Mūdras in a modern day yoga practice
Article first published in Yoga Magazine July 2017
What actually is a mudra? We may be familiar with some of those hand gestures that our yoga teacher encourages us to use in class; perhaps bringing the thumb and index finger tip together or bringing the hands into a prayer position to name two of the most common hand positions but what are they, why do we do them and do they make a difference to our practice?
Mudras have been in the background of my practice since first discovering yoga 20 years ago, and I had already been introduced to mudras before that through a meditation practice where on the first course I attended we were encouraged to rest our hands in our lap one on top of the other with the palms up. It was never explained at that time as having any particular significance other than resting the hands but this hand gesture is used in yoga as a mudra under several names most commonly Dhyana (meditaton) mudra. So, are they simply a comfortable position to place our hands, something to do with our hands to look yogic or is there more meaning behind these gestures?
Mudras date back as early as the Vedic era so their use may be over 3000 years old. The gestures were used in Vedic ceremony but not in the context that we use them in a yoga class but as a means of stressing rhythm and intonation whilst chanting the Vedas. Mudras are common in Hindu and Buddhist practices and of course yoga.
They are mentioned in several yoga texts notably the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita but also within tantric texts and the yoga Upanishads. The term mudra (a Sanskrit word) can be translated to mean seal, gesture, mark, sign, or closing to name but a few of the translations. This is referencing what the mudra is creating in terms of the energy (prana) flow within the body. Prana is a primary focus in the practice of Hatha yoga which is essentially a practice of directing and channelling prana towards the realisation of unified consciousness. Modern postural yoga has essentially taken influence from Vedanta, Tantra and Hatha Yoga and we therefore find ourselves practicing a varied mixture of techniques that we may be unsure of the origins and the purpose.
The term mudra although more familiar as a hand gesture also includes movement of the body (akin to yoga asana), head and postural techniques as well as bandhas (energy locks). The hand positions are the practices that have become the most known of and accessible form of mudra practice today. If you read about hand mudras on some websites, you would find information that ranges from mudras that can cure cancer (even rid the body of all known disease!) to leading to samadhi (ultimate absorption). Whether or not there is any scientific basis or truth in these claims I have certainly found mudras to provide a wonderful experience of absorption in my own practice and teaching. The teaching that mudras provide a seal so we can direct and retain our pranic flows within the body is the main purpose that is given for these practices and the various hand gestures are said to arouse particular states and direct us towards particular experiences.
The name of the mudra is usually an indicator of what sort of energy and intention you are working with. I have found that there are definitely different qualities to different hand positions I have adopted in my practice whether they have been specific placements with an idea of practicing a particular mudra or whether they have spontaneously arisen during practice, which is actually the original source of these hand gestures. Chris Wallis states in his book Tantra Illuminated that “a spontaneous mudra is a sign of attainment...one can use a mudra to seal the experience of awakened consciousness…a mudra is both a reflection of an inner state and a means of realizing that state”. In other words, the mudra may arise spontaneously when we access higher states of awareness in our practice or we may deliberately use a mudra to evoke those states.
My personal approach to the practice of mudras is similar to my approach to asana, we are not practicing to “try” or “perfect” a particular technique but we are practicing to move to a more integrated, awake state so this requires a lightness of attitude and an open heart/mind. When we have this lightness of attitude then we are already creating a state of freedom to experience whatever may arise. I allow myself to simply tune into the physical aspect of the experience rather than looking for a particular mental or spiritual experience. Feeling the contact between the fingers with full attention I feel the energy exchange that is occurring and if you haven’t felt it, I invite you to try the practice guidelines as outlined below. This energy transfer/exchange can become really alive when I am really tuned in to my practice and there is then a profound effect on my state of being. I usually feel a deep sense of peace and integration and have experienced various different spontaneous effects in my practice in this way, from visualisations to feelings of deep warmth and contentment within the heart space. Mudras can be a real aide to meditation as they can give us a focal point that is not mind centred as many meditations can be (we probably have enough mind centred experiences going on through our day already!).
6 Easy steps to exploring mudras:
Sit comfortably in a regular yoga seated posture such as sukhasana/siddhasana (cross legged) or vajrasana (kneeling) or seated on a chair if these positions are not comfortable for you.
Choose a simple mudra (some mudras can be more complex and may not be comfortable for your fingers if you are not used to holding them in a particular position for a period of time). I recommend chin (consciousness) or jnana(knowledge) mudra to start with – bringing the thumb tip and index finger tip together and relaxing the other 3 fingers with palms down or palms up respectively (although in some schools of yoga they are the other way around). Don’t press the finger and thumb tips together too hard, just a light touch of contact is enough and will allow you to feel the mudra more sensitively.
Close your eyes and take some deep breaths to settle. Feel your seat, allow your breath to settle into an easy, natural flow and then turn your attention to the contact points between your fingers.
Allow yourself to feel this contact – the light pressure between the contact points, the heat exchange, perhaps a tingling or buzzing sensation may be tangible. You may notice other particular experiences arising naturally such as deeper breaths, visualisations, deeper meditative states, even possibly spontaneous bodily movements or experiences of energy movement within the body.
Allow yourself to complete your practice as you would with a meditation practice. Don’t rush off and immediately start getting on with your day. Let yourself have a few minutes’ transition time of peace and quiet so you feel settled.
Try not to get tempted to start doing different mudras every time you practice, stick with one or two for a while and see the effects and then once they become a familiar friend then maybe try out a few more. You may even experience spontaneous mudras in your meditation and yoga practice. Enjoy your explorations!