“Gaze with motionless eyes at a minute object with your mind concentrated until tears come. This is called trataka by the gurus. By trataka, sloth and all diseases of the eyes are removed. So it should be carefully preserved, as you would a golden box”.
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.31-32
“When all the nadis that are now full of impurities become purified, then only can you successfully perform pranayama”.
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.4
Many people develop the habit of breathing through their mouths, simply because their noses are blocked. Your nose is designed for breathing; your mouth is not. So, before you attempt to do breathing exercises, it is best to start with some nasal cleansing.
Neti is an excellent means to cleanse your nasal passages and sinus cavities of pollution, dust, pollen and excess mucus. It is useful to everyone who lives in a modern city and works in an office, or takes public transport – or goes into shops, i.e. almost everyone. It is especially beneficial for people with asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems. You can do this simple, hygienic practice daily – preferably each morning just after you have brushed your teeth. At first you may want to practice neti in front of a mirror so that you can see the openings of your nostrils.
- You will need a small “neti pot”with a spout. These are available from most health food shops and online – also they are sold by many pharmacies and chemists. Fill the neti pot with the lukewarm water. Add approximately ½ teaspoon of fine sea salt and stir until the salt is absorbed.
- Leaning over a sink, inhale breath and hold your breath. Tighten the back of your throat as though you were about to gargle. Tilt your head to the left and pour the salt-water into your right nostril. Allow gravity to drain the water out through your left nostril. Do not inhale the water
The Sanskrit word “kapala” means skull; “bhati” denotes shining. In this exercise, you use your breath to cleanse your respiratory and circulatory systems. With regular practice, kapalabhati purifies your entire system so thoroughly that your face shines with good health and inner radiance.
The best time to do kapalabhati is right after practicing neti (see above), at the beginning of your pranayama session or before your meditation.
Kapalabhati cleanses your nasal passage, lungs and entire respiratory system while strengthening and increasing your lung capacity. It helps to drain your sinuses and eliminate accumulated mucus. It also eliminates carbon dioxide and other impurities from your blood stream, permitting the red-blood cells to suck in more oxygen. The additional oxygen enriches your blood and aids in the renewal of body tissues.
The movement of your diaphragm and abdominal contractions massage your stomach, liver, spleen, heart and pancreas. Your abdominal muscles are strengthened; digestion tends to improve.
Kapalabhati refreshes and invigorates your mind. You will probably experience an increased alertness as a result of the additional intake of fresh oxygen. Expect a feeling of exhilaration and an increase of mental clarity.
To do kapalabhati: Sit with your back straight and your head erect, preferably in a cross-legged position. If you are unable to sit cross-legged, sit on a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the ground. Take 2-3 exaggerated deep breaths, then inhale and begin the rhythmic abdominal pumping as follows:
- Contract your abdominal muscles quickly. This causes your diaphragm to move up into your thoracic cavity, emptying the air from your lungs and pushing it out through your nostrils.
- Relax your abdominal muscles; passive inhalation takes place. Your lungs automatically inflate with air. Do not forcefully inhale.
Repeat this rapid pumping. End on an exhalation and then take 2-3 deep breaths to bring your breathing back to normal. This is one round of kapalabhati.
Start with three rounds of 20-25 pumpings each. Gradually increase this to a daily practice of 3-5 rounds of 30-50 pumpings each.
Caution: Kapalabhati should not be practiced during pregnancy or menstrual period. It is counter-indicated if you have a hernia, abdominal pain or cramping, high blood pressure or are experiencing an asthmatic attack.
The mechanics of kapalabhati can be a bit difficult to grasp; it is suggested that you learn to do it from a qualified yoga teacher.
Tratak: steady gazing
Tratak purifies your physical eyes, tear ducts and sinuses; it helps to strengthen your eyesight and brings a fresh supply of blood to the forehead region. It also cleanses your brow (ajna) chakra, decreases lethargy and increases your powers of discernment. If you are attempting to establish a meditation practice, tratak can be a great aid to intense concentration. Tratak stimulates the pineal gland. This smallest member of the endocrine system is located at the centre of your brain, between the two hemispheres. It produces melatonin, the serotonin derived hormone that regulates sleep patterns, your internal body clock and seasonal cycles. Regular practise of tratak can be especially effective in the winter months, when reduced levels of sunlight may cause you to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The exercise may also prove to be a great aid if you suffer from insomnia and other sleep-related disorders.
Tratak with a candle flame
- The most common form of tratak uses a candle’s flame as its focal point. This works best when practised in a darkened room. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, it is suggested that you remove them.
- Place a lit candle an arm’s distance in front of you. Ensure that your eyes and the candle flame are on the (approximately) same horizontal plane, with the candle just slightly lower than your eyes. Make sure there is no draft so that the flame remains steady and non-flickering.
- Sit in a comfortable meditation position with your spine straight and head erect. Allow your hands to rest comfortably in your lap or on your thighs.
- Open your eyes wide and look deeply into the flame, trying to not blink. There should be no tension in your face or eye muscles as you do this. Hold the gaze for approximately one minute. Do not allow your eyes to cross. You will know that your eyes are loosing their focus if multiple images start to appear.
- Optimally, there should not be no movement of the eyeballs. Do not strain or tense your eye muscles, as this might cause a headache. Just look at the flame in a relaxed yet unflinching manner. Notice that the flame has several rings of differing colours. If your eyes start to tear, this provides an excellent cleanse to your eyes and tear ducts.
- After one minute, close your eyes to permit the eye muscles to relax.
- You may repeat this process of gazing at the candle and relaxing the eyes several times.
- When you are ready, gradually increase the time of gazing to three, five or even ten minutes.
- When you close your eyes, visualise the exact flame that you were just looking at. Hold the image firmly at the point between your eyebrows.
- You are not concentrating on the physical stimulation of the optic nerve that occurs anytime that you look at a bright light. Instead, in tratak, you are using your mind’s eye to draw a mental picture of the flame, including all its rings and various colours.
- When you are finished, splash some cold water on your eyes.
Dhrishti: eye focus
Dhrishti, the practice of fixing your gaze, is a cleansing discipline in itself and can bolster the purifying effects of other practices. It helps you to stay present in the moment, relieves tension and improves blood circulation to the frontal region of your head and to your brain.
When using dhrishti, you stop your attention from wandering by directing it to specific points. This stimulates the healing flow of subtle energy within the meridians (referred to as ‘nadis’ by yoga practitioners) and removes blockages from these channels.
These gazes, best practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher, cleanse, stimulate and equalize the energy of both major and minor chakras. They facilitate the holding of balancing poses and draw the body into correct alignment.
Variation 1: Nasagra drishti – nasal gaze
Begin with nasal gazing. Sit in a comfortable meditative position with your back straight and your head erect. Turn your gaze downward and focus both eyes on the tip of your nose with your eyelids half closed. Hold this for only 10 seconds; then close and relax your eyes. Gradually you may build up to one minute, as long as your eyes do not feel strained. Once you have perfected this technique, notice how its use strengthens your eyes and enhances such poses as ‘the yawning lion’ (see page 00)
When you have perfected the nasal gaze, and can do it without experiencing tension, try turning your eyes upward. The eyeballs themselves are turned up towards the frontal region of the brain and the vision is fixed on the point between your eyebrows.
Variation 2: Bhrūmadhya drishti – frontal gaze
Advance students start concentration by directing and turning the half-closed eyes toward the space between the eyebrows, which is also known as the Ajna Chakra, or Third Eye. By directing the gaze at this point the olfactory nerves and optic nerves are stimulated and, in turn, the automatic nervous system and central nervous system are awakened. Done slowly, this exercise has a soothing effect on the cranial nerves and helps the mind to become one-pointed. Advanced students will find this exercise very useful as a breathing exercise and to awaken the Kundalini Shakti. However, it is best to avoid too much strain on the eye muscles. Prolonged practice without the guidance of a teacher may affect the eye muscles as well as the nervous system.
Maintain this gaze for only 10 seconds. Then rest and relax your eyes. It may be used in asanas, such as the ‘fish pose’ (Matsyasana), but prolonged practice is not recommended.
For more information see:
‘Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga’ by Swami Vishnu-devananda (pages 31-34)
or ‘The Cleansing Power of Yoga’ by Swami Saradananda (pages 46-47)
Shankh-prakshalana is a natural means of cleansing your entire digestive system. It is best practiced twice a year at the changing of the seasons. The process itself takes about 1-2 hours; you will need to rest and take light food for the rest of the day.
The idea is to drink salt water while performing simple yoga exercises. These movements stimulate the water to cleanse your digestive tract, eliminating one of the major causes of physical stress and the promoting good health of your entire system.
Choose a day when you are free of work and other responsibilities. Prepare yourself by eating lightly for three days beforehand, completely avoiding meat, fish, eggs, alcohol and dairy products. The night before, eat a small meal, preferably just some fruit. Practice first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.
Mix 60-75 grams of sea salt into 4-5 litres of warm water (36-37° C). The water needs to be salty otherwise it’s not going to reach your colon. Instead, your body will evacuate it as urine.
- Drink 1-2 glasses of the prepared salt water; perform a round of the exercises given below.
- Keep drinking and doing the exercises until you have done this six time. You may find the salt water difficult to swallow after the fourth glass, but continue.
- Visit the toilet as often as necessary. If you cannot get a desirable result, massage your abdomen by moving your hands clockwise.
- Continue this procedure of drinking salt water, practicing the asanas and visits to the toilet until you see clear water coming out of your colon.
- Wait at least 30 minutes after finishing Shankh-prakshalana before eating. Don't drink before you eat, even if you feel thirsty. If you drink, you will go to the toilet again.
- Rest for the remainder of the day; eat only kitchari, i.e. rice and lentils cooked together until they are slightly soft. Add ghee or sesame oil, but no spices. Drink only herbal tea or mineral water for the rest of the day.
- For the next few days, avoid meat, fish and eggs, dairy products; raw fruits and vegetables; sour, fried and spicy foods, coffee, black tea, alcohol, and any foods that are rich or heavy.
- Tadasana: stand with your feet approximately 30 cm apart. Lift your arms over your head with the elbows straight. Interlock your fingers and turn palms upwards and give your body an exaggerated stretch, making yourself as tall as possible for 3-5 long breaths
- Crescent moon: without twisting, bend towards the left as far as you can, keeping your weight evenly distributed between both feet – then to the right. Repeat these movements 3-4 times to each side.
- Standing twist: drop your arms and remain in your standing position. Gently swing your arms as you rapidly twist from side to side; do this 3-5 times to each side.
- Cobra pose: Lie on your abdomen with your feet approximately 30 cm apart; tuck your toes under and bring your hands flat on the floor under your shoulders. Straighten your elbows so that your body lifts slightly and only your palms and toes are touching the ground.
- Turn your head to look over one shoulder as you twist your trunk, trying to see the opposite heel. Repeat this movement on each side 3-5 times.
- Spinal twist: sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your right knee and place your right foot flat on the floor just outside of your left thigh. Place your left hand on your right knee and twist around to the right as far as possible, looking over your right shoulder. Hold this for 3-5 breaths and then repeat on the other side.
CAUTION: people with serious stomach or other digestive disorders should not practice shankh-prakshalana. Also, do not attempt it during pregnancy or menstruation – or if you currently have or have ever suffered from an eating disorder.