonmesakam tyaktva suksmalaksyam niriksayet patanti yavadasruni tratakam procyatebudhaih. (Gheranda Samhita 1.53; Hathayogasamhita p. 13, v. 43) Also cf. Hathapradipika 2.32; Hatharatnavali 1.52; Satkarmasangrahah v. 40., Trataka karma takataki lagai palaka palaka som milai na takai. (Bhakti Sagara p. 117)
*2. Vacaspatyam p. 5402 ...Siddhe'smin nasikagrek sanahatatanurkklesavan sadhakah syad bhrumadhyam ca ...khecari...
*3. Satkarmasangrahah v. 40, ...Vamglavikaranasthe'sminnantarjyotih prakasyate.
*4. Mocanam netraroganam tandradinam kapatakam yatnatastratakam gopyam yatha hatakapetakam. (Hathapradipika 2.33) Also cf. Hatharatnavali 1.53; Satkarmasangrahah v.41 ...antarjyotih prakasyate. Also Gheranda Samhita 1.54; Hathayogasamhita p. B, v. 44. Evamabhyasayogena sambhavi jayate dhruvam netraroga vinasyanti divyadrstih prajayate.
*5. Bhakti Sagara p. 117- Jete dhyana naina ke hoy Caranadasa purana ho soi.
*6. Gurupatnim samasino Vipulah sa mahatapah netrabhyam netrayorasya rasmim samyojyarasmibhih vivesa Vipulah kayamakasam pavano yatha. (Mahabharata Anusasan Parva 40.56,57) Tatah so'nimiso bhutva rajanam tamudaiksata samyojya Viturastasmin drstim drstya samahitah vivesa Viduro dhiman gatrairgatrani caiva ha. (Mahabharata Asramvasika Parva 26.25,26)
*7. cf. Bhagavadgita 5.27; 6.13; 8.10; Kurma Purana 2.11.53,54; Agni Purana 373.4; Srimadbhagavata 11.14.32; Goraksasatakam v. 41; Mahabharata Anu-sasana Parva 145; Advaya Tarakopanishad 6,11,12; Mandalabrahmanopanishad 1.2.4,7; 1.3.3,5; Yogiyajna-valkya 5.15; 9.31; 12.26. Also Bhakti Sagara p. 117- Amkha ulati trikuti meim ano yaha bhi trataka karma pichano.
*8. Siva Samhita 5.15-21; 160-168.
*9. Gheranda Samhita (Kaivalyadhama) Notes p. 137.
*10. For the various techniques, benefits, etc. of trataka cf. and contrast: Raja Yoga- Jnana Yoga Sadhana, 1st Edt, by Dr Swami Gitananda pp. 23-26; Advanced Yoga Practices, 4th Edt., by Dr Swami Gitananda p. 124, 128, 136, 140; Yoga Hygeine Simplified, 19th Edt., by Shri Yogendra pp. 89-97; Hatha Yoga- the Report of a Personal Experience, Edt. 1960, by Theos Bernard pp. 107-108; The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, 9th Edt., by Swami Vishnudevananda pp.34-37; Umesh Yoga Darshan (Part 1), by Yogiraj Shri Umeshchandraji pp. 185-192; Patanjala Yoga Pradeep, 4th, by Swami Omananda Tirtha p.403; Satkarmasangrahah v.81.83; Yogic Suksam Vyayama, 2nd Edt., by Dbirendra Brahmachari pp. 197-198; Yoga XVIII No.3, " Swami Satyananda Saraswati p. 19.