Fire Kasina / Trataka

Traditional Hindu texts refer to a variety of meditation practices. For example, the Upanishads mention techniques that utilise cosmic contemplation, Vedic religious symbolism, avataras (images understood to be a physical presence of a deity or God), and mantras (words or sounds that have special religious significance) like the OM.[1] Various positive physiological and psychological effects are also mentioned in the Hindu scriptures, however health benefits tend to be the outcome of preparatory and purification practices (kriya) rather than of meditation itself.[2] For example, body postures (asana) and breath control (pranayama) are preparatory cleansing techniques used to maintain health, prevent disease and increase the life span. However, the intention behind the cultivation of these health effects is religious; that is, the primary goal of asana and pranayama is to prepare the individual to sit comfortably and motionless for prolonged periods of meditation.[3]

Sometimes kriyas contain meditative elements, such as in the case of trataka, which is both a purification practice and a form of concentration meditation.[4] Trataka involves concentrated gazing at an object (usually a candle flame) and is said to confer a wide range of health benefits, including the treatment of eye conditions, depression, insomnia, allergies, anxiety, and postural problems.[5] When practiced correctly, trataka also induces a meditative mental state and, with time, is said to improve memory and concentration.[6] However, like the other kriyas, while trataka has many alleged therapeutic effects, its primary purpose as a cleansing technique is connected to a religious goal; that is, to purify and prepare the body for the demands of prolonged meditation.[7] Hence, while meditation is utilised in contemporary Western secular settings primarily for health promotion and symptom relief, in the traditional Hindu context, physical and mental wellbeing are prerequisites to begin meditation practice, not its goal.

I was given instruction in candle gazing trataka several years ago by the yogi Bhava Ram, and since then, it has been my preferred sitting practice. Coincidentally my friend Daniel Ingram has also gone deep into exploring this technique (he refers to it as fire kasina) and through his work in organising retreats and collating the practice journals of others, I have discovered that one of the most interesting things about this practice is that there is a standard visual trajectory that most practitioners will follow. Daniel has gone to great efforts to map the fire kasina phenomenology here.

While there are a handful of academic articles about fire kasina/trataka, no one is really talking about the fascinating visual phenomenology in any detail, so this is an area ripe for future research.

[1] Klostermaier, A Survey, 164; 206-207. Also, Swami Jyotirmayananda, “Meditation on the Self and Superconsciousness,” International Journal of Humanities and Peace 22, no. 1 (2006): 58-61.

[2] Klostermaier writes: “That health and religion go hand in hand is a commonly accepted truism among the Hindus.” Klostermaier, A Survey, 140-141.

[3] The Yoga Sutras mention effects (vibhutis, or properties of yoga) such as the attainment of “an excellent body with grace, strength, perfect complexion and lustre” and a temperament that is “friendly and compassionate to all” however these are seen as side effects, not primary goals of practice. Klostermaier, A Survey, 346-350.

[4] Trataka is mentioned in the The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (c. 900 – 1000 B.C.E.), the first important written work to depict the asanas used in the Hatha Yoga tradition. See Swami Muktibodhananda (ed.), Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Light on Hatha Yoga (Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 2012), 212.

[5] Swami Muktibodhananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 212.

[6] There is some scientific support for this claim. For example, B.R. Raghavendra and P. Singh, “Immediate Effect of Yogic Visual Concentration on Cognitive Performance,” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 6 (2016): 34-36.

[7] For an overview of the kriyas see Swami Muktibodhananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash