Trataka means to gaze, and it is an important practice of pratyahara. It is the last practice of pratyahara, which leads to dharana.
In trataka the mind is fixed right from the word ‘go’ on an object, a visual object. In your practice of yoga nidra, you go through a gradual introversion. From body awareness you move to sound awareness, then to rotation of consciousness through body parts, breath awareness, and so on. You gradually go deeper, withdrawing the mind from its external associations and connections. In trataka it is one hit, you are there, you have to be there, for there is no gradual movement to concentration. You have to have that state of concentration right from the word ‘go’.
Trataka involves sight, and sight is connected to ajna chakra. There is a story that Sage Gorakhnath, one of the main propagators of hatha yoga, perfected hatha yoga spontaneously through trataka.
Once he was sick and bedridden. On the wall of his room was hanging an earthen lantern with a burning wick, as it used to be in the olden days. In the dark room the lamp would be burning continuously, and lying on the bed he would gaze at the lamp. By doing this he perfected trataka. While he was sick, he watched the fame and perfected his trataka. That perfection bestowed certain special abilities upon him, and then his guru Matsyendranath came and took him as his disciple.
Trataka is a visual practice and it uses sight to bring about a state of concentration. It uses vision to still the dissipations of the mind, and therein lies its beauty.
There are many methods of practising trataka and each brings about a different experience. For therapy purposes the method is different, for achieving mental concentration the method is different, for psychic experience the method is again different. Trataka is not one practice, though usually only one method is taught as that is the safest. If the other methods were taught, you could have experiences that you may not be able to manage. Remember, this is not a subject of curiosity or of bravado that you can manage it; you have to work from where you are and gradually go up.
It is believed that trataka opens up the human psyche. It activates ajna chakra, due to which you begin to foresee things; you become the seer of events. That, however, is the final attainment of trataka. In the primary class of trataka, it is practised for two purposes: therapy of the eyes and concentration. At the Bihar School of Yoga, trataka has not been taught for psychic discovery or awakening.
In terms of therapy, the practice improves the eyesight. In fact, whenever you feel that your vision is deteriorating, perhaps at the age of forty or forty-five, practise trataka. When you begin to have a little blurriness in the vision and notice that you need to hold the paper away from yourself, at that time if you practise trataka regularly for six months your eyesight will get better. After some time, when you again notice a slight blurriness and there is an urge to move the paper away, again practise trataka for fifteen days. That is how trataka is used for therapy purposes.
For the purpose of concentration, to stop the dissipation of mind and improve concentration, trataka on a candle fame is practised at night. That is the technique used in the Bihar Yoga system more than any other. Rather than trying to practise and teach twenty different variations of trataka, which will not be used properly, this single practice helps improve the eyesight and concentration.
Swami Satyananda was the first person to use this particular technique while everybody else was doing trataka on yantras, symbols and black dots. Swami Satyananda said, “No, they may be practices of hatha yoga but they are irrelevant to the needs of today. What is relevant in relation to physical and mental health is what we are going to use.” Thus, in the Bihar Yoga system, trataka using a candle fame is the style that Sri Swamiji introduced.
There are four stages of trataka. First is bahir trataka or external trataka. This uses an external object on which the vision is fixed; one has to look at it without flickering the eyelids. That is the rule of trataka: while you are looking at something you cannot flicker the eyelids. The moment you have the urge to blink or move the eyes for any other reason, you have to stop the external gazing, close the eyes, look at the after-image, and remain with the eyes closed until that inner image disappears.
Initially, when you are not used to the practice, the nerves and the muscles get tired quickly and there is a strong urge to close the eyes, and when you close them tears begin to flow. The tear ducts become activated due to the pressure exerted on them by steady gazing, and that is a good sign, as the eyes are being lubricated. This is known as bahir trataka.
The second stage is antar trataka, internal trataka, and here a symbol is used. For example, at the beginning of a class during Shanti Path you are asked to visualize a candle fame at the eyebrow centre. That is the beginning of antar trataka, where you are recreating the image of a fame in your mind. You have to recreate the fame as a 3D image: the colours, the height, the width, all have to be seen. In antar trataka, the effort is to actualize the form that you visualize or think of.
Then the third stage of trataka, after bahir and antar trataka, is shoonya drishti. Shoonya drishti means gazing into nothingness, into void. How this is practised will become clear if you recall the practice of antar mouna. You would have noticed that in antar mouna when you are asked to become aware of your thoughts, there are no thoughts, you find that you cannot think. That is because the moment you begin to observe something, that activity stops. The moment you move your mind away, again the thoughts begin to come. That applies to trataka as well.
Vision is considered to be one of the major causes of dissipation in the brain. You receive information through all the senses, whether touch, smell, taste or sound, but the volume of information received through the eyes is much more than all the other four senses put together. Out of the two billion bytes of information that your brain receives every second, maybe sixty percent is vision-related, ten percent is hearing, ten is touching, ten is smelling and ten is tasting. Therefore, it is the vision that always creates mental disturbance, and in trataka the vision is being focused.
If you close your eyes and remain with the eyes closed for five minutes, your brainwaves will change. They will become alpha waves. Then, when you open your eyes and reconnect with the world, the brainwaves will again change instantly, as the shapes, forms and colours are being again recognized and absorbed. At that moment beta waves will predominate.
In bahir trataka you are focusing your jnanendriya, the physical organ of the eyes, on an object, and with that the agitations connected with sight stop. The brain becomes less active, as the influx of information has reduced. When you practise antar trataka, there is disconnection from the outside influx and you are self-contained. You don’t move out of yourself into what is outside. With the intensity of concentration, all chatter is forgotten and you come to a state of shoonya, nothingness, void. The mind becomes absolutely still, not a single thought comes. Even if you try to think, you will not be able to, you won’t know where to pick a thought from. It is a condition of absolute void.
The fourth stage of trataka is chaitanya trataka or continuous trataka. It refers to one’s ability to remain focused at all times.
Once I said to Sri Swamiji that it will be nice to have an ashram in the mountains, in the Himalayas. He looked at me and said, “The idea is good but remember the purpose. If you are thinking of peace, then you won’t find peace in the Himalayas if your mind is not at peace. If your mind is at peace then even in a place like Munger you won’t hear a single sound, as you won’t be distracted by what is around. You will be one with the experience of peace.”
That is chaitanya trataka, where the focus and the sharpness of the mind is so intense that there is no deviation of attention or awareness. Right now your awareness can fluctuate at any moment. A big bang behind will make everybody turn around and question, ‘What was that noise?’ In chaitanya trataka, when you are maintaining the state of trataka continuously, you can be in the middle of a battlefield and remain as peaceful as Buddha.
One who is able to maintain equipoise in all the critical conditions of life practises chaitanya trataka. One who enters the state of samadhi experiences shoonya drishti. One who becomes established in pratyahara and dharana experiences antar trataka. One who learns about dissociation and disconnection from the external influences performs bahir trataka.
The benefits of trataka became clear during an incident. Once I was giving yoga classes to a group of violent prisoners accorded maximum security in San Francisco, USA. There were about fifty of them in the room. Before I went into the class, the warden said to me, “They have difficulty sleeping at night. Can anything in yoga make them sleep better?” I said, “Let me think about it.”
While giving the class, an idea came, ‘Why not make them do trataka in their cells at night?’ So I said to them, “Would you like to try one yogic experiment tonight? It is something you can do in the quiet of your own cell.” They said, “Sure.” I asked the warden if he could organize candles for them. He said, “Well, swami, there are safety issues. They may burn anything.” I said, “Let us try for one day. If need be, you can put a guard in front of every cell to see that nobody is burning anything.” In this way, we tried trataka.
My instructions were being boomed through the speaker system. I was not watching them, but I was able to see them on the CCTV screen. I led them through the practice of trataka for half an hour, and then we finished. I returned to the guesthouse with the warden.
About twenty minutes later as I was having a cup of tea with him, he received a phone call: “All the people who have done that funny eye exercise are sleeping.” They slept like babies that night, and the next day they were late risers. This incident left an impression and later when other people said to me, “Swamiji, we cannot sleep at night,” I asked them to practise trataka, and it worked.
The reason trataka helps in sleep is that you experience a very deep relaxation in the practice. Not just that, when you wake up the next morning the freshness and relaxation that you experience in the body is unique. Trataka rejuvenates the whole mind by disconnecting it from its sources of distraction. That is the trade secret of trataka.
—27 September 2016, Ganga Darshan, Munger, Hatha Yoga Training – Module 1 (Extract)