Early every morning since before my birth, my mother goes to greet the sun. In every house, every land, she would find him—either from the verandah, atop the roof or outside on the grounds, yard or driveway. She would utter the mantra that greets the sun,
om jaba-kusum shanka-shan kashyapeyam
maha-dhyutim dhanta-warim sarvo-papagna
pranatoshmi diva-karam ||
Salutations to that, red as a hibiscus flower turning to white, pure as the saint Kashyapa, To that which is grand in shimmering brightness, which takes darkness away and annihilates all sins. I give pranam to He who creates the day.
Surya Pranam / Surya Namaskar
She would look directly at the rising sun if it was still touching the earth, and then she would continue her day. Once, my sister the NASA astrophysicist, counseled her on the danger of looking directly at the sun. She explained that the sun’s heat, brightness and ability to burn a hole into the retina could blind a person. My mother listened to her admonitions, blinked, paused and remained silent. That evening, I watched her ask the Sun for forgiveness as she waited until it touched the earth, and again she uttered her mantra.
For my mother and hundreds of millions of Indians who have greeted the sun this way without going blind, traṭakais a way of life. In Sanskrit, the practice of traṭaka means to gaze fixedly and is used to induce meditation and sthira (stillness) by concentrating on a single point. As a technique of yoga it isused to develop awareness, attention and focus, it strengthens the eyes and stimulates the ajna chakra or third eye.
There are three phases to traṭaka practice –
First Phase: Fix your gaze on a non-moving object and try to hold it for a minute or more. When a thought or feeling arises, notice it and then let it go. When the eyes want to close, keep them open. When they begin to water, close them gently, allowing the heat and emotions to release with the tears. Once you can stare for one minute, move on to the second phase.
Second Phase: Stare intently at a live candle flame. Watch it and let the eyes become still as the flicker continues to move. Transcend the movement and keep the eyes open until they water, then close them gently, allowing the heat and emotions to release with the tears. With the eyes closed, hold the after-image of the candle for as long as you can.
Third Phase: Greet the sun as it rises. You may put ghee on the eyes before starting. Look at the sun only when it is red or deep orange, and still touching the horizon. Stare into the sun only if it does not hurt and keep the eyes as still as possible. You will only have a 10–15 minute interval to do your traṭaka practice in the morning and evening. Once it stops touching the horizon, you should NOT do traṭaka with the sun. Use a candle instead.
Ghee for lubricating / moistening
Ancient Ayurveda gave us tools to keep the eyes healthy through the toils of the day, emphasizing the prevention of disease through daily maintenance and periodic rituals that strengthen the eyes. The first was washing the eyes with cold water in the early-morning routine, keeping the oils and fat that comprises the eyes solid & stable.
Each night before bed, I put ghee into my eyes for routine cleansing and as my favorite beauty ritual. Starting on the eyelids of both eyes, I rub clean ghee into the skin, then to the margin of the lids, until ghee seeps into the space and covers the eyeball. When things look hazy, it means enough ghee has penetrated. Used to clean the eyes, ghee is cooling in nature according to Ayurveda and has the same fats that the human body requires for its cells and functioning of its tissues. Ghee keeps the eyes lubricated, helps prevent dry eye syndrome, and improves vision. Most patients who use ghee regularly have told me they feel their eyes look sharper, that the whites look cleaner and that they feel less fear of putting things into their eyes after using ghee for a few nights. While it is safe, the practice is foreign to most modern-day, westernized people and thus, this practice is best done the first time by watching and then practicing on others before trying on your own.
- Splash cold water on the eyes each morning.
- Once you have carefully observed someone apply ghee, follow these steps yourself:
- Apply it before going to bed.
- Begin with the eyelids of both eyes, rubbing clean ghee into the skin.
- Then extend to the margin of the lids, until ghee seeps into the space and covers the eyeball.
- When things look hazy, it means enough ghee has penetrated.
According to Ayurveda, the eyes, while oily and fatty in nature, are dominated by functions of vata and pitta. Vata is the reflection of the quality of movement, and pitta is the reflection of the theme of transformation.
Fire and water are sharp, fiery and acidic. The theme underlying these qualities is transformation and called pitta. Fire and water do not mix and seem to be an impossible combination. Put a potato in fire and it will char to ash; in water, it will sit and spoil. But put it in water in a vessel on top of fire, between the two elements, and working together, they transform the potato into a delicious, edible item. This transformation also occurs in the eye. The eye transforms light that reflects off things in our environment, which makes its way through the oily balls filled with water to the back of the eye, into information about objects, calling it vision. Thus, heat is constantly produced by the photons coming into the eye.
Sankhya philosophy espouses that we have our five senses to interact with the physical world. Fire, with its light, brightness and heat is sensed primarily through our eyes, though each of our five senses also detects aspects of fire through touch and sound, and through smell and taste indirectly.
When the eyes have too much sharpness, fire and acidity, they are pitta-dominated. The result is poor quality of transformation. The heat of fire and the sharpness create hot, dry eyes that burn and tingle as the oily tissues dry out. The dryness and burning lead to itching and inflammation, which present as redness, swelling, pain and sensation of heat. Ayurveda interpreted these signs and symptoms as a whole with the term pitta. In the eyes, it is called alochaka pitta.
The wise men that gathered the ancient knowledge of Ayurveda had amazing perception and excellent sight. They were able to discern subtle properties of plants, animals and foods, categorize them and predict what would happen if substances were combined. In their wisdom, they knew that care of the eyes was dependent on renewal, regular cleansing and flushing, and remoistening.
Honey for Purifying
A regular ritual of many yogis is to apply raw honey to their eyes once in three weeks, just before bedtime. Raw honey, known as madhu or maksika in Sanskrit, is sweet and astringent. According to ancient chemistry, honey has scraping properties to remove grime and oil but is gentle and effective. Perhaps due to salivary enzymes of the bee mixed with digested pollen, it is drying and cleansing as it promotes removal of toxins.
The first time is the scariest, so it is best to be guided by a seasoned user. Place one drop of clean honey on a clean finger pad, then guide the finger toward the eye. Create a pocket opening at the eye’s bottom lid by pulling the under-eye skin downward. Place the drop of honey into the pocket and gently close the eyes while breathing deeply. Within ten seconds, a deep burning and ache will emerge. It is not a sharp pain, but it will shake a few people. Breathe deeply. The eyes will sting and burn for a few seconds, followed by a tangible sense of different fluids in the eyes. Slowly, a heat will emerge from within the eye, like a snake coalescing then winding its way outward. A feeling of something emerging will occur within half a minute. Heavy tears will well up and fall, and then the eyes will feel light and fresh and clean. The first time, my patients curse my name and scream, then sing praises when the purification is over. Thus is the nature of cleansing.
If you are putting honey in the eyes for the first time, follow these steps under the guidance of an experienced user:
Place one drop of clean honey on a clean finger pad and then guide the finger toward the eye.
- Create a pocket opening at the lid by pulling the under-eye skin downward.
- Place the drop of honey into the pocket and gently close the eyes while breathing deeply.
The Ayurvedic eye pharmacy that you can make at home for periodic cleansing as well as urgent needs will have rose water, ghee, honey, a candle, a cucumber, maybe a mirror and will likely be located in the kitchen pantry. It will have nothing containing preservatives, remembering that the purpose of preservatives is to kill life in stagnant substances. Only rejuvenating substances, with clean hands, are put into the eye.
Reprinted from chapter 12, Everyday Ayurveda, with permission of the author