As the days grow colder and shorter – and the holiday season approaches – I am always drawn to candles. Candlelight is soothing, warming, and inspiring. My daughter and I love to light them all around the house and especially at the dinner table. We also relish time to create home-made, rolled beeswax candles.
Lighting candles is also a wonderful way to celebrate the first day of winter – the Solstice. As the hours of sunlight begin to increase from this point forward until summertime, igniting a candle (or several) honors and symbolizes this growing solar light, as well as our Divine Light within.
The ancient yogis knew the power of candlelight, and incorporated it into a practice called Trataka. Trataka is Sanskrit for the fixing of the eyes on one object. It is a form of dharana, or concentration, and also considered a practice of purification. You can practice Trataka on any object, but a candle flame is preferred, not only for its symbolism and beauty, but because it leaves a clear after-image on the retina.
This after-image is very helpful, because Trataka is performed first with eyes open, then with eyes closed. Trataka trains us to focus our attention on the object, and then maintain that image when we close our eyes. With a candle, because of the bright light from the flame, a clear and longer-lasting after-image results, making it easier to build concentration.
Actually, Trataka cultivates at least 3 of the 8 “limbs” of classical yoga practice: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) through cutting out all distractions other than the object of focus; dharana (concentration) through the intense focus on that particular point; and dhyana (meditation) through the stilling of thought. As the practice is perfected, one becomes absorbed into the experience of the candle flame itself and deeper states of meditation are possible.
Of course, you can enjoy and experience the benefits of Trataka without being a yogi. Meditation on a candle calms the mind, uplifts the spirit, and creates a sacred atmosphere. I always have at least one candle on my altar for this purpose, and you can create a very simple sacred space just with one candle.
There are reputed physical benefits to Trataka as well. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most regarded texts of practice and philosophy, states that Trataka “eradicates all eye diseases, fatigue and sloth, and closes the doorway to creating these problems.” I myself have experienced vision improvement at times by practicing this. And if that weren’t enough, it supposedly increases your psychic powers by developing your third eye (looking forward to those results!).
Want to give it a try? Here’s how:
- Place a candle on a stable surface in front of you, at eye’s height (you can stack up books to get it to where you don’t have to tilt your head down to look at it). It should ideally be around arm’s distance away. Let the rest of the area be as clear of objects as possible, to reduce distraction.
- Light the candle. Allow your eyelids to be half-closed, and rest your gaze near the base of the flame, at the top of the wick itself.
- Try not to blink. The eyes will begin to fill with tears. It may take several tries to be able to sustain this through the tearing of the eyes. If you have to, go ahead and blink, but try to minimize this.
- Continue to gaze for about 3-5 minutes. Then, close your eyes and focus on the image of the flame internally. Attempt to sustain a visualization of the candle flame for several minutes, preferably at the third eye – the spot between and just above the eyebrows, at the center of the forehead.
- If you find it difficult, don’t worry. In the beginning, it’s hard to sustain the gaze and even harder for some to maintain the image in the mind’s eye. With practice, you’ll pick it up over time. Be gentle with yourself; don’t focus too hard, and let go of your expectations, so you can enjoy whatever your experience is.
Most of all, appreciate the beauty of the light that the candle emits. Let it remind you of the sacredness of this first night of winter, and the light of your own soul.
Copyright © 2017 by Rev. Connie L. Habash