Some say humans now have the attention span of a goldfish — about 8 seconds — though not everyone agrees.
Regardless, it seems fair to say that relaxation and focus are two qualities people want more of.
Can you quiet your mind and settle your nerves by focusing on a single object, namely a candle? According to the ancient technique of candle gazing meditation, the answer may be yes.
Experts and some research suggest that candle gazing meditation can help enhance cognitive function, mental health, and spiritual connectedness.
But how does it work? And is staring at a candle flame safe for your eyes? Read on to find out.
Candle gazing meditation is also known as trataka, or yogic gazing. In Sanskrit, a classical language of Southeast Asia, the word “trataka” means to look or to gaze.
“People are so distracted,” says Nisha Saini, board certified holistic health practitioner, Panchakarma specialist, and founder and CEO of New York Ayurveda & Panchakarma Center. “People have forgotten how to relax.”
Saini says everything from technology to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has made it difficult for people to focus their minds and find a state of calm.
“When you are looking at one object, it helps you with focus and…emptying your mind,” she says.
That’s where candle meditation comes in.
History and cultural context
Candle meditation has roots in ancient Indian yoga practices. You can find early mentions of trataka in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th-century Sanskrit manual on yoga.
The authors of the text instruct practitioners to be calm and “gaze steadily at a small mark, till eyes are filled with tears,” according to a 2018 research article. They believed it could help cure eye diseases. Gheranda Samhita, another Sanskrit manual, similarly describes the practice.
A group of researchers who studied the effects of yogic visual concentration on cognitive performance in 2016 noted that Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists trataka as one of six body-cleansing techniques to purify and prepare the body and mind for:
breath regulation, or pranayama
Ayurveda, or traditional Indian Medicine, incorporates five element theory, also a guiding principle of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Ayurvedic teachings list the five elements as:
Ayurveda describes three fundamental combinations of the five elements, known as doshas. These doshas govern a person’s physical and mental health, according to Pierre Couvillion, the founder and director of Santosha School, a yoga and Ayurveda wellness center and school in Indianapolis.
The doshas are:
Vata (space and air). This dosha governs movement. Its essential component is prana (vital energy, or movement).
Pitta (fire and water): This dosha governs transformation. Its essential component is called tejas (vital spark, or discernment).
Kapha (water and earth). This dosha creates structure and lubrication. Its essential component is called ojas (vital essence, or nectar of life).
“Fire, of the elements, helps with focus and cognition,” Couvillion says. “It’s related to the gray matter of the brain [and] the ability to process.”
Couvillion says practitioners can invoke the fire element through candle meditation. This, in turn, refines tejas and enhances focus, cognition, and mental clarity.
Proponents of the practice say benefits of candle meditation include:
increased cognitive performance and focus
improved memory and spatial attention
Improved mental health
improved sleep quality
improved eye health
Digging deeper, here’s what the experts and research say about candle meditation benefits.
Increased performance and focus
Saini says she notices constant eye movement in people who have problems focusing.
“It’s a sign of an unrested mind,” she says. “Candle gazing involves focus.” It can also be a means to train and improve focus, she says.
A 2021 narrative review of 37 articles indicated that trataka boosted cognition. A small study of 41 volunteers from the same year suggested it enhanced working memory, spatial memory, and spatial attention.
A 2016 study indicated trataka might bolster selective attention, cognitive flexibility, and response inhibition.
A 2014 study of older adults suggested trataka might improve cognition in aging populations.
Meditation has long been used as a tool for stress relief and relaxation.
A 2021 narrative review indicated trataka may have similar benefits. A 2020 study of adolescent students suggested it could help with anxiety.
“Trataka gives the eyes and mind a job to do,” Couvillion says. “The senses are no longer on high alert for safety. The mind has a simple job to do [instead].”
Saini says candle gazing meditation takes us beyond the material world by utilizing the third eye chakra, also known as the internal or intuitive eye, which can be calming. Believed to be located in the center of the forehead, just above the area between the eyebrows, the third eye is associated with spirituality and perception.
Candlelight meditation also invokes tears, a potentially purifying experience.
“When practiced until the eyes water, it can have a cleansing effect that not only clears debris from the surface of the eye but also clears debris that has collected in the mind,” says Cristina Kuhn, a YogaMedicine instructor and therapeutic specialist, reiki master, and Ayurvedic health counselor.
Saini notes that the mental health benefits of candle meditation extend beyond the practice.
“Candle meditation is not just about being restful. It also brings internal strength,” she says. “When you have internal strength, you can better deal with day-to-day life… We don’t react or throw tantrums once we learn those tools.”
Saini says because trataka helps with relaxation, it can also improve sleep quality.
A small 2020 study of 29 participants with insomnia indicated that practicing trataka for 45 minutes daily for 10 days may reduce insomnia severity and enhance sleep quality.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika indicates that candlelight meditation may help prevent and support the treatment of eye diseases.
However, modern, peer-reviewed scientific research is mixed:
A 2021 narrative review suggested that trataka did not play a role in helping eye disorders.
A 2018 study indicated that trataka exercises might lower intraocular pressure (IOP), or fluid pressure in the eyes, in patients with glaucoma, a common cause of irreversible blindness.
A 2021 randomized control trial said it might help improve IOP in patients with type 2 diabetes.
A 2014 study of 60 people ages 8 to 30 evaluated the effectiveness of therapies for myopia, also known as nearsightedness. The results suggested no significant changes to visual acuity in participants who practiced yoga therapy, including trataka.
A 2018 study also indicated trataka was not an effective method of treating myopia.
While the jury may be out on whether candle light meditation actually benefits your vision, it’s generally considered safe for most people. However, there are safety considerations to keep in mind.
Trataka isn’t advised if you:
Couvillion reminds practitioners never to leave candles unattended or within reach of children or pets. Always speak with your healthcare professional before starting any new practice.
To do candle light meditation, Couvillion suggests following these steps:
Find your optimal time of day.
Find a dark, quiet space with no interruptions.
Sit straight, with the candle at eye-level. This prevents strain, Saini says.
Take a few deep breaths and settle in to your intention.
Set a timer for 1 minute to start.
Follow the movements of the candle flame with your eyes.
Observe your thoughts as they come up, but gently let them go without judgment. Don’t engage with them.
Make an effort to blink as little as possible.
Develop a sense that your eyes merge and become one eye, invoking the intuitive third eye chakra.
Finish with gratitude and a commitment to return.
Couvillion recommends practicing trataka first thing in the morning, especially at first.
“It can be hard to start new behaviors at the end of the day when you’re tired,” he says.
But Kuhn advises not ruling out an end-of-day session, particularly if you struggle to sleep. Duration of the practice can vary.
“Three to five minutes of practice is sufficient, but if [you] feel the urge to practice longer, [you] can lengthen the amount of time [you] visualize the flame in the mind’s eye,” Kuhn says.
Couvillion says beginners should start with shorter lengths — no more than 5 minutes — for the best candle meditation experience.
“You should start with something attainable,” he says. “Otherwise, you may simply reinforce any feelings that change is too hard.”
Outside thoughts, such as your to-do list, may pop into your head, regardless of how experienced you are.
“Just put them in the flame,” Couvillion advises. “Trust anything worth remembering will actually be even clearer after your session.”
Couvillion says you may feel a connection with the third eye as you practice.
“This can be felt by some as a tingling or light sensation that comes up the spine, through the neck and brain stem, through the center of the brain, and through to the place between the eyebrows,” she explains.
Still, it’s best not to go into your practice expecting a particular experience. Rather, be open to what comes up.
Couvillion also notes that trataka is best if it becomes a ritual. This can help enhance your relationship with yourself.
Candle meditation sample script
Susanna Barkataki, founder and director of education at Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute, provided the practice script below. You may want to record yourself reading these instructions so you can listen to them while you practice.
Experts say you don’t need much to practice trataka, making it an accessible form of meditation. Saini says the must-haves include:
a light or fire source, typically a candle
a safe, stable surface for your candle
a comfortable place to sit
a dark, quiet room or space
From there, Barkataki says practitioners can get playful and find ways to enliven the senses, especially by incorporating the elements into one’s space. Some items she suggests are:
natural elements, such as branches or leaves
journal or book for inspiration
pictures of sacred beings, teachers, loved ones, and people and communities you hold in your heart
Trataka is usually practiced with a candle, but Couvillion says practitioners can use the sun during the first 5 minutes of sunrise or the last 5 minutes of the sunset instead.
Saini suggests incorporating some light aromatherapy by using a candle that smells of lavender, sandalwood, or rose. But it’s not necessary, particularly if fragrances irritate you.
Using a white candle for meditation is associated with clarity and simplicity.
Saini says the temperature in your meditation space should be comfortable for you — not too hot or cold.
It should be dark and quiet. She advises against playing music so you can focus on your practice but says peaceful tunes are acceptable if they aid in focus.
Saini advises against sitting in a recliner or swivel chair. Opt for a seat that allows you to sit straight and tall, such as a dining room chair or sitting cross-legged on a mat.
A meditation cushion may make you more comfortable without interfering with posture.
Need to know more? Get the FAQs below.
Is candle meditation bad for your eyes?
The research on whether or not candle light meditation is bad for the eyes is limited, though experts believe it’s generally safe for individuals without pre-existing eye disorders or a history of psychosis.
Though traditional Ayurvedic texts state it could help treat eye diseases, modern research is mixed.
Experts suggest speaking with a doctor before practicing trataka if you have serious eye disorders, myopia, or glaucoma.
How long should you do it?
There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for trataka, and everyone’s experiences with candle meditation will differ.
Experts say the length of a practice will depend on a person’s experience, schedule, and personal preferences. Couvillion suggests starting with a short time span that’s attainable for you, like 1 to 5 minutes.
Setting a realistic goal is important, especially because the practice requires considerable focus.
What are the spiritual benefits?
Trataka is part of a holistic approach to health that includes mind, body, and spirit. Kuhn says spiritual benefits of candle gazing meditation may include:
reduction in excess rajas (passion, action, and movement)
increase in sattva (consciousness and clarity)
improvement in intuitive or spiritual vision
However, there’s no scientific evidence to support these claims.
What should you expect from candle gazing meditation?
Ultimately, candle meditation experiences will vary from person to person. Generally, practitioners can expect to look at a light source, such as a candle, for 1 to 3 minutes to start.
Eventually, your eyes will water, and you will need to blink. Candlelight meditation may help you feel more relaxed and focused.
It may improve attention span and memory, and you may find you sleep better.
On the other hand, some people may not experience any benefits from candle gazing meditation. The more consistently you practice, the more likely you’ll be to see effects.
What chakra is related to candle meditation?
Candlelight meditation is linked to the Ajna chakra, or third eye chakra.
It’s also known as the intuitive eye and is believed to help people see beyond the material world. It’s associated with spirituality, perception, intuition, and connectedness.
Candle gazing meditation has been part of Ayurvedic teachings for centuries and is found in ancient yoga texts. The practice, also known as trataka, involves focusing on a single object, such as a candle, for a few minutes or longer.
Candle gazing meditation may improve focus, cognition, mental health, sleep, and spiritual wellness. Still, more research is needed to confirm this.
Experts suggest speaking with a healthcare professional before beginning a practice if you have an eye disease. People prone to seizures or who have certain mental health conditions should also speak with their doctor before trying it.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.